An evening with Sherlock

On an unusually warm and wet December evening, I found myself left to my own entertainment devices, and given the paucity of new programming on television due to the holiday period, I went to streaming to find something different and amusing. It was the kind of night where my mind wandered to the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's master of deductive reasoning, Sherlock Holmes, the London of the latter days of the Victorian period in which Holmes operated, and the varied portrayals of the Great Detective that had graced film and television for decades. These include, of course, Basil Rathbone's lightning-fast 1940s interpretation, Jeremy Brett's probing and occasionally melancholy delineation of the part in the '80s, and Benedict Cumberbatch's coolly contemporary harnessing of the sleuth's talents to 21st Century technology. (I might add I am also a partisan of Jonny Lee Miller's exploration of the role on ELEMENTARY).

My wife, keenly aware of my interest in everything about Sherlock, especially when it comes to cinema, had left me with a few playlists to peruse and as usual, she had chosen well. It afforded me the opportunity to investigate the work of the man who made the role of Holmes uniquely his own in British silent films in the 1920s, a one-shot approach by an actor better-known for his Abraham Lincoln, and the assurance that Rathbone, despite his well-documented ambivalence toward the character, brought to the 14 features in which he played Holmes.

Despite the lack of background music -- making these silent films truly silent -- some of the featurettes made by the London-based Stoll Film Co. between 1921 and 1923, starring Eille Norwood as Holmes, are available and provide us with a glimpse of Norwood's work in the role, which comprises the bulk of the actor's film career. Norwood (1861-1948), whose real name was Anthony Edward Brett (and so far as we know, no relation to Jeremy Brett), had worked on the stage and continued doing so even after making his screen debut in 1911. A decade later, offered the part of Holmes by Stoll (whose 1921 features INNOCENT and THE FRUITFUL VINE were the first films made by a young Shakesperian actor named Basil Rathbone), Norwood anxiously accepted and, calling upon his decades of theatrical experience, threw himself into the part.

In fact, the intensity of preparation the actor brought to Holmes continues to amaze Sherlockian scholars today. Seizing upon opportunities to exhibit the character's facility with disguises, Norwood did much with little makeup to make the ruses acceptable to audiences. "Not only could he with wax and wig change himself totally into another person, he also knew how to make those subtle facial changes which can significantly transform the appearance," observed Chris Steinbrunner and Norman Michaels in THE FILMS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1978, p. 12).

Viewing one of the surviving Norwoods, "The Man With the Twisted Lip," we are treated to a terrific example of the actor's skill as he changes from a sinister-looking Asian lurking in an opium den who reveals himself to Watson (Hubert Willis) as Holmes, who is in reality seeking clues to the whereabouts of Neville St. Clair. Removing stage hair and eyebrows to effect the Chinese look, Holmes becomes the classical image we can expect from this period. Norwood studied the look of the Holmes that graced the pages of The Strand magazine earlier in the century through the offices of illustrator Sidney Paget, as did William Gillette and other actors who played Holmes either on the screen or stage. As we can see, Norwood delivers an assured performance in a series of films that won the praise of Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and most importantly, that of the paying public.

Stoll produced 45 shorts of about 20 minutes or more in length, and two features, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES in 1921 and THE SIGN OF FOUR in 1923. Most if not all of the productions have been placed in the care of the British Film Institute, which has yet to make them all available for wider viewing. Interestingly, the three Norwoods that are accessible are the same ones Steinbrunner and Michaels cited four decades ago in preparation of their study of Holmes adventures on screen -- "The Man With the Twisted Lip," "The Devil's Foot" and "The Dying Detective." The authors noted the charms of the films, especially the Cornwall location shooting of "Devil's Foot" and scenes of London as it appeared in "Twisted Lip," a bustling, modern metropolis in which the ageless Holmes operates comfortably.

The next viewing choice was also British in origin, but among the more interesting Holmes adaptations of the early talkie era. Despite the battered condition andf suspiciously brief running time (just under 50 minutes) of the public domain print that was available to me, THE SPECKLED BAND (1931) carries enough atmosphere and looming menace for three films, providing us with a razor-sharp yet reflective interpretation of Holmes by Raymond Massey, who made his film debut with this production. It is somewhat overshadowed by the performance of the villain offered by Lyn Harding, who would go on to make larger contributions to the Sherlockian filmic canon within a few years.

Produced by British and Dominions Studios, and directed by Jack Raymond, THE SPECKLED BAND employs a brooding air in scenes set at Stoke Moran, the ancestral home of Dr. Grimesby Rylott (Harding) that is showing signs of decay due to years of neglect and Rylott's dependence on the inheritance income of his stepdaughters, Helen (Angela Baddeley) and Violet (Joyce Moore) Stoner, who reside with him in the crumbling manor house. Violet's mysterious death soon after she makes plans to marry brings family friend Dr. Watson (Athole Stewart) to the estate to console Helen. As Helen also consents to be a bride, she is fearful of her own life from the overbearing Rylott (the name changed from the 1892 story that identified him as Roylott). Watson shares his concerns with old friend Holmes, and after an appeal for help from Helen and a confrontation with the bullying Rylott, the detective involves himself in the case.

The trend at the time was to contemporize Holmes and THE SPECKLED BAND goes to great lengths to make him as up-to-date as possible, even to equipping his Baker Street rooms with modern office machinery and a secretarial staff. But he is the despair of his highly efficient workers, updating (or, as he puts it, "correcting") their files on his own. "I like a machine," he tells Watson. "It keeps me up to the mark!" And it is in the field as well as in his study that Holmes proves his superiority as a detective, as he and Watson rescue Helen from the same fate as her sister and bring Rylott to a grim but deserved fate.

In the interim, we are treated to interesting visuals, from both the dark chambers of the house to a gypsy caravan moving onto the estate at twilight, the latter action unnerving Helen further as her husband-to-be departs, leaving her alone against a desolate landscape. The scene in which a deadly Indian snake is revealed as Rylott's instrument of death is effectively handled. An attempt to close THE SPECKLED BAND on a happy note still carries a somber note in keeping with the film's tone. As Watson encourages Holmes to attend Helen's wedding, the great detective declines, taking a moment to reflect on how singularly alone his talent makes him. But he is nevertheless married to his profession as he resumes work on a chemistry experiment.

It is that hint of despair Massey (1896-1983) brought to the role that makes his Holmes a standout among other portrayals during an early '30s renaissance of Holmesian films both in England (a series starring Arthur Wontner, and a one-shot Robert Rendel in a 1932 version of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES co-scripted by Edgar Wallace), and in Hollywood by Clive Brook (THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, 1929; SHERLOCK HOLMES, 1932) and Reginald Owen (A STUDY IN SCARLET, 1933). Still known as a stage actor at the time, the Canadian-born Massey offered strong portrayals in such later Alexander Korda movies as THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1935), THINGS TO COME (1936) and THE DRUM (1938) before landing the lead in both the Broadway (1938) and screen (1940) versions of ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS. Baddeley, whose most lasting fame came four decades later as the worldly-wise cook Mrs. Bridges on the TV serial UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS (1971-1975), is affecting as the potential victim.

But interestingly, the performance drawing the most attention is that of Harding, who throws his impressive frame and rumbling voice into the role of Rylott, and is even billed above Massey in the cast list. If he appears excessively melodramatic, Harding was an Old School actor of the London stage who had played Rylott in the three-act drama Conan Doyle fashioned from the original story for a successful run in 1910. Some 20 years later, his delineation of Rylott no doubt stirred memories in the producers of THE SPECKLED BAND, and he was effectively cast in this adaptation, whose screenplay by W.P. Lipscomb is drawn from Conan Doyle's theatrical version rather than the story.

Harding (1867-1952) must have also impressed Julius Hagen, the Twickenham Studios producer who issued all but one of Arthur Wontner's five entries as Holmes. Harding then essayed the greatest of the canon's villains, the Napoleon of Crime himself, Professor James Moriarty, in THE TRIUMPH OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1935). Although far from Sidney Paget's somewhat Satanic image of Moriarty in "The Final Problem," Harding returned for another go at the role in the final Wontner, SILVER BLAZE (1937, released in the U.S. as MURDER AT THE BASKERVILLES in 1941). In each, Harding responds well to Wontner's trademark underplaying of Holmes, offering grandly glowering, overpowering performances in which he gives the ever-evil Moriarty his due.

Afterward, I jumped ahead to two of Rathbone's efforts as Holmes at Universal. Because this is the Holmes interpretation we know so well due to repeated TV showings back in the day, there's always a comfortable feeling at slipping into one of these productions, no matter how many times you've been a viewer. But it's also that return customer experience that lays the even dozen films Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Watson made for the studio open to study for fault and inconsistency in quality, the kinds of things a critical viewer who happens to be a fan can overlook if not totally forget.

It's at this point you are reminded that the Holmes series entries were B movies from a company that at the time excelled at B movies. The skill of producer-director Roy William Neill, good scripting, Rathbone, Bruce and the usually excellent supporting casts did much to overcome inadequacies prompted by low budgets and reliance on such standing sets as Universal's fabled European village.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (1943) was the second of the series at Universal and a continuation of the move to update Holmes to the concerns of World War II. Having quashed a Nazi invasion of England in the first entry, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR (1942), Holmes goes full secret agent mode in THE SECRET WEAPON, starting with his impersonation of an old bookseller to spirit Dr. Franz Tobel (William Post Jr.), inventor of a revolutionary bombsight, out of Switzerland under the noses of the German agents sent to kidnap him. (Tobel's home in this sequence also did duty as the front of the baronial house more than a decade earlier in FRANKENSTEIN).

Holmes gets Tobel safely to England, only to lose him again to the Germans -- this time working in concert with Moriarty (Lionel Atwill). Scenarists Edmund L. Hartmann, Edward T. Lowe and W. Scott Darling made a smart move in bringing the professor into the enemy camp and in providing the film with a link to the Holmes of old. There is no question we are in the midst of a global conflict and dealing with the recovery of a weapon that could spell devastation to the British Empire if Moriarty is successful, but the confrontations between the detective and his nemesis carry a wonderful ring of "The Final Problem," genial but sharp in the hands of Rathbone and Atwill. Clever use is also made of Conan Doyle's 1903 source story, "The Dancing Men," which originally dealt with messages containing the title figures causing terror for the American-born wife of a rural squire.

Just as the Baker Street rooms in these entries include an assortment of interesting bric-a-brac, it is noteworthy that Moriarty's waterfront hideout in which the climax of SECRET WEAPON occurs carries fascinating details about his character. Not the least of these, harkening to his background in mathematics, is a briefly glimpsed abacus on Moriarty's desk, with the counting units shaped in the form of mini-skulls.

Wrapping up for the night was a viewing of my favorite of the Rathbone-Bruce bunch, the wonderfully atmospheric and original THE SCARLET CLAW from 1944. Although more than a little inspired by THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, this film weaves a riveting story of the Great Detective and his friend solving a series of seemingly supernaturally-caused deaths. In Quebec at the invitation of the Royal Canadian Occult Society, Holmes' dismissal of all things spooky clashes with the strongly-held beliefs of the group's leader, Lord William Penrose (Paul Cavanagh, one of a number of fine performances found throughout the film). The meeting is disrupted when Penrose learns of his wife's murder in the nearby gloomy village of La Morte Rouge. Holmes then receives a letter posted by Mrs. Penrose prior to her demise noting she was in fear of her life and requesting his help. "For the first time," Holmes tells Watson in a portentous tone, "we have been retained by a corpse."

THE SCARLET CLAW, in which Neill collaborated with Hartmann from a story by Brenda Wisberg and Paul Gangelin, begins magnificently  in the village, shrouded in fog due to the extensive nearby marshland. A church bell tolls discordantly, prompting the local priest (George Kirby) and postman Potts (Gerald Hamer) to investigate, only to find the deceased Lillian Penrose holding the bell rope, her throat torn out. Is it the work of the marsh monster that terrorized La Morte Rouge a century ago? Lord Penrose and the villagers think so ("Things have happened on those marshes that cannot be easily explained," Penrose advises Holmes), but the Great Detective is not convinced. His probe reveals an all-too-human agency using the legacy of the long-ago monster to fulfill his own murderous agenda.

There is some thought that THE SCARLET CLAW was an outgrowth of some story ideas at Universal that would have pitted Holmes and Watson against Dracula and the studio's other great creatures, especially after the success seen by matching two of them in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943). The "monster rally" proposal was better served with HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Universal's big Christmas attraction of 1944, while Holmes was wisely left to investigate his own kind of mystery. Yet, the other two Holmes entries of '44, THE SPIDER WOMAN and THE PEARL OF DEATH, contain incidents that seem inspired by the horror movie boom of the period (and carried over into 1945's HOUSE OF FEAR), making them among the best of the series.

By then the series had mostly jettisoned references to the war, and the very fact our heroes traveled overseas without any mention of military transport (as seen in THE SECRET WEAPON and SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON, 1943) hints at a pre-conflict time period in which THE SCARLET CLAW is set. However, Holmes' closing use of a Winston Churchill tribute to Canada as an ally of England and the U.S. brings the film back into the war background.

No matter really because THE SCARLET CLAW was another example of how the series' unobtrusive updating of the characters made them and the stories as much 1894 as 1944. La Morte Rouge, described by the melancholy daughter (Kay Harding) of innkeeper Emile Journet (Arthur Hohl) as a place where "few people come and then ... never stay long," has that quality of time having stopped, a feeling that filters through the scene in which Marie watches Emile tramp off into the fog when learning that Holmes is prowling the marshes in search of clues. It could very well have been the London of the canonical Holmes' heyday.

THE SCARLET CLAW is a minor masterpiece of mystery filmmaking for which all lovers of things Holmesian, especially the movies, can be thankful.


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