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Sherlock Holmes through the decades


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Sherlock Holmes seems to be all the rage this December, both due to TCM's Christmas Day marathon, and also due to the new movie opening in theaters that day, starring Robert Downey Jr. in the title role.

 

Hopefully, this thread can serve for a more wide-ranging discussion about all the movies that have been made about Holmes, rather than focusing on the ones showing on TCM this month (which is also a topic for discussion in Hot Topics).

 

One Sherlock Holmes movie that TCM isn't going to be showing is The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which by the way also happens to be out-of-print on home video - that movie is mentioned in this article from today's L.A. Times, which also discusses some of the screenings taking place in Los Angeles to commemorate the occasion:

 

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-classic-hollywood9-2009dec09,0,759076.story

 

*On the trail of the cinematic Sherlock Holmes*

Ahead of Robert Downey Jr.'s take on the sleuth, the Billy Wilder Theatre and the Paley Center plan to screen old favorites.

 

December 9, 2009

 

"Sherlock Holmes," the latest incarnation of Arthur Conan Doyle's analytical, coke-loving sleuth, opens Christmas Day, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the Baker Street detective and Jude Law as Watson, his cohort in crime-solving.

 

So it's elementary that the game is afoot to pay homage to previous cinematic Holmeses.

 

On Monday at the Billy Wilder Theatre in Westwood, the UCLA Film and Television Archive is screening 1944's "The Scarlet Claw" and "The Spider Woman," which star the most famous celluloid Holmes and Watson: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

 

On Tuesday, Lionsgate is releasing the DVD of the 1979 thriller "Murder by Decree," with Christopher Plummer and James Mason as the sleuthing duo. From Dec. 18 through 31, the Paley Center for Media Studies in Beverly Hills is presenting "The Blue Carbuncle," a yuletide episode of the respected 1984-94 PBS' "Mystery!: Sherlock Holmes" series starring Jeremy Brett. Finally, Turner Classic Movies is celebrating Christmas with its "Holmes for the Holidays" programming, which features 17 Holmes mysteries, including 13 starring Rathbone and Bruce.

 

Rathbone and Bruce began their stint as Holmes and Watson in 1939 when 20th Century Fox produced two handsome thrillers, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes."

 

Three years later, the series moved to Universal, where the studio took the sleuths out of the Victorian era and put them in the middle of World War II and the Nazis.

 

Though Conan Doyle purists generally don't approve of these updated Holmes mysteries, they are still a lot of fun thanks to the chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce and the taut direction of Roy William Neill, who helmed the majority of these low-budget Universal productions.

 

"You have got to love Neill's lighting and his atmosphere in the films," says Jan-Christopher Horak, head of the UCLA archive. "They didn't spend a huge amount of time on them, but they look great."

 

Baby-boomer Horak grew up watching these movies. "To me, Basil Rathbone is Sherlock Holmes," he says. "It was a real career-changing move for Rathbone. He had played mostly villains before that time, but he had the perfect personality to be this slightly acidic, always ironic, articulate, bon-mots-at-the-tip-of-his-tongue-while-he-was-sleuthing character."

 

"What is interesting is, at the time they were making these films, Rathbone and Bruce were also appearing in a radio series, and those were set in the original time period," says UCLA preservation officer Robert Gitt, who restored the Universal series.

 

"They came to an end in 1946," Gitt says. "Roy William Neill died around the same time the contracts for the radio show were over and Rathbone wanted to get away from it."

 

Rathbone had nothing on Ellie Norwood. "He was the actor who played Sherlock Holmes the most," Horak says of Norwood. "He made something like 30 Sherlock Holmes films in the 1920s in England. He started with a serial in 1921 and then was cranking out six or seven or eight films a year."

 

The German cinema also embraced Holmes. "Germans loved Conan Doyle and Sherlock," says Horak. "There was a whole run of German films back in the teens. They even made a couple during the Nazi period. The French [also] made a respectable number of Sherlock films."

 

Writer-director Nicholas Meyer ( "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan") is one Holmes purist who has rarely liked the cinematic versions. In the 1970s, he wrote three Holmes novels that were true to the Conan Doyle canon: "The West End Horror," "The Canary Trainer" and "The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution." Meyer adapted the latter for the 1976 film version starring Nicol Williamson as Holmes.

 

"I suppose I rather like Billy Wilder's 'The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,' " Meyer says, referring to the 1970 romantic thriller starring Robert Stephens. "I think it's such an uncharacteristic film for a cynic like Wilder. I think it has this Viennese melancholy romanticism along with his wit."

 

But for the most part, Meyer says, "When Hollywood tackles Holmes, I think they paint with a very broad and rather insensitive brush. Watson is always portrayed as an idiot, and I never understand why a genius needs to hang out with a buffoon."

 

With his novels, Meyer says, "I was really sort of intent on putting the needle back in the groove of the record where I thought it was suppose to be. Watson is an average man. I didn't want to take them out of the time period. And I wasn't afraid of but rather intrigued by Holmes' drug addiction."

 

So what does he think of the film version of "Seven Per-Cent Solution"?

 

"I think it's a pretty good movie," Meyer says. "I am sort of troubled with my screenplay, which seems too wordy. It may be wordy, but at least they are smart words."

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Rathbone is perfect as Sherlock. He's great in practically all his roles. A tremendous performer. My favorite adaptation is the wonderful MYSTERY series with Brett. One of the best TV shows I've ever seen. I like SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION and enjoyed Nicholas Meyer's books. Didn't know about THE CANARY TRAINER. I'd love to read it. Didn't Meyer write TIME AFTER TIME? A delightfully clever thriller that has something in common with the Holmes stories.

 

The new film might be good. No reason it shouldn't be. Do we need another Sherlock Holmes movie? Like James Bond and Tarzan, has the great detective not earned his retirement? But Downey is a fine actor. Jude Law won't play a Keystone cop. With a good script, it could be a pleasant Christmas treat.

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Holly, the Sherlock Holmes character has to be the most interesting and varied of any actor's career. Rathbone was great as Holmes, Nigel Bruce was wonderful in a stuffy, befuddled sort of way, but he seemed to play the same character in all of his films. Perhaps, it was expected of him, and he didn't wish to disappoint. I digress.

Jeremy Brett, for me, was the perfect Holmes. The Mystery series fully and completely encapsulated the genre, the Victorian atmosphere, the sheer smell of the time. One can almost smell the coal fires of the chimneys and the masses of London's slums. Brett's death was a tragedy and loss to theatre, because, it was like losing a friend who visited every week with a wonderful puzzle to solve. Each episode was an exquisitely filmed movie. Edward Hardwicke who played Watson was equally perfect. I could never find any fault with anything except that one hour was sometimes not enough for me. My wife and I became thorough-going Holmes fans after watching this series. I also have most of the series on dvd. Best to you for the holiday season, Bruce G.

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Bruce,

Thank you for that little summary of Holmes through the decades, obviously I'm just starting to catch up on all of the different screen adaptations - this is a character that, if I remember correctly, I first got to see on-screen as a teenager, when Young Sherlock Holmes came out. I want to watch all of the Basil Rathbone ones, and then of course the Robert Downey Jr. one when it opens. :D

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Rathbone is my favorite Holmes, I grew up watching them. But, I do think that Jeremy Brett is the definitive Holmes, at least so far. Although I think his series weakened in the 90s, most of the series is great. As Bruce G. says, youcan smell Victorian England, at least at times.

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> {quote:title=HollywoodGolightly wrote:}{quote}

> Writer-director Nicholas Meyer ( "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan") is one Holmes purist who has rarely liked the cinematic versions. In the 1970s, he wrote three Holmes novels that were true to the Conan Doyle canon: "The West End Horror," "The Canary Trainer" and "The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution." Meyer adapted the latter for the 1976 film version starring Nicol Williamson as Holmes.

>

> "I suppose I rather like Billy Wilder's 'The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,' " Meyer says, referring to the 1970 romantic thriller starring Robert Stephens. "I think it's such an uncharacteristic film for a cynic like Wilder. I think it has this Viennese melancholy romanticism along with his wit."

>

> But for the most part, Meyer says, "When Hollywood tackles Holmes, I think they paint with a very broad and rather insensitive brush. Watson is always portrayed as an idiot, and I never understand why a genius needs to hang out with a buffoon."

 

Nick said as much about Wilder's film (one of my favorites) when I talked to him a couple of months ago ("a great film!," to quote him verbatim). Oddly, in his recent memoir, The View from the Bridge, he says that Hollywood has never made a really good Holmes film.

 

As many of you probably know, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was ordered by the studio to be cut from over three hours to just over two, making it the great tragedy of Billy Wilder's career (ironically, one can see echoes of the young Holmes's lost love at Oxford -- one of the cut sequences, whose footage has still not been found -- in that profound disappointment. It's almost as if Wilder and his collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, drew from that future to write the script); it's difficult not to believe that had Wilder been able to sign his first choice to play Holmes -- Peter O'Toole (surely no actor was more perfectly born to play the character) -- his stardom would have elevated the film to major-production status, been far easier for the studio to sell to the public ("Peter O'Toole is Sherlock Holmes!" being a far easier sell than the film's plot and is-it-a-comedy-or-is-it-a-drama? tone), and might've saved it from those egregious edits.

 

As it is, even in truncated form, the film is a masterpiece, and the real -- if largely unknown -- crown jewel of Wilder's career.

 

Private%2520Life%2520Of%2520Sherlock%252wilder_sherlock.jpg

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> {quote:title=ValentineXavier wrote:}{quote}

> Rathbone is my favorite Holmes, I grew up watching them. But, I do think that Jeremy Brett is the definitive Holmes, at least so far. Although I think his series weakened in the 90s, most of the series is great. As Bruce G. says, youcan smell Victorian England, at least at times.

 

Unfortunately I am not at all familiar with the Brett series, but I'd love to watch it. I really love anything that's set in Victorian England....

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> {quote:title=HollywoodGolightly wrote:}{quote}

 

> Unfortunately I am not at all familiar with the Brett series, but I'd love to watch it. I really love anything that's set in Victorian England....

 

I believe that the entire Brett series is available on DVD, at least it once was, perhaps still.

 

 

Sprocket Man,

 

Much as I love Peter O'Toole, from The Ruling Class, to Lawrence of Arabia, and in between, I can't agree that O'Toole is Holmes, but his talents are so great, I'm sure he could become an interesting one... I, too, am saddened by the loss of Wilder's original version of The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes.

 

Edited by: ValentineXavier on Dec 14, 2009 1:46 AM

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One of the local PBS stations has been running the Jeremy Brett series for

a while. They are well-done with high production values and that ye olde Victorian

atmosphere, though there is a certain "house style" look that seems to pervade the

episodes I've seen. Then there is Brett's semi-bipolar interprertation of Holmes. It's

a little surprising at first, though one gets used to it after a while, sort of a reverse

twin to the Bruce characterization of Watson, though not as far off. And they're

hawking the complete DVD collection of 41 episodes. Definitely worth watching.

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> {quote:title=redriver wrote:}{quote}

> Lest I forget, I must someday see Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in Hammer's HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. If Rathbone was born for the role, Cushing was the heir apparent. Could any actor, anywhere, be better suited?

 

I haven't seen that movie, either, although I do remember reading the book in junior high. It was a great read, so I can't imagine the movie being anything less than sheer delight! :D

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> {quote:title=sineast wrote:}{quote}

> Then there is Brett's semi-bipolar interprertation of Holmes. It's a little surprising at first, though one gets used to it after a while, sort of a reverse twin to the Bruce characterization of Watson, though not as far off. And they're hawking the complete DVD collection of 41 episodes. Definitely worth watching.

 

Semi-bipolar? I would have thought that by that point in time, they'd have been comfortable making Holmes a full-blown bipolar, it certainly seemed to fit with the character, from the little I have seen/watched.

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Well, not being a mental health professional, I'm going to cut Brett/Holmes some slack.

The episodes I have seen were from the later part of the series. English eccentricity

might be part of the explanation, and it wasn't a full time thing, but there were moments

when Holmes seemed ready for a room at Bedlam. I've read that Brett became very

obsessed with the role, and it sure looks that way. In contrast to Brett's Holmes, I

think Watson comes across much as he does in the short stories and novels. The

series is still a good addition to the Sherlock filmography.

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As a Sherlock Holmes fanatic I can tell you that Netflix has a lot of the Brett Holmes stuff. Almost all of it actually from the Adventures to after Moriarty killed him off. I like the second Watson from the Brett series, he reminds me more of my personal favorite Watson played by Nigel Bruce. Check it out.

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> {quote:title=sineast wrote:}{quote}

> One of the local PBS stations has been running the Jeremy Brett series for

> a while.

 

Yes, one of our three PBS stations has also been running the Brett series for a while now. Last I checked, they were into the ones made in the 90s, which, IMO, aren't as good as the earlier ones. They don't necessarily have to be watched in order, but I would recommend that someone watching them for the first time start with some of the earlier ones, from the early 80s.

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I think the PBS station here just wound up with the last episodes from 1994. I don't know

when they started, so they might have shown the whole set. I've seen them in a hit and run

fashion over the years. Seems that Brett as Holmes wasn't wound so tight in the earlier

ones, but that may be my misremembering.

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> {quote:title=sineast wrote:}{quote}

> I think the PBS station here just wound up with the last episodes from 1994. I don't know

> when they started, so they might have shown the whole set. I've seen them in a hit and run

> fashion over the years. Seems that Brett as Holmes wasn't wound so tight in the earlier

> ones, but that may be my misremembering.

 

Well, yes and no, IMO. Brett had a lot more energy when he started. He did play an intense and quirky Holmes from the start. But, it did seem to me that in the later eps, he had a lot less energy, and tried to compensate by acting a bit more over the top.

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Variety has put its review of the new Sherlock Holmes up on its website, I just skimmed a bit because I'd really rather try to remain spoiler-free for the most part. However I don't think it would constitute a spoiler to say that the new Holmes is being presented essentially as an action hero - that much is clear just from looking at the previews.

 

It's a reinvention of the character that will probably appeal to modern audiences, although personally I would have preferred a characterization that relied mainly on the quiet, cerebral qualities of Holmes.

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> {quote:title=HollywoodGolightly wrote:}{quote}

> It's a reinvention of the character that will probably appeal to modern audiences, although personally I would have preferred a characterization that relied mainly on the quiet, cerebral qualities of Holmes.

 

I agree. Holmes was brave and resourceful enough when things did become physical, but his intellect was his real weapon.

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It will be interesting to see what kind of Holmes emerges in this film. I might even put up

with all the hassles just to see. Rathbone usually did fairly well when fisticuffs were

called for, which thankfully was not too often. However this version turns out, at least it

seems to have led to the TCM tie-in and the reason for Holmes for Christmas. Every once

in a while, branding pays off. I imagine there will be a few chuckles along the way if drugs

come up anywhere in the movie. Good !&%#, Sherlock.

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No doubt Downey is a very talented actor, though in general I can take him or leave him.

It will be interesting to see how he plays this role and how Holmes is presented. And

don't forget the good doctor. Interested to see how he comes out. We'll know soon enough.

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