Sherlock Holmes on Screen

Sherlock Holmes - Jeremy BrettI grew up in the sixties and seventies as the youngest of three sons born into a lower-middle class family. My parents worked hard and pinched pennies, almost to the point of making it a science. We fell into that fairly sizeable category of Americans who could say (cliché as it is) “We didn’t have a lot, but we always had enough.” My parents never spent lavishly on anything. The two days of the year that our parents did indulge us were, not surprisingly, our birthdays and Christmas. Indulge might be too strong a word. On both occasions, we received several gifts, some of which were things that we specifically wanted. There was almost always one, higher-ticket item that was the centerpiece of the day for each of us. To ensure that we’d get what we wanted, we’d write out wish lists for my mother, often annotated with rankings of items. These lists, which would be added to, or amended, up to a few days before Christmas, would include from about five to maybe a dozen items. We wouldn’t expect to get every item on our lists, but we usually got our top-ranked choices.

You may call it just another aspect of the commercialization of Christmas, but one of the favorite objects in the house every fall was the Sears Wish Book, a Christmas catalog with over 300 colorful pages of popular gift items that your loved ones would likely enjoy finding under the tree on December 25. We would pore over that catalog for hours, dreaming of playing with toys that no doubt looked better in the beautifully laid out pages than they ever could in our basement. Nevertheless, the most interesting items invariably found their way onto our Christmas lists.

My brothers and I typically knew each other’s most desired present. That knowledge proved very useful on those occasions when our mother had questions about an item on one of our brother’s lists and we’d be able to guide in her in the right direction. We were three boys and we wanted toys, not shirts, not socks, not underwear, just toys! Then one year I was completely blindsided by my oldest brother. The number one item on his list wasn’t a toy, it was a book! Specifically, it was The Complete Sherlock Holmesby Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a massive, 1,122-page collection of all the short stories (56) and novels (4). Apparently, he’d seen a handful of the old Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and he wanted to check out the original source material. I didn’t get it! Why would he waste his top choice on a book, an adult book, at that? Surely The Complete Sherlock Holmes wasn’t in the Sears Wish Book! I figured that it’d take him months to read such a book. How could that be any fun?

Well, he got that book, and he was serious about reading it, too. He wasn’t just going to put it on his book shelve to look all impressive. He probably had a couple of the short stories finished by the end of the day and close to a dozen read by the end of that week. As I recall, it did take him months to finish that collection, but he did it willingly. In fact, he got into it so much that he later got a deerstalker hat, like the ones seen in the original illustrations by Sidney Paget (in Great Britain) and Frederic Dorr Steele (in the United States). Thus, my first introduction to Sherlock Holmes, was through my big brother.

I read my first Holmes short story in a high school English class when we were assigned to read “The Red-Headed League.” Late in college, I took a literature class that focused on the history of the mystery genre and read the Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Both of those were interesting, but not so much so that I felt a need to tackle The Hound of the BaskervillesComplete Sherlock Holmes. Instead, of reading Holmes, I was more content to watch Holmes. As I’d gotten heavily into movies in my mid-teens, I’d watch just about anything I could. By the time I’d reached my mid-twenties, I’d seen several of Rathbone’s Holmes pictures and several other Holmes movies, as well, such as Sherlock Holmes (1932), A Study in Scarlet (1933), A Study in Terror (1965), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes(1970), They Might Be Giants (1971), and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985).

When I visited my oldest brother in Connecticut several years ago, he gave me a partial tour of The Constitution State, which included a trip to Gillette Castle in Hadlyme. Now part of Gillette Castle State Park (one of the top tourist attractions in the state), the former private residence was designed by actor William Gillette and built between 1914 and 1919. Gillette was already a very popular actor when he adapted several of Doyle’s stories into a four-act stage play. He even met with Doyle and got his blessing. After several out-of-town tryouts, Sherlock Holmes opened on Broadway on November 6, 1899 to grand success. After a lucrative run on The Great White Way, he enjoyed similar success with the play on London’s West End. It was Gillette, more than any other actor, who established the look of the character, which is imitated to this day. Many other troupes also staged the show in countries worldwide, making him a fortune. Gillette starred in several revivals of the show into the 1930s, touring with it throughout the United States. In 1916, Gillette starred in the motion picture adaptation Sherlock Holmes, the only filmed record of his performance. Long believed lost, the film was found in the archives of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris just last year! It’s now in the process of being restored. As for my brother, decades after first reading those Doyle stories, he was still enthralled by anything relating to the British detective, such as visiting the Gillette Castle – though in all fairness, that site is very much worth checking out regardless of whether one holds a fascination with Holmes.

Movie versions of Doyle’s detective date all the way back to 1900, just a handful of years into cinematic history. In the century-plus since, Holmes has probably become the most frequently seen literary character on screen. At this point, there are almost too many versions to count! Nevertheless, rather than being burnt out as a character, the public’s current fascination with Holmes is likely the highest it’s been since Doyle was writing the original stories. At the moment, there are two popular TV series in production, an ongoing theatrical series, as well as the recently-released Mr. Holmes. Starting with the Rathbone films, here are some of the highlights of Holmes’ screen incarnations.

In all, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred together as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, respectively, in fourteen films. The first two – The Hound of the Baskervilles (based on Doyle’s novel) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (based on Gillette’s play) – were quality productions released by 20th Century Fox in 1939. The remaining dozen were produced as B-pictures by Universal and were released between 1942 and 1946. Several of the Universal films were clumsily re-set to World War II. Nonetheless, for many fans, Rathbone’s portrayal is still the yardstick by which all others are measured.

From the fifties through the seventies, Britain’s Hammer Films remade, or re-envisioned, just about every horror movie/franchise from the thirties and forties, only in color – some for better, some for worse. Nearly all of them starred Peter Cushing and/or Christopher Lee. In 1959, they tackled The Hound of the Baskervilles, with Cushing as Holmes and Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville. This one may be for better.

Between 1984 and 1994, Jeremy Brett starred as the master sleuth in thirty-six hour-long episodes and five telefilms for Britain’s Granada Television. Known by the umbrella title Sherlock Holmes, the episodes actually span four distinct series: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Unlike other Holmes series, this one only featured direct – and faithful – adaptations of the Doyle stories. A sizeable number of Holmes enthusiasts now consider Brett’s characterization to be definitive.
As the virtual perfection of the Brett series cast a long shadow, since then, producers seem to have shied away from creating anything too close to what had already been done for fear of unflattering comparisons. Consequently, more recent adaptations of the famed detective have strayed from the original conception of Holmes in favor of greater artistic license. For instance, in the 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes, director Guy Ritchie’s take on Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson Sherlock Holmes - Robert Downey Jr._1(Jude Law) expands the characters from intellectual detective and empathetic doctor assistant, to also being rough and tumble fighters. No longer content to just discover what has occurred in the past, they are willing to physically force the action forward. A sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, arrived in 2011 and a long-awaited third chapter is now rumored as a possible 2016 release.

When Holmes returned to the telly in the UK, it was in a version that reset the time period to modern-day London. Sherlock, which premiered in 2010, stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular detective and Martin Freeman as his ever-faithful sidekick. The show was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic. British television being British television, however, the show is produced infrequently, with seasons of just three episodes. Additional seasons were produced in 2012 and 2013, with the next not expected until 2017! American television being American television, producers on this side of the Atlantic are ever-ready to adapt, duplicate, or imitate a successful British show. In this case, it came to us in 2012 in the form of Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller. The twist of it being reset to modern-day New York City, however, wasn’t twist enough, so Dr. John Watson was morphed into Dr. Joan Watson, essayed by Lucy Liu. The series has already run for three seasons, with a fourth coming this fall.

In the just released Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen stars as the long-retired and increasingly forgetful investigator who is still bothered by an unsolved thirty-year-old case. Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, its setting is the English countryside after the Second World War, and so examines the detective at a point in his life never explored by Doyle, who died in 1930. With so many Doyle stories from which to choose, as well as an ever-increasing canon of novels by other writers, the Holmes well is unlikely to ever run dry.

In the (unlikely) event that the many choices above aren’t enough to satiate your thirst for Holmes, there are a few other titles in the library’s collection that you may want to view. These include 1988’s Without a Clue, a parody starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley; Hands of a Murderer: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (1990), an American telefilm starring Edward Woodward; Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004), a British telefilm starring Rupert Everett; 2010’s Tom and Jerry Meet Sherlock Holmes, a straight-to-video animated tale with one-time movie star Michael York voicing Holmes; and the 2013 documentary How Sherlock Changed the World. So get a clue and check out some Sherlock Holmes DVDs at your favorite branch of the Des Moines Public Library!