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!


Canada’s Punk Rockers: Rebelling Against… Something, and Doing It Well

The CD cover for Sum 41's "Underclass Hero."I’m sort of embarrassed to admit it, but my international travel has been limited to three trips to our neighbor to the north, Canada. Actually, one of those barely even qualifies. In 1999, while in Detroit during a multi-city baseball trip with two of my nephews (neither of whom had ever been to Canada, but wanted to be able to say that they had), I drove to Windsor, Ontario long enough for us to get burgers at Harvey’s, the biggest Canadian-owned burger chain in the country. The length of the entire trip was maybe an hour. My previous forays into The Great White North (a tip of the cap to Bob and Doug Mackenzie, characters from the once-popular SCTV sketches) came many years earlier during a pair of family vacations with my parents. Both of those trips were in the western provinces, the English-speaking part of the country, where the relative differences in culture to that of the Midwest isn’t any greater than that between the Midwest and the American east coast.

The impression of Canada that I came away with from those three trips was that of a slightly cleaner country than my own United States, inhabited with people who seemed a little more polite than my own fellow countrymen. I’m sure that that assessment doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as those things seem to be the most common ones that Americans observe about our neighbor to the north. The trouble with impressions made from vacation trips, however, is that you tend to visit “nice” places and seldom stray into decaying areas filled with have-nots. The picture is very seldom balanced. For all I know, Canada may have had its share of urban blight and teeming slums, no different than the United States, but I didn’t see it. Consequently, my view of Canada was fairly rosy.

Several years ago, I noticed a certain musical trend coming out of Canada, which was the surprising number of Canadian punk bands that were making inroads into the United States music charts. My general perception of Canada was somewhat rocked by the thought of the country now being a hotbed for emerging punk artists. “What are they rebelling against?” I wondered. Could it be the lack of recent Stanley Cup triumphs by their NHL franchises in recent years? Or, were they pissed off about the 1995 merger of their homegrown Tim Hortons restaurant chain with America’s Wendy’s International? (For the record, Tim Hortons was spun off as its own company again in 2006, only to merge with Burger King eight years later; so they might be pissed again!) Who knows the reason? In any case, punk, the music of rebellion, was alive and well in Canada. The punk of the nineties until now, of course, isn’t quite the same as what it was when it first came onto the music scene in the seventies.

So, what is punk? As is the case with other popular genres, the music is defined by common lyrical content, tempo, and instrumentation, but also by the attire worn by band members (and their fans), as well as their general attitude, whether it be their stage presence or the way they act during interviews, public appearances, etc. Punk originally emerged in the seventies as part of the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement, and particularly in Britain, as a political outcry by a generation of young working class men who were coming of age only to find an economic landscape littered with failed manufacturing companies and entire industries paralyzed by lengthy strikes. The decline of the British Empire had resulted in a generation of workers feeling hopeless about their prospects, but with few viable ways to express their frustration. This frustration resonated to some degree with the younger generation in the United States and Canada, but the economic difficulties in North America were never as devastating or long lasting as they were in Britain.

Although punk originated on this side of the Atlantic Ocean with The Ramones in the mid-seventies, punk never became more than an underground movement here. Had it not been for the safety-pin piercings and spikey, multi-colored hairdos of its adherents, it’d probably have gone unnoticed by most Americans. A few major cities had fervent punk scenes, but the movement never really took hold across the board. By 1980, several of Britain’s punk bands had already evolved into what would become known as new wave, which – in part due to the launch of MTV in 1981, which initially relied on newer bands willing to produce music videos – did have a decided impact in North America and around the world.

Simple PlanWhile new wave siphoned off most of the major British groups who were hitting the American pop charts during the eighties, punk didn’t completely wither away. In fact, it was renamed hardcore punk to more clearly differentiate it from the much poppier post-punk bands of the eighties that would eventually morph into alternative rock. Hardcore punk soon jettisoned the “punk” portion of the name and carried on the angry attitude for ensuing generations of rebellious young music fans. By the late-eighties, a punk revival was fomenting on the west coast wherein the music was more akin to the late-seventies style. By the mid-nineties, Green Day, The Offspring, Blink-182, and Everclear were among a wave of bands championing this more melodic form of punk that would boost the genre into the upper reaches of the U.S. singles charts for the first time, with accompanying massive album sales. It is this strain of west coast punk that gained traction in Canada during the late nineties and into the new millennium.

Before I go any further, I want to point out that punk didn’t just suddenly appear in Canada during the late nineties. In fact, some of the first major punk bands in North America were Canadian. The first Canadian punk band to be signed by a major label (Columbia) was The Diodes in 1977, which came within a year of their formation. The Toronto, Ontario-based band released three proper albums, as well as a fourth album of demos and outtakes between 1977 and 1982. They were largely responsible for creating the vibrant Toronto punk scene, as the band and their manager turned their practice space into the city’s first punk club. Hamilton, Ontario’s Teenage Head was started by high school classmates in 1975 and they had their self-titled debut disc on store shelves by 1979. Teenage Head released several albums during the eighties, which may have been helped or hindered by the notoriety they received for two Toronto concerts (in 1978 and 1980) that ended in riots and police intervention.

On Canada’s west coast, punk was also becoming established. Vancouver, British Columbia’s D.O.A., formed in 1978, was soon regarded as one of the progenitors of hardcore punk during the early eighties. Since then, D.O.A. has experimented with various musical styles – with a revolving door of members – but they always seem to return to their punk rock roots. In the process, they have released an impressive eighteen studio albums! Nomeansno formed in Victoria, BC in 1979, the result of attending a D.O.A. concert that got them pumped up for punk. Their distinctive sound comes from placing the instrumental emphasis on the bass guitar and drum kit, rather than on lead guitar. Since 1982, Nomeansno has released a dozen albums and numerous EPs.

A new breed of Canadian punk bands began emerging in the late nineties, no doubt inspired by the success that America’s west coast punk bands were already achieving. This time, however, almost all of the action taking place north of the border was in the province of Ontario.

Sum 41 came together in tiny Ajax, Ontario in 1996, but were soon gigging in the province’s larger cities. Their first album was released in 2000, but it was 2001’s All Killer No Filler that brought them fame on both sides of the border. Often sophomoric in their lyrical approach, the quality of their musicianship and production, however, make their albums a rollicking romp. Through 2011 they’ve put out half a dozen studio albums, plus one live disc.

Montreal, Quebec’s Simple Plan was formed in 1999 by several high school friends who’d initially gone their own way after graduation, but came together again a couple of years later. Their first album, No Pads, No Helmets… Just Balls (2002), was an immediate success, using a formula that might be described as “party punk.” Since then, they’ve released three more studio albums and a live set.

Hailing from Burlington, Ontario, Silverstein began in 2000 as a side project of its five members. After recording a well-received EP that same year, the quintet decided to become a permanent arrangement. Silverstein’s post-hardcore sound is a melding of screamo and punk. The band has recorded eight full-length albums between their first in 2003 and their latest, which was released this year. A good place to start might be 2005’s Discovering the Waterfront.

Like Silverstein, Alexisonfire (pronounced Alexis on fire, not Alex is on fire) also mines post-hardcore territory. Formed in St. Catharines, Ontario in 2001, the combo’s disc debut came with an eponymously titled album in 2003. The highpoint of their five-album career may be 2006’s Crisis.

Glass BoysTogether since 2001, Toronto, Ontario’s Fucked Up released a succession of EPs and singles before recording their first full-length album in 2006. Three more albums have been issued subsequently, but the prolific band continues to churn out EPs and singles at an amazing rate. The eclectic rockers vary from the usual enraged vocals and limited, but feverish guitar lines of traditional punk songs to also include lengthy instrumental passages, atypical arrangements, and experimental sections. Their latest album, 2014’s Glass Boys, may be their most subversive yet.

Other Canadian punk bands worth a listen include The Mahones, Propagandhi, Billy Talent, and Death from Above 1979. Click on any of the linked items to take you to the online catalog records of each of these bands. Reserve them, take them home, and give them a spin. Then you too can find out why punk is alive and well in the land of the maple leaf!