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Sherlock Holmes (1922)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: John Barrymore, Roland Young, Carol Dempster, Gustav von Seyffrertitz, Louis Wolheim, William Powell

Written By: Earle Browne, Marion Fairfax, William Gillette (play) Directed By: Albert Parker

The Short Version

Sherlock Holmes gets the silent treatment.

Or at least, some guy who says he’s Sherlock Holmes does; this is not the Holmes you know.

The looseness of this adaptation is extreme, and the story is weak and full of holes.

For Holmes buffs and film history enthusiasts, this is worth digging up as a novelty.

Otherwise, this take on Sherlock Holmes is “if you happen to catch it” material.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


I detect holes!  Many holes!

Pairs Well With...


The character’s just all wrong, don’t you see.

“Why all the fuss, Guv’nor?  Why not just knock ‘im on the ‘ead?”

Sherlock Holmes and Dracula seem to be locked in a cage match to see which one can have his character adapted most often for the screen.  As it turns out, Holmes got the head start.

Even this silent film from 1922 isn’t the oldest by a good decade, though it did have the excellent taste to go through its own “mysterious disappearance” phase for a while, just as its title character did in literature.  (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had actually grown to hate writing about Sherlock Holmes and killed him off, only to bring him back later on by popular demand.)  Then in the 1970s, some of the original film stock was found, and over the course of the next three decades-ish, it was pieced back together and restored by Eastman House with some assistance provided by the film’s original director and with the financial support of a gentleman by the name of Mr. Hugh Hefner, which just goes to prove that porn really does pay for everything.

For fans of cultural and film history, this a delightful treat akin to a lost painting being found in a dusty corner and restored to glory by an art museum for all the modern world to consider and enjoy.  Such preservation of old movies is a wonderful thing, and all audiences should be grateful that such work is being so lovingly done on their behalf.  Whether or not what they preserved can be considered a classic in the artistic sense is immaterial; the fact that it is preserved for our consideration is.

And really, that’s just as well, because unfortunately, while Sherlock Holmes does indeed pique curiosity, it is no classic, either as a standalone film or especially as a film that portrays the spirit of its famed title character.

As this film’s story begins, we meet Sherlock Holmes (John Barrymore, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and John Watson (Roland Young, Topper) not as partners in crime detection working from Baker Street, but rather as fellows of the same year attending Cambridge University.  Also attending the school is a German Prince named Alexis (Reginald Denny, Rebecca), whom Watson learns has been falsely accused of stealing the school’s athletic funds, and who will be arrested for the crime if the money is not returned immediately.  [Well, well; a scandal in a university’s athletic department.  I guess some things just don’t change even after ninety years.  But I digress.]  Alexis is all the more distraught over things because he is due to be married the very next day.  Naturally, Watson immediately thinks of his friend Holmes as just the man to solve the mystery and clear the name of Prince Alexis.

Holmes agrees to help, and within a matter of mere moments, he’s sure that he’s discovered the culprit, a fellow student named Forman Wells (William Powell, The Thin Man), but he’s also sure that Wells didn’t come up with a plot to ruin a German Prince all by himself, either.  When he confronts Wells, he learns that he is right: the plan was in fact hatched by a master criminal named Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz, Shanghai Express) as a means of gaining influence over the Prince via blackmail.  Holmes then confronts Moriarty, and the plan is foiled.  However, though the Prince is now free from threat of blackmail or arrest, he has no time to enjoy the good news, for he learns that his brothers have been killed, and now that he is Crown Prince, he must return to Germany, and cannot take a lower class girl as his wife.  For his part, Holmes decides that having met the devil, he will dedicate his life to the art of detection, in hope of one day destroying Moriarty’s empire of crime.

Years later, we catch up with Holmes again on Baker Street, and thanks to an urgent request from none other than Crown Prince Alexis, he may finally have his chance to topple Moriarty once and for all…

Sherlock Holmes derives its basis from many sources.  First, it is adapted from a popular stage play that was written by William Gillette, which in turn borrowed liberally from several of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s plots while adding considerable material of its own.  Second, the screenplay then adds even further material, with the end result being something that is completely off character canon and in almost no way at all resembles the literary Holmes and company beyond the characters’ names.  I can only conclude that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s endorsement of this film represents further evidence that the man still hated his most famous character and considered him just a source of income at that point.

Instead of the meticulous intellectual of the printed page, the Holmes of this film is an almost foolish romantic.  He’s still smart, to be sure, but anyone who truly loves the character readily appreciates the difference between “smart” and “Sherlock Holmes.”  Indeed, when we first meet him, Holmes is seated by a tree writing in his little black book, and the question that he ponders is “What is love?”  Soon after, he falls into the roadway while trying to get up onto roof, and as assisted back up by a young woman named Alice (Carol Dempster, Dream Street), with whom he instantly becomes smitten.  He later finds that Alice is sister to the betrothed of Prince Alexis, and when Alexis suddenly leaves Cambridge, abandoning his belongings in the process, Holmes sees fit to take a photograph of said sister into his own keeping because it so resembles Alice! 

At this point, it goes without saying that he runs into her again during his latter day errand for the Prince… and he actually blows part of the case for the sake of mooning over her.  I don’t care what sort of derivation we’re up to here; that is not the character of Sherlock Holmes, nor is his later engagement.  Yes, engagement.

People who know the period will says that film audiences during this time expect and even demand that sort of thing, but for Holmes enthusiasts, this borders on sacrilege, especially since Alice, though lovely, displays absolutely none of the qualities that the Holmes we know from literature would find at all engaging.

Other characters fare no better.  Moriarty is reduced to being a hunchbacked caricature who bears more resemblance to Ebenezer Scrooge than he does to “the Napoleon of Crime,” and Watson, far from being the trusted ally and confidant of Holmes, is reduced to the level of “club buddy/acquaintance.”  Truly, the only way that any of this can be called identifiable as having a basis in Doyle’s work is from the names; had those been changed, it’s doubtful there would have been enough similarity to merit a lawsuit (a-la the Widow Stoker and Nosferatu).

The characters are not helped by the fact that they’re stuck in what can only be called a wretched screenplay.  There are many occasions during the story where an audience can legitimately ask “well what was the point of that?”  To call this script “full of holes” is to pay it a kindness; really, it’s just plain bad.  The story flows poorly when it flows at all, the action contradicts the alleged plot on several occasions, and much of what happens simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.  Allegedly, Moriarty is being driven to ruin during the course of the film, but we have to take the title cards’ word for it, because nothing Holmes does would seem to lead to that, especially since Holmes gives up the very evidence he was trying to get hold of while fawning over Alice.  (What eventually does Moriarty in as far as the law is concerned happens conveniently off camera when no one’s looking in a deus ex machina title card.)  Conan Doyle’s writing could always be counted upon for a well-crafted plot and brilliant deductions by Holmes; here, he’s almost a bumbler, though a self confident one.  It’s all rather embarrassing, really.

The already weak story suffers further from the generally dull direction of Albert Parker (The Black Pirate), whose style can only be described as “static” and “plodding,” and who takes a story that already has no momentum and plants it firmly in the mud.  Alas, his work here simply cannot hold a candle to that of his German Expressionist contemporaries, and does no justice at all to the name of Sherlock Holmes.

Given the lackluster direction and exceedingly poor screenplay of Sherlock Holmes, it’s simply impossible to blame the cast for any wrongdoing; indeed, this is a mightily talented group that had already done and/or would go on to do great things.  In this picture, however, with the possible exception of William Powell, they barely seem to care, and even the storied Mr. Barrymore looks resigned to playing within the bounds of mediocrity here.  Ever more is the pity; one can only imagine what might have happened had this high quality cast been given a better script and a more imaginative director to work with.

With all of these things said, however, if you are a Holmes enthusiast, Sherlock Holmes is still worth your time, even as it does betray much of what fans have come to love about the character.  It is worthwhile as a contrast piece, if nothing else, and to see how the character was allowed to be treated with such little reverence for canon even during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own lifetime.  And for those who consider themselves students of film history, let’s face it, any film of this vintage will be worth your time, especially one as meticulously well-restored as Sherlock Holmes.

Bottom line, despite the blessing of Mr. Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes bears little resemblance to anything that ought to be carrying the storied character’s name, and even taken as a standalone piece without regard to its literary heritage, it’s still a poor and hopelessly plotted story.  Nevertheless, it retains fair value as a piece of history, and that, at least, is something that even a true incarnation of Mr. Holmes could appreciate.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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