Yes, I’m cheating by putting this film with my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films made after the Basil Rathbone series. However, in a way, Sherlock Holmes, starring John Barrymore as the great detective, wasn’t finished until 2001. The film released in 1922 was later lost, but the original, unedited footage was discovered. With a bit of guidance from director Albert Parker, who passed away before the final cut was complete, the film was reassembled. Some footage is still missing. As a result, what we watch today is a new “re-cut” of the movie audiences saw in 1922. Certainly, we watch it “in the shadow of Rathbone.”
Besides, this is my way of celebrating the even earlier, even more interesting Sherlock Holmes film that was recently announced as having been rediscovered. That film stars William Gillette, the man who first brought Holmes to the stage and whose play served as the basis for the Barrymore film.
Shining in Sherlock’s Shadow
John Barrymore is a very, let’s say, commercial choice to play Holmes. He does well at embodying the pensive detective and even manages to toss in a few moments of the charater’s familiar flippancy. However, visually, he’s simply too dashing, too chiseled – too John Barrymore – to successfully let us believe he’s Holmes.
Nonetheless, that’s the lure of this film: to see the Hollywood matinee idol and member of one of American theatre’s most illustrious families have a go at playing Holmes. Perhaps when Barrymore appears in the deerstalker cap toward the end, things become a bit silly and strained, but prior to that, the performance is enjoyable. Barrymore, after all, was an accomplished actor, not just a handsome one.
Barrymore/Holmes is very much the star of the movie. Watson sits in the background – sometimes literally. Roland Young does fine in what little the role offers, but there’s simply nothing for him to do other than serve as a functionary of plot and exposition. Curiously, after the film’s prologue, which is set during the duo’s college years, Watson’s a married man. While this gives him an iota of characterization, it also helps explain why he’s not really Holmes’s close companion.
Naturally, with Watson’s role so diminished, one doesn’t expect much in the way of an exploration of his relationship with Holmes. In this regard, the film lives up to expectations. Disappointingly.
Devotion to and Deviation from Doyle
There are some nice touches that show familiarity with Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon, be they from Gillette’s play or Earle Browne and Marion Fairfax’s adaptation of it. For instance, the “Sherlock Holmes—his limits” list that Watson offers in Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet is presented in close-up in this film, even though it’s been made Holmes’s own self-assessment. The film focuses on Holmes’s battle with Moriarty, and actor Gustav von Seyffertitz is made up to somewhat resemble the description of “the Napoleon of crime” given in “The Final Problem”:
He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion.
There are a few other mysteries and crimes interwoven with this main one. The intricacies of the plot feels true to Doyle, and some of the elements are very similar to specific stories. For instance, the Continental prince who solicits Holmes to retrieve some damaging letters echoes “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
Holmes’s only fall in this film that features Moriarty has less to do with going over the Reichenbach Falls and more to do with falling for a woman named Alice.
Unfortunately, as will happen in so many Holmes films to follow, the great detective’s relationship with women is given an emphasis not found in the prose works. The film character is also very far from faithful to the one on the page, who’s baffled by — if not terrified by — the opposite sex. Indeed, Barrymore’s Holmes falls instantly in love during that prologue, and he’s still enamored when he re-meets the same woman during his later dealings with Moriarty. As typical of silent-movie melodrama, there’s little reason given why a unique man like Holmes would be so smitten with this woman other than she’s pretty.
But, no, Moriarty doesn’t wind up killing this love interest, launching Holmes’s celibacy. All I’ll say is that the ending is far more Hollywood than Doyle. Well, I will mention that the only really funny exchange between Holmes and Watson happens at the very end.
I don’t recommend that anyone watch this film expecting a great or even a good Sherlock Holmes movie. As I suggest above, it’s much more a John Barrymore movie, and therein lies its appeal. Unfortunately, some of the plot jumps awkwardly, presumably due to the still-missing footage. But it has a few glimmering moments, and as an historical curiosity, the film is worth a look.
For a list of — and links to — my reviews of Sherlock Holmes films, click here.