One of Barrymore's most prestigious early roles, this rarely seen film also presents screen debuts of William Powell and Roland Young. When a young prince is accused of a crime that could ... See full summary »
One of Barrymore's most prestigious early roles, this rarely seen film also presents screen debuts of William Powell and Roland Young. When a young prince is accused of a crime that could embroil him in international scandal, debonair super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes comes to his aid, and quickly discovers that behind the incident lurks a criminal mastermind eager to reduce Western civilization to anarchy. Written by
Actor Walter Kingsford appears, uncredited, in this film as the gunman/sniper at the apartment window. Kingsford at the time of this film was appearing in Broadway plays rather than films and this is possibly his first film. In the silent era it wasn't unusual to have an uncredited actor even though the actor may have appeared memorably in a film. Since the 1922 Sherlock Holmes was lost for more than 50 years, the film could not be viewed to validate Kingsford's appearance in it. From the 1970s to 2001 much of this film was reconstructed with elements still missing, however Kingsford's appearance in it should be more noted as the film has since been put on dvd and Blu-ray. See more »
Sadly, a long-lost film proves to be something less than a classic
For decades the 1922 version of SHERLOCK HOLMES starring John Barrymore was thought to be lost, surviving only in the form of a few tantalizing production stills, until a battered and incomplete print finally resurfaced in the mid-1970s. Even so, it wasn't until just a couple of years ago that a viewable version was painstakingly completed at the Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and it is this restoration which has received several public screenings in recent months. Bearing this background in mind, it's especially dismaying to report that the film, seen at long last, is a decided disappointment. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases in which a rediscovered work falls short of the imagined movie projected in our minds. Silent film buffs and viewers with a special interest in the Barrymores will want to see it anyway, but dedicated fans of the original Holmes stories, in particular, will most likely find it unsatisfying.
Seemingly all the elements were in place for something special when the movie went into production. John Barrymore, in the year of his legendary stage Hamlet, was in his prime; the supporting cast was full of first-rate actors, two of whom (Roland Young and William Powell) made their film debuts here; a number of scenes were filmed on location in London-- an unusual practice at the time --and the constructed sets were strikingly designed and well photographed. But the first and perhaps biggest problem was the structure of the screenplay, which feels off-kilter and oddly lopsided from the outset. The early scenes are focused on the activities of the arch-criminal Professor Moriarty (who was played by that magnificently-named character actor, Gustav von Seyffertitz). We're given much information about this villain's apparently unmotivated evil, but very little information about our hero and his eccentricities. After awhile we're forced to conclude either that the screenwriters thought we already knew enough about Sherlock Holmes, or that they found their bad guy more interesting than their hero.
Holmes and Watson are introduced in the prologue as two rather middle-aged looking Cambridge students, and the story would seem to concern a scandalous situation on campus involving some of their classmates. Eventually we recognize that this is all a set-up for the climactic confrontation with Moriarty, years later, although the Professor's connection with the Cambridge scandal is vague and indirect. It takes too long for the viewer to identify the central plotline, too long for Holmes and Watson to set up shop on Baker Street, and too long for Holmes himself to emerge as an adult character and take charge of events. Holmes' uncharacteristic romantic interludes with the charmless leading lady (more about her in a moment) don't help matters along, either.
Beyond the structural awkwardness a major flaw is the over-reliance on intertitles. The best silent films told their tales with minimal titling, or at least concentrated the bulk of the expository titles in the first reel or two, but this SHERLOCK HOLMES tells far too much of its story in words which must be read. This would be alright if we wanted to curl up at home with a book, but different expectations come into play when going to the movies. The source material for this film is a stage play of the 1890s, the work of the stage's first and most famous Sherlock, actor-playwright William Gillette. The play was not based on any single Arthur Conan Doyle story, but borrowed plot elements from several of them [and, incidentally, it provided a very early stage role for the preadolescent Charlie Chaplin, who was cast as Billy the messenger boy.] Gillette's play certainly had movie potential, but the filmmakers in charge of this adaptation lacked the imagination to translate the material from stage to screen with verve and wit, nor could they get a grip on the tone of the piece (is it meant to be serious? is it a send-up?), which shifts from scene to scene.
John Barrymore looks the part alright, but except for one brief sequence when Holmes disguises himself he doesn't appear to be having much fun. He suggests a male model glumly dressed as Sherlock Holmes in order to pose for a magazine illustrator. He is given several soft-focus close-ups emphasizing that famous profile, but seems to be merely posing for stills. Perhaps he wasn't having much fun off camera, either, for according to a recent biography Barrymore loathed his co-star, the lamentable Carol Dempster. Dempster, not unfairly, is best remembered as the faintly-talented, hawk-nosed girlfriend of director D. W. Griffith, who mysteriously cast her as leading lady in movie after movie in the 1920s. Not so mysteriously, these movies flopped at the box office and brought on Griffith's career decline. SHERLOCK HOLMES marks the only occasion Dempster appears as a leading lady in a non-Griffith production, but why this occurred is anyone's guess. Her role isn't large, and she doesn't have much impact one way or the other, but let's just say she doesn't bring much to the picnic and leave it at that.
It's interesting to see William Powell, long before the Thin Man series, looking so young and gawky; unlike his co-stars, he could actually pass for an undergrad in the opening scenes. But unfortunately, Powell's later scenes are difficult to assess, for despite the best efforts of the Eastman House film preservationists the latter portions of the movie are badly tattered, with crucial chunks obviously missing, and this has a particular impact on climactic scenes involving Powell's character. The climax is difficult to follow in general because of the poor condition of the surviving print, and although this can't be blamed on the filmmakers it only deepens the viewer's sense of disappointment. Still, even in the unlikely event that a better print is discovered, it would appear that the people who made this movie just didn't have an affinity for the material. It's too bad John Barrymore didn't take another crack at the role around 1932 or so, with sound and a better script. But in any event, fans of the Jeremy Brett TV series (and I count myself among them) have a definitive Sherlock Holmes to enjoy.
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