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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
The restoration of this film began in 1970, when the George Eastman House discovered several cans of negative of the film, consisting of incomplete, out-of-order clips. Film historian Kevin Brownlow screened a print of these clips for the film's director, Albert Parker, and with the information Parker gave him began a decades-long process of reassembling the film from the bits and pieces that survived. 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 an incomplete print finally resurfaced in 1970. Even so, it wasn't until recently that a viewable version was painstakingly pieced together at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and it is this restoration which is now available for public screenings, and on DVD. Bearing all this in mind, it's dismaying to report that the film, seen at long last, is a decided disappointment. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where a rediscovered work falls short of the imagined movie we project in our minds. 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 likely find it unsatisfying.
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 screenplay, which feels off-kilter and oddly lopsided. The early scenes are focused on the activities of the arch-criminal Professor Moriarty (played by that magnificently named character actor, Gustav Von Seyffertitz). We're given a lot of information about this villain's curiously unmotivated evil, but very little information about our hero and his eccentricities. We're forced to conclude either that the screenwriters thought we already knew enough about Sherlock Holmes, or that they considered 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 seems to concern a scandalous situation on campus involving some of their classmates. Eventually we realize that this is 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 plot line, too long for Holmes and Watson to set up shop on Baker Street, and too long for Holmes himself to emerge as an adult and take charge of events. Holmes' uncharacteristic romantic interludes with the vapid leading lady -- more about her in a moment -- don't help matters, either.
Another major flaw is the over-reliance on title cards. The best silent movies told their tales with minimal titling, or concentrated the bulk of the expository titles in the first reel or two, but this film tells far too much of its story in words which must be read. Reading is all well and good when we curl up at home with a book, but a movie must MOVE. The source material for this film is a stage drama of the 1890s, crafted by the stage's first and most famous Sherlock, actor-playwright William Gillette. The play was not based on any single Conan Doyle story, but borrowed plot elements from several of them -- and, incidentally, it provided a very early stage role for the preteen Charlie Chaplin, who portrayed 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, and failed to maintain a consistent tone. Is it meant to be serious? Is it a send-up? Hard to say.
John Barrymore certainly looks the part, 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 gauzy 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, Carol Dempster. Miss Dempster, not unfairly, is best remembered as the modestly talented, hawk-nosed girlfriend of director D. W. Griffith, who mysteriously featured her in movie after movie in the 1920s. Not so mysteriously, these movies flopped at the box office and accelerated Griffith's career decline. Sherlock Holmes marked the only occasion Dempster appeared 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.
It's interesting to see William Powell, long before the Thin Man series, looking so young and gawky; unlike his co-stars, he could pass for an undergrad in the opening sequence. But unfortunately, Powell's later scenes are difficult to assess, for despite the best efforts of the Eastman film preservationists the latter portions of the movie are badly tattered, with crucial chunks obviously missing, and this has a serious impact on climactic scenes involving Powell. The climax is difficult to follow because of the poor condition of the surviving print materials, and although this can't be blamed on the filmmakers it only deepens our sense of disappointment. Still, even in the unlikely event that a better print is discovered, it appears that the people who made this movie just didn't have an affinity for the material. Too bad John Barrymore didn't take another crack at the role in the early '30s, with sound and a better script. But in any case, fans of the Jeremy Brett TV series (and I count myself among them) have a definitive Sherlock to enjoy, thanks to a star and a creative team who knew precisely what they were doing.
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