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Sherlock Holmes reboot

In Silent films I like on December 1, 2009 at 3:11 am

The 1922 “Sherlock Holmes”, starring John Barrymore, was lost for many years.  This Goldwyn Pictures film is a surprisingly precedent of the modern “series reboot.”  By 1922, there had already been dozens of Sherlock Holmes films.  However, like “Batman Begins” and “Superman Returns”, this film is an origin myth.  (And one completely of the writers’ invention — no such story exists in A C Doyle’s body of work.)

The first few scenes illustrate this.  We first meet Holmes’ (soon to be) nemesis Moriarty, who rules an empire of crime and has the hooks into a Prince.  In the next significant scene, the Prince visits his friend Watson.  The iconography of the Holmes universe is so unfamiliar to the audience that Watson can be introduced smoking a curved pipe in thoughtful repose in a cluttered study.  Watson thinks a friend from University might be able to help out – he’s a smart chap who is mighty good at puzzles.  Holmes is then introduced as a young romantic, reclining in the shadow of a tree, jotting observations on life in a notepad.

The film is also interesting for predating a number of Fritz Lang signature films.  Lang’s “Spies” (1928) and the Dr. Mabuse films (1933) were built around a criminal mastermind and his criminal empire.  These films were more concerned with the villain than anyone involved in his capture.  Similarly, Moriarty starts this film and he directs its action.  In fact, the UK title of the film is “Moriarty”.  The villain charts, as well, the life course of the world’s greatest detective, for it is he that transforms Holmes from a dawdling student of life into the driven master of deduction. At the end of the first act, the two come face to face, “for the first and last time” announces Moriarty as he dismissively shows Holmes the door.  Holmes pledges his life and the entirety of his intellect to this science of deductive logic so that he can bring this fiend down.  “My life’s work is to rid the world of that gigantic menace – Moriarty.”

Moriarty so rules the picture that it is only his capture (another invention) which allows Holmes to find love.

As to the cinematic worth of “Sherlock Holmes”, the program notes from a rare 1975 screening of the film at  NYU are dead-on in their criticism, and pretty amusing as well.

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  1. Hmmmm….I’m no S.H. expert but if this non-standard one had Watson recruiting Holmes, that’d be a real turnaround from the traditional format. In fact, I think he’d be the only senior partner recruited by his sidekick that I’ve ever heard of.

    Also – do those program notes suggest that the version in circulation now was reconstructed completely from takes NOT used in the original?

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