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Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary sleuth had appeared on screen a number of times in the early decades of cinema, but the 1922 feature Sherlock Holmes, starring John Barrymore, stands as the greatest of the silent-era versions.
Barrymore was brought to the project by director Albert S. Parker, who planned to base the film not on Doyle's original stories but the hugely successful stage play by William Gillette. The play had opened on Broadway on November 6, 1899 at the Garrick Theatre, with Gillette performing the title role. After seven months on Broadway, the play ran almost continuously, in one city or another, for the next two decades. Gillette is said to have played the role of Holmes on stage some 1,300 times, finally hanging up his deerstalker cap on March 19, 1932, at the age of 79.
In spite of Parker's enthusiasm, Barrymore was reluctant to commit. "He didn't want to do the film," Parker recalled, "I had to talk him into it. He didn't like the part, because it was such a trademark [of writer/actor Gillette]."
Eventually, Parker convinced Barrymore to take the role, even though he had not yet obtained the screen rights to the play. Undaunted, Parker traveled to Chicago, where Gillette was appearing in the play, and successfully brokered the deal.
Parker may seem like a fast-talking salesman: hiring an A-list actor to appear in a project based on a play he didn't own. But he was no neophyte. He was a seasoned director who had worked with filmdom's elite (including Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, and Norma Talmadge) and no doubt knew the art of making a deal. Prior to becoming a director, Parker had been a stage actor, and had even appeared in the 1910 Broadway run of Sherlock Holmes (opposite Gillette). Perhaps it was this prior association that enabled him to license the film rights from Gillette the writer, while diplomatically excluding Gillette the actor from the deal.
The film was produced under the banner of Goldwyn Pictures. In an effort to free the story of its potential staginess, the filmmakers utilized extensive location photography in London and a brief sequence in Switzerland. The studio interiors were shot back in the U.S., on Long Island.
The plot of Sherlock Holmes is set in motion when a Cambridge student, Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny), is accused of pilfering school funds. His friend Watson (Roland Young) refers the case to a fellow student, Sherlock Holmes (Barrymore). Alexis puts them on the trail of Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz), the lord of an elaborate criminal empire -- an empire too large and complex for the fledgling detective to topple.
Years later, a new opportunity presents itself when Moriarty engineers a blackmail plot against Alexis, utilizing love letters written by a woman who has committed suicide (Peggy Bayfield). By coincidence, the dead woman's sister is Alice Faulkner (Carol Dempster), in whom Holmes has harbored a longtime romantic interest. Thus does it become possible for Holmes to defeat his arch-nemesis and secure a bride in the process -- if he can only devise a way.
According to James Kotsilibas-Davis's book The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood, Barrymore did not enjoy working in Hollywood. "I hate the movies," he is quoted as saying during the shooting of Beau Brummel (1924), "Behind the footlights I can hang out an actor's symbol for any emotion a playwright can devise. But the camera is too intimate. It crawls down your throat and creeps up your nostrils and it tells you what you are. On that screen I never can successfully compete with some shop girl who, after being cursed at by a director like [Erich] von Stroheim, can weep real tears. In Hollywood I'm constantly being defeated by corny sincerity."
Sherlock Holmes had its New York premiere at the illustrious Capitol Theatre. The New York Times wrote, "No photoplay in which John Barrymore appears can be wholly uninteresting. He is such an expressive pantomimist and so distinctly an individual that he is bound to vivify many of his scenes." In the end, however, the critic pronounced that the film, "falls to pieces."
"The photoplay has its fine points." the Times admitted, "But how does it stand as a photoplay, a unified and completed whole? All of its excellencies, in themselves, cannot make up a dramatic composition...the spectator may admire these separately, if he pleases, but he cannot take them together as parts of a photoplay which convinces him and holds his interest."
Chicago Tribune critic Mae Tinee lamented the fact that the film did not delve into Holmes's darker tendencies: "There would have been a [cocaine] needle and there wouldn't have been a honeymoon if Rex Ingram had filmed Sherlock Holmes. He'd have fought the censors tooth and nail and stuck to the story. Oh well."
More typical of the critical consensus, Photoplay Magazine called Sherlock Holmes, "one of the most artistic and unusual films ever made. Its settings and photography are amazingly fine. Its cast is one of the few real all-star affairs."
Speaking of stars, Sherlock Holmes marked the screen debut of two renowned actors: a 29-year-old William Powell (The Thin Man ) and Roland Young (Topper ), both of whom would rise to prominence in the era of the screwball comedy.
Parker spotted Powell during a performance of Spanish Love at New York's Maxine Elliott Theatre, and shortly thereafter offered him the role of Foreman Wells. According to Lawrence J. Quirk's The Complete Films of William Powell, "When Parker offered him the part of Foreman Wells, a villainous associate of the evil Professor Moriarty...Powell snapped at it. His role was small but tellingly delineated. He found films very different from the stage, much less demanding, with speech (in the silent period) irrelevant, and subtly modulated plays of facial expression the prevailing style. This he mastered easily."
Carol Dempster was being groomed for superstardom by D.W. Griffith, who had featured her in his high-profile production Dream Street (1921). She appeared in Griffith's Revolutionary War epic America (1924) and in Sally of the Sawdust (1925, opposite W.C. Fields) but Dempster never achieved much fame and seldom worked for any filmmaker besides Griffith.
For decades, Sherlock Holmes was a lost film. When it finally surfaced, it appeared not as an edited release print but as an aggregation of raw footage. Film Historian William K. Everson called it, "one of the most painstaking recovery jobs ever." He wrote in Films in Review in 1976: "All that existed of this film were rolls and rolls of negative sections, in which every take -- not every sequence, but every take -- was jumbled out of order, with only a few single-frame flash titles for guidance... However, with the limited help of the film's director, Albert Parker, who remembered but little of the film's continuity and who died while the reconstruction work was in progress, British filmmaker and historian Kevin Brownlow did piece it together, replaced titles, and generally made sense out of an impossible jigsaw." The restoration was conducted under the aegis of the George Eastman House Motion Picture Department.
Director: Albert S. Parker
Producer: F.J. Godsol
Screenplay: Earle Brown and Marion Fairfax,Based on the play by William Gillette and the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Music: Ben Model (2009)
Cast: John Barrymore (Sherlock Holmes), Roland Young (Watson), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Moriarty), William Powell (Foreman Wells), Carol Dempster (Alice Faulkner), Reginald Denny (Prince Alexis), Louis Wolheim (Craigin), Hedda Hopper (Madge Larrabee), Peggy Bayfield (Rose Faulkner).
by Bret Wood