One Hundred and One Sherlocks

Dr. John Wat- I mean, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Today’s guest post is by international super-sleuth Carolyn Raship. 

Today, on the birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) we celebrate him and his essential creation, consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is the ur-detective, the model from which all subsequent fictional detectives spring, whether it’s in homage or opposition. He’s not the first fictional detective, Poe’s Auguste Dupin holds that title, but he’s the early apotheosis of detective, the distillation of all the earlier models, providing a template so clear and pervasive Holmes is as popular now in the science fiction future, as he was in Victorian London. For better or worse, when the word “detective” is mentioned, the picture of a lean faced Englishman with a pipe, a syringe, and a deerstalker hat is the one most likely to come to mind. His only true competition in terms of iconography is Bogie in a trench coat, but that’s another conversation for a different day.

Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859 to an impoverished Catholic family, was educated by the Jesuits, trained as a doctor and then eked out an income from his medical practice. He traveled widely as a ship’s doctor and continued his education both in London and abroad, earning an advanced degree (above what was required to practice medicine at the time). He had drifted away from Catholicism and was a staunch defender of science, publishing a series of articles in defense of vaccination. He concurrently developed a deep interest in spiritualism and began attending seances. PSH (pre-Sherlock Holmes) he published a number of short stories in magazines, including one about a serial killer loosely based on Burke and Hare, pre-dating Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bodysnatcher by a couple of years.

In 1897 Sherlock Holmes made his debut with the serialized novel, A Study in Scarlet. It was instantly popular and Doyle would almost immediately regret the horrendous (but not untypical) terms of the contract he had signed at publication. The consulting detective with his difficult personality, his belief in scientific deduction, all told from the point of view of his affable, not so bright BFF, Dr. John Watson became the model for all the subsequent novels and stories. Unlike with Holmes progeny like Hercule Poirot or Columbo, Holmes cannot exist without his Watson. As a construct, he needs his audience, his amanuensis, his friend. Watson humanizes the chilly Holmes. If A Study In Scarlet and its immediate sequel The Sign of Four were popular, the Holmes short stories series inaugurated in The Strand magazine created a worldwide craze that has never entirely let up.

The first stage adaptation featured Charles Brookfield as the sleuth at the Royal Court and premiered in 1893 (though I’d bet good money at least a few unauthorized versions appeared earlier). It’s been estimated that there have been over 25,000 Homes adaptations in all imaginable media since his first late Victorian outing. Even limiting myself to film and television (I have another post in me of literary adaptations for sure), the number is staggering. I’ve discussed below the ones I think are most important or most interesting – you will note that I didn’t say “most canonical” or “all”. They are listed chronologically.

Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) 

I’ve included the entire first Sherlock Homes movie above because it’s only 45 seconds long! It’s basically an excuse to show off some simple cinematic tricks and in his first appearance, Holmes was already so famous, he’s being parodied.

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for Ransom (1905)

This was the first “serious” Holmes film adaptation. It’s sadly lost, but a few blurry frames exist in the Library of Congress. Starring Broncho Billy Anderson it looks more like a western than a Holmes story. Very mysterious!

Miss Sherlock Holmes (1908)

In this one reeler, Vitagraph girl Florence Turner uses her deductive brilliance to choose between two boyfriends in a very, very early version of a female Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes i Bondefangerkløer (1910) 

Unexpectedly, there was a popular, long running Danish series of one reelers featuring a mostly unrecognizable Holmes. Sadly, this is the only surviving episode in the series. It’s stagey and the quality is degraded, but it’s an interesting curiosity. You can watch it here.

In this period there were many, many Sherlock Holmes series produced around the globe. In addition to the Danish one I talk about above, there were popular versions in Russia, France (the first sanctioned by Doyle – see the only existing film here ) and of course, England.

Even Mack Sennett starred as Holmes in a series of 10 or 11 comedy one reelers for Biograph, The $500 Reward being the only one the survive. It looks like it was supposed to be screened at MoMA in March as a part of a series of shorts accompanied by Ben Model – I’m not sure if this event happened though, or if it was cancelled by the shut down. It’s sadly not available online.

I can’t emphasize enough that in this period there were dozens, if not hundreds of Sherlock Holmes related movies made in every country with a film studio. It’s overwhelming, and even our current need to make a new version of Spider-Man every five minutes doesn’t come close to the avalanche of pop culture obsession attached to Holmes in this period.

Sherlock Holmes (1916)

All of the above movies are a sign of Sherlock Holmes’s (and Doyle’s) popularity and success, but he really needed a great 19th century actor-manager to turn Holmes into a proper industry. William Gillette wrote, directed, produced and starred in what became the canonical stage version of Sherlock Holmes and he is responsible for a great deal of the iconography we associate with the great detective. His movie (produced by Essanay) didn’t appear until fairly late in the game, but Gillette, already a star, became a millionaire playing Holmes in his authorized stage adaptation in 1899. He gave us the pipe and he gave us romance. Several of the character names he created, while not strictly canonical, made their way into many subsequent adaptations. He performed the role around 1300 times and it was adapted and parodied by dozens of other performers – one successful parody was called, “Sheerluck Jones, or Why D’Gillette Him Off”. He even wrote a parody version himself for a benefit performance. A teenaged Charlie Chaplin toured in it and then was promoted to the West End production where he performed with Gillette.

Gillette toured and toured and toured. In the role he became the first American to play a lead on the London Lyceum stage. He finally retired to his castle on the Hudson River in 1920 (of course, returning for a farewell tour about ten years later when he was 76 years old). This 1916 film, long thought to be lost was found in a French archive in 2014, a major, major find and is the only record of his Sherlock-defining performance.

This magical YouTube clip edits a scratchy audio recording of Gillette as Holmes (made when he was 83!) with scenes from the film. It’s like a portal to the past.

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

This A-List comedy short starring the biggest action star in the world, Douglas Fairbanks is a doozy. Co-starring an adorable teenaged Bessie Love and Alma Rubens in one of her first roles, Tod Browning wrote the story and Anita Loos the intertitles, a line-up that’s as starry as you can get. It’s a completely bananas, drug soaked parody of Sherlock Holmes with Fairbanks playing scientific detective Coke Ennyday. In it, Ennyday solves a mystery, romances Love, does a staggering amount of narcotics, and communicates via FaceTime. Its design is gorgeous and there’s a clean print easily available to watch.

I included this because it’s such a ridiculous amount of fun, and also it’s one of the few pre-modern Holmes adaptations that depicts his drug use (I mean, they really ran with it here). The one sour note is Ruben’s presence in the movie – her real life drug addiction ended her life at 33.

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

Based on the Gillette play, starring John Barrymore at the peak of his matinee idol good looks, it also features the screen debuts of William Powell and Roland Young and co-stars a young Hedda Hopper. I don’t think Holmes fares particularly well in the silent era as there is so much talk and exposition required. It’s available to watch, but there is approximately half an hour missing (which I didn’t miss as the film is a little moribund and still nearly two hours in its present form).

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929)

Clive Brook had the honor of playing the first talkie Sherlock Holmes, and he did so in two subsequent films. In addition to Brook, Raymond Massey and Reginald Owen played completely adequate, but not very exciting Holmeses of the 1930s. They were soon to be eclipsed.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942), Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), The Spider Woman (1944), The Scarlet Claw (1944),The Pearl of Death (1944), The House of Fear (1945), The Woman in Green (1945), Pursuit to Algiers (1945), Terror by Night (1946), Dressed To Kill (1946)

The late 1920s and the 1930’s weren’t the greatest time for Sherlock Holmes, apart from the popular radio series created by Edith Meiser. In the decades following Doyle’s debut as THE mystery author many younger writers took a serious look at the form and innovated and perfected it. The greatest of these, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts and others, formed the Detection Club, a collegial organization of fair play mystery writers. They asked Doyle to be their inaugural president, but he was in very poor health and died shortly afterwards so Chesterton took the honor. One wonders what Doyle and Chesterton made of each other. Father Brown has been interpreted as a specifically Catholic response to Holmes (standing in for stiff necked Protestantism, though Doyle himself wasn’t a practicing Christian). Though Chesterton’s stories are far more interested in Philosophical truths than what he would probably refer to as a limited, clockwork, scientific viewpoint, they counterintuitively feel more modern. His morality is more flexible, kinder, more existential. In this period, poor Sherlock was largely relegated to B pictures.

In the late 30s, 20th Century Fox decided to revisit the franchise and Basil Rathbone was the first and only choice. The Hound of the Baskervilles was a huge hit, so they produced a sequel, loosely based on Gillette’s play. Fox subsequently lost interest in the series so Universal bought them out setting the new films in a contemporary setting (Holmes vs. Nazis!). Rathbone was a dream as Sherlock Holmes, the one I remember seeing in TV in black and white when I was a kid. For many, many decades he was probably most people’s vision of Holmes. Nigel Bruce’s face is who most people see (until recently) when they thought of Dr. Watson – resembling Doyle himself to a great degree. The later films are patchy but Rathbone is uniformly superb, embodying the great detective so ideally he was hopelessly typecast, quit movies for a while and went back on the stage. Later in life when he was strapped for cash, he parodied his association with Holmes in a skit with Uncle Milty (Berle was, bizarrely, the first Holmes on American television, way back in 1949), and then a few decades later as a voice actor in The Great Mouse Detective.

Sting of Death (1955)

The late ‘40s through the ‘50s was a time of relative quiet on the Holmes front, at least in movies. Rathbone’s portrayal was definitive and the genre felt a little played out. Post-war, the fashion for crime stories was gritty and noir, Chandler rather than Christie. One of the few places he regularly appeared was as a part of the seemingly dozens of hour long anthology TV shows that proliferated at the time. Worth noting is the great Boris Karloff playing a “Mr. Mycroft”*. This Watson-less, elderly Holmes talks his next door neighbor’s ear off because his genius cannot exist in a vacuum. The focus is on beekeeping (one of Holmes’s areas of expertise), and is an early example of a “killer bee” plot. Based on H.F. Heard’s 1941 Holmes pastiche, A Taste For Honey (here titled the more dramatic, “Sting of Death”), it was a part of The Elgin Hour which featured many future (and in Karloff’s case – past) stars both acting and directing, including John Cassavetes, Teresa Wright, Sidney Lumet, and Joanne Woodward.

*Mycroft is Sherlock’s brother who holds a shadowy position in government and lounges indolently at the Diogenes Club which he co-founded.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Hammer Films’ decision to focus on horror in the late 1950s rendered them perfectly equipped to revive Holmes on the big screen – they embraced a lurid, gothic, technicolor aesthetic that worked well within the Sherlock Holmes framework. It’s fitting that the first time we see Sherlock Holmes in color, the actor is Peter Cushing and the studio is Hammer. Also featuring Christopher Lee as Baskerville, it’s an ideal way to inaugurate Holmes into the modern age. Cushing himself was a huge fan of the original stories and contributed ideas.

In the 1960s, much as in the 1910s, there were multiple Sherlock Holmes series (now on television, rather than on film) in many countries – one in the late-60s starring Cushing on British television. The 60s were relatively quiet in terms of Sherlock Holmes theatrical releases, maybe the now centenarian detective was resting up for the staggering number of projects he would be involved in in the following decade.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Directed by Billy Wilder and a tremendous influence on the BBC’s Sherlock (both in tone and their handling of Irene Adler), it’s one of the earlier adaptations which contends with the meta issue of “Sherlock Holmes” who appears in stories penned by Watson, not being entirely identical to the Holmes who exists in life, as some people contend – there exists a corner of fandom where participants play what the call “the Great Game”, solving and studying the life of Holmes as if he is a historical personage and Doyle is Watson’s editor. Wilder’s film is a delight, particularly if you enjoy your Holmes on the more comedic end of the spectrum.

They Might Be Giants (1971)

Not a Holmes film per se, but I’m including it because it’s so good and it says interesting things about the idea of Holmes. In it, George C. Scott plays a retired judge in such a deep depression he deludes himself into thinking he is the great detective, solving the crimes of his nemesis, Moriarity. He starts seeing a psychiatrist, coincidentally named Dr. Watson (Joanne Woodward). You think someone would see that this might be a terrible idea, but whatever, just go with it. It’s a lovely film, a part of the mini genre of the 60s and early 70s that celebrates madness and freedom and eccentricity and the downtrodden. In addition to Scott’s lovely performance, the location shooting around 1970s New York has great appeal.

One interesting facet is in his delusion, Scott is emulating a character who is also, on some level, mad. He’s an addict with a sort of monomania, who doesn’t fit particularly well into society aside from the utility he is able to provide.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother (1975)

Oh, how I wish this movie was better, funnier! Starring and written and directed by Gene Wilder, co-starring Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, its near miss feels like tragedy. It’s one of a handful of films that feels like a Mel Brooks movie, but isn’t, but should be. Wilder’s name in the film is Sigerson, a pseudonym used by Holmes in the stories after faking his death.

The Seven-Percent Solution (1976)

If Wilder’s Holmes film presages Sherlock, Herbert Ross’s The Seven-Percent Solution does so for Elementary, with its drug addicted Holmes (Nicol Williamson) and its clever Watson (Robert Duvall). Based on scriptwriter Nicholas Meyer’s own novel, it deviates from the canon in thoughtful, interesting ways. Exploring what Sherlock Holmes was really doing during “The Great Hiatus” (when Holmes faked his own death, disappearing for a number of years). Here, he’s treating his drug addled delusions with none other than Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). It kills me that this isn’t available to stream anywhere, for any money.

Sherlock Holmes In New York (1976)

Surprisingly star-filled, entertaining, workmanlike made-for-television movie. Roger Moore and Patrick MacNee as Holmes and Watson do a resectable job, John Huston as Moriarity is a hoot, and a young Charlotte Rampling as Irene Adler is lovely. It would be completely believable as a theatrical release.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978)

I’ve never seen this comedy adaptation, starring Dudley Moore as Watson (plus a bunch of drag roles) and Peter Cook as Holmes, directed by Paul Morrissey (who directed the Andy Warhol Dracula and Frankenstein).

Murder By Decree (1979)

With the major exception of the presence of Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Watson (James Mason), if you’ve read Alan Moore’s From Hell, you will be familiar with the Jack the Ripper story that forms the bulk of this film, with its madhouses and Masons. The melding of these two Victorian London murder legends make perfect sense. You don’t have to make too big a leap to assume the media circus surrounding the Whitechapel Murders spurred a fascination with crime and the unsolved nature of these horrific crimes made people long for a perfect detective who could put things right. This last film of the 1970s Sherlock Holmes Golden Age was directed by Bob Clark.

Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994)

After the creative, genre busting, comedic, meta and lunatic Sherlock Holmes and Watsons in the innovative 1970s, in the Reagan and Thatcher 80s it was back to fundamentals at 221B Baker Street. In this particular case, it wasn’t a bad thing. The goal of the Grenada series was to create the most faithful and accurate filming of the casebooks ever seen, and they are. Jeremy Brett is a wonder as Holmes. It’s a glorious, tough minded, career defining performance. Brett had a long and successful career prior to this series, but he never quite hit. He was a little too blandly handsome when he was young (he was Freddy in My Fair Lady), had a bunch of personal problems and never really became a star. Holmes was the last thing he did, more or less dying with his deerstalker on, continuing to work with an oxygen tank on set. I think most fans understand that the best Sherlock Holmes tales were the short stories, therefore tailor-made for television – everyone just had to wait for television to get good enough to be worthy of Holmes. This was the first time the perfect form of Holmes matched with the perfect medium. They filmed nearly all the stories and it stands as a towering achievement.

House (2004-2012)

Much as with Basil Rathbone, after Jeremy Brett, sensible people left Sherlock Holmes alone for a bit. Aside from series of uniformly execrable TV movies starring Edward Woodward, Charlton Heston, Matt Frewer (!), Rupert Everett and some lesser lights, no major productions were greenlit for a good number of years.

I assume I’ll get a little bit of pushback on House’s inclusion, but this is a hill I’m willing to die on, so bear with me. Aside from his name (Holmes-Homes-House), his character as written is nearly identical to the Sherlockian original. He’s a difficult, drug addicted genius who believes implacably in science and deduction. He plays piano, not violin, but a lost love named Irene Adler is mentioned by his BFF (Dr. James Wilson) and he’s shot by a man named Moriarity. There are a few other Holmsian related references here and there, but I mean, he lives at 221B Baker Street. It COUNTS.

Out of the Four Modern Holmeses of the 21st century, my vote goes to Hugh Laurie for the best performance. The show went into a sad decline in its later seasons but I was happy to see it ending with House faking his own death, as is proper.

Sherlock Holmes (2009) & Game of Shadows (2011)

As with most of the silent versions of the Holmes stories, the Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law version of Holmes and Watson rely heavily on action as opposed to deduction. Directed by Guy Ritchie by throwing buckets of money at the screen, creating a muddled Steampunk fantasia of Victorian London, these movies are, emphatically, not for me.

Sherlock (2010-2017)

Sherlock with Benjamin Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is beloved to many (and to many people I respect a great deal), but it’s never completely worked for me. It’s beautiful to look at, and I adore the premise of setting softly reworked versions of the original stories in a kind of Cloud Cuckooland version of modern day London. These are all things I like very, very much. I have admired the work of my fellow Christie devotee, Mark Gattis and clearly the creators have a deep appreciation and love for the canon. But. Each season contains three movie length episodes, and (in the first three seasons, after which I gave up watching) in each there was one that was completely unwatchable. In the first season, the second episode exhibited truly shocking racism. And the constant, grinding, adolescent misogyny just got me down. The popularity of Cumberbatch’s Holmes depresses me – his smug superiority reads to me as tiresome and unpleasant. I’m determined to force my way through the rest of the series at some point, but I’m not enamored of their brand of Victorian mores in modern dress.

Elementary (2012-2019)

I have a ridiculous fondness for this other modern dress Holmes, and I was gratified to see on Twitter recently that what I thought of as one of my most unpopular opinions: Elementary is superior to Sherlock, is not as unpopular as I thought.

At the beginning of this series, consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is fresh out of rehab in NYC and is assigned a sober companion, former surgeon Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu). They live together in his unrenovated townhouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The pilot has a lot of the same failings as the pilot of 30 Rock: people who should be best friends are adversaries, it’s clunky and they hadn’t yet found the right tone. But somewhere in season one they figure it out, and from then on it’s pretty clear sailing through the end of the series.

There are no literal adaptations of the stories, but there are many allusions, jokes, asides and games played with references to the canon throughout. Holmes has his Irregulars. They work with a Captain Gregson and an Inspector Bell. Inspector Lestrade shows up occasionally, a sad shell full of borrowed glory. Sherlock has tattoos and keeps bees on his roof. In one season, their conduit to the underworld is an ex-con named Shinwell. Raffles is mentioned. He has an indolent brother named Mycroft who runs a fashionable restaurant in London named Diogenes. Mrs. Hudson is a trans woman friend. And Natalie Dormer’s Irene Adler who we learn has faked her own death, toying with Holmes is revealed to be the criminal mastermind Moriarity. It’s often funny or silly, and manages to come up a lot of really, really solid hour long fair play mysteries.

Or maybe I love it for the way it uses the city, mostly the outer boroughs and wears its progressive heart on its sleeve.

But the best is Lucy Liu’s Watson. The most important (to me) innovation in the Holmes stories is the idea of detection being a calling rather than just a job, an idea that is embraced in Elementary as she becomes a detective in her own right.

The idea of a detective as a kind of person, rather than a series of tasks was invented by Arthur Conan Doyle, but explored constantly by crime and comic writers over the following hundred plus years after the gates 221B Baker Street first opened. It’s a no brainer to see that without Sherlock Holmes there would be no Hercule Poirot and his stupid ami Hastings, but there would also be no Columbo with his “Just one more thing”, or Batman in his cave, an implacable private force for justice working with his Commissioner Gordon. Even tough guys like Sam Spade and Philip Marlow would have empty offices without Holmes. He’s the only fictional creation without whom I can’t even picture what out world would look like without.

A couple of related posts:

William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes movies