Sherlock Holmes (1922) A Silent Film Review

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Holmes-ish

Professor Moriarty is up to his usual wicked tactics. This looks like a job for Sherlock Holmes! You know, that well-known college student. Wait, what? John Barrymore takes an unorthodox, romantic approach toward the famous sleuth in this long-lost silent film.

Availability

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

This is my contribution to the Sleuthathon, hosted by… me. Check out the other great posts!

Sherlock Holmes currently holds the world record for most filmed fictional human. There is a Holmes for every taste and mood: Funny Holmes, Modern Holmes, Classic Holmes, Romantic Holmes…

While Sherlock Holmes was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, actor and playwright William Gillette was responsible for many of the quirks that we associate with our Sherlock: the deerstalker cap, calabash pipe and the words “Elementary, my dear Watson.” (You can read many more details about Mr. Gillette here.)

Gillette made his own Holmes film (sadly lost) in 1916 but the character was too famous and too enticing to be left to just one screen performer. It was almost inevitable that the greatest detective would be played by an actor who was laying claim to the title of greatest motion picture performer.

Can Barrymore do it?

Can Barrymore do it?

John Barrymore was famous on the stage for his Hamlet but his screen career did not really ignite until his gutsy double role in the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Barrymore was a handsome man but he was also willing to do anything, and I mean anything, for his roles. This all-in approach makes Mr. Barrymore an actor that most viewers have a very strong opinion about, either positive or negative. Me? I adore his performances.

This version of Sherlock Holmes was thought lost for decades before being recovered in 1970s. But what was found was not a print. No, it was reels and reels of footage. Multiple takes of the same sequence jumbled out of order… My word! In a virtuoso bit of restoration, Kevin Brownlow was able to piece together the film with some help from its director, Albert Parker. There was some footage missing but most of the picture was intact.

One of the most exciting silent film rediscoveries.

One of the most exciting silent film rediscoveries.

So, how will Barrymore’s Holmes hold up?

The plot of the film (and the play upon which it was based) borrows dibs and dabs from assorted Holmes tales. We have the European prince who is the victim of blackmail (A Scandal in Bohemia) and the nasty criminal mastermind, Professor Moriarty (The Final Problem), creating the backbone of the tale but the plot does not really follow either one of these stories.

The film opens with an impressive aerial shot and then we are tossed into the London (both real and ersatz) of Mr. Holmes.

Nice!

Nice!

In a very, very brief nutshell, Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz) is planning shenanigans, as is his custom. Meanwhile, royal college student Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny, playing an uncharacteristically horrid character) is accused of theft. His pal, John Watson (Roland Young) decides to ask another student, Sherlock Holmes (John Barrymore), to help clear the prince. Sherlock investigates and his search leads him to Moriarty. Instead of killing the young detective, Moriarty warns him to back off. We all know how well that works.

Anyway, the prince dumps his fiancée, who commits suicide. Her sister, Alice (Carol Dempster), has a collection of very naughty letters from the prince and she means to use them to ruin his life. The prince engages Holmes to get the letters back. Holmes has no interest in helping the cad again until he realizes that Alice is the girl he admired back in his college days.

Holmes and Alice meet cute.

Holmes and Alice meet cute.

However, Alice has been taken prisoner by the Larrabees (Anders Randolf and Hedda Hopper), agents of Moriarty. Our villain means to use the letters to further his own mwahaha ends. It’s up to Holmes to save Alice and get those letters back.

As stated before, Sherlock Holmes was based on William Gillette’s stage play, though the film takes considerable liberties with the material. While the play begins with Holmes confronting the Larrabees about their abduction of Alice, the film opens with Holmes and Watson still at university. The idea that our heroes started as school chums would later be used in the 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes. (Holmes also falls in love in that film but the ending is less than happy.)

Holmes and Watson as college kids.

Holmes and Watson as college kids.

I am usually in favor of opening up plays as a stage production can be static if filmed as-is. However, Sherlock Holmes goes a little too far. Introducing Moriaty so early and letting him meet Holmes in the first act is a mistake. We are deprived of the suspense of waiting for the inevitable showdown. Plus, having Holmes pine away for Alice means that we have far less time for actually, you know, detective work. This means that we hear a good deal about Holmes’ campaign against Moriarty but we see very little of it for ourselves.

The plot is a whole lot of telling and very little showing but oh the cast, the cast! William Powell and Roland Young both make their debuts and we have the ever-welcome presence of Reginald Denny. Plus, we have the interesting casting of Hedda Hopper (pre-column days) and Carol Dempster (her first and only loan-out from D.W. Griffith). Wow.

William Powell and Hedda Hopper.

William Powell and Hedda Hopper.

First, though, let’s talk about our Sherlock.

My biggest problem with John Barrymore performance is, well, this.

What's the matter?

What’s the matter?

Do you see it? Colleen Moore had the same problem when she worked with him. Simply put, yowza! Mr. Barrymore at this point in his career was ridiculously handsome. I mean, I’m not complaining about his looks but they are a bit distracting. Holmes was never meant to stop traffic. (Yes, I realize that many incredibly handsome men have played the character but you must admit that Mr. Barrymore is in the very top tier lookswise.)

Of course, this wouldn’t matter if the plot was a bit better. By spending so much time in college, we are not able to get to know Barrymore’s Sherlock on his home turf. While 221B looks the ticket, it does not really feel like Holmes’ lair. This is the problem that often hamstrings origin stories. They take so darn long establishing what makes the hero a hero that the audience forgets why they ever cared.

Too late, too late.

Too late, too late.

Barrymore is further hampered by the shoehorned romantic subplot and a lack of chemistry with Carol Dempster (more on that later).  On the plus side, I did enjoy his investigation scenes and Barrymore is a refreshingly physical Holmes.

I am going to say that Barrymore gave the role an excellent attempt but he simply could not overcome the issues with the script and pacing.

Of course, this fiddling with the Holmes orthodoxy must be taken in the context of the time. Holmes had first appeared in 1887 but Doyle was publishing new stories until just three years before his death in 1930. In short, this 1922 version of Holmes was made while the character was still “live” and his screen image was still being built.

The biggest enemy? Not Moriarty, the script!

The biggest enemy? Not Moriarty, the script!

While the role of Sherlock is essential, I must admit that I usually judge Holmes adaptations by the quality of their Watson. Watson was, of course, the narrator of the majority of the Holmes stories and he serves as a bridge between the audience and the eccentric hero. Watson is smart and capable (he was a military surgeon after all) but he is also an ordinary man. I cannot stand the Watson-is-a-dummy takes on the character. My ideal Watson is smart and sensible, astonished by Holmes’ abilities but also amused by his eccentricities.

Roland Young is absolutely an ideal Watson. You may be familiar with him as Topper but I can assure you that he excels in his dramatic debut. His character’s role is significantly cut due to the length of the prologue but I liked what I saw.

High marks for this Watson.

High marks for this Watson.

William Powell fans are going to be delighted with what they see in this film. In spite of it being his debut, his part is quite large and juicy. (A bit larger, in fact, than the Watson role.) He plays Wells, an orphan taken in by Moriarty and groomed to enter high society and politics as an operative.  Wells tries to escape his fate by stealing money from his university. Holmes saves him from the consequences of his crime– as well as Moriarty’s vengeance– and sets him up as one of his own agents. I told you it’s a juicy role. Young Mr. Powell does quite well in it.

Aww, it's a baby William Powell!

Aww, it’s a baby William Powell!

I was pleasantly surprised by Hedda Hopper. I often say that her turn from acting to writing was hardly a loss for the film industry. However, I thought she was quite good as the scheming Mrs. Larrabee, an Australian agent in Moriarty’s employ.

And now I am going to wade into very dangerous waters. I am going to discuss Carol Dempster.

Is this really a good idea?

Is this really a good idea?

For those of you unfamiliar with Miss Dempster, here is the rundown. Carol Dempster emerged as one of director D.W. Griffith’s favorites in the late ‘teens and eventually replaced Lillian Gish as his leading lady of choice. However, she did not have the box office clout of her predecessors and a good number of her starring vehicles lost money. That being said, she does have a small but passionate fan base even today.

What makes Dempster so controversial is that the silent film community is pretty much divided up into love and hate camps. Most silent fans are lovely people who disagree politely but, as with every fandom, there is a very vocal 1-2% that make a whole lot of noise. (Don’t believe me? Just check out the Chaplin vs. Keaton debates. Those things get mean!)

Is Carol Dempster being picked on?

Is Carol Dempster being picked on?

In the more extreme corner of the hate camp, Dempster is often criticized for her imitation of other star’s mannerisms (true), she is blamed for the decline of Griffith’s career (not entirely her fault) and she is labeled plain or sharp-featured (oh please).

The more extreme corner of the pro-Dempster camp responds by praising her performances and, unfortunately, by bashing other Griffith leading ladies. The simple fact is that caps lock rants (LILLIAN GISH WAS JUST JEALOUS!!!) do nothing to help Miss Dempster’s cause and may actually harm it.

I am always willing to give overlooked and maligned performers and films a second glance. After all, silent films in general are often dismissed as corny and old-fashioned. I decided a while back that I would take a fair look at Carol Dempster’s career. Sadly, what I ended up with was a wild goose chase.

Carol Dempster remains a controversial topic.

Carol Dempster remains a controversial topic.

Since Dempster’s appearance is such a big part of the criticisms leveled at her, I am going to discuss it for a bit. Dempster had a unique face (she most resembled Priscilla Dean) but I think her angular look is actually quite modern and she would have benefited from a sleek bob or a marcelled cut. Those long Edwardian curls really do nothing for her. But she is fit, trim and attractive, at least in my opinion.

As to her acting, I find Dempster’s mannerism to be… odd. She had this weird tendency to twitch her fingers, head and chest and it is rather distracting. (Some critics described her has hippity-skippity.) Her movements are jerky and undisciplined, always with one gesture too many for the scene. Plus, her imitations of the work of other stars are really, really strange. (No one knows for sure whether these copycat moments were Dempster’s idea or if Griffith directed her that way. I don’t think the cause matters as much as the end result.)

Sherlock engaged.

Sherlock engaged.

Undeterred, I asked for more Dempster recommendations and was assured that if I saw her in The Love Flower, I would grow to love her. Saw The Love Flower. No soap. Then I was assured that if I saw her in Sally of the Sawdust, I would grow to love her. Saw her in Sally of the Sawdust. No soap. I was then assured that if I saw her in Isn’t Life Wonderful, I would grow to love her…

(Many, many movies later…)

Okay, people, I am tired. Tired. I gave Miss Dempster every chance but I just do not get the appeal. It seems that Carol Dempster is one of those performers whose qualities can only be seen by some viewers. If you are part of that segment, I sincerely congratulate you. Truly, honestly, no sarcasm. I’m happy when viewers find a silent era personality they can love. Dempster just does not do it for me.

But stop with the caps lock rants already. Deal? Deal.

Dempster remains a cypher to me.

Dempster remains a cypher to me.

Sherlock Holmes is significant for Miss Dempster because it is the only film she made outside of the Griffith stable. (She appeared in The Hope Chest in 1918, a Dorothy Gish vehicle directed by Griffith protégé Elmer Clifton. Still very much in the Griffith fold, I think.) D.W. Griffith’s singular ideas as to how young maidens were to behave are often blamed for Dempster’s odder performances.

I am sorry to report that Miss Dempster is just as twitchy under the direction of Albert Parker. John Barrymore reportedly took such a dislike to his leading lady that he demanded a stand-in for the final embrace. I don’t usually buy these colorful tales on on-set feuds but the final scene is rather awkwardly shot, which leads me to believe that the story is true.

Would John Barrymore ever turn his back to camera without reason?

Would John Barrymore ever turn his back to camera without reason?

The general consensus, from what I have read, is that Barrymore agreed to take on Dempster as a favor to Griffith, who was making the lavish Orphans of the Storm with the Gish sisters. According to Richard Schickel’s excellent biography of Griffith, if Lillian Gish was given an elaborate set piece, Dempster was wont to demand the same thing for her films. Griffith simply could not afford to film another French Revolution just to keep Carol happy.

John Barrymore was, of course, an actor of extraordinary power and beauty and it took a very special kind of performer to be able to share a scene with him. Simply put, he could blow less charismatic or talented players right off the screen. Mary Astor could hold her own, as could Camilla Horn, Estelle Taylor, Conrad Veidt and Frank Morgan. Carol Dempster, on the other hand, was not up to the challenge. Whether by accident or design, she is barely in the first two-thirds of the film at all. She and Barrymore certainly have no chemistry, which leaves the love scenes antiseptic and even more unnecessary than they were already.

A splendid pair of schnozes.

A splendid pair of schnozes.

Sherlock Holmes is a high-quality bit of film-making but I did not really feel like I had seen a Holmes film. Gillette’s story takes the character too far from his eccentric origins and the Barrymore adaptation drags it still further into the conventional. What we are left with is a Holmes who is certainly a bit quirky but not at all opposed to settling down with a wife and 2.5 children. (The Barrymore/Dempster union would have produced some utterly marvelous proboscises, I must say.) All I can say is that I far prefer my Holmes to be bizarre, outrageous, cocained and monk-like.

Is it a good movie? Yes. Is it a good Sherlock Holmes movie? Not really.

This Sherlock falls short.

This Sherlock falls short.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, my favorite traditional Sherlock is Jeremy Brett. As for the latest versions, I greatly enjoy the BBC’s clever Sherlock but I wouldn’t touch Elementary or the Robert Downey Jr. iteration with a fork. For off-kilter, I like the uproarious Without a Clue (Michael Caine as Holmes and Ben Kingsley as Watson) and the opaque They Might Be Giants (George C. Scott as a man who thinks he is Holmes and Joanne Woodward as a psychiatrist, Dr. Watson).

Where can I see it?

Sherlock Holmes has been released on both DVD and Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. It comes with a very good score performed by Ben Model on the Miditzer Virtual Theatre Organ.

Gallery

35 Responses

  1. Joe Thompson

    That was a nice overview of the good and bad points of the movie, Fritzi. “Our villain means to use the letters to further his own mwahaha ends.” — my favorite line. I’m glad you went into detail about your effort to give Carol Dempster a fair chance. I don’t get her, but I always figured it is a matter of taste. Thank you for the link to my post. I added a link to this post in mine. And thank you for doing all the work of setting up this blogathon.

    • Movies, Silently

      My pleasure and thank you! I was glad you posted about Mr. Gillette since the two topics glide together so well.

      Yes indeed, the Carol Dempster debate gets unnecessarily heated. Like you, I feel it is very much a matter of taste.

  2. Emily

    I’m not a Dempster fan either. She’s pretty in an unconventional way and not bad per se, but she wasn’t terribly charismatic or talented IMO.

    • Movies, Silently

      I agree that’s her main problem. If Griffith (at her urging) had not been so determined to make her a superstar, she may have grown into a better performer. Of course, we shall never know for sure.

      • Emily

        In Richard Schikel’s DW Griffith biography, he says Dempster tended to work better in more restrained roles, rather than the perky ingenues Griffith endowed her with. It’s possible she may have worked better as a supporting player.

      • Movies, Silently

        I thought she was pretty good in The White Rose but in her other supporting roles (that I have seen anyway) she was just meh. It’s a pity that he seems to have attached his ego as an auteur to making her a superstar.

  3. Marsha Collock

    WOW – great review! I admit, I always fall under the sway of the beautiful Mr. Barrymore and always cut him slack no matter what the film. I’ve not seen this one, but sure would like to. I have had the same Carol Dempster dilemma. Sadly, the only one to whom she really appealed was Mr. Griffith. However, I would like to see her in The Sorrows of Satan. I have read good things about her performance in that one. Have you seen it? Oh, and by the way, thanks for hosting this awesome blogathon!

    • Movies, Silently

      So glad you are enjoying it!

      I’ve not seen The Sorrows of Satan, Griffith’s mid to late twenties output is terribly difficult to find sometimes. I only just got to see Lady of the Pavements.

      But I saw that One Exciting night is getting DVD release so I will probably check that one out and wade into the Dempster debate once more.

  4. Nick Cardillo

    Believe it or not, I never have seen this movie in its entirety! I have read a great deal about it and its interesting history. From stills I have seen, Gustav von Seyffertitz looks like one heck of a Moriarty!

    Thanks for the excellent review.

    • Movies, Silently

      Glad you enjoyed it!
      Von Seyffertitz is one of the better Moriartys I have seen. He was just so good at playing evil.

  5. carygrantwonteatyou

    You had me at “baby Powell”:) It’s true that an actor’s beauty can distract from the character. Tom Perrotta said he wouldn’t have chosen Kate Winslet for Little Children for that reason–he wasn’t complaining about the choice (how could he?), but was observing that her looks changed his interpretation. And how many films have we seen marred by romantic pairings? (Drive is a recent one that comes to mind). Excellent review. I have only seen a few Sherlock films and am glad to have your recs for the best. Incidentally, if you haven’t checked it out, there’s a fascinating story about the death of a Holmes enthusiast that appeared in Best American Crime Writing–http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/12/13/041213fa_fact_grann if interested. Leah

    • Movies, Silently

      Thank you! If you want to see more, you can never go wrong with Jeremy Brett. I was a bit torn in complaining about Barrymore’s looks. I mean, on one hand, he is a bit too handsome but on the other, I was certainly enjoying the view. ;-) Thanks for the link, I will check it out!

  6. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    I agree that there is not enough about the movie that makes if feel truly “Holmesian”. In my movie memory bank it is filed under “Bill Powell flick”.

    However, I give a lot of leeway to every Holmes adaption, homage, pastiche and rip-off, be it film or print. Can’t get enough of the guy. It`s just a pity we couldn`t have cloned Conan Doyle.

    • Movies, Silently

      I agree, Powell absolutely stole the show, as did Roland Young. I kind of wanted the movie to be just about them. ;)

  7. Blakeney

    Robert Downey Jr. has great onscreen presence, but it seemed like his version was trying to hard to create “Sherlock Holmes, Action Hero!” It seemed at odds with the character’s core. I’ve been wanting to see some silent versions of the character – this looks like a great place to start (and William Powell is always a draw!)

    • Movies, Silently

      He is definitely a draw! You can immediately see that the kid is going places (though he did have a detour into villainy for the next five years or so)

  8. Le

    What a wonderful, in-depth review! I hope I can put my hands in the DVD of this movie soon. I really like William Powell’s silents, and I’m now curious to check more of Carol Dempster…
    Thanks for hosting this blogathon!
    Kisses!

  9. silverscreenings

    Aha! I was wondering who your fave Sherlock might be! I’ve not seen any Sherlock business with Jeremy Brett, but I will watch for him.

    Great review (as always). I liked your examination of the various aspects of the film. As for Carol Dempster, I have no opinion. But you’ve given me a new topic to research… :)

    • Movies, Silently

      Brett remains the one to beat in my book. Yes, the Team Carol/Team Lillian debate is a fascinating one. I hesitated to bring it up as the topic is so controversial and can be quite heated. However, some things need to be said!

  10. Jeff Flugel

    Great stuff, Fritzi – full of info and very funny to boot! Loved your dissing on la Dempster. John Barrymore looks a bit too saturnine and sinister for my conception of Holmes, but this sounds like a fascinating misfire all around, and what a treat to see that supporting cast. I tend to agree with you that the casting of the Dr. Watson role is almost more important than who’s playing Holmes. (I’m one of those who’s perpetually put off by Nigel Bruce’s buffoonery in the Rathbone series.) Glad to know that this version of SHERLOCK HOLMES has been mostly restored; sad to hear about Gilette’s film being lost.

    • Movies, Silently

      Thank you! Yes, I am always in the pro-Watson camp. Part of the reason why I love the Jeremy Brett series so much is because David Burke and Edward Harwicke are such ideal Watsons.

  11. kristina

    very interesting read! as someone who has basic knowledge of silents, reviews like yours get me totally curious to see more. Fun cast here, in those pics Barrymore really does distract and disarm. thanks for this and for hosting this fun event, best!
    (I too put Jeremy Brett at the top btw)

  12. Judy

    Really enjoyed reading this, Fritzi, and have just watched the film. I was excited to see Barrymore as Holmes and was also distracted by his looks (as I always am) – loved the humorous little scene where Holmes is drawing up a list of his assets and weaknesses, and it says ‘Boxing – splendid’. It was also a good part for William Powell… and it is fascinating to realise that Conan Doyle was still writing when this was made.

    However, I must say I was disappointed by this film overall – there are so many long-winded title cards that they get in the way and slow things down too much, and I also found the plot confusing and hard to follow, although that may well be because some of the film is still missing. And how come Watson didn’t know that Holmes’ house had burned down until someone popped round to tell him? Carol Dempster seemed fine to me, but there was too much romance and not enough detecting, as you say!

    • Movies, Silently

      Glad you enjoyed the review!

      Yes, the film certainly had its weaknesses. I think the biggest problem is that the film made major changes to its source material but managed to retain none of its strengths and all of its weaknesses.

      I liked the film well enough, I was entertained but it was definitely a disappointment considering the caliber of talent involved and the quality of source material available. A film with John Barrymore, Roland Young and William Powell should never just be “okay”

  13. CJB

    I’ve been following your site for the past few months. Great job!

    I haven’t seen SHERLOCK HOLMES in its entirety, but I have seen several Carol Dempster movies. I suppose you could call me a fan of hers. My interest in her was piqued by information I read about Griffith and his movies, and how Carol Dempster was supposedly the reason for his downfall due to her lousy performances. I watched SALLY OF THE SAWDUST and ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL and was quite surprised by what I saw. Not only did I not think she was lousy like everyone says, I found myself very moved by her performances and I felt that she created a lot of wonderful and memorable moments. Others have criticized Dempster as stiff and inexpressive, but I saw a lot of nuance and expression in her performances. Her early roles could be rather uneven (like THE LOVE FLOWER, for instance), but even there she has her moments.

    Dempster’s appeal is very hard to explain. She does seem to be either an acquired taste or a performer that, for whatever reason, appeals to a very, very small group of admirers. There are actresses whom I find more conventionally attractive and more polished, as well as more consistent, but Carol Dempster has something that fascinates me. As far as her imitations of other actresses, it seems to have been Griffith’s idea from what I read. Anita Loos observed Griffith’s coaching of Dempster and wondered why he took such pains to teach her to imitate Lillian Gish, when the real Lillian Gish was right there. I could go on, but I just wanted to offer the perspective of someone who admires Carol Dempster’s work.

    • Movies, Silently

      Thanks for stopping by! Yes, as I wrote in the article, she apparently has some secret that eludes a fair number of viewers but I am certainly not one to stand in the way of a fellow fan’s affection. Go forth and enjoy!

      You don’t really need my permission but I thought it was kinda cute. ;-)

  14. CJB

    Sorry, one more thing. Even though you’re not a Dempster fan, your assessment of her work was very even-handed and balanced. Great example of respectful, civil discourse. Looking forward to more posts!

  15. revelator60

    Interestingly, Barrymore is one of the few actors to have played Sherlock Holmes, Raffles, and Arsène Lupin. His “lovable rogue” persona probably better suited him to playing gentleman thieves than consulting detectives. His Holmes film shows glimmers of what he could have done with a better script, but without Gillette and dialogue, the play doesn’t hold together–it just seems un-Sherlockian.

    • Movies, Silently

      I tend to prefer his costume rogues to his modern dress rogues (his Raffles was also done in by its script) but he was indeed marvelous at playing the bad boy.