Theme Month! October 2015: Silent Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes wasn’t the first fictional detective but he remains the most famous and most beloved. His adventures have been serialized, televised, reimagined and reworked into every genre imaginable but we’re going back to the very beginning of Sherlock Holmes on the screen.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most popular creation is often thought of exclusively as a creature of Victorian London but that is not entirely the case. The Holmes stories were set between 1880 and 1914 ( over a decade beyond Queen Victoria’s reign) and in many ways Sherlock Holmes came of age alongside silent movies. He was “born” in 1887 with the publication of A Study in Scarlet (a year before Roundhay Garden Scene, believed to be the world’s earliest surviving celluloid motion picture footage) and made his last literary appearance in a pair of short stories published in 1927, the year of The Jazz Singer. (I don’t count any tale not written by Doyle, in case you were wondering.)

Naturally, such a popular character would make his way onto the silent screen. It all started with some unauthorized adaptations but Doyle also authorized several different screen incarnations of the character. And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention all the goofy Sherlock spoofs of the silent era.

I have some great Holmes adaptations and spoofs picked out. Each and every one of these films will feature a different actor in the lead role. Maximum coverage is the goal! I hope you will enjoy the fun.

Barrymore as Sherlock
Barrymore as Sherlock

As an appetizer, you can read my review of John Barrymore’s take on the character with Gustav von Seyffertitz as Moriarty, Carol Dempster as the true love of Holmes (?), Roland Young as Watson and William Powell making his debut in a supporting role.

French Holmes: The Copper Beeches (1912)

copper beeches 1912 image (18)

The French studio Eclair won the right to film the adventures of Sherlock Holmes with the legal blessing of Doyle. The results are accidentally hilarious.

British Holmes: The Man with the Twisted Lip (1921)

Man with the Twisted Lip 1921 image (8)

The acclaimed Eille Norwood take on the Holmes character is under the microscope. Brilliant or overrated?

Druggy Holmes: The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

mystery of the leaping fish image (1)Douglas Fairbanks spoofs the Holmes character, turning him into a hyper coke fiend. Wacky stuff.

Classic Holmes: Sherlock Holmes (1916)

Sherlock Holmes 1916 cap (3)William Gillette’s iconic take on the character is examined.

The audience poll

At the end of the month, I am going to hold an audience poll to discover your favorite silent Sherlock. We’ll vote on the best Holmes, best Watson, best adaptation and whatever else I can think of. See you there!


    1. Fritzi Kramer

      You may! Modernizations are always risky. I like certain aspects of it but I find it disturbing that a 2010s television show gives women LESS agency than books written in the 1880s-1890s. I am rather devoted to Jeremy Brett (though one particular silent Sherlock knocked my socks off)

  1. nitrateglow

    As far as Sherlock Holmes films go, my favorites are the Rathbone Hound of the Baskervilles and Billy Wilder’s elegiac The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I’m also fond of Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective with Vincent Price as the Moriarty stand-in and the Miyazaki-inspired climax.The Downey Jr films are entertaining, but way too Matrix-ish for me.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I remain a die hard Jeremy Brett fan. I like Rathbone’s Holmes but nothing else about that particular series. That’s the nice thing about Sherlock Holmes, there’s a flavor for everyone!

  2. popegrutch

    Definitely with you on Jeremy Brett, he simply nailed it. Look forward to seeing what you come up with from the silent era, though. Silent Holmes is bound to be different, as it’s a different art form altogether.

  3. Joe Thompson

    Good theme, Fritzi. I’m looking forward to it. I find that if I keep my mind open, I enjoy most interpretations of Sherlock Holmes, although I couldn’t quite get my mind around Rupert Everett.

  4. Sandra

    The two Basil Rathbone as Holmes films set in the 19th century are good, but the rest of the series is an abomination.

  5. thecinematicpackrat

    Must rise to the defense of dear old Basil and Mr. Cumberbatch. The Rathbone and Bruce Sherlock series (the two Fox films and the 12 Universal B-Movies) are some of my favorite films of all time. Yes, they have their problems and not every entry in the B-Movie series is great, but they are pretty damn good if just looked at as films and especially great if you compare them to other B-Movies of the time. Bruce’s Watson is mostly bumbling and inaccurate, but there are times when the writers write him more sensibly, and when they did that, Bruce carried it off very well (so it’s more a writer’s problem than an actors problem). But it’s important to consider that before Bruce, Watson was mostly marginalized on Holmes films.

    The current Sherlock series is great, I think. It obviously changes things, but it’s VERY accurate in many ways if you compare to the stories. Could you elaborate on your comments about it’s use of women in the show? I thought it treated them fairly well. Would love to hear your views. And these are just my views, I realize neither version of Holmes is everyone’s cup of tea.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      As far as Sherlock’s treatment of women, I would draw your attention to Irene Adler. In the original stories, she is Holmes’ equal and manages to outsmart him in the end, which earns his respect. In the show, she falls for him and her infatuation causes her to use an idiotically obvious code to protect her secret and she is subsequently damseled and in need of rescue from radical Islamists. The show has been called out on this by multiple sources:

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