Sherlock Holmes made his first legal appearance on the silver screen with this French-British co-production series. When a tyrannical father objects to his daughter’s engagement, he locks her away and sends for a governess to take her place. But one thing he didn’t count on was Sherlock Holmes on the case! What is lacks in story, it more than makes up for with hilariously hammy acting.
We often think of Sherlock Holmes as a creature of gaslight and cobblestone but new Holmes stories were being published throughout the silent era. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may not have always enjoyed his most popular creation but he knew which side his bread was buttered and kept the public happily reading his tales.
Movie adaptations of popular characters—with or without the original author’s permission—are nearly as old as movies themselves and any writer worth their salt realized there was money to be made and valuable publicity to be had. Further, motion picture companies were already merrily making profits from unathorized adaptations of Holmes, the Danish productions starring Viggo Larsen being the most famous.
Doyle was feeling pretty pleased with himself when he sold the rights to his Sherlock Holmes stories to the French motion picture company Eclair. After all, they were responsible for some acclaimed detective adventure films and seemed ideally suited to adapting the world’s most famous sleuth to the screen in a series of shorts.
Doyle later quipped that he was forced to buy back the rights at ten times what he had been paid. It all worked out in the end as Doyle’s next choice was the Stoll Motion Picture Company and their Holmes series still boasts a small but passionate following. But what about the Eclair films?
Only two seem to survive and The Copper Beeches is one of them. We are going to take a close look at this Franco-British co-production to see how it works as a Sherlock Holmes picture and as popular entertainment circa 1912.
The story opens with a nasty fellow named Rucastle terrorizing his adult daughter. It seems that she wants to get married but he won’t let her unless she signs over some kind of money/property to him. She refuses and so he locks her in the garden shed.
Rucastle goes to an agency, ostensibly to find a governess for his younger son. Actually, he wants a woman who resembles his daughter so that he can use her to lure the fiancé to his death. The lucky girl is Miss Violet Hunter. She grows suspicious when her employer asks her to cut her hair, which would be a pretty nervy demand even today but was unthinkable when The Copper Beeches was first written.
Miss Hunter figures there’s something illegal going on in the garden shed and so she goes to fetch Sherlock Holmes (Georges Tréville). As Rucastle is not exactly subtle with his murderous plans, Holmes soon deduces that he should maybe open the shed (imagine!) and soon the bad guy is arrested and the daughter freed.
Okay, first of all, this movie is not very Holmesian. We get no idea of his methods of investigating or his personality. He just shows up, follows Rucastle around and solves the mystery. By which I mean he opens the door of a shed.
Wait a minute, this is not even a mystery! Everything is laid out for the audience to see and then Holmes comes along and investigates the thing we just saw happen. No suspense and certainly no fun puzzling out the clues. It is true that films of this period did prefer a more linear structure but surely the original story could have given them a blueprint as to how to pull this off.
The original tale opens with Violet Hunter going to Holmes because of her employer’s weird demands. She is an active participant in the narrative (this is preserved in the 1912) but there is also much for Holmes to do. In the Eclair film, there’s absolutely nothing Holmes does that could not have been accomplished by a policeman or even a random passerby. Violet just needed someone to help force the door of the shed and Miss Rucastle would have explained the rest.
So the story is an utter dud but now we will have to discuss the single biggest problem in this film: the acting.
It’s bad. Oh lordy, is it bad! You know how people who have never seen a silent movie have a certain idea of what silent movie acting is like? Really broad and overdone, right? And how we silent movie fans leap into the fray to declare that silent films weren’t really like that? Well, this one is.
Seriously, this is some of the worst acting I have seen from a film made in the 1910s and certainly the worst acting from a French company of the period. Certainly, some staginess remained in the performances of the period and performance style differed between companies and directors but acting was getting more subtle by the minute.
The weird thing about the acting in The Copper Beeches is how the performers seem to think that there is no sound in the movie itself. For example, when Holmes wants Violent Hunter to meet him at a particular place in ten minutes, he does this:
Points at her
Points at the ground
Holds up five fingers, closes hand, holds them up again
Points at her again
And then not one minute later, he repeats the pantomime! I was dying. This film slayed me. I am slain. Where was she supposed to meet him again? And at what time? I’m not sure I get it. This stuff is broader than, say, The Great Train Robbery and that was made a decade before.
And these gestures are done with a kind of weird swaying snap, like a clockwork doll. Truly bizarre. The closest comparison I can think of is the Monty Python sketch of the semaphore version of Wuthering Heights. It’s like they’re acting to a metronome and have to pause on each tick or else.
The worst actor by far is the gentleman playing Mr. Rucastle. Not only is he doing the metronome, semaphore thing, he also directly addresses the camera with a blatantly mouthed “DAMN!” and then shakes his fists at all who oppose him. It’s wonderful.
Rucastle gets most of the blame for the bad acting, deservedly so, but we must not forget that this film features overdone performances at every level and in every role. Anyone care to defend Mr. Holmes?
I mean, this is the sort of thing Ford Sterling was doing over at Keystone, except he was wildly exaggerating for comedic effect. The Copper Beeches, alas, is deadly serious. Wait, why say alas? This picture is a comedy masterpiece! It’s the best laugh I’ve had in ages.
Broad telegraphing can be seen somewhat in films of the 1900s but, again, nowhere near as overdone or formal as this turkey. Watch a few films from 1912 and you will quickly see the difference in acting. For example, check out my recent review of the French short The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912), which is a straightforward melodrama with class, style and an interesting twist at the end. In short, the polar opposite of The Copper Beeches.
Another problem is that Sherlockians see this film, notice the weird acting and then decide to be charitable by stating that such performances were common in the silent era. It’s very sweet of them and I appreciate the gesture, I really do but there’s no need to be nice, Holmes fans. This film is a dog and the acting is atrocious by the standards of its day. Fire at will.
Oddly, these pictures were huge hits. According to Sherlock Holmes on Screen by Alan Barnes, the Eclair Holmes series was treated as a headliner, sharing top billing with the infinitely superior Fantomas films. I can only conclude that British audiences of 1914 (it took a while for these films to cross the channel, it seems) were suffering from some sort of mass delusion.
The Copper Beeches is a ridiculous film but it is also wildly entertaining. I was glued to the screen, unable to imagine what other wacky acting trick Treville and Co. would toss at me. As a serious silent film, this is a bust. As a bit of accidentally hilarious entertainment? Glorious! This film is a gem of unintentional comedy and is highly recommended to fans of cinematic cheese.
Movies Silently’s Score:★½
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Grapevine along with several of the Stoll Sherlock Holmes shorts.