Book Review: ‘Sherlock Holmes on Screen’

At first, the thought of reading a large book concerning Sherlock Holmes may not seem all that appealing – unless you’re a big fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery books, of course. Perhaps even less appealing is an encyclopedia-like collection detailing each time the world’s most famous detective has ever made an appearance on television or in a motion picture. To my amazement, such a book is actually quite entertaining and wonderfully informative. In fact, it’s rather elementary, as the big-screen Holmes would say.

Despite being a household name and easily one of the most recognizable characters of literature, the astute logician is not commonly thought to have enjoyed a prestigious cinematic history, or viewed as a familiar icon of the silver screen. At least, not to the same degree as horror idols Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster – or monsters and vampires in general, for that matter. Yet Alan Barnes’s book, ‘Sherlock Holmes on Screen’, changes that perception by chronicling every time the character has appeared in a movie or TV show – not only as the main attraction, but even as a secondary character or as a plot device. For example, in two episodes of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ (‘Elementary, Dear Data’ and ‘Ship in a Bottle’) a “holodeck” programming error inadvertently results in Professor Moriarty (Daniel Davis) being made into a sentient being who takes control of the starship Enterprise.

Organized in alphabetical order and featuring terrifically succinct plot summaries, Barnes’ book demonstrates that the British super sleuth actually played a significant role in the early history of cinema. He’s even been fairly active in various television programs. The character’s very first screen appearance begins with a quirky short parody from 1900 called ‘Sherlock Holmes Baffled’. Produced and distributed by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, the 30-second silent film helped to popularize the company’s Mutoscope peepshow machine, a direct competitor to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope. This also marked one of the earliest attempts at special visual effects and camera trickery. The joke is that Holmes is stunned by a burglar appearing and disappearing into thin air.

Barnes doesn’t make any contentions about Holmes and his rapport with film or TV, nor does he endeavor to prove anything of the sort. The book is simply an exhaustive filmography of a much-loved and admired literary personality. But when reading about such little-known titles as the one mentioned above, what we take away is an appreciation of the master detective, who quite possibly “has appeared on screen [big and small] more times than any other fictional character.” In making references to other actors, films or television shows that might be relevant to the discussion, Barnes continuously enlightens his readers about Holmes’s valued contribution to cinema, as well as to the boob-tube.

As in the case of ‘Sherlock Holmes Baffled’, other short parodies soon followed, such as ‘Sherlock Bonehead’ (1914), ‘Sherlock, the Boob Detective’ (1915) and ‘A Study in Skarlit’ (1915). The first film to treat Holmes as a serious character was made in 1905 and titled ‘Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for Ransom’, which showed that the Barrymore family of actors date almost as far back as the beginning of cinema. The black-and-white silent feature starred Maurice Costello, the grandfather of John Drew Barrymore and great-grandfather of Drew Barrymore. Fascinatingly, Costello’s son-in-law, the legendary John Barrymore, would also star as the titular character in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (1922) nearly twenty years later.

It’s always a great joy to read a book such as this and glean from it such worthwhile information, or bring back some long-forgotten memories along the way. Namely, Holmes’s many television performances. I actually possess a faint recollection of an animated show called ‘BraveStarr’, a space-western cartoon series about a Native-American marshal. If memory serves me, I recall watching the two-part episode with Holmes traveling into the 23rd Century and confronting his arch-nemesis Moriarty. I’m somewhat embarrassed to mention that I’ve also watched the Saturday-morning cartoon ‘Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century’, which is a bit more recent. Then again, both my daughter and I enjoyed watching the cartoon together every weekend. It’s wasn’t anything special, just lighthearted and somewhat clever entertainment.

Of course, no self-respecting Sherlockian book can exist without also rating the films with the best performances for Holmes and his faithful companion Watson. Among fans, the response is almost unanimous. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are by far the finest and most famous characterizations of the crime-solving pair. All of the films that starred the two men are collected in this excellent book. Other notable performances include Peter Cushing’s take in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ from Hammer Films, and his return to the character nearly ten years later for BBC Television in ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’. There’s also the weird pairing of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the comedic version of ‘Baskervilles’ (1977). There were plenty more such distinguished performances throughout the 20th Century.

Moving forward into the 21st Century, Barnes updates his exhaustive book with a few pages dedicated to modern interpretations of the Holmes and Watson adventures. The two most apparent are Guy Ritchie’s ‘Sherlock Holmes‘ films and the British television series ‘Sherlock‘ by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (who contributed a Foreword for the book). The films try to update the look and appeal of the master detective for a new generation of moviegoers, and Robert Downey, Jr. does a surprisingly decent job in portraying Holmes. Jude Law’s Watson is a sad casualty, as are the movies in general. The TV show is a terrific contemporary take on the character that pairs his talents of deduction with today’s forensic science. Moreover, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman make an excellent pair as the “high-functioning sociopath” Holmes and war-veteran Watson.

Writing in an informal and chatty tone, Barnes not only sums up the many different movies and television shows that Holmes has starred in, but also breaks into a bit criticism on occasion. He makes no apology for his dislike of Ritchie’s movies. Throughout, he shows a strong love and admiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the author’s canon. He is, as described in his book, a true Sherlockian aficionado. ‘Sherlock Holmes on Screen’ is a tremendous and remarkable collection about the character’s long history with television and cinema. For anyone fascinated with reading such history, this is the go-to book for Sherlock Holmes in film.

[Buy from Amazon.]

1 comment

  1. Alex

    I’ve found that among Holmes aficionados, the debate between Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett inspires roughly the same pseudo-religious fervor as Kirk vs. Picard.

    The discussion has caused many a bruised feeling in my family.

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