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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Elementary, Watson (originally published 3/01)

Of all the fictional detectives ever created, it seems that none has taken hold of our collective imagination as firmly as Sherlock Holmes. People who have trouble remembering their relatives’ addresses have no trouble remembering 221-B Baker Street, and occasionally some of them are moved to send a letter there to consult the master himself. Although he is a fictional character, it sometimes seems that Sherlock Holmes is more real than some of the people I encounter in real life.

Maybe it seems that way, in part, because he has been incarnated on the screen, both the movie screen and the television screen, so many times by so many actors. I haven’t done the research to back up the claim, but I would venture to guess that Holmes has been portrayed more times by more different actors than any other fictional character. Only Tarzan comes to mind as a potential rival.

The most recent actor to take on the role of Holmes is Matt Frewer, of “Max Headroom” fame, in a production of “The Sign of Four” that aired recently on the Odyssey cable network. This was Frewer’s second Holmes film, the first being last year’s remake of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” If you’re interested in comparing Frewer’s interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most enduring creation to those of his predecessors, look for these titles on home video.

“Sherlock Holmes: The Early Years” (various dates). The earliest screen adaptations of Doyle’s stories were short silent films, made in the first decade of the existence of motion pictures. Most, naturally, no longer survive. Some of the few remaining scraps of early Holmes cinema have been collected in this videotape, which is available from Movies Unlimited ( [2009 UPDATE: This is no longer true, although I did find it for sale at "Hollywood's Attic" online. If interested, you can purchase a VHS copy at -- assuming, of course, that you still have a VHS VCR to play it on.] It includes a 1912 French short subject based on “The Copper Beeches” as well as the earliest known Holmes film, “Sherlock Holmes Baffled,” from 1900. A particular treat is the inclusion of two performances by Ellie Norwood, the first film actor to be regarded as “the definitive Holmes.” Norwood appears in “The Dying Detective” (1921) and “The Devil’s Foot” (1921).

“The Speckled Band” (1931). The earliest Holmes talkie that is available on video is a British production starring Raymond Massey. By this time, William Gillette’s famous stage portrayal had left its indelible mark on Holmes by adding the familiar deerstalker cap and curved Meerschaum pipe to Doyle’s own description of his character. Massey’s Holmes does not fit into any pre-existing mold, however, not even Doyle’s. Instead, he presides over a busy office filled with assistants and futuristic (for the time) equipment. Massey himself was not terribly happy with the result, but it remains an interesting curiosity. [2009 UPDATE: This one has made the transition to DVD. You can find it at]

“A Study in Scarlet” (1933). Reginald Owen is, to my knowledge, the only actor ever to play both Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes on the screen. He was Watson to Clive Brook’s Holmes, then took on the lead role for this version of Doyle’s introduction of the character. To call it an adaptation would be an overstatement, however. The producer, Sam Bischoff, had acquired the rights to the title but not to Doyle’s story. Owen himself, along with Robert Florey, wrote a script based on a whole new plot. Owen was an adequate Holmes, but five years later he would leave an altogether more memorable impression in the role of another classic literary character, Ebenezer Scrooge, in the MGM production of “A Christmas Carol” (1938). [2009 UPDATE: This one has also turned up on DVD. Look for it at]

“The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes” (1935). The second screen actor to be thought of as “the definitive Holmes” was British stage veteran Arthur Wontner. He remains a particular favorite of Holmes afficionados, who insist that of all the actors to take on the role Wontner comes closest to the character they imagine in their heads when they read the original stories. Indeed, Wontner received a letter of praise and congratulations on his portrayal from Doyle’s own wife. Of Wontner’s five Holmes films, only “The Triumph,” an adaptation of Doyle’s “The Valley of Fear,” remains available on video, although his version of “Silver Blaze” (1937) still turns up occasionally for rent. [2009 UPDATE: Good news for Wontner fans -- there is a very reasonably priced DVD boxed set called "Classic Rarities of Sherlock Holmes" that includes three Wontner/Holmes titles PLUS the above-mentioned Reginald Owen "Study in Scarlet." Look for it at]

Next week we’ll look at more interpretations of the great Sherlock, including that of the actor who became so firmly identified with the role that no one else even bothered to try to follow in his footsteps for more than a decade after he relinquished it.

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