"The air of London is the sweeter for my presence" [FINA]
|Source: screen capture (YouTube)|
Bitter-sweet news on the Sherlockian film front.
The good news first: the Museum of Modern Art has restored the 1932 Fox Sherlock Holmes with Clive Brook in a sparkling new print with a crystal clear soundtrack. Technically, this has not been a lost film, but the nasty DVD dupe we’ve been stuck with does the film a cruel disservice, making it all but unwatchable.
What the MoMA restoration reveals is a droll pre-Code feature that ranks among the most stylish Sherlocks made in the black-and-white era. This was a major studio production, directed by one of Fox’s leading directors, William K. Howard, and filmed by the legendary cinematographer, George Barnes.
This is not a production for Sherlockian purists, but for non-purists it’s a pleasure to watch a great studio director in top form having fun with Holmes and Hollywood genres: Moriarty is on the loose, importing American gangsters and their continental allies to wreak havoc on London pubs [!] with Tommy guns, hand grenades, and speeding cars.
Holmes, not to be undone, counters with his genius for scientific investigation. Clive Brook, usually the stiffest of British matinee idols, loosens up with sardonic one-liners and elegant banter, having a fine time jumping off a balcony to fight one of Moriarty’s henchmen.
Howard and Barnes turn this into a series of visual tours-de-force. The first scene sets the tone, a court sentencing Moriarty to death in a series of silhouettes and close-ups slowly revealed behind raised veils. Moriarty then delivers a curse in a rich Scottish burr by the great silent actor Ernest Torrence. This sets the tone for a virtuoso display of powerful shadow effects, whip pans, shock cuts, flash-backs, weird angles, and complexly staged deep focus shots.
From Gillette to Rathbone
Of particular interest to Sherlockians is how the movie fits into the trajectory from William Gillette to Basil Rathbone. The Fox film illustrates what gets revealed when we can see fine prints: a benchmark with links to the past and future.
Sherlock Holmes was adapted by young Bertram Millhauser, the first of several Millhauser-Holmes screenplays that starts with Gillette’s play—or rather with Gillette’s reinvented characters. The plot itself owes nothing to Gillette—it might be called a sequel but Millhauser is too unbridled. Alice Faulkner is now Holmes’s long-suffering fiancée; Moriarty has been turned into a homicidal jewel thief; and Watson has been replaced by both Billy, Holmes’ adoring apprentice, and Holmes’ Scotland Yard arch-rival turned co-conspirator [Alan Mowbray].
Brook himself provides the clearest through-line to Gillette, the patrician Holmes par excellence. If Rathbone and his successors are high strung—the high E-notes on the Sherlockian violin—Brook continues, along with Wontner, on the Gillette low G, graceful and imperturbable. This is the debonair Holmes, whether in his spats and cutaway, or in his smoking jacket and Gillettian dressing gown.
And much would be recycled into the Rathbone films. The opening court scene would be re-used (to flabbier effect) in Rathbone’s 1939 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as would the idea of Moriarty being a cunning jewel thief. And Millhauser would steal from himself when recycling the jewel thief angle (Pearl of Death) and placing a gangster hideout behind the shooting gallery at an amusement park (The Spider Woman).
Now for the Challenge
So much for the good news. The difficulty is that MoMA’s restored print is currently all but inaccessible. Currently, it has only been shown for a month as a one-off in MoMA’s online film series, available to members only.
Otherwise, The Walt Disney Company controls distribution rights, and getting them to release the film is likely to be an uphill battle. So far Disney has shown little interest in vintage Fox films, and in fact, has discharged Fox’s restoration chief of staff.
Even Fox’s Cinema Archives series, which had been the studio’s quirky way of distributing its old movies on an expensive, on-demand line of no-frills DVD-Rs, has been put on hold. And even if the merged company were to add the 1932 Sherlock Holmes to the list, there is no guarantee they would use MoMA’s sparkling print.
So, for now, we need to wait and see what Disney plans to do. Or perhaps some enterprising individual ought to petition Disney to get things started...
Watch this space.
Further reading by Russell Merritt, BSI ("The Trepoff Murder")
Gillette’s performance in the 1916 film version of Sherlock Holmes: the 2016 Baker Street Journal Christmas Annual The Day After Christmas: First Encounters with Gillette's Silent Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes and the Snake Skin Suits: Fighting for Survival on '50s Television (Best of Sherlock)