While you all fuss over David Fincher this and Ben Affleck’s Penis that, the film archiving world has been distracted by a far more interesting discovery than who did or did not kill Amy Dunne: a nearly 100-year-old adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, thought lost for decades but recently found in the depths of the Cinematheque Française. The 1916 silent feature marked the only screen appearance of William Gillette as Conan Doyle’s famed detective, a role he was internationally famous for on radio; it also marks the introduction of any number of cinematic Holmes clichés, from the deerstalker hat to matching oversized pipe and magnifying glass. So this week we’re celebrating a few of the many, many imitators spawned off of Gillette’s example with three of our favorite screen appearances by Baker Street’s most iconic resident (sorry internet, no Cumberbatch allowed).
“Sherlock Jr.” (1924)
Cast: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire
Available streaming on Netflix, in full on YouTube
Among the silent giant’s best works, a brief and charming comedy about a film projectionist framed by a romantic rival for stealing his girlfriend’s father’s pocketwatch. In real life, the girlfriend proves far more adept than the projectionist at solving such mysteries, but in the extended dream sequence that rightly made “Sherlock Jr.” famous, Keaton imagines himself in a series of heroic and debonair roles, inspired by the films he runs at the local theater. Chief among them is the titular Holmes surrogate – and who could blame Buster for wanting to take on the exciting and dangerous life of the Baker Street detective for himself?
“The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970)
Cast: Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Genevieve Page, Christopher Lee, Tamara Toumanova, Clive Revill, Irene Handl
Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes
One of the last films by mid-century master Billy Wilder, and the eighth in a series of eleven collaborations between the director and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond (“Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment,” “Irma la Douce,” etc.), “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” was never going to be anything but irreverent when it came to the Holmes legend. Positing a stark separation between the character created by Dr. Watson for the magazine accounts of their adventures and the “real” Sherlock, Wyler’s film at times flirts with parody and inserts some distinctly ’70s flavor to the Victorian-era character (a sequence where Holmes pretends to be Watson’s lover beat Steven Moffat to the punch by about 40 years) but ultimately displays a deep affection for the classic cinematic portrayals of Holmes by Basil Rathbone. Stephens, one of the most respected stage actors of his time, is quite good in the lead, but Christopher Lee (who also tried out playing Sherlock, in 1962’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace”), steals the show as Sherlock’s smarmy older brother Mycroft.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking” (2004)
Cast: Rupert Everett, Neil Dudgeon, Ian Hart, Anne Carroll, Tamsin Egerton, Perdita Weeks, Jennifer Moule, John Cunningham, Michael Fassbender, Jonathan Hyde, Helen McCrory
Available on disc from Netflix
Though the “revisionist” take on Sherlock Holmes already felt a bit played out by 2004 – with the focus on Holmes’ substance abuse and social isolation taking precedent over a good-old-fashioned mystery – the BBC’s pre-Cumberbatch attempt to revive the character stands out, as Holmes films so often do, thanks to an outstanding lead performance that breathed new life into well-worn traits. Everett is a decadent, dandyish sleuth, stirred out of retirement by boredom but scarcely more enlivened by hunting down a serial killer offing high-born young women than he appears in his drug-induced hazes. Holmes’ tics and quirks are played here less for their eccentric charm and far more as signs of a troubled, tortured genius incapable of connecting to the world around him. Created from an original story rather than adapting any specific Conan Doyle work, “The Case of the Silk Stocking” gives Everett and company more freedom than most versions to bend, if not break, the Holmes canon.