Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Detective deceptive... A Scandal in Bohemia (1921) and other shorts, Barbican with Stephen Horne

And this is the real me...on the right.
You know how TV series adaptations rarely work as well once transferred to the big screen? I think that the same may have been true of the Stoll Sherlock Holmes serials and their feature length off-shoots.

Between 1921 and 1923 three series of 15 roughly half hour episodes were made by the company all of which featured Eille Norwood as Holmes and Hubert Willis as Dr Watson. Two feature films were made of which the first was The Hound of the Baskervilles from 1922. Directed by Maurice Elvey – who directed the first series – the film doesn’t quite have the intensity of the short form blasts that had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so impressed with Norwood’s performance.

Eille Norwood's disguise fools Joan Beverley... or does it?!
In these shorts we see far more of the Great Detective and his special abilities, intuitive leaps based on uncanny close observation all disguised by a moody detachment as well as his mastery of disguise… We may laugh a little now – not me but some of the audience – but Norwood was so adept at these physical transformations that he often tricked Elvey – who failed to recognise the bearded, shorter man before him as his Holmes rather than another hopeful come to audition for Watson.

Such japes are set out in the July 1921 copy of The Strand magazine which can be found on the Internet Archive. There’s an interview with Norwood in the very magazine in which Doyle first serialised Holmes and it reads like a very modern behind-the-scenes tale of the actor explaining his craft. Clearly Sherlock was as big a deal in 1921 as it was in 2010 when the Cumberbatch version took off, although Benedict will never know just how close the original author thought he was to his creation.

Is it a non-conformist minister or... a detective?
A Scandal in Bohemia (1921)

This was the seventh in the series and Norwood crams a lot of character into his screen time able enabled by Elvey’s economy and focus. So many stock Sherlock moments are concentrated into this film that it presents a much better impression of the actor Doyle described as having that rare quality of “glamour”.

Doyle was also impressed with his “quite unrivalled power of disguise…” and in Scandal we’re treated to a taxi cab driver so convincing that The Strand reported he was nearly ejected from the studios as a trespasser! He also plays a non-conformist minister in his attempts to trick Irene Adler (Joan Beverley) into revealing the whereabouts of her incriminating pictures of her affair with the King of Bohemia (Alfred Drayton).

A cab driver or a violin player?!
Of course Watson (the ever-present Hubert Willis) is fooled every time but Miss Adler proves to be altogether as smart as Sherlock…  

Miles Mander makes an appearance as Godfrey Norton, Irene’s true love interest and – surprisingly perhaps for those who have seen his later silent work, he’s not a bounder but a thoroughly decent chap!

The Man with the Twisted Lip (1921)

Made just after Scandal, this twisted tale was not one of Sir Doyle’s finest narratives… but the film does again show a playful, energetically-committed performance from Mr Norwood who was clearly having the time of his life.

Fooled you again Watson!
The story revolves around the disappearance of suburbanite Neville St. Clair (Robert Vallis) who is "something in the City" and its mysterious connection to the titular beggar man. Mrs. Nellie St. Clair (Paulette del Baze) witnesses the abduction and Sherlock is called in when the police can find no trace of her husband.

It’s a mystery and – as far as the plot is concerned – the Sherlock quote “… when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” was never more apt…

Elvey does, however, create a wonderfully dark London and the beggar’s pitch near Piccadilly is well chosen. You can find the film on YouTube but the 35mm prints we saw tonight were far cleaner and very well preserved. It’s always good to watch projected film!

The Final Problem (1923)

This was the last of the series and was directed by George Ridgwell who covered series two and three after Elvey moved on.

Here Holmes faces his greatest adversary Professor Moriarty (Percy Standing) both me n nearing the end of their tether after a series of bruising score draws in the streets of London. Sherlock makes a number of early signifying references to being willing to stop his nemesis even at the cost of his own life.

Will the make up come off for the last time?
He thwarts the evil schemer one more time and heads of for some relaxation with Watson at Cheddar Gorge… it’s not quite the Reichenbach Falls but you may guess what’s coming.

Two years on from the first two films and with a less able director, the film isn’t quite as enjoyable but that’s probably also because we know what’s coming…

The Final Problem was written in 1893 and viewers would have been fully aware that Sherlock would return in 1903’s The Adventure of the Empty House… at least Doyle told his audience how the Great Detective pulled it off.

Actor and author
Musical support was provided by Mr Stephen Horne who provided sympathetic syncopation on his usual array of instruments. Stephen’s music is improvised but he wove common themes across the three films and we may have a theme tune in progress for any future box set!

I took my mother, no mean pianist herself and a season ticket holder at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (for which her brother played for three decades) and she loved Stephen’s playing both in technical terms as well compositional: playing without music and on the spot he always manages to merge his sound with the vision.

Stephen is also playing along to another triple bill of Sherlock at the Pheonix Cinema on Sunday 5th April – details are on their website. Don’t miss it if you want to see the closest thing to the real Sherlock Holmes… and that’s according to Sir Conan Doyle himself.

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