Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 7, 2012
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s crime solving super sleuth has been the subject of numerous films and television shows over the years. How numerous? According to author Alan Barnes, Sherlock Holmes has appeared on big and small screens more times than any other fictional character. In his recently updated book, Sherlock Holmes On Screen, Barnes sets out to solidify that claim by compiling an alphabetical list of the detective’s numerous film and television appearances. But Barnes’ book isn’t merely a list of titles. Each film and television show receives its own write-up with detailed information about the production and its place in the ever-growing Sherlock Holmes’ canon.
Clocking in at 320 pages, Sherlock Holmes On Screen is an indispensable reference for anyone eager to delve into the rich film history surrounding one of the world’s most beloved literary figures. Recently there’s been somewhat of a Sherlock Holmes revival thanks to Guy Ritchie’s action packed film series starring Robert Downey Jr. and the popularity of the Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss BBC series SHERLOCK, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. Steven Moffat actually provides the book’s forward and in it he admits that Billy Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1970) is his “all-time favorite film” but don’t be fooled into thinking the book’s focus is limited to modern interpretations of the character. Beginning with early silent films and serials that Holmes appeared in and concluding with recent adaptations, author Alan Barnes takes readers on a lengthy journey through the character’s early development and highlights the numerous interpretations of the crime solving detective by a diverse cast of actors who have appeared in the role. It offers a scholarly and well-informed look at Sherlock’s cinematic past and present but it’s written with the casual viewer in mind so Sherlock Holmes novices like myself should appreciate its approach. All in all the book’s scope is commendable and I learned a lot while U was reading.
Top: William Gillette and Eille Norwood
Most classic film fans associate actor Basil Rathbone (1892 – 1967) with the character of Sherlock Holmes but Rathbone is just one of many actors who tackled the role and most of the movies that he appeared in weren’t actually based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. The Rathbone films also distorted the literary description of Holmes sidekick, the noble Dr. Watson, and turned him into a bumbling idiot. Rathbone appeared in no less than 14 Sherlock Holmes films between 1939 and 1946. While Rathbone’s commendable characterization undoubtedly helped shape Holmes’ screen persona, there were many other actors who breathed life into Holmes before him.
One of the most notable interpretations of Holmes is credited to actor, writer and director William Gillette (1853 – 1937) who played Sherlock Holmes on stage and on screen. Unfortunately his 1916 film appearance as the violin-playing sleuth has been lost but we have many still photographs and reviews to draw from. For the last 95 years actors around the world have been using his portrayal of Holmes for inspiration. Gillette was the first actor to wear a deerstalker cap (based on an illustration of Holmes he saw in Strand Magazine) and his decision to smoke a curved Meerschaum pipe has become synonymous with Holmes. We can also thank Gillette for writing the timeless line, “Oh, this is elementary my dear Watson!” that never appeared in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. Gillette’s creative take on Holmes was so popular that it has endured for decades and continues to shape the way that modern actors and audiences view the character.
Another early performer worth noting is silent actor Eille Norwood (1861 – 1948) who starred in no less than 45 Sherlock Holmes feature films and shorts made between 1921 and 1923. Norwood holds the record for appearing in more Holmes films than any other actor and we undoubtedly have him to thank for helping to devise Holmes’ screen mystique. By all accounts, the Sherlock Holmes films that Norwood appeared in were hugely popular with audiences thanks to his indisputable likeness to the literary figure. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a Norwood fan and reportedly said: “His wonderful impersonation of Holmes has amazed me.”
Top: John Neville and Christopher Plummer
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories never seem to grow old and they’ve been adapted so many times and in so many ways that they’ve become part of our popular mythology. From the comic or darkly humorous Holmes as played by Buster Keaton, Peter Cook, George C. Scott, Gene Wilder, Nicol Williamson and Michael Caine to the more serious portrayals by actors as diverse as John Barrymore, Clive Brooks, Peter Cushing, John Neville, Tom Baker and Jeremy Brett, the character of Sherlock Holmes has taken on a life of his own in the imaginations of countless film directors, screen writers and actors to the never-ending delight of audiences.
In conclusion, Sherlock Holmes On Screen is a wonderful compendium of information and opinion about the numerous screen appearances of everyone’s favorite British detective. My only complaint is that the book lacks an index and as an information junkie who uses her personal library for reference almost daily, I find the book difficult to navigate without it. Alan Barnes listed the films alphabetically in the book and by release date if there are duplicate titles, but if you want to instantly know what Sherlock Holmes films Christopher Lee appeared in you’ll find that task difficult and it shouldn’t be. I hope the publisher will rectify that and include an index in future additions of the book.
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