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Sherlock Holmes (John Barrymore) is a master at solving the most impenetrable mysteries, but he has his work cut out for him on his latest case. Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny) is accused of a theft that he insists he didn't commit. sherlock holmesThe evidence is stacked against him, but Holmes' trusted friend, Dr. Watson (Roland Young), vouches for the prince. As the famed detective investigates, he's brought face to face with his most devious adversary yet -- Professor Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz).

Director: Albert Parker
Cast: John Barrymore, Roland Young, Carol Dempster, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Reginald Denny, William Powell
Genre: Mystery
Run time: 85 min


by Jay Seaver

This silent film from 1922 is not the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes on the silver screen; it is not even the first adaptation of William Gillette's famed stage play (Gillette himself had performed the role on screen six years earlier). It's one of the earliest feature-length Sherlock Holmes movies that we can piece together, though, and it mostly holds up. And as a bonus, it does feature a pair of impressive debuts in the cast.

We start not with Holmes, but with Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz), the untouchable master of the London Underworld literally controlling his operations from an underground lair. His influence extends far from the city; at Cambridge, for instance, young Prince Alexis of Harlstein (Reginald Denny) is framed for a theft and threatened with deportation. He laments the twenty-four hour deadline to return the money to his friend Watson (Roland Young), who suggests that there is a man in his year with unusual skill in solving this kind of puzzle, one Sherlock Holmes (John Barrymore). He quickly deduces that the actual thief was one Foreman Wells (William Powell), but the point soon becomes moot - a tragedy recalls Alexis to Harlstein. Years later, on the eve of Alexis's marriage to a princess, he returns to London to hire Holmes - one Alice Faulkner (Carol Dempster) is in possession of letters that Alexis wrote to her sister which could cause a scandal. Moriarty also desires these letters, thus giving Holmes the opportunity to finally capture his nemesis, as well as save the girl who captured his heart back in school...

sherlock holmesWait, what? Fans of the great detective know that there was only one woman for him, and Alice Faulkner isn't quite Irene Adler, although a fair amount of the plot is taken from the story in which Adler appeared, "A Scandal in Bohemia". Of course, fans will also recall that Holmes and Watson were not schoolmates, either. Moriarty also only appeared in one story, despite being implied as an influence on others. Gillette's play is, suffice it to say, a rather liberal adaptation of the Holmes canon, and screenwriters Earle Browne and Marion Fairfax take further liberties. Despite being somewhat removed from the stories as Doyle wrote them, it does give the film a certain amount of shape and scope for a movie designed as a one-off encompassing Holmes's career, casting it as a struggle against Moriarty, rather than as the start of a franchise. It's still got its flaws - too much Moriarty, not enough Watson, and they appear to have a hard time adapting a talky play into a silent production - but the story itself is good, incorporating familiar bits from several Holmes stories, and finding a good balance between deduction and action.

The cast acting them out, however, is generally very good. John Barrymore makes for a friendlier Holmes than most, playing the early scenes where he is first encountering the unsavory world that he will make his life's work as amusingly wide-eyed (even though, pushing forty, he is a bit too old to play a college student). It's not the cranky Holmes we're used to, but one meant to be a romantic hero as well as a genius detective, and it works for Barrymore. Gustav von Seyffertitz is suitably nasty as his opposite number, alternating between snarling and looking put-upon - being the Napoleon of Crime is a huge responsibility! The make-up and costume people absolutely went to town on him, giving him a beak-like nose and sunken eyes, and dressing him in rags; he's all that is ugly striking at all that is good.

sherlock holmesThe supporting cast has a few rather notable members, too. Watson, for instance, is played by Roland Young in his first screen role. Young would later go on to star in the Topper films, among others, and plays Watson as cheerful and intelligent, Holmes's friend rather than the dullard who needs things explained to him. Also appearing in his first role is William Powell, who would later go on to play a couple of famous screen detectives (Philo Vance and, of course, Nick Charles) himself. He's almost unrecognizably young here, not sporting his familiar mustache, but surprisingly adept as a silent actor considering that he would become famous for banter-filled talkies; he communicates very well with glances and expressions. For all her bad reputation, Carol Dempster (on loan from D.W. Griffith's studio) is adequate as Alice; she really isn't called upon to be much more than pretty, although it would have been nice to see a bit more of a spark to a woman whom Holmes could fall for.

Director Albert Parker does, as far as I can tell, a good job putting the film together. The visuals are handsome, including some location shooting in London, and the action scenes are well staged. The sequence where Moriarty attempts to ambush Holmes in Baker Street are especially well-done, both in seeing where the characters are relative to each other and the tension in setting it up. Another sequence, admittedly, plays a bit confused, but the performances by Seyffertitz and Barrymore sell it.

Part of this may not be Parker's fault; for several decades, this film was considered lost. Parker helped to restore it late in his life, and it underwent another restoration in 2001. The 2009 Kino DVD that I screened still clearly has some footage missing, although not enough in any one spot to require explanatory intertitles to bridge the gap. New intertitles are used in some spots, and the DVD runs 85 minutes compared to the 109 minute running time listed on IMDB; it's not clear whether 14 minutes are missing or whether Sherlock Holmes was originally filmed and projected at something under 24 frames per second.

The 1922 "Sherlock Holmes" doesn't have the greatest reputation, but it's still a fairly entertaining take on the character. It is, at the very least, interesting - whether for an iconic actor playing a well-known character, first appearances by two notable stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and being a Sherlock Holmes story created while he was still a contemporary character.