So here is my first foray into feature length silent pictures! And actually Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a bad place to start because it was known as one of the ‘talkiest’ silents due to the sheer amount of verbose title cards.
This film isn’t just well known for featuring the screen debuts of William Powell and Roland Young, but also for having been lost for many years. It was eventually discovered in various cans and painstakingly reassembled – luckily the director Albert Parker was still alive and just about remembered the correct sequence. Apparently around 26 minutes is still missing but you really can’t tell.
I wasn’t expecting silent movies to be absorbing but, although this picture isn’t brilliant, the silent aspect wasn’t an issue. I suspect that being used to certain Holmes tropes made me a bit incredulous watching this early version – the romance with Alice for example seemed unbelievable because I’m used to Holmes being asexual.
What I did enjoy about the picture was that amazing aerial shot of London and the other location scenes, such as one scene in front of a massive billboard advertising Bovril!
I was pleasantly surprised just how much William Powell had to do in this picture – I’d assumed being a mere debut that he’d have one blink and you’d miss it scene, but the role of Forman Wells was a meaty one that takes up a substantial and important part in the movie. Forman is the orphaned son of a crook who is groomed by Moriarty to carry out his nefarious activities. Holmes helps him to escape Moriarty’s clutches and joins Holmes in his plot to foil the evil criminal mastermind.
What is also pleasantly surprising is that even in these nascent beginnings of a film career, Bill already radiates natural charisma in every scene in which he appears. Parker had found Bill in the play ‘Spanish Love’ at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York and offered him the part, which was being filmed mostly in Long Island. Bill found that he preferred film acting, it was easier, without the need to learn text, and Bill was also very fortunate in having a those big, slightly bug like eyes. We can see in the movie he is able to naturally use them to convey emotion, but he’s also a very physical actor who uses his body to further express the character’s inner feelings. So Forman goes from a nervy, shifty little sod to a more upright, prouder character when he takes up with Holmes.
This is a historic picture on many levels, but it doesn’t do much for me. The screenplay is too confusing and I couldn’t get into John Barrymore as Holmes. Additionally the score in the version I watched although excellently rendered on the Miditzer Virtual Theatre Organ, I’ll grant you is very much in keeping with silent movie tradition, but it didn’t lend the required atmosphere of mystery for me – I just kept thinking of Reginald Dixon rising out of the stage at the Blackpool Tower Ballroom.