By Christopher Campbell | Spout December 12, 2011 at 10:36AM
Short Starts is a column devoted to kicking off the week with a short film, typically one tied to a new release. Today we look at a few early "Sherlock Holmes" films in anticipation of "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," which opens this Friday.
There are hundreds of movies based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes character, not even counting all the unofficial works merely inspired by the famous detective. The latest installment to star Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson arrives in theaters this week, so let's go back to the beginning and check out some of the old short films featuring the character.
"Sherlock Holmes Baffled" (1903)
Originally made for nickelodeon machines, this film was produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company and stars an unknown actor as Holmes. If not for the title, it would be very difficult to figure how this thirty-second magic show is an adaptation of Conan Doyle. Never mind the supernatural element. Would Holmes ever just sit down and relax with a cigar after catching a burglar who then disappears before his eyes? And then he seems to defeated at the end. Talk about an unfaithful portrayal. This is more Melies than mystery.
"The Copper Beeches" (1912)
This adaptation of "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" is the last of eight official Sherlock Holmes films produced by Eclair and starring French actor Georges Tréville in the lead, and it's the only one still in existence. I find it odd that it was personally supervised by the author since it's such a terrible translation to the screen. We're let in on the mystery plot right away and Holmes doesn't even show up until about half way through, mostly for action over deduction (Watson doesn't even appear). Plus, if you're not familiar with the original story it's probably too confusing to follow anyway. I give the actress playing Violet Hunter credit for attempting to mime some exposition for us. At least no dogs were killed in this version, I guess.
"The Man With the Twisted Lip" (1921)
This film is more like it. One of the many faithful adaptations by writer William J. Elliott and director Maurice Elvey for Stoll Picture Productions in which Holmes is played by English actor Eille Norwood and Watson is played by Hubert Willis. It's also one of the stories involving masquerade, and not just those of Holmes' (I do love Norwood's removal of his old man disguise at the beginning). Norwood portrayed the role in 47 shorts and features and took the character seriously enough to learn the violin and change his own appearance to resemble Sidney Paget's illustrations. Conan Doyle said of the actor, "He has that rare quality which can be described as glamour, which compels you to watch the actor eagerly when he is doing nothing. He has a brooding eye which excites expectation and he has a quite unrivaled power of disguise. His impersonation of Holmes amazes me." The intro of this film is a bit text-heavy and the quality is pretty hazy, but we're still very lucky to have a copy. In two parts below:
"The Devil's Foot" (1921)
Another with Norwood in the role, this relatively faithful adaptation remains in even lesser quality than the previous short. I have to say I like the liberty taken with the source material for the beginning. Having Holmes and Watson arrive upon a table filled with dead people is quite a grim scene. It proceeds as something quite verbal for a silent picture, however. I guess that's not entirely unexpected for a mystery. And I think there's something lost in the segmentation of the YouTube presentation that ruins the dangerous experiment from which Watson saves Holmes. Watch in two parts:
"The Dying Detective" (1922)
Lastly we have a third Norwood installment, this well-plotted adaptation of what's either the best display of Holmes' cleverness and willingness to commit himself to a ruse or the best example of a gullible villain. It's one of the stories I'd like to see Robert Downey Jr. take on, at least for a prologue to one of his Sherlock Holmes movies, as I believe he'd do a good sickly portrayal of the detective. Norwood does a pretty decent job, but again it's too bad we can't get a better look at his performance in these low-quality copies. Here, thanks to the darkness of the image it's also not clear what happens in the last act, though I know it isn't the same as the original story. And in the end it looks as if Holmes is eating crow with feathers still in tact. I doubt that's the case, though it might be fitting and he might just be hungry enough.
As a bonus, particularly because the above films aren't the best quality, and also because I was hoping to find a copy of the presumably fun Eames film featuring a Sherlock puppet (anyone have an idea where I can find it?), here's an amusing sketch from "The Muppet Show," in which Miss Piggy gets eaten (yum):