Sherlock Holmes (1922)

aka Moriarty

2014 #106
Albert Parker | 85 mins | streaming | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English)

Sherlock Holmes, aka MoriartyAmerican actor William Gillette was the most iconic portrayer of Sherlock Holmes on stage, penning his own play (with permission from Conan Doyle) that he performed 1,300 times between 1899 and 1923. It was filmed in 1916, a feature long thought lost but announced as found in October 2014 (and to be released on disc by Flicker Alley this coming October — expect a review eventually). Before then, the only thing approaching a filmed record of that iconic interpretation of the Great Detective was this: a 1922 remake starring John Barrymore as the famed sleuth, originally released in the UK as Moriarty (possibly for legal reasons, possibly (according to David Stuart Davies in Holmes of the Movies) due to “the mediocrity of so many of the earlier Holmes films”).

This film was also considered lost, until elements were discovered in the ’70s — not the film itself, but original negatives “in which every take — not every sequence, but every take — were jumbled out of order” (as per William K. Everson’s programme notes for the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, via Wikipedia). These were painstakingly reassembled into something resembling the original film, although around 26 minutes are still missing. Nonetheless, the film remains completely followable: nothing important to our comprehension is missing, with some storytelling rough edges the only vague sign that anything may be amiss.

Said story diverges from the canon so much it’s liable to give any particularly canon-focused Sherlockians a conniption. It begins in Cambridge, with what many reviews call a “prologue”, usually preceded by an adjective such as “overlong”. I think it would be more accurate to describe it as the first act. There, a student, Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny), third in line to the throne of somewhere-or-other-in-Europe, has been accused of stealing from the university, but he claims innocence. His friend John Watson (Roland Young) recommends he seeks the assistance of a chap in his year, one Sherlock Holmes (Barrymore). Holmes and Wastson, 1922 styleYes, shades of 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn there are fewer CGI stained glass window knights here, though.

Holmes quickly uncovers the real culprit, another student by the name of Forman Wells (the screen debut of William “The Thin Man” Powell, looking ever so young). However, Wells is acting under duress, forced to commit the theft by Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz), an obviously evil-looking fellow who sits at the centre of a spider’s web of criminal activity. Holmes confronts Moriarty in Wells’ stead, to little effect, the criminal genius swatting the student away as one would a fly. Undeterred, our young sleuth commits to stopping Moriarty as his life’s very purpose.

That and finding a girl he saw once and instantly fell in love with.

Meanwhile, Prince Alexis is informed that his two brothers have died in a car accident, making him heir to the throne, and so he can no longer marry Rose Faulkner, a British commoner he’d been courting. Rose is the sister of Alice Faulkner (Carol Dempster), who just so happens to be the girl Sherlock fell for. When she learns of the split, Rose commits suicide.

And that’s just the so-called prologue. I’m loath to explain the whole plot of a movie, but the tale spun here is actually somewhat intricate. Personally, I thought it was quite a good yarn. It’s flawed in the telling — it’s not particularly Holmesian, and there are far too many overlong title cards (Everson calls it “one of the ‘talkiest’ silents”) — but I don’t hold with criticisms that it’s slow paced, or that the lack of any real mystery is a problem. Sherlock Holmes tales are remembered as “detective stories” because that was his profession, Sherlock Holmes in lurveand in many respects they led to the abundance of crime-solving fiction that fills bookstores and TV schedules to this day, but there’s a reason most of Conan Doyle’s stories are prefixed with “The Adventure of” rather than “The Fiendishly Difficult to Solve Mystery of”.

Anyway, after the Cambridge to-do the film jumps forward some years, to find Holmes a respected detective residing at 221 Baker Street (I guess he also acquired 221a and knocked through or something). Moriarty has still eluded him, but the revival of some matters from his student days are about to change that. Turns out Alice has in her possession some letters from Alexis to Rose, which she intends to publish to ruin him in revenge for her sister’s death. Goodness knows what’s in these letters; the ’20s equivalent of sexting, presumably. Alexis attempts to hire Holmes to retrieve the letters, but Holmes isn’t particularly inclined to do so because he rather agrees with the position of the love of his life (not that he’s seen her since that one time they bumped into each other years earlier). However, Moriarty also wants the letters, in order to blackmail Alexis, so Holmes takes the case so as to get closer to his nemesis.

You’ll notice a lack of Watson in most of this outline. He’s rather sidelined, unfortunately. Some would prefer this to the comical treatment he suffered at the hands of Nigel Bruce, but your mileage may vary. I think Watson’s often one of the most undervalued characters in literature, a very capable fellow who’s usually overshadowed by his grandstanding friend. There’s nothing wrong with Young’s performance, there’s just not much of it.

If I can just focus on the middle distance...Barrymore makes for a solid, if perhaps unremarkable, Holmes. He has the right look for the role, and makes good use of the same staring-contemplatively-into-the-distance furrowed-brow expression that Basil Rathbone would employ a couple of decades later. He has down the precociousness of student Holmes, which develops into a kind of righteousness when older. He’s not as stand-offish and borderline unlikeable as some interpretations of the character, nor as affable as others. As I say, he sits in the middle, doing nothing wrong but not getting a chance to mark himself out either.

The thing that does go terribly wrong, however, is the romantic subplot. Even if you set aside that such palaver doesn’t fit with the traditional Holmes character, this version is unconvincingly handled. Not only has Holmes apparently spent years pining after a girl he met once (it’s unclear why the Great Detective hasn’t been able to find her in all that time), but when he does meet her there’s no chemistry whatsoever. According to Fritzi at Movies Silently in her review, we should attribute the fault here to Dempster. I see no reason to disagree. Apparently Barrymore so disliked his co-star that he refused to perform the final scene with her, which would certainly explain the none-too-subtle way the actress’ face goes unseen at that point.

Young Mr Powell probably gets the best part, in particular a scene in a cab on the way to Moriarty’s lair where we learn his tragic backstory. The young thin manHe crops up in the years-later narrative too, used by Holmes to go undercover in the house where Alice is being held hostage by some of Moriarty’s many villainous associates. A major part of Holmes’ plan hinges on him turning up at these villains’ house, telling them what to do, and them obeying him. That this method succeeds is not due to Holmes’ considerable skill, but more due to the screenwriters’ lack of it.

Von Seyffertitz gives a very good Moriarty, though does err on the side of OTT. In part this is his look: I thought they had perhaps gone a little far with the make-up, turning him almost into a caricature of a villain, but having Googled the actor I think that it may mainly be his face… Still, what a perfect face for playing villains! Naming the film after him for the UK isn’t wholly inappropriate, especially as his role is expanded from Gillette’s play (the prologue confrontation being the main addition) and one of the throughlines is Holmes’ focus on apprehending him. It would certainly differentiate it from all of the other films called simply Sherlock Holmes.

The 1922 version isn’t the best film to bear that moniker, but nor is it the worst. I don’t think it’s a great interpretation of Holmes, but I found it to be a pretty entertaining adventure in its own right. I’d even quite like to see the plot rejigged (and the holes ironed out) to make it more truly Holmesian. Even having enjoyed the film, I must say how entertainingly dismissive I found Everson’s notes: he thinks that “one of the most painstaking recovery jobs ever […] quite overshadows the fact that the film itself Moriarty vs Holmeshardly seems worth such devotion except on a purely academic level.” He goes on to say that “it must be one of the blandest misuses of potentially exciting material ever,” that “it literally has no highlights,” that it “has no pictorial style of its own,” that Barrymore “clearly lends his profile to Holmes, and not much more,” that “if it is a major find, it is also a major disappointment.” Ooh, burn. (The whole thing is worth a read.)

Now, with the discovery of the Gillette film, one wonders if this Sherlock Holmes is destined to become even more of a curio than it already is. It’s not wholly undeserving of such a fate: it’s not bad and I found it solidly entertaining, but one for Barrymore fans and Holmes completists only.

3 out of 5

Sherlock Holmes, aka Moriarty, is available on YouTube here.

This review is part of The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Song of the Thin Man (1947)

2015 #19
Edward Buzzell | 83 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

Song of the Thin ManThe final film in the Thin Man series sees married detective duo Nick and Nora Charles (the ever-excellent William Powell and Myrna Loy) getting embroiled in the world of jazz musicians, after a friend’s fiancé is accused of murdering a band leader.

After the small-town detour of the previous film, Song sees the Charleses back in the more glamorous environs we associate with the series, all swanky apartments and floating casinos. That’s a big plus point for me, at least. The mystery is a particularly solid one, with a nice denouement that plays out slightly differently to the series’ regular formula. I was less keen on all the jazz hipster dialogue from the supporting cast. It’s played for laughs, leaving Nick and Nora as lost as the viewer, but gets tiresome. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, but I had no time for it.

An early-career Gloria Grahame is mostly wasted in a slight role, while trivia-spotters will enjoy a 10-year-old Dean “Quantum Leap” Stockwell as Nick Jr. Thankfully the kid isn’t allowed to dominate proceedings too much, though does lead to a bizarre sequence where Nick has flashbacks while about to smack his bottom. I’d say it sounds weirder written down than it plays in the film, but I’m not sure that’s true. More sadly, there’s too little of Asta for my taste.

Family of the Thin ManApparently Loy made it clear before filming began that this was to be the last Thin Man film. Somewhat odd, then, that it’s one of the few to end with an allusion to Nick continuing his detective work in the future, whereas normally he’s being dragged out of retirement each time and happy to return to it by the end (which we don’t believe, of course). Either way, it was probably a wise decision on the part of Mrs Charles, as the law of diminishing returns had kicked in by this point.

That said, after six instalments, it’s pleasurable to be able to say there’s no such thing as a bad Thin Man film. The earlier entries may be the very best, but every one has something fun to offer. This may be where the Thin Man’s song ended, but his melody lingers on even now.

3 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

2015 #11
Richard Thorpe | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Thin Man Goes HomeAfter four glamorous adventures, high-living sleuths Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) head to small-town America to visit his parents (Harry Davenport and Lucile Watson), and naturally find themselves embroiled in a murder plot.

For my money, The Thin Man Goes Home is unquestionably the series’ weakest entry so far, though others disagree — some even reckon it their favourite. The charm and banter between Powell and Loy is present and correct, though Nora seems a little dippier than usual, perhaps. Thankfully they’ve ditched the kid (he’s been left at school) and there are some good Asta bits. Plus, after four whole films, there’s finally a gag about there being a hotel homophonic with said dog.

But moving the action to a small town, rather than the series’ usual ritzy milieu, feels… wrong. It’s constrained, low-key, and not in-keeping with the series’ style. Throw in a convoluted plot about a painting, and a supporting cast that includes a significant role for Edward Brophy, co-star of three Falcon films, and it almost feels more like an entry from RKO’s comedy sleuthing series. It’s not bad, just not right.

Other unusual quirks include it taking a full half-hour for the murder plot to arrive. I’ve acknowledged before that the mysteries aren’t the real point of these films, but it still feels tardy. I honestly began to wonder if there was even going to be a mystery, or if new-to-the-series director Richard Thorpe was attempting to deliver an hour-and-a-half hanging out with Nick and Nora in their downtime. Also, almost the entire story is their fault! Okay, there’s a criminal scheme going on anyway, but if the Charleses hadn’t turned up and Nora hadn’t started meddling, Eeny meeny miny mothen no one would’ve been murdered. (Probably.)

As I said, The Thin Man Goes Home is by no means a bad film, with plenty of Nick, Nora and Asta moments to enjoy and buoy up the less-than-stellar mystery. Nonetheless, I think it’s the least Thin Man-like instalment of the series. This change from the norm obviously works for some of the series’ fans, but not for me.

3 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

2015 #4
Maj. W.S. Van Dyke II | 93 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

Shadow of the Thin ManThis time it’s not personal for Nick and Nora Charles (the joyous William Powell and Myrna Loy), as they stumble upon the murder of a race-fixing jockey and the subsequent killing of a corrupt journalist… and then one of their friends (Barry Nelson, aka the first screen James Bond) is accused. Oh, OK, maybe it’s a bit personal.

As ever, the true delights of a Thin Man film lie in its characters, the teasing interactions between Nick and Nora, and between Nick & Nora and anyone else they share a scene with. As incidental as the case may be, it’s a pretty good one — the solution to the jockey’s murder is a particularly neat change of pace, and while the culprit is deducible using the series’ regular “the least-likely person did it for a reason we’ll cook up at the end” formula, if you play by the rules it’s a trickier spot.

The previous film’s baby is now a toddler, thankfully sidelined but for a couple of sequences. One of those sees Nick, Nick Jr and dog Asta on a merry-go-round in a complete aside that nonetheless stands as one of the film’s more memorable moments… though that’s once again thanks to Asta.

Asta at the tableAs murder mysteries go, the Thin Man series tends to offer plots that are somewhere between perfunctory and over-complicated to the point of being unsolvable, and Shadow is a typical example. But that doesn’t matter a jot, because the story’s abundance of incident keeps things moving, and the real entertainment value lies in the comedy chops of the three leads: Powell, Loy, and, of course, Asta the dog.

4 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

Another Thin Man (1939)

2014 #129
W.S. Van Dyke II | 98 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

Another Thin ManHusband-and-wife detective duo Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) — now with a baby in tow — are once again coerced into investigating a crime when the manager of Nora’s estate fears a dismissed employee is plotting murder.

As per usual, a complex web of lies and deception unfurls, enlivened by the comic teasing between our leads. The baby prompts an unlikeable subplot about a bunch of ex-cons throwing a party for the detective who put them away (as you do), but it does aid a somewhat farcical climax. The rest of the movie offers the series’ trademark delights.

4 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

After the Thin Man (1936)

2014 #124
W.S. Van Dyke | 108 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

After the Thin ManImmediately after their New York Christmastime adventure in The Thin Man (the sequel’s title is very literal!), married detectives Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are back home in San Francisco for New Year. Summoned to dinner by Nora’s stuffy aunt, it turns out Nora’s cousin’s rascally husband has gone missing and they want Nick to investigate. They find him easily, but he’s shortly murdered and our heroes are drawn into a web of conspiracies and deceptions.

For my money, After the Thin Man is a more successful venture than the first film, however good that was. From the start it has its focus in the right place: rather than a lengthy preamble with the supporting cast (as in the first film), here we begin with Nick and Nora arriving in San Francisco and teasing the horde of journalists that greet them. It takes a little while to actually get to the case they need to investigate, but that’s fine because it isn’t really the point — it’s the interactions, the humour and good-natured teasing, particularly between our wedded heroes, that are the films’ primary joy.

Nonetheless, I still found the case to be a more puzzling and intriguing one than the first film’s, though the subsequent fame of a supporting player — namely James Stewart, in just the second year of his career, looking young but sounding like he always would — might help some along in their deductions.

He won't stay thin if he's always in the fridge...There’s also an increased role for the couple’s dog, Asta, granted his own subplot as he has to fend off a philandering Scottie with intentions toward Mrs Asta. I make no apologies for preferring this over the previous film in part because there’s more amusing doggy action.

The original Thin Man may have attracted Oscar nominations and all that, but this first sequel clarifies, sharpens, and perfects the formula, placing more emphasis on the elements that worked so well and still presenting a mystery that’s at least as good as its predecessor.

5 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

‘Thin Man’ Thursday

William Powell and Myrna Loy starred in 14 films together between 1934 and 1947, and the most famous of these are a series of detective films that started life as a B-movie adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel, before earning multiple Oscar nominations and enough popularity to inspire multiple sequels, a spin-off TV series, and more. That film, of course, is The Thin Man.

Powell and Loy play Nick and Nora Charles, a retired detective and his well-to-do wife, who are trying to enjoy the high life but are regularly dragged in to investigating murders, mainly thanks to her curiosity and his crime-solving genius. Special mention must also be made for the couple’s dog, Asta, a wire fox terrier who was so popular he was paid many times more than your average movie dog, and whose role only increases as the series continues — he even has a romantic subplot in the second film.

The films on the whole are more concerned with the screwball-ish relationship between the leads than they are with the mysteries, which are so speedily intricate as to barely be worth following — just accepting what Nick tells you and going along with it may be the order of the day. They all have the air of Agatha Christie-esque parlour games more than genuine criminal undertakings, which of course means they make for splendid entertainment.

Six films were produced in all, over the course of 13 years — rather the opposite to most of these ’30s/’40s detective series, which were more likely to churn out 13 movies in six years. Anyway, it’s the perfect number to allow every Thursday between now and the end of February to be Thin Man Thursday here at 100 Films. Below you’ll find links to all the reviews as and when they’re available, starting today with (naturally) the first:


The Thin Man

After the Thin Man

Another Thin Man

Shadow of the Thin Man

The Thin Man Goes Home

Song of the Thin Man

The Thin Man (1934)

2014 #120
W.S. Van Dyke | 87 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

The Thin ManProduced as a B-movie, but eventually nominated for four of the biggest Oscars (Picture, Actor, Director, Screenplay*), comedic detective mystery The Thin Man went on to spawn five sequels and a TV series (not to mention a radio series, a stage play, and a musical), as well as inspiring a host of similar comic-mystery B-movie series like the Saint and the Falcon.

Playing like a cross between an Agatha Christie mystery and a screwball comedy, it’s in fact based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and other hard-boiled tales. This is definitely not one of those. The murder mystery is standard enough — a businessman has disappeared, but when his former secretary and lover is found dead, he’s the prime suspect — albeit with enough genuine suspects and twists to keep the viewer guessing. The real joy comes from the investigators: retired detective and alcohol fan Nick Charles (William Powell) and his rich, interested wife Nora (Myrna Loy). Plus their dog, Asta, who gets up to all kinds of mischief. Regular readers will know I’m half-sold on the film at that point.

The film luxuriates in the interactions between Powell and Loy, and between them and any other character. The plot regularly takes a back seat to the cast’s playfulness, which only the most mystery-focused viewer will find objectionable, because it’s so delightful. Acting drunk for the sake of comedy might seem like a cheap fallback, but Powell is on just the right side of the line to make it work flawlessly, especially in scenes that border on farce, Screwing aroundlike a Christmas party which is regularly interrupted by victims and suspects. Even the final scene, a rambling and none-more-Christie-like “gather all the suspects and reveal the answers” dinner party, seems natural because of the characterisation throughout the rest of the film. Loy’s part may not be quite as showy — as demonstrated by its failure to gain an Oscar nomination — but she’s an invaluable half of the double act.

Across the decades the detective story has transitioned to be a staple of television, with dozens of US dramas each churning out 22+ mysteries per year, not to mention all the British ones and, more recently here in the UK, European imports — you can’t move for a fleet of complex murder mysteries being solved on the gogglebox every day. It can make older movies that do the same thing feel less significant; less deserving of their big-screen status. Not so with ones like The Thin Man, which has so much more to offer besides the narrative and its revelations. Here a solid mystery, with potential to keep the viewer guessing, gives a structure on which to hang the real joys, which are provided by the central screwball-ish relationship. And the dog, of course.

5 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

* It lost to the father of screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, in every category. ^