05 January 2010

Out With the Original, in With the Screen Show?

Perhaps a worthwhile experiment: Take a child or teen-ager—or an adult, for that matter—to see Sherlock Holmes, the Downey/Law film currently playing in theatres. The next day, sit this person down in an easy chair with a copy of Doyle's published stories, and ask him/her to read . . . any of them. Within a minute or two, they likely will scowl up at you with, "What are you doin' to me? This is sheer boredom, torture! The movie last night—that was fun. This is stupid. What's this story about, anyway?"

I don't believe 1 in 10 will persevere beyond the first page.

Hollywood has made Sherlock Holmes fun entertainment for our 2010 society. (I gave it a "fun" (positive) review.) Question, though: Is it likely to engage a new generation in Doyle's classic writings?

I expect most of the 20th-Century big-screen, small-screen and radio dramatizations of Holmes stories and spin-offs did renew interest in the written canon. Here, viewers enthralled by the flick's superhero kung-fu characters and unceasing action may be in for a tremendous let-down if they take up the printed page.

26 December 2009

Downey's Holmes

A one-two slap to the face, creating momentary discombobulation. An easy parry of the brute's anticipated response—a wild sidewinder. A body blow, a left to the ugly cheek, another body punch, then a pile-driving left to his booze-ravaged liver. The next left shatters the jaw, followed by a devastating right to the other jaw (symmetry is always nice, even in a bare-knuckle boxing match, circa 1890). The hulking adversary now is essentially dead on his feet but requires an afterthought: a kung-fu kick to the solar plexus that sends him crashing through the wall of the wooden fighting stall. Roars of approval from the crowd of beer-happy betters.

Thus, Sherlock Holmes—the Robert Downey Jr. iteration of him—dispatches a typical foe. Hand-to-hand ground combat is merely the low-intensity action. Wait till you see him playing with fire, sparring at dizzying heights, taking a 90-foot plunge into the River Thames. He's equally adroit with fists, feet, swords and hammers . . . though perhaps not so good with chains.

Sherlock Holmes (Warner Brothers, December 2009) is great fun. When it becomes available on DVD, rent it or buy it. It may not belong in a serious Holmes video/audio collection, but it will be good to have alongside Indiana Jones.

Bear in mind that most of the extremely popular World War II-era Holmes radio dramas devised by Anthony Boucher and Denis Green for Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were little more "true to the canon" than this. "The canon" is Arthur Conan Doyle's 56 original stories and four novels/novelettes featuring Holmes. It's pointless to take the latest film to task as a grotesquely sensational interpretation. In fact, it makes interesting connections to the legacy Doyle established.

The plot, in a nutshell: Holmes takes on a suitably formidable nemesis, Lord Blackwood (played by Mark Strong), a Parliamentarian who has concocted a (seemingly) supernatural scheme to control the world. Holmes' indispensable colleague Dr. Watson (Jude Law) allows himself, with little reluctance, to become embroiled, even though he's in the process of becoming engaged and withdrawing from his collaboration with Holmes in the pursuit of criminals. We're taken rapid-fire all over 1891 London, through alternately squalid, savage, epicurean and fantastic scenarios. We are riveted, moment by moment, by the story line and by Downey's brilliant characterization of what might best be termed a "super-deductive, super-spectacular" Sherlock Holmes. Besides his physical prowess, he demonstrates powers of reasoning far more extraordinary than those that so impressed Victorian readers. Think "robotic"—something akin to Deep Blue, the computer that humiliated world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Fight scenes are glorious. Holmes and Watson both shine as martial art superstars. So does Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams)—"the woman" who outwitted Holmes in "A Scandal in Bohemia" and who appears here as both his enemy and love interest. (Cut to Doyle, rolling over in his grave.) The villain is perfectly hateable and, until the last instant, unconquerable. Special effects are Hollywood at its best: a factory exploding into smithereens while Watson stands immobile just outside the wall (he curiously survives and is back in action, full strength, next day); slaughterhouse ripsaws that bring the manacled heroine within a hair's breadth of being cleft in half like the swine carcasses in line ahead of her; berserk bridge construction beams suspended high above the Thames. Scene by scene, the dialogue is spiced with instantaneous repartee, particularly between Holmes and Watson.

Characters drawn from the written stories, besides Holmes, Watson and Adler, include Miss Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), introduced by Doyle in The Sign of Four as a future Mrs. Watson; Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard (Eddie Marsan); the much-tried landlady Mrs. Hudson (Geraldine James); and—by inference, at least—arch-villain Moriarty. Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade alone are presented in character from Doyle's century-old stories. Law delivers a personality that's very close to what we read of the original Watson, although his phenomenal athleticism here is ludicrous. (The "real" Watson was a partially disabled war veteran.)

What of Downey as Holmes? Unequaled and superb. Downey has devoted his considerable talent and, possibly, his career to creating a new Victorian superhero based loosely on ACD's classic Holmes. He demonstrates Holmes' pugilistic prowess, oft-referenced by Doyle, and then some; in fact, Downey's awesome four-limb techniques make 21st-Century kick-boxers look like kindergarten bullies. In several scenes, we get to preview in slow-mo the long chain of reasoning that determines Holmes' course of action in a crisis, then see it actually carried out in the blink of an eye. (Hearty applause from the audience.) The movie's anticlimactic scene hints there could be a sequel; most viewers surely are hoping for it.

Especially impressive are the research and planning that went into the production. We're dragged through a sordid, impoverished, comfortless London that's undoubtedly much more like the city of the late Victorian era than what's been depicted in previous Holmes films. Holmes' quarters at 221-B Baker Street are by no means tidy; they're downright filthy. Both principals sport cut and bruised faces through much of the film; close-ups reveal Holmes' grimy fingernails. Wardrobe and soundtrack receive highest marks. The perfect send-off is a traditional British folk band rendering "Rocky Road to Dublin" while the credits roll.

Despite the sludge and the abundance of sleazy characters, this is a notably "clean" film, by modern standards. There are no sex scenes, only recurring allusions to a past relationship between Holmes and Adler. The language is realistic but not overly offensive.

25 December 2009

Holiday Episodes

The natural choice for Christmas viewing or listening is "The Blue Carbuncle." My personal favorite rendering is the Granada Television offering starring Brett & Burke (circa 1983). The various radio dramatizations of "The Blue Carbuncle" are not entirely unified, but all that I've heard follow the original plot closely. I favor the Geilgud/Richardson presentation from the 1954-55 BBC season and appreciate some of the freshness in the Merrison/Williams latter-day BBC production.

Several other Christmas-related Holmes radio dramas are in the archives. In "The Night Before Christmas" (Rathbone/Bruce, airing 24 December 1945), Watson dresses up as Santa Claus to entertain at a children's party; he finds himself entangled in a great jewel heist engineered by arch-villain Moriarty and carried out by "Lew the Lisper." Another is "The Adventure of the Christmas Bride," starring John Stanley & Alfred Shirley (airing 21 December 1947). Although not a Christmas story, "The Singular Affair of the White Cockerel" aired 28 December 1946, and the introductory banter between announcer Joseph Bell and Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) alluded to the recent celebration; that was the season Tom Conway portrayed Holmes.

For New Year's Eve, "The Iron Box" is an annual event for me. Actually, I listen to is several times throughout the year, because it's one of my very favorites from the long-running Rathbone & Bruce radio series; this one aired 31 December 1945. An alternate is "New Year's Eve Off the Scilly Isles" (Stanley & Shirley, 28 December 1947). Why not enjoy them both? They're only a half hour in length each.

Note that of all these year-end shows, "The Blue Carbuncle" is the only authentic Arthur Conan Doyle plot.

12 April 2009

The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes

I've been listening regularly to those 1940s radio plays. Did *you* know Sherlock once *married* (according to Green and Boucher, the radio writers)? Check out their "The Book of Tobit." (Doyle . . . would not approve, I think.)

23 January 2007

"Voices of Sherlock" Quiz #3

In which of the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes serials, produced for radio in the 1940s, is Holmes accused of shoplifting?
a) "The April Fool’s Day Adventure"
b) "The Elusive Emerald"
c) "The Tell Tale Pigeon Feathers"
d) "The Haunting of Sherlock Holmes"

Answer correctly and receive one free "Harper Chronicles" short story in e-booklet format!

Daniel Elton Harmon

19 January 2007

The Interrupted Broadcast

“Mrs. Warren’s Lodger,” the episode of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes broadcast on NBC Radio 7 December 1941, is remarkable for several reasons. It’s among only several dozen plays in the series that have been preserved, out of more than 200 that were produced. To my knowledge, it’s one of just five Rathbone/Bruce shows surviving from the first five seasons of the series, which began in 1939 (and one of the others is incomplete). Most of the salvaged broadcasts date to 1945 and 1946. By that time, the writers long since had depleted the plots of Doyle’s original story collection and were on their own, improvising altogether new tales. “Mrs. Warren’s Lodger,” by contrast, adhered closely to the story line of Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Red Circle” (although Inspector Gregson and Leverton, the American detective, were written out, apparently to shorten the production to the half-hour constraint of the radio format).

Most fascinating is the network announcer’s interruption, a third of the way into the broadcast, stating that President Franklin Roosevelt would address a joint session of Congress the following day at noon. What momentous event could have prompted such an intrusion into one of the most popular radio shows of the era? In a word: war.

We remember 7 December 1941 as “Pearl Harbor Day.” In Hawaii that morning, Japanese planes had attacked and crippled America’s Pacific naval fleet. In the next day’s address, Roosevelt would ask Congress to declare war, citing 7 December as “a date which will live in infamy.”

Daniel Elton Harmon