I didn’t expect this particular version of Sherlock Holmes to be the first one I reviewed for this blog series, but sometimes things literally just drop in your lap as this one did just today.
A Study in Scarlet, as all Sherlockians and most casual fans know, is the title of the very first Sherlock Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s also the most controversial of the stories. To finally get my paws on a Pre-Code era film by this title… I thought for sure I was in for something special.
This, my friends, is what I get for not doing my homework before hitting the play button.
This particular film has absolutely nothing in common with the original story, save for the title and the characters of Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade. You see, I looked at the movie poster and trusted when it says “A Sherlock Holmes Adventure by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,” that it wasn’t lying to me. Does “Original Screenplay by Robert Florey” even remotely sound the same to you? It doesn’t to me. That’s strike one because I really hate being lied to, especially about one of my favorite characters. Strike two is that it’s a “modern” Holmes story, meaning that they took him out of the gaslight era and dropped him into the everyday setting of the age. This isn’t nearly as egregious to me when it’s an older version as forensics is still a young science at this point, but it still irks me to no end. I’m a purist. That’s part and parcel of what the term “Sherlockian” means, contrary to popular belief. Strike three is when they pull something so fundamentally stupid, such as putting Holmes’ address at 221A Baker Street. Yeah, you read that right. Now say it out loud. Let it roll around verbally. Awkward, right? It doesn’t even have the same ring to it, does it?
I knew all three of these points in the first five minutes. *head/desk* And yet, I carried on. It’s not like I haven’t seen worse in recent years on the BBC, but at least they get the freakin’ address right. Novices…
One point of curiosity this film has in its favor is that of trivia. There are only four actors in all of history to date to have played both Holmes and Watson. This film features Reginald Owen as Holmes, having played Watson only the year before. In case you’re curious, the other actors are Jeremy Brett (Watson on the American stage, Holmes on British TV), Carleton Hobbs (both on radio), and Patrick Macnee (both in American TV movies). As I will likely never get to see a recording of Brett’s Watson, this means that this particular Holmes bingo card only requires me to see Owen in 1932’s Sherlock Holmes. Still haven’t found a copy of that yet. Someday.
The basic plot of the movie is that there is a secret society known as the Scarlet Ring. The head of it is a lawyer whom Holmes has pegged as a criminal who has escaped him a couple of times. We learn that in the first few minutes as well. Yay. The way the Ring operates is that whenever one of their members is killed, the rest split the deceased’s assets, with an additional fee to the lawyer above and beyond his cut to cover legal expenses. What a surprise that the members are now suddenly being picked off one at a time. Three guesses who the culprit is.
Nope, it’s not the lawyer. He’s just an accomplice. The only thing I hate worse than an overly direct plot is an overly direct red herring, and they spelled that out in one of the rhyming clue cards that Holmes found halfway through the picture. Good job, people.
In spite of the rather lame screenplay, I do have to give credit where it’s due. Owen makes a pretty good Holmes. There’s even a sequence where he goes around in disguise, changing his complete appearance and accent. Nicely done. Warburton Gamble as Watson (not to be confused with John Warburton, also featuring in this movie) isn’t bad either, and Holmes treats him like an equal even when the rest of the cast doesn’t. These points are quite literally the only redeeming points of this movie, and they did hold my interest as points of historical curiosity. Can’t say that would happen on a second viewing.
Of course, I’m more than a bit picky when it comes to Holmes. Between the original stories and Jeremy Brett’s masterful performances, I’m hyper-critical. I can’t help it sometimes. Even when I try to remain open-minded for movies like this one that predate Brett by decades, my purist tendencies still come forward. Your mileage may vary.
Also not in this movie… the deerstalker cap that’s featured on the poster art. Or that pipe. Or that magnifying glass. Just thought I’d throw that out there.