Not Your Father’s Blue Carbuncle

    We’re dumbing down Sherlock Holmes. If the recent Robert Downey, Jr., efforts making “Sherlocking” more accessible for the earbud/self-absorbed set weren’t puerile enough, BBC TV has gone whole-hog to render Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective and his associate Dr. John Watson relevant for 21st century viewers.

    No need to wonder what Conan Doyle might’ve made of those revisions. He would’ve looked at them as if H.G. Wells had monkeyed with his template. On absinthe.

    The Downey reboots were jarring. Are jarring. Will be jarring. Holmes as imagined by Sax Rohmer. Or H. Rider Haggard. Ripping yarns instead of Victorian Age mysteries. Holmes mirrored his time. Downey’s Holmes distorts it.

    Primitive as they were, Holmes extensively called upon forensic methods. Deductive reasoning aided him against criminal masterminds. Wits reassembled the acts then trailed back to their perpetrators.

    Downey’s Holmes has more in common with a contemporaneous Victorian fictional figure, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mucker. More brawn. Less brains.

    Given Conan Doyle planted his tales in Victorian Age soil, vulgarity and insensitivity were corseted in strictures we today find hypocritical but established that era’s constraints. Likely many Victorians (and later Edwardians) found them hypercritical too. Polite society knew about the lower orders, what perversities occurred in dark corners, yet refrained from openly discussing them. That would’ve brought the unsavory into displeasing or unsettling light.

    For better and worse, the Great War and its aftermath forever ended this comforting charade.

    In my teens, I read most of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. Probably bought them in some long-gone secondhand book shop. The expected hadn’t piqued my Holmes’ interest. Not the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies. Those attracted me later.

    No, either Nicholas Meyer’s Seven Percent Solution or Paul Giovanni’s Broadway play The Crucifer of Blood piqued me. There had been a scene in the latter comprised of such fine stagecraft it actually prompted nightmares. Mine. Something to do with a sarcophagus. Its contents.

    Today, I’m pained to confess having donated Conan Doyle’s volumes. They’d been mine into middle age. But vacating my storage unit meant further prioritizing. At least I was able to retain the Alan Furst books. (Wink!)

    On the obvious level Conan Doyle’s stories creaked. They were too mannered for my then-disco mind. Nonetheless, aside from their archaic aspects, they were structured to lure readers and sluice them forward. What digressions there were served the plot rather than draw attention to any authorial wizardry.

    Rereading the Holmes stories a decade or so later, adulthood lending me better formed levels of nuance, education having clarified a great deal of stuffy Victoriana, these adventures had grown fuller. Of course by then I’d also watched the Universal Studios series based on Conan Doyle’s detective.

    A lot of golden Hollywood lore emerges from just dumb luck. If Ronald Reagan had played Rick Blaine instead of Humphrey Bogart, would Casablanca have been as enduring? Or would Scarlett have been as flighty and winningly insufferable, a k a the perfect antebellum belle, had Bette Davis won her Gone With the Wind role rather than Vivien Leigh?

    While nowhere near either of those gems, the 1940s Sherlock Holmes movies benefited from a kind of re-imagining which begets minor genius.

    Hound of the Baskervilles was a prestige, grade-A production by 20th Century Fox. Faithful to its source material, right down to the time period, fidelity threatens to mire the movie.

    No doubt the grosses pleased Universal, which acquired the property. The successor studio spun the characters into low budget though lucrative sequels, a la its Frankenstein, Dracula and Abbott & Costello franchises. The outbreak of World War II revised and reformatted the studio’s Holmes intentions.

    In a eureka moment, someone or a committee somehow envisioned an updated Sherlock Holmes matching wits and defeating enemies more cruel and cunning than Professor Moriarty, more craven than any mobsmen intending to relieve the Dowager of her Star of India. What fiction writer could have invented a better all-encompassing evil than the Nazis? Nebulous fascism could only be stymied through the efforts of Sherlock Holmes.

    Therefore away with the sleuth’s deerstalker and London gaslights, but let him keep his pipe and violin. Modern streets gained automobiles at the expense of horse-drawn cabriolets. BBC radio joined screaming corner newsboys in conveying sudden plot advances. Finally, worrisome pestilence didn’t emanate from bad sanitation, but the Blitz.

    Series being rebooted today (Star Trek, Spider Man) could take lessons regarding how Universal successfully catapulted Sherlock Holmes into the 40s.

    Ably casting Rathbone and Bruce as Holmes and Watson, respectively, was pure professionalism. Character actors like Henry Daniell and Dennis Hoey thickened the broth. Or sliced the ham thicker.

    Grateful additions to these mysteries were the soigné e women invariably crossing Holmes’ path. Curvy, full-lipped, all-around luscious, either intriguers, co-conspirators, or sometimes accidentally enmeshed innocent bystanders, they evoke that while any female can be a woman, it takes a devious lady to properly wear hats, gloves and smoke cigarettes while twisting weak men around their pinkies.

    Roy William Neill directed most of the series’ entries. More craftsman than artist, aptly demonstrating competence instead of getting in lost in virtuoso vision, movie aficionados overlook Neill rightly or wrongly. And seeing his yield, that’s easy to do. Unlike Orson Welles, Carol Reed, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Neill’s work doesn’t make film scholars swoon.

    Neill’s direction left few indelible images and none suitable for posters crowding walls. Besides, the scripts he filmed often had the depth of police reports and the width of tongue depressors. Manufactured via assembly line fashion, these easily-grasped pastimes nonetheless reached audiences in ways impossible for, say, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Fallen Idol or Le Corbeau.

    The above trio dazzled, intentionally. Neill’s issues briskly entertained. Purposely. I know that for a fact.

    Some years before he passed away, I spent an afternoon with my father watching Sherlock Holmes solve case after case. A blizzard kept me from work. Why not spend that downtime with the old man? In any case AMC — Mad Men and Breaking Bad weren’t even glimmers in anyone’s eyes then — had scheduled a full day of Sherlocking.

    Father had served and survived World War II after enduring the Depression. He was a reticent man. Whenever his war years arose, he ramped into tight-lipped. The bits he revealed about 1941-45 touched on three subjects: crap games, dances, the time Eisenhower cursed him out. Beyond that only rummaging through his possessions and uncovering his discharge papers outlined what had been harrowing times.

    Although I never understood why until later, when it was too late, father rarely watched war movies. Or as he called them, “army pictures.” He preferred Westerns. Failing that, musicals. And yes, he was also a Three Stooges kind of guy.

    But on that wintery day, the tube offered Sherlock Holmes. So Sherlock Holmes it would be.

    By then I’d reread much of Conan Doyle’s chronicling. So much so the obscure references had become clear. Throughout the decades I’d caught several black & white Neill episodes here and there on insomnia TV. If the plot were based on a novel or short story, I’d observe how the scriptwriter and director reworked them into then-timely narratives.

    If the tandem filmed an original story, I’d judge whether Holmes and Watson and whoever else appropriated remained true to Conan Doyle’s designs. Yes. The author would’ve approved of the Creeper. As showcased in his The Sign of the Four, Conan Doyle had no aversion equating wretches with malevolence.

    Watching with father was less clinical. We missed the earliest cases. However, what we saw prompted memory. His. Forty-one years my senior, and four years of war consuming his prime, he remembered where and when he’d first seen whatever movie we then watched.

    First-run, full-screen viewings, not chopped offerings on afternoon TV’s “Million Dollar Movies.” He’d sat among diverse audiences in varied locales.

    Boot camp. Troop ship. London. Tunisia. Sicily. And finally mainland Italy. The clarity of his recollections surprised me. Should they have? Until he died, father remembered exactly where he was, with whom, doing what, on December 7, 1941, June 6, 1944, and August 6 and 8, 1945. Of course such retention also applied to the first used and new cars he bought.

    But his wedding anniversary? My birthday? If given enough time, those dates crept to the surface.

    While alive, I never imagined father young. On that winter day, amid Holmes deducing, Watson bumbling, and the Spider Woman alluring, he opened up a crack. It would’ve been beyond me to have envisioned him at 24 on the way to war. I barely recall myself at 24 — and I wasn’t going anywhere.

    Always a sharp dresser, especially when flat broke, father regretted my generation had misplaced its fashion sense. Mirror-buffed leather shoes were expected. He meant properly blocked hats angled just right; well-tailored suits, crisp pocket squares, ties which somehow augmented both suit and shirt (?), and grooming. Manly grooming, not the prissy sort. He wondered how my cohort ever got girls who came across.

    Save for his befuddlement, father used our televised entertainment to bolster his points. Basing substantive appreciation on a matter as subjective as mid-1940’s men’s styles ought have been heard as a joke. Instead snow immobilized us and we lazed the hours away. Probably the most at ease I’d seen him outside of huddling with his cronies as they cradled highball glasses of VVO.

    Maybe our shooting the breeze in clothing moot court was a distant glimpse of a man long vanished before my arrival. Or once again Sherlock Holmes had astounded by shining light on what had often appeared impenetrable.


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