Sherlock Holmes

Novels and stories,
Movies (and TV series)
Sherlock Holmes (1922)

Director Albert Parker; writer Earle Browne, Marion Fairfax, William Gillette; featuring John Barrymore, Roland Young, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Carol Dempster

Early failed Sherlock Holmes (1929–1933)

Four films, variably featuring Clive Brook, Reginald Owen, Warburton Gamble, Raymnd Massey, Athole Stewart, Lyn Harding

The Wontner Sherlock Holmes (1931–1937)

Five films featuring Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming (1931–32, 1935–1937), Ian Hunter (1932)

The Rathbone Sherlock Holmes (1939–1946)

Fourteen films featuring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1954–1955)

Also called Sherlock Holmes
Television series featuring Ronald Howard, Howard Marion-Crawford, Archie Duncan

Sherlock Holmes (1959–1984)

Sherlock Holmes films and television series, variably featuring Peter Cushing, Andrι Morell, Christopher Lee, Douglas Wilmer, Nigel Stock, John Mills

The Lee Sherlock Holmes (1962-1992)

Sherlock Holmes films, variably featuring Christopher Lee, Thorley Walters, Patrick Macnee, Morgan Fairchild

A Study in Terror (1965)

Director James Hill; writer Donald Ford, Derek Ford; featuring John Neville, Donald Houston, Anthony Quayle, Judi Dench

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Director Billy Wilder; writer Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond; featuring Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Christopher Lee, Genevieve Page

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

Director Herbert Ross; writer Nicholas Meyer; featuring Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall, Alan Arkin, Vanessa Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, Charles Gray

The Sherlock Holmes spoofs (1975–2002)

Two films and four television movies, variably featuring Gene Wilder, Madeleine Kahn, Marty Feldman, Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley, Matt Frewer, Kenneth Welsh

Murder by Decree (1979)

Director Bob Clark; writer John Hopkins; featuring Christopher Plummer, James Mason, Anthony Quayle, John Gielgud, Donald Sutherland, Genevieve Bujold

The Brett Sherlock Holmes (1984–1994)

Also called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Television series featuring Jeremy Brett, David Burke (1984–1985), Edward Hardwicke (1986–1994)

The Downey Sherlock Holmes (2009–2011)

Film series, directed by Guy Ritchie, featuring Robert Downy Jr., Jude Law

Sherlock (2010–2017)

Television series, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman

speckled band movie

Raymond Massey, right, as Holmes with Roland Young as his Watson in The Speckled Band.

Sherlock Holmes


Early failed Sherlocks

As silent pictures were being replaced by talkies in the late 1920s and early 1930s, studios and lead actors competed to establish series based on the Holmes canon—a trend that has never let up. To date, over seventy actors have played the detective in about two hundred and forty films, plus hundreds of television episodes.

Oddly, from our perspective, most of of the first few cinematic attempts to portray the world's most famous consulting detective with sound were not very successful.

Not for Holmesians

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Clive Brook as Holmes

Among the contending films in 1932 was Sherlock Holmes, which was actually adapted from the William Gillette stage play (like the earlier Barrymore film). It starred silent-era veteran Clive Brook. Suffice it to show how far Brook's character strayed from both the books and the play to note the movie starts with the sleuth about to be married.

Paradoxically, this movie was actually a sequel to Brook's The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1929. It's that earlier movie that revises the Gillette-turned "Elementary, my dear fellow" phrase into the form of "Elementary, my dear Watson", which got picked up by later films, although neither expression had never appeared in Doyle's writing.

Otherwise, both Brook films were disasters for Holmes fans but the second one is notable for its Watson being played by the estimable Reginald Owen. (See him as one of the better early Scrooges in an adaptation of A Christmas Carol).

Big improvement

Owen got little screen time as the sidekick in the Brook film, but he was encouraged to take on the main role himself the following year. Owen even helped write A Study in Scarlet (1933) in hopes of launching a popular series with himself as the detective.

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Reginald Owen as Holmes

Although it's a vast improvement, A Study in Scarlet unfortunately is not faithful enough to excite avid Sherlockians. It's not really based on the novel of that name. The plot and subsidiary characters are entirely different, as the producers had bought rights to only the title (although I've counted at least two lines lifted almost verbatim from the book). Owen's Holmes, operating in contemporary times, is an affable and suave gentleman and his Watson (Warburton Gamble) is a stuffy, obsequious fellow, more like the English butler in old films.

The storyline is that of a decent mystery thriller of the era, involving a series of murders, an exotic femme fatale, secret passageways and a murky atmosphere. There's even a Moriarty-style villain, called (in near-parody) Merrydew.

But Owen's dream failed to catch on and the projected series ended with this first instalment.

Modernized Holmes

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Raymond Massey as Holmes

In the meantime, Canadian-born Raymond Massey offered a quite different take on Holmes in The Speckled Band (1931). It was not the first adaptation of Doyle's story of that name from The Adventures collection, as there had been a silent treatment in 1923.

This new version is hardly out of the silent era either, with melodramatic acting from much of the cast, including Lyn Harding as the villain (more on him in later Holmes filmography), and with attempts at some very early special effects, such as double exposures.

The film is big on atmospherics, trying to create a spooky feeling of foreboding, despite the story being set in (then) contemporary times. Holmes himself is shown in a bizarre modern light, operating a modern crime detection office set up by Watson (Athole Stewart) with what seem to be proto-computers to track criminals around the world. Although some scenes are quite evocative, the overall juxtaposition of the sequences of ultramodern crime detection with Victorian-era horror thrills makes for a movie of split personality, so no one tone appropriate to Sherlockian mystery is set.

Massey though is the most relaxed, even languid, actor in the film, quietly amused by the overacted antics of those around him, until he's required to leap into action to defeat the "speckled band". Given the proper vehicles, he would have made a fine Holmes in a film series.

Unfortunately he's not in this short movie enough—available copies run anywhere from forty-two to ninety minutes—with the villain, the damsel in distress and a bald Dr. Watson (Athole Stewart) taking up most of the screen time.

Massey would never again play Holmes in a feature film.

(He would make many more and better movies though, including most memorably in his senior years the modern classic East of Eden.)

— Eric