Sherlock Holmes opens the Silent Summer Film Festival | Bleader

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sherlock Holmes opens the Silent Summer Film Festival

Posted By on 07.16.12 at 04:05 PM

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  • Courtesy Kino International
This week the Silent Film Society of Chicago launches its annual summer festival, a series of six Friday-night screenings at the Portage Theater with live musical accompaniment. Every year the festival becomes more valuable, simply by virtue of its longevity: as the organizers run through the usual suspects—Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd; Chaney, Fairbanks, Pickford—they're forced to keep digging deeper into the vast reservoir of silent film. A case in point is this year's opening-night offering: Sherlock Holmes (1922), starring John Barrymore as the great detective. The movie was restored in 2001 by the George Eastman House (with a grant from Hugh Hefner, no less), but as far as I can determine, this will be the restored version's first public screening in Chicago.

Watching the Barrymore version was an interesting experience for me, given my lukewarm reaction to Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), the two blockbusters directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. For me the allure of the Holmes stories has always been the detective's icy personality and formidable intellect. “He became one of the great characters in genre fiction not because he was smart but because he was freakishly so,” I wrote back in 2009. “Cool and methodical, Holmes was the dark underbelly of Victorian rationalism, his intellect so overdeveloped that he could barely relate to anyone. . . . When the Allies searched Hitler's bunker in 1945, the two film prints they found were both Sherlock Holmes adventures.”

By contrast, Downey tries to make Holmes lovably comic, and in both movies Ritchie insists on a romantic subplot. Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Holmes, largely avoided this sort of thing in his stories and novels. “All emotions . . . were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind,” Doyle once wrote. Holmes “never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. . . . Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.” In Conan Doyle's fiction the only woman Holmes ever desired was Irene Adler, who manages to outsmart him in the classic story "A Scandal in Bohemia."

The silent Sherlock Holmes was adapted from a hugely popular stage play by the actor William Gillette, who claimed the title role for himself and performed it some 1,300 times between 1899 and 1932. When Conan Doyle agreed to license his character for the theater, he specifically asked that Holmes not be given a love interest. Gillette ignored him and created the character of Alice Faulkner, a lovely young woman of no particular cerebral ability, to be the great detective's damsel in distress. The story line diminishes Holmes as a character, but it's preserved in the silent movie.

In fact the silent Sherlock Holmes, like the Guy Ritchie movies, was designed as a crowd pleaser. There's a lot more action and a lot less of the detective's piercing observation and deduction. Gillette dispensed with the nickel-and-dime cases that populate Conan Doyle's best stories and instead focused on Holmes's ongoing conflict with the evil Dr. Moriarty, a more conventional good-guy-bad-guy drama that dominated the Conan Doyle stories in later years and supplies the plot of A Game of Shadows. What's more, John Barrymore—"always a comedian at heart," as critic Dave Kehr pointed out in the New York Times—may have been a performer closer in spirit to Robert Downey Jr. than any of the other celebrated actors who've played Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes
screens Friday at 8 PM at the Portage; tickets are $12. The Silent Summer festival continues through August with the Harold Lloyd comedy The Kid Brother (July 27), the Fritz Lang thriller The Spiders (August 3), the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler The Gaucho (August 10), the much-filmed melodrama Stella Dallas (August 17), and the Joan Crawford comedy Our Dancing Daughters (August 24).

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