The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: October, 2015

Watching The Baskerville Curse (1983 animation)

Yet more Sherlock Holmes-watching in recent days. This time it’s the Australian-produced animated series from 1983, with the legendary Peter O’Toole providing the voice of the Great Detective. This series by Burbank Studios comprised adaptations of the four novels by Doyle: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear, to put them in order of original publication (IMDb reverses Four and Hound in the chronology of the adaptations). The series has not garnered much attention, and has been called “tame and somewhat insipid” by well-known Sherlockian scholar David Stuart Davies. A few reviews on IMDb have called the Hound adaptation the best of the four, however, and that is the one I will focus on here.

Firstly, it’s actually called The Baskerville Curse, the only one of the novels to have its name changed for the series, perhaps because the word hound might be unknown to a young audience.

On the whole, the series stays very faithful to the novel. At 67 minutes, it’s longer than the other instalments (47-ish minutes each), and really that’s plenty long enough for adapting a short novel (under 200 pages in most editions) whose central mystery is not very mysterious and whose list of suspects is fairly limited. Not to mention that Holmes is absent for much of the action.

Just as all of the Jeremy Brett Holmes adaptations do, the Burbank series changes the introductions to the tales. Doyle’s typical tale opening is a dialogue scene between Holmes and Watson, at Baker Street, usually preceding any mystery – Holmes might complain about the boredom of life; do some clever reading of Watson or somebody else around, etc. Into this cosy milieu the mystery is afterwards introduced. In other words, Doyle starts with the characters, and the plot comes afterward. Many of my favourite moments and pieces of dialogue come from these introductory scenes, but adaptations have tended to eschew them, perhaps because they are not seen as being very dramatic, and they are by nature not essential to the plot.

Typical Doyle opening, from “The Copper Beeches“. Nice dialogue!:

“To the man who loves art for its own sake,” remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, “it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived. It is pleasant to me to observe, Watson, that you have so far grasped this truth that in these little records of our cases which you have been good enough to draw up, and, I am bound to say, occasionally to embellish, you have given prominence not so much to the many causes celebres and sensational trials in which I have figured but rather to those incidents which may have been trivial in themselves, but which have given room for those faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis which I have made my special province.”

“And yet,” said I, smiling, “I cannot quite hold myself absolved from the charge of sensationalism which has been urged against my records.”

“You have erred, perhaps,” he observed, taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood –“you have erred perhaps in attempting to put color and life into each of your statements instead of confining yourself to the task of placing upon record that severe reasoning from cause to effect which is really the only notable feature about the thing.”

“It seems to me that I have done you full justice in the matter,” I remarked with some coldness, for I was repelled by the egotism which I had more than once observed to be a strong factor in my friend’s singular character.

“No, it is not selfishness or conceit,” said he, answering, as was his wont, my thoughts rather than my words. “If I claim full justice for my art, it is because it is an impersonal thing — a thing beyond myself. Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell. You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.”

Dartmoor Dartmoor in The Baskerville Curse

This adaptation, then, starts not with the Holmes and Watson, but with the initiating incident of the plot: the death of Sir Charles Baskerville. This takes place on Dartmoor, an episode only seen in flashback in Doyle. This adaptation adds some dialogue not found in Doyle, and introduces Dr Mortimer, the shady servant Barrymore, and the Hound himself. This opening is similar to and may derive from the famous Basil Rathbone Hound of 1939. The scenery evokes Dartmoor. I’ve never been to Dartmoor, but have a concept of it through the various Hound adaptations, particularly the unmistakeable rock formations.

More Dartmoor

The adapting-the-adaptation feel of Curse gets stronger when the next scene is an inquest scene – again similar to 1939, but just mentioned in flashback in Doyle.

Just over five minutes in, we get to London and Baker Street. Our first view of Holmes is almost a facial close-up. He’s a young Holmes with a full head of brown hair and a rather bland face. Watson on the other hand is a clearly older man, short, stout and moustached: once again, physically echoing Rathbone and Bruce in the earlier film.


Holmes and Watson

The Rathbone film goes out of its way to throw suspicion on Dr Mortimer in the early scenes. This film, however, focalizes on Mortimer at the time of Sir Charles’ death, making it fairly clear that he didn’t do it and removing him from the list of suspicious characters.

When Stapleton enters at around 21 minutes, he is immediately signalled as the culprit (spoiler: Stapleton did it) by his surly demeanour, perpetually sour expression and the eerie music that accompanies his presence. He responds with shifty eye movements when questioned by Watson. There is certainly no mystery here, then.

Stapleton with typical Dartmoor rock formations in the background.Stapleton with his perennial sour expression

Maybe the real hero of the story is the Great Grimpen Mire, introduced in this adaptation concurrently with Stapleton. As in the book, the otherwise uninteresting character Stapleton gains in power and menace by his association with this otherworldly terrain. Some nice long shots bring atmosphere to the setting, and the spiral motif to suggest the treacherous terrain is effective. Even the relative roughness of the animation rather adds to the atmosphere in the moor scenes.

Watson and Stapleton on the moor. Watson and Stapleton on the moor.

After disappearing before the 20 minute mark, Holmes finally re-appears after around 49 minutes, and then the endgame can begin. Lestrade enters as well, and has an unusually big role. He also escapes being mocked by Holmes as he often is in Doyle and in adaptations, such as the Ronald Howard one. A certain amount of deductive interest is retained in the climax by transferring the mystery of the single stolen boot which in Doyle takes place near the beginning of the story.

Finally, Holmes bows out by telling his sidekick “As always, it was elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.” Holmes’ famous line, never used in Doyle, but included as a nod to the culture-text of Sherlock Holmes and to the myriad of sources invoked by an adaptation of the character. This is a serviceable adaptation, though uninspiring. Of course, it is clearly aimed at children, so my reactions to it are not necessarily of great relevance. Reading through comments on the YouTube upload of the episode, some users remembered in from their childhoods and had found it, and the Hound in particular, scary. The most effective part of this adaptation, for me, comes in the moor scenes, where visuals, music, and a fairly miminalist script are used in conjunction to create a good atmosphere. At 67 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, either, and provides a decent primer or refresher for the sprawling culture-text of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Sherlock Holmes – The William Gillette Play (1899)

Aside from the canonical 56 short stories and 4 (short) novels, the most important early vehicle for the success of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective was the play Sherlock Holmes, first performed in 1899, and credited as written by William Gillette (the famous actor who played Holmes in the play) and Arthur Conan Doyle. In effect, Gillette wrote the play, using various elements from Doyle’s stories, but also adding in much unrelated material.

An index of the play’s influence is that Gillette’s utterance “Elementary, my dear Watson” went on to become Holmes’ most famous line, though it never appears in quite that form in Doyle. Similarly, the now standard curved pipe was introduced by Gillette, and his introduction of a pageboy named Billy was used by Doyle himself in later stories. It has often been revived, among the more notable efforts being the 1981 production with Frank Langella as Holmes. This is now available in reasonable quality on Youtube.

The play opens with a reminiscence from Watson, setting the story in the distant past, as if Holmes (referred to by Watson in the past tense) is already a figure of nostalgic longing – not surprising, as the play was written and produced during Doyle’s hiatus, when Holmes was apparently dead. But Watson’s fairly lenghty introduction is less about Holmes than about introducing the plot, which is unfortunately melodramatic, cliched and convoluted, involving jilted lovers, high society, compromising letters, middle-class swindlers, somebody who “died of grief”, Moriarty, and “a most interesting young lady” who will need Holmes’ help. This last is Alice Faulkner, who will be recognizable as an avatar of the Damsel-in-Distress archetype. The plot bears some resemblance at this point to “A Scandal in Bohemia”, but is, as I said, very convoluted. Hence the need for an expository introduction, one whose status I am not sure of, as it does not appear to be in the original 1899 script.

The first scene proper is set among the Larrabees, the middle-class swindlers who want to get their hands on Alice Faulkner’s valuable letters. They menace Alice in a pulpishly violent manner but hide her away before Sherlock Holmes appears (to loud applause), to engage in some verbal repartee with the villainous couple. Eventually, Holmes force them into letting him meet Alice, and tries to convince her to hand over the letters, but she refuses. Here, again, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is evoked. The difference lies in the character: the brave and resourceful Irene Adler becomes the passive and girlish Alice, very much an Angel in the House type.

Another difference comes in with Holmes’s relation to the character: he considered Irene, of course, “the woman”, but in that famous first paragraph of “Scandal”, Watson goes on to make clear that “[i]t was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler”. In the play, however, Holmes’s feelings for Alice are of a more conventionally romantic sort. So to make a perhaps obvious and predictable point in the context of discussing adaptations, the play renders the ideology of the source more conventional, more bourgeois, most noticeably in the approach towards presenting the female lead and the relations between male and female lead. It is in his attitude towards and distance from the romantic an sexual realms that Holmes is most challenging, where he subverts tropes of most popular genre, and it is here that the adapted Holmes tends to go in different directions, and more recent adaptations also show the tensions inherent in trying to represent an apparently asexual character.

Apart from the expository introduction (which is not, as I noted above, in the original play), Watson doesn’t make an appearance until over half an hour in, where he arrives at Holmes’ residence and Holmes provides one of his virtuosic readings of Watson’s personal circumstances from his appearance, many of the details of which are taken from Doyle’s stories. This is a structural change from the stories, which almost invariably open in Holmes’ lodgings, and with conversation between the two. Watson is curiously absent from much of the play (perhaps another reason to give him some space in the introduction), and the narrative is not focalized through him. On the other hand, Moriarty becomes a primary antagonist, perhaps the beginning of the culture-text of Sherlock Holmes in which Moriarty plays a large role, as opposed to Doyle’s stories where he is present only in “The Final Problem” and gets a mention in one or two other places (The Valley of Fear).

Some of the repartee between Holmes and Moriarty and the other villains is entertaining. But perhaps my favourite exchange was in Act 2, Scene 2. This follows the first introduction of Billy, the page boy (played by a very young Christian Slater), who comes into Holmes’s chambers and addresses him thusly:

BILLY: Mrs. ‘Udson’s compliments, sir, an’ she wants to know if she can see you?

HOLMES (without moving, looking into fire thoughtfully): Where is Mrs. Hudson?

BILLY:  Downstairs in the back kitchen, sir.

HOLMES:  My compliments and I don’t think she can — from where she is.

Possibly it doesn’t read as comedy genius but the line is well delivered by Langella in the 1981 version, and it got a laugh. Comedy is fairly prevalent throughout the work, accentuated by the performances. Langella’s Holmes is witty in a very deadpan manner. On the whole, Langella is a good Holmes, and it’s perhaps a shame that he never got to play him in a more cinematic setting, when he could have staked his claimed to be considered by Sherlockians alongside Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and, latterly, Benedict Cumberbatch. As it is, this is his only Holmesian legacy, and seems to be the best film version of this oft-performed play – a play that, in its initial Gillette-starring production, may have done almost as much to create the Holmes myth as the stories themselves.


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