Long before Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. tackled the deductive detective, long before Tom Cruise and 'Scooby Doo' ripped off identity-hiding rubber masks, long before there were "talking pictures," 89 years ago, John Barrymore played the world's greatest detective in a movie that did it all first - along with a great many things that we still see in the contemporary television and movies.
'IMDb' shares an interesting back story on how this 1922 film survived and how we have it today. In 1970, the George Eastman House (a non-profit organization and museum in Rochester, NY that collects, restores and displays photography and film) found several reels of this film's negatives and took an interest. A film historian gathered as much of the film as he could find and showed it to the film's 85-year-old director Albert Parker who in turn explained the order of the footage and described the missing content. Over the next ten years the film was restored (as best as possible) and reassembled, a daunting task when you take into account that every take – not scene – was out of order.
In 2001, even more footage was discovered. Because Parker had passed away, the George Eastman House went off Parker's old notes and integrated that footage into the reconstructed film. Now, another decade later, Parker's 'Sherlock Holmes' has made its way to Blu-ray. Although the majority of the footage has been found, remastered and reassembled, there are still many missing scenes which have been replaced with description cards.
Holmes had already made his way to film many times before, but the 1922 'Sherlock Holmes' was the first of his films to feature high production values (for 1922 standards). Just because it's a small old silent film, it doesn't mean that the plot isn't as world-changing as the new Downey Jr. reincarnation. People are still dying and a mystery needs to be solved. A prince is being blamed for a crime that, if exposed, could do a lot of damage to the world. Knowing this, Holmes is brought on to investigate the case, track down the man behind the sinister plot – Professor Moriarty – and bring him to justice.
Being a fan of Guy Richie's new 'Sherlock Holmes' movies, it's fun to see similarities in the way elements of Arthur Conan Doyle's books were adapted for both the Barrymore and Robert Downey Jr. films. Not only do the zany mannerisms of Barrymore's Holmes match those of Downey Jr., but even the design of the cluttered mess in his 221B Baker Street home are the same!
Last week I attended a press screening of 'The Artist.' Aside from the few clips and segments that I watched in my university's History of Film classes, it was my first time experiencing a silent film in its entirety on the big screen. Loving every minute of it, I finally understood how people of the time could enjoy silent film so much. They didn't love it because it was the only medium they had available to them, they loved it because it's absolutely brilliant. This lost art contains a magic that just isn't present in modern film. That magic isn't better or worse than what we have today, it's just different – a lost art.
I now understand something about silent film that I didn't know before – there are two types. Those like 'Sherlock Holmes' and 'Nosferatu' – the early silent films – went for realism. The acting is natural and smooth, never heightened nor inflated. The second type are the opposite, highly exaggerated and over-acted – like 'The Artist.' While the latter are definitely more fun, 'Sherlock Holmes' is nonetheless an entertaining and educational experience.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Classics has placed 'Sherlock Holmes' on a BD-25 in a standard blue keepcase that horizontally slides into a thick smooth cardboard case. Printed on the back of the cover art sheet is printed vintage poster art for the film. Upon inserting the disc into your player, you're forced to watch an FBI warning and a Kino Classics vanity reel before getting to the menu.
'Sherlock Holmes' arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Being an 89-year-old classic, you get what you expect – a problematic scratched up jumpy old black & white film – but anyone who buys this disc must know what they're getting themselves into. Nobody is buying this film because of its transfer, they're buying it because it's a classic film that collectors will want in their collection.
'Sherlock Holmes' is easily the most scratched print I've ever seen. It makes 'Grindhouse' look clean. The only times the scratches stop are when we get to title or dialog cards. To make those bits look better, the restoration team found the best single-frame, repeated it a few hundred times and elongated its duration on-screen. Instead of being one of many scratched-up frames with that quote on it, the same clean frame is replicated and ran for the entire length of the card's screen time, almost making the picture looked paused.
With old hand-cranked cameras, frames would inconsistently jump up and down. To help keep the picture still, each frame of this entire 85-minute film has been reframed. Because some jumps were drastic, the tops and bottoms of this already-pillar boxed picture occasionally wobble up and down. What you're seeing are the top and bottom of the framed image that has to take over some of the screen to keep to the image still.
All of these problems and more are a result of the source material, negatives too far damaged to look any better. With a movie this badly preserved, you're never going to get a five-star demo-worthy Blu-ray - and I don't suspect that's what anyone wants - but it's worth it just to have a classic available to us.
Being a silent film, there wasn't any original audio to remaster. Instead, the organ accompaniment was re-recorded by Ben Model of the Museum of Modern Art. Considering this is a new recording, there's no reason why it couldn't be presented in an audio track better than the one it received – two-channel LPCM stereo.
Have a 5.1 or 7.1 sound system? You might as well cut the cost of your power bill by turning it off for this one, cranking up the TV's volume and listening to it that way because all of the organ music comes exclusively from the front. Functioning as the dialog of silent film, the music is perfectly fitting, by why they couldn't expand it to other channels is beyond me. Had they done so, it simply would have added to the emotion and intensity of the experience.
Being a piece of cinematic history, the 1922 silent film 'Sherlock Holmes' should interest fans and hardcore cinephiles. It's not by any means a brilliant film, but it captures the spirit and essence of a long-forgotten cinematic style. The picture is riddled with constant countless scratches, adding to the old-time experience and giving it that genuine feel that we no longer know, but because of that fact,this is far from demo material. The fantastic organ accompaniment could have used something – anything – better than a two-channel track, but since it conveys the necessary mood, it will suffice. For fans only.