The Sunday Intertitle: Moriarty-craftsy

I watched the John Barrymore SHERLOCK HOLMES because I’m going to be doing something about Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK, JR and I wanted to see if this film, released just a couple of years previously, had influenced it. Nothing very very specific, but a general sense that Keaton’s conception of his role and the world of Holmes had more to do with Albert Parker’s film than a close reading of Conan Doyle.

The film is pretty nice! I gave up on it one time before, mainly because it presents Holmes as a moony romantic lazing about country lanes, and knowing Watson when at uni. But it otherwise manages to fold Moriarty into Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia and has a very nice cast.

Roland Young in a silent film, hmm — apart from some good slouching, he kind of disappears when he can’t use his voice. But the film gives a lot of the sidekicking to a very young William Powell anyway. Fascinating to see both men with their own hair. (I’m obsessed with hair at the moment because my own hair is retreating like the Maginot Line.)

DW Griffith sweetie Carole Dempster is leading lady, and we get appearances by the likes of Louis Wollheim, instantly recognizable from the way his nose has been compressed into his head until it is visible as a small bump on the back of his neck, and David Torrence, whose brother Ernest would work with Keaton as Steamboat Bill, Sr, and play a memorable Moriarty in the enjoyable 1932 William K. Howard farrago.

Best of all is the Moriarty here, the magnificent, and magnificently named Gustav(e) Von Seyffertitz, the Greater Profile, whose drooping scarf and expressionistic gestures reminded me forcibly of Alec Guinness’s Professor M (for Marcus) in THE LADYKILLERS. Now, it’s known that Guinness modelled his teeth and cigarette-smoking on critic Kenneth Tynan (an actor’s revenge!) but I wouldn’t be surprised if he, or director Sandy Mackendrick, or the costume designer Anthony Mendleson, was influenced by Gustav(e)’s great look.

There’s a fairly purple intertitle gushing about the coldness of Moriarty’s blood —

It got me wondering if the scarf, and the claw-like, expressionistic hand gestures (another Guinness connection) were because Moriarty is literally cold all the time — he’s characterised as a kind of spider, and spiders always start turning up dead at this time of year. I like the idea of a villain whose cold-bloodedness causes him seasonal discomfort.

7 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Moriarty-craftsy”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Gustav(e) Von Seyffertitz was a Sternberg regular. I especially love his dyspeptic demeanor in “Shanghai Express”

  2. revelator60 Says:

    Folding Moriarty into a Scandal in Bohemia was part of the William Gillette play this film was rather loosely based on. Gillette’s own Sherlock film turned up a couple years ago and is pretty creaky, aside from Gillette’s superb performance, which is restrained and ahead of its time.

  3. GVS is very fine as the spymaster in Dishonored too.

    I missed a recent screening of the Gillette, I think, and also Der Hund von Baskerville. Must catch up! Neither is meant to be great, though.

    Vaguely considering a Sherlock Week, or a Sherlock Shadowcast.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    The spider analogy comes straight from Doyle. In “The Final Problem”, Holmes compares Moriarty to a spider in the center of a vast web, sensing the slightest vibration of any strand.

    I was going to suggest “Sherlock Junior” was more inspired by the suave Philo Vance, but it turns out the first Vance novel (“The Benson Murder Case”!) didn’t appear until a few years later. Still, Keaton’s sleuth is so firmly in the American man-about-town mode you have to wonder if Vance himself was a riff on an established type. Maybe there were already Peter Wimsey knockoffs and Gentleman Adventurers floating about in American pop culture.

    I think it was already a thing for pulps to declare their heroes the “junior” of a historic or legendary figure; there was a fictional “Thomas Edison Jr.”. Dubbing a film hero Sherlock Junior (as opposed to Sherlock Holmes Junior) is deliberately jokey, signaling a dime novel sensibility rather than Baker Street. Beyond the title, the closest thing to a Holmes reference is the sidekick Gillette — and even that is instantly deployed as a gag on the razor blade brand.

  5. Keaton has a few little moments that may be nods to the Barrymore — his villain has a torture dungeon, there’s a treacherous servant, disguises (although it’s Gillette, not Sherlock, who drags up) and there’s a theft and a frame-up, which is how the earlier film starts.

    Mostly, though, Buster is doing as he pleases — the main idea is a super-sleuth who’s never lost for an idea in the dream sequence, and an ordinary hero who’s perpetually at a loss in the framing structure (he sleeps through the solution of the case and is saved by the girl).

  6. Matthew Clark Says:

    I’ve found Von Seyffertitz very nice in Docks of New York, where he plays a sympathetic priest.
    What about comparing Barrymore’s Holmes with that of William Gillette, who’s Sherlock Holmes movie has surfaced?

  7. I’d love to when I see the WG version. But Sherlock Jr is a paid gig so this took priority.

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