Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Curious Incident of the Woman Who Changed Her Mind


In your travels through life, if you are suddenly beset upon by an unemployed game show host who asks who, in your opinion, is the most influential and durable character in English Literature, I would be very surprised if you didn't answer Sherlock Holmes. Of course, a pass will be given if you are one of those people who believes Holmes was a real person. You can talk all you want of Poe's C. August Dupin, but it's Conan Doyle's 1887 creation who captured the world's imagination and never let go. We cannot get enough of the Victorian era consulting detective whose popularity eventually came to so bedevil Sir Arthur. The character whose basis is four novels and 56 short stories took on a life of his own. People who have never read a Conan Doyle story know of 221B Baker Street, of the devoted chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, of Mrs. Hudson and Professor Moriarty.

For over a century the character of Sherlock Holmes has been subject to uncountable adaptions, homages and pastiches of varying success and quality. Actors as diverse as Peter Cushing and Matt Frewer have assayed the role. Some such as Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, despite their wide-ranging careers, are indelibly associated with Sherlock Holmes. One of the first and best to tie his name and image with that of Holmes was the American actor William Gillette (pictured left) who, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's permission, adapted Sherlock Holmes for the stage in 1899. While Gillette was working on the project and appearing on stage in San Francisco a hotel fire destroyed both the original Conan Doyle manuscript from which he was working and Gillette's own finished play. He patiently rewrote the entire play which is a lesson for those of us stymied by computer crashes. It was Gillette who gave Holmes his deerstalker cap and magnifying glass, and the line "Elementary, my dear fellow." William Gillette played Holmes for over 30 seasons on the stage and gave his last performance for radio at the age of 79. Orson Welles is quoted as saying  "It is not enough to say that William Gillette resembles Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.” It is not a stretch to imagine that Arthur Wontner and Basil Rathbone must have seen Gillette and been influenced by his interpretation.  Surely Rathbone's performance on film and radio influenced future performers.

The mania for all things Holmesian continues into the 21st century. Fans of television mysteries see the clear line from 1880s stories printed in The Strand magazine to David Shore's House, MD, Bruno Heller's The Mentalist and Steven Moffat's Sherlock. My book shelves contain not only my annotated and illustrated original Holmes stories, but many of the homages and imaginings of other writers from Eve Titus' Basil of Baker Street, August Derleth's Solar Pons, Steve Hockensmith's Holmes on the Range series, Laurie R. King's engrossing Mary Russell novels, and more.


A couple of years ago when Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law was announced, I was intrigued because I am one of those who can't get enough of Holmes. However, I frequent certain areas of the internet (the IMDb) which suddenly and frightfully became a breeding ground of Holmes purists who were aghast at the thought of the movie. I am someone who didn't object when an animated Holmes was frozen and brought back to life in the future in Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. I have no purist scruples because it has been proven that Holmes is untouchable. Therefore, I was keen on the project until I saw the trailer. My trailer judgements are swift and irrevocable. Strike one, the cinematography had an annoying greyish tint which I supposed was to accommodate CGI. Strike two, there was no discernible plot. Strike three, an alarming amount of slow-mo and an over-reliance on smart-assery. The entire thing left me with an overwhelming sense of "meh". I sighed and dismissed the movie from my universe.

The Harry Potter movies are a tradition the family shares at the theatre so early last autumn I made a rare trip to a movie theatre. It is a rare trip nowadays because I resent the cost, the piped in pop music I spend most of my life trying to avoid, and the commercials. Time was you went to the movies because there were no commercials, but that pleasure can now only be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home. I wept my way through the trailer for War Horse, much to the amusement of my loved ones, and next came a sequel to Sherlock Holmes. I steeled myself for the onslaught of "meh" which did not come. I was amused. I was intrigued. How could this be so? I puzzled and puzzled till my puzzler was sore. Then I thought of something I hadn't before. What if Sherlock Holmes (2009) wasn't a bore? What if Sherlock Holmes (2009), perhaps, was a little bit more?

A couple of weeks before Christmas after a hard day of shopping, I gave Sherlock Holmes (2009) a chance. The family is well aware of my intractable trailer judgments so I bore with good grace my daughter's smirk and raised eyebrow. She does it because she can and because nothing is more annoying to someone who can't raise one eyebrow and whose smirk looks like a grimace of pain.

Back to the movie. The darn thing did have a plot. A wackadoodle peer played by Mark Strong was manipulating a secret society and fear of the supernatural in a plan to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. Cool! Who else but a wackadoodle private consulting detective could defeat such a villain?

My eyes became accustomed to the grey tinted cinematography which may have been to accommodate CGI and might also have been to indicate a smokey, foggy London. At any rate, after a while I stopped wishing someone would squeegy the screen.

Robert Downey Jr. rarely puts a foot wrong as an actor for me, and his Holmes continued in that vein. Jude Law exemplified the perfect Watson. The characters are so firmly established in our imaginations that we had no need to go back and be introduced to them, there they were, fully formed waiting for us to enjoy the adventure. The brilliant and arrogant Holmes, both admirable and aggravating, and the loyal and understanding Watson. Dr. Watson is the friend we all should be or should have - someone who puts up with us.

If there must be a woman in the picture, and there must, then it must the "the" woman and it was. Canadian gal Rachel McAdams played the adventuress Irene Adler as if she were the long lost grandmother of Emma Peel of The Avengers. The spirited action worked in the style of the story told. We even had a peek at a mysterious professor pulling strings from the shadows. Oooh!

I enjoyed an amusing bit wherein Holmes would imagine his next move prior to carrying it out. It was clever and not overdone. All the plot lines tied up nicely at the end for a satisfying movie experience. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire romp and look forward to the sequel. I am only concerned about my heretofore reliable trailer judgment. What else have I been missing out on? Perhaps that movie with the boxing robot - but, no. Let's not be silly.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Six Degrees of Separation

MacGuffin Movies Round: link Her Serene Highness Princess Grace to the Clown Prince Charlie Chaplin.

Classic Becky began the festivities with a link from Chaplin to lovely Virginia Cherrill in City Lights and passed the baton this way.

Aha!

Virginia Cherrill appeared in the 1936 feature Troubled Waters with...

...none other than the man of the month, Alastair Sim.

Now, let's see ... who shall I ... Hey, Vincent (Carole & Company), remember back when you knocked on my door and I wasn't home to play the game? Well, tag!

PS: It should be an easy three links to Grace from Sim.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Caftan Woman's Choice - One for December on TCM

Honestly, I don't know how Ben Mankiewicz does it. It's the fourth month of my self-imposed challenge to choose one film to recommend each month from TCM's schedule, and I'm a nervous wreck. December is a month filled with endless movie delights, but if only one movie is watched during the month it must be 1951s A Christmas Carol. I hear you. "Really, Caftan Woman? You must know that we all watch A Christmas Carol and who doesn't love the 1951 feature?" True, but Christmas is a time of tradition, not originality. A Christmas Carol has been a Christmas Eve tradition since my girlhood some fifty-odd years ago and this gives me a chance to sing its praises. It regularly plays on Canadian television on that night, and when VHS tapes hit the market it was my first purchase in case of any unforeseen distractions. It's not Christmas without that annual viewing with a hot pot of tea and something sweet (Nanaimo bars, anyone?).

Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

It starts with the story and Charles Dickens was one of the best story men of all time. His novels delighted audiences in the 19th century and still do in the 21st. Mankind being what we are, we haven't changed that much. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge shown the path to make his and others lives better by the spirits of the past, present and future is a lesson in faith, hope, charity, redemption and grace that speaks to our core.

Brian Desmond Hurst produced and directed the "potboiler" in the summer of 1951 to cash into the Christmas market, challenging the idea that you have to spend two years in the desert to make a masterpiece. The Irish born Hurst was a veteran of WWI who studied film under John Ford in Hollywood before returning to Europe to create his well-regarded films. Hurst's A Christmas Carol is presented with a sense of authenticity in setting and characterization that sets it apart and above the countless other versions of the story.

Noel Langley adapted the screenplay. His 40 year career on both sides of the Atlantic includes Maytime, Edward, My Son and Shirley Temple's Storybook on television. Some of the changes and nice touches he brought to the story include making Ebenezer the younger brother of Fan and having his mother die in childbirth make a symmetrical connection to the story of nephew Fred. Langley added to the business relationship between Scrooge and Marley. Instead of Ebenezer seeing his lost love enjoying the family life he might have shared, Scrooge saw his former fiance a single woman assisting the poor. When Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Present if the people are real or shadows, the spirit responds "We are the shadows. Did you not cut yourself off from your fellow beings when you lost the love of that gentle creature?" I can't help think that Dickens himself would nod and smile at that line.

Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley's ghost
Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge


The crowning jewel is the casting of Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Sim had been stealing scenes and delighting film and stage audiences for years. They couldn't get enough of his plummy voice, pop eyes and the unique way he had of insinuating himself into a character yet at the same time letting us in on the joy in his work. Michael Hordern (not yet Sir) is truly eerie and heartbreaking as Jacob Marley. Hordern would also play Scrooge in a 1977 TV version of the story. Sim and Hordern would reprise their Scrooge and Marley roles in Richard Williams' stunning 1971 animated version of the story.

One of the most memorable characters is Mrs. Dilber. In the story that is the name used for the laundress, however Langley gave it to the charlady and Kathleen Harrison ran with the role. Ms. Harrison had as long a career as a life, and she lived to be 103, with one of her last television roles in another Dickens adaption when Our Mutual Friend appeared as part of Masterpiece Theatre.

Mervyn Johns is my favourite Bob Cratchit. He plays a sweet soul, but not cloying, who is servile to a mean master only because he must. Hermione Baddeley is a perfect match as the loyal Mrs. Cratchit, and it tickles me to think that in over a decade she would be cavorting with Johns daughter Glynis in Sister Suffragette when Mary Poppins hits the screen. Ernest Thesiger (the infamous Dr. Pretorious from Bride of Frankenstein) is droll as the undertaker and Miles Malleson (the sultan from The Thief of Bagdad) unforgettable as Old Joe the junk man. The entire film is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Britain's fine character actors. As Old Joe says in the movie, "We're all suitable to our calling."

Glyn Dearman (Tiny Tim), Alastair Sim (Ebenezer Scrooge)
Francis De Wolff (Ghost of Christmas Present)
John Charlesworth (Peter Cratchit), Mervyn Johns (Bob Cratchit)
Hermione Baddeley (Mrs. Cratchit)
Assorted Cratchits champing at the bit for Christmas to begin.

The music for the film is from Richard Addinsell whose popular Warsaw Concerto is from another Hurst film, Dangerous Moonlight. The booming introduction to the movie never fails to produce goose bumps, and the imaginative use of familiar Christmas tunes and of the folk song Barbara Allen as a theme for Fan still brings a tear to my eye. In the Dickens story he mentions only a "familiar air" in relation to Scrooge's sister and the sweetly melancholy Barbara Allen is a perfect choice.



In the story Dickens mentions Sir Roger de Coverley, a traditional Christmas dance tune and it is featured prominently at Fezziwig's party. Our local classic radio station in Toronto has the tune as part of its' Christmas playlist. I never can hear those fiddles start up without hearing Alastair Sim, with excitement in his voice, say "Look, there's Old Fezziwig and Mrs. Fezziwig - top couple." We are back to Mr. Sim whose transformation from "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" to "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew" is total and touching and real. It is all that is all we can ask and more from any performance of Scrooge and any adaption of A Christmas Carol.

If your 24th is already booked and hasn't room for this personal and Canadian tradition, TCM is screening 1951s A Christmas Carol for the first time on the network on Monday, December 12th at 8:00 pm.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Ode to Mine Host

Ease of manner

A twinkle in his eye

A fan and a scholar

Sigh. What a guy!


Dear Robert Osborne,

I hope you enjoyed your recent time away from TCM. Don't do it again!!

Sincerely,
Caftan Woman