In early January 2021 I started work on preparing a series of posts in which I would explore some Holmes-related and Holmes-adjacent films. Over the course of about five days I binge-watched close to a dozen movies, making some loose notes. Before I actually got around to doing the hard part (the writing of blog posts) the political events of that moment had grabbed my attention. By the time I could turn my attention back to the project my vacation time was over and the movies had all merged together in my memory. I would have to begin from scratch.
Rather than picking a full-length feature to start with, I decided to pick on some of the very short works I haven’t seen before. Both of the short films I will be writing about today can be found in the US on the Flicker Alley Blu Ray release of the 1916 William Gillette movie (of which more at a later date).
So, with that preamble out of the way – let’s talk movies!
Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900)
Why didn’t this film get its own post? Well, it’s less than a minute long and it is clearly intended to be just a novelty that has some fun with some trick photography.
Still, while it may not be a substantial work it is nevertheless an important film because it represents the earliest known appearance of a character called Sherlock Holmes on screen. I do use that wording deliberately – the name is used to convey intelligence so the viewer will be even more astonished at the visual trickery but that is the extent of the characterization.
The story, such as it is, is that Holmes is in his flat when a burglar appears to take his silver. This figure is able to suddenly appear and then vanish with the aid of some stop tricks, then a very recent development in film, producing the titular bafflement in the Great Detective.
It’s cute enough, if obviously very slight, but what interested me was that it uses Holmes in the first place. This was an American production, made a year before Doyle returned to the character with The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I think that the use of the name illustrates how widely known the character was. Of course that popularity, and the character’s association with film, would only increase in the years to come…
A Canine Sherlock (1912)
The first thing to note is that A Canine Sherlock is not really a Sherlock Holmes film as the name is really being used as a synonym for a master detective. It is about fifteen minutes long and offers something of a plot as the detective will have to find and capture a gang of villains who have robbed a bank. As the title suggests, the gag in this lightly comic adventure is that it is the dog rather than his master, the detective Hawkshaw, who will ultimately solve the case and save the day.
In an opening scene we learn that their plan hinges on the use of a poisoned coin that will render the person who touches it unconscious. It’s not a bad trick and it suits the generally silly tone of the piece, though it doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny. The poisoning, while dramatic, does absolutely nothing to advance their scheme which hinges on them producing guns and threatening to blow up the bank if anyone tries to stop them.
After getting away Hawkshaw arrives with his canine helper in tow who sets about investigating while his master mostly just stands there. Getting the scent, he then sets off to track down the villains at their lair, finds evidence, and then brings his master to pull off the arrest. It’s all pretty silly but it can be very entertaining, particularly as the dog pulls a trick to get admission to the house and then riffles through some papers. I suggest that you don’t think about it too hard or look for credibility and instead just enjoy the cuteness.
It is, as noted, still a slight work and there’s no detection really worth speaking of but it’s cute nonetheless. Are there any actual Holmesian touches? Not really, beyond the trickery used to gain admission to the house in the first place and the detective’s expertise at fighting. The latter is actually the most ludicrous part of the film as we see the detective holding a hardened criminal in place by crossing his ankles, but in the build-up we do see him anticipate the villain’s moves, dodging attacks even when his back is turned.
Still, I was entertained and pleasantly surprised at how quickly the fifteen minutes passed. What’s more, it looks pretty amazing as presented on the Blu Ray release with a very sharp image. Of course that’s not always to the film’s benefit – the set paintings in the bank look pretty dodgy when seen in high definition – but while its staginess is evident, the rather cartoonish approach to the fireplace in the villain’s lair looks pretty striking and added a little interest for me.
As Holmes-adjacent works go, this is pretty cute and while I wouldn’t buy the Gillette movie Blu Ray for it alone, I was very pleased that it was available as an extra.
The plan for this occasional series is to for it to be an occasional effort, like my Detection Club project, rather than a weekly endeavor (there will be more Columbo soon, honest!). There will be more whenever I have the time and inclination but be prepared for me to jump around rather than to try to watch things in any sort of structure or order!