Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sherlock Sunday: The Great Detective on TV

From now until I run out of reviews, I will be giving my take on black-and-white Sherlock Holmes adaptations on the fourth Sunday of every month.

Sherlock Holmes (39 half-hour episodes, produced 1954-1955)
Starring: Ronald Howard, Howard Marion Crawford, Archie Duncan and Kenneth Richards
Directors: Steve Previn (25 episodes), Sheldon Reynolds (9 episodes) and Jack Gage (4episodes)
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

From 1954 through 1955, Ronald Howard starred as Sherlock Holmes, with Howard Marion-Crawford as Dr. Watson, in a 39-episode series that was produced in France with a British cast. The half-hour episode were mostly original stories, with some drawing heavily on some of Doyle's original tales (like "The Case of the Red Headed League," and "The French Interpreter," which was almost a straight adaptation of "The Greek Interpreter"). 

The series is more lighthearted than most Holmes adaptations that don't bill themselves as comedy, with Watson, Holmes and Lestrade taking turns at being the focus of humor, the butt of jokes, and even solving the mysteries at hand.

Ronald Howard's Holmes is a flighty, playful man possessed with an almost juvenile sense of humor. While he is every bit the genius one finds in the Conan Doyle tales, he comes across more like an overgrown child than a man who grows erratic when bored. But he is also probably far more fun to be around than Holmes would have been as he was written by Watson (and portrayed in most other adaptions). In fact, the boyish nature of Holmes as we find him here makes the cluttered rooms at 221B Baker Street seem almost like a clubhouse where he and Watson hang out after school. It's a sense that is enhanced by the good humor and comedy running through nearly every episode.

The comedic touches in the episodes is a nice addition to the Holmes tales, but an even nicer touch is the fact that Watson is repeatedly shown to be smart and capable. On more than on occasion, he even manages to out-do Holmes, primarily because Watson is more down-to-earth and less prone to flights of fancy. Another refreshing aspect to Watson's character is that he more than once stands up to Holmes rather fiercely, refusing to be the brunt of his jokes and on more than one occasion getting Holmes to apologize. In fact, the relationship between Holmes and Watson seems more real in this series than in several other versions, despite the buffoonery and antics.

Another interesting aspect of the series is the way Archie Duncan appears as several different characters throughout. His main role is as Inspector Lestrade, but he also appears as Lestrade's cousin and even one of the villains as the series unfolds.

Like all television series, this one is a mixed bag. Of the 39 episodes produced, a handful are excellent (like "The Case of the Jolly Hangman" where Holmes helps a widow by proving her husband didn't commit suicide, "The Case of the Perfect Husband" where Holmes must save an innocent woman from her psychopathic husband while attempting to prove that he has murdered half a dozen women previously) or "The Case of the Belligerent Ghost" where Watson is repeated assaulted by a dead man), a few are absolutely awful (like "The Case of the Texas Cowgirl" which has a nonsensical plot and a lame mystery, while "The Case of the Thistle Killer" was so weak that Holmes should hang his head in shame for taking so long to solve it), but most are decent little mystery tales. Some have darker tones than others--"The Case of the Perfect Husband" and "The Mother Hubbard Case" are chillers that deal with deadly serial killers, while "The Christmas Pudding" sees Holmes under real threat of death for perhaps the only time in the whole series--but the series can be a great introduction to Sherlock Holmes if you have young kids who are getting into mysteries.

There are a couple of different DVD packages that contain the entire series. I viewed the one issued by Mill Creek. The quality of the source tapes varies from episode to episode, but the sound is generally clear and the picture is only occasionally washed out. It's not perfect, but the three-disk set is very reasonably priced.

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