TV Flashback: Sherlock Holmes in the 50s
Can Sherlock Holmes solve a mystery in 24 minutes? I had to find out, so I watched this 50s TV show starring Ronald Howard as Sherlock Holmes and Howard Marion Crawford as Watson. Howard’s take on Holmes is more casual than Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is the kind of tone you get from this series. Sure, Holmes and Watson solve crimes, but the series feels like Holmes is just starting out, with Holmes making mistakes and Watson seemingly the hot-headed one. This is mostly due to Howard basing his take on Holmes found in The Study in Scarlet, and Holmes freely admits he’s not good at playing the violin. Geezus, don’t go off the deep end, pal.
Although youthful, the series feels a bit too casual in some places. This is mostly due to Howard, who is by far less neurotic than Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbun ever were. He slouches when he’s seated and he keeps a hand in his pocket while he’s talking. His dialogue delivery is not as sharp or terse as Brett or Cumberbun and Howard has none of Rathbone’s high-strung style. You can always count on Rathbone for an aggressive monologue or two for every movie he’s made. Most of Howard’s work was in movies too, but he played supporting characters like Andrei in The Queen of Spades (1949), and he lets others chime in with equal supporting flavor for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
“The Case of the Cunningham Heritage” is the first episode in the 50s Holmes TV series. Holmes and Watson meet for the first time, and we follow Watson as he arrives from Afghanistan. This is a good idea, to begin the series by using Watson as a window into the show, just like Watson was used as the narrator in the books. They exchange some dialogue and the two of them go off on their first case together, where it looks like a young lady is dead to rights as the prime suspect in a murder.
The sets and the environment is unremarkable and I really can’t say much about them. They work to mark the period, I guess, but you can see the pavement and other little things that don’t seem to fit in, even though it’s supposed to be 1897. Sherlock Holmes historian Baring-Gould puts A Study in Scarlet in 1881, and I’m at a loss as to explain why the TV show should pick 1897 over 1881 or even 1890, but 1897 is the first edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in book form, so somebody’s been garage sale shopping. I think they felt 1897 was more contemporary a setting, though I can’t say it makes any difference visually or story-wise.
Of the other cast members, Archie Duncan plays Lestrade as an older, balding gentlemen and there’s no Mrs. Hudson to be found in the first episode. You can almost catch Duncan’s Scottish accent, because that’s where he was born. He does a good job playing an agitated English detective, because he’s awfully ticked off for most of the first episode. He sulks, paces around, smokes a cigar and keeps telling Holmes to bug off. Holmes shows patience.
Holmes makes mistakes. This fits in with Howard’s take on Holmes. He and Watson and caught red handed breaking into a house to investigate a murder crime scene. Like a Perry Mason case, they are interrupted by the REAL murderer, who holds them at gunpoint as he spills his guts about the details behind his crime. After whacking him upside the head, Watson celebrates and Lestrade conveniently drops in to arrest the fallen villain. Holmes becomes a little more witty at this point and wraps up the episode by indulging Lestrade with details about what REALLY happened in the case.
Overall, this is a pretty decent first episode, if a bit short. Howard as Sherlock Holmes is casual, though dry-witted and intelligence in most scenes. Watson is straight-laced and not a bumbling comedian like Nigel Bruce–maybe more like the Edward Hardwicke with more intensity. I can’t get over how Mrs. Hudson isn’t in this first episode, as she seems like an essential part of any Sherlock Holmes story you’d want to include. Still, you can’t have everything in 24 minutes, and they barely have enough time to throw in an introduction and a one-room crime. The show does it’s best to get around these little pesky problems of time and budget and tries to remain entertaining.