"SHERLOCK HOLMES"

(1954 - Television)
With Ronald Howard, H. Marion Crawford, Archie Duncan, Richard Larke
Developed for Television by Sheldon Reynolds
Reviewed by JB

"Holmes... I will not be ignored!"    In the never-ending debate as to who was the best Sherlock Holmes, the names of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett come up most often (and now Benedict Cumberbatch has entered the argument), while the name of Ronald Howard gets lost in the shuffle.  In 1954, Howard was Holmes to millions of television viewers. The series, produced in France and aired in America, lasted for 39 episodes and featured Howard, son of actor Leslie Howard, as the great detective and Howard Marion-Crawford as his trusted colleague Dr. John Watson.  

    Howard had a warmth and charm to his Holmes that Rathbone and Brett often lacked, making Holmes more human and less of an automaton.  He excelled at playing an energetic Holmes whose mind could be on two or three things at once.  Overall, he had the look, he had the voice and he he had the acting chops to create one of the more memorable depictions of the world's most famous fictional character.

    Howard Marion-Crawford was a blustery and hot-headed Watson, but an intelligent, fun-loving loyal one.  He's a Watson who may enjoy lounging about the flat, but will get into a scrape at the drop of a hat.   In general, he comes close to the Dr. Watson one finds in the original stories and novels, a Watson you would probably enjoy sharing a pint with at a local pub.  It's regrettable these two actors never had the opportunity to do a Sherlock Holmes feature film. They worked wonderfully together and had fun with the mostly intelligent scripts that featured sharp and funny dialog like this:

WATSON: "Well, he's fiftyish, sandy-hair, medium build..."
HOLMES: "Is that all you observed?  No characteristics?"
WATSON: "Well, now really, Holmes, when I had the chance of examining him on the bed the most obvious characteristic was that he was dead!"

Sherlock sez: Smoking is fun, kids!    The production featured a beautifully recreated Baker Street set as well as a handful of sets that were used again and again.  Archie Dunn made for a memorable Inspector Lestrade, although like several other actors, he was also called upon to play various other roles in multiple episodes. The stories themselves were occasionally based on the original stories, including a nicely done version of "The Red Headed League" that unfortunately has Holmes only half-explaining how he solved the mystery, and a severely truncated but nonetheless enjoyable version of the novel The Valley of Fear, here whittle down to 26 minutes (no mentions of Professor Moriarty, no Birdy Edwards, no Valley of Fear!) and titled "The Case of the Pennsylvania Gun".  The pilot episode features an original plot but offers Holmes fans something we've rarely seen before - the historical moment depicted in the novel A Study in Scarlet where Watson meets Holmes for the first time and they agree, for economic reasons, to share a flat at 221B Baker Street.  

    While many other episodes are fine original little mysteries that Conan Doyle might have approved of, such as "The Case of the Belligerent Ghost" in which Watson is accosted on the street by a man he just pronounced dead an hour before, or just plain fun like "The Case of the Neurotic Detective" in which Watson has every reason to suspect Holmes of being the master criminal whom all of Scotland Yard has been looking for, the series could swing wildly from sharp episodes to silly stuff like "The Laughing Mummy", an enjoyable bit of fluff which plays like an old Hal Roach short.  Some episodes are definitey misfires.  It took Star Trek three season before it could come up with something as bad as "The Texas Cowgirl", the series third episode.

    There were few "name" actors to appear in the series, with the exception of Paulette Goddard, who played the title character in "The Case of Lady Beryl", but film and TV buffs will enjoy spotting Michael Gough, famous now for playing Alfred in the Tim Burton Batman films, and Natalie Shaefer, who would go on to play Lovey Howell in Gilligan's Island.

    As with the Rathbone-Bruce films of the 1940s, these episodes have a core cast and a period charm that can should allow all but the most die-hard Holmes purists to overlook any liberties taken with the characters.  It is a series that should deserves to be collected and enjoyed as much as the Basil Rathbone films or the Jeremy Brett television series.  It's elementary - Ronald Howard and Howard Marion-Crawford rank among the best Holmes and Watsons ever. 4½ - JB


THE SID FIELDS OF BAKER STREET

    The producers tended to reuse certain favored actors and actresses in different roles throughout the 39 episode run.  Even Archie Duncan, who played the eternally confused Inspector Lestrade in many episodes, was cast as another character in a handful of late episodes.  The hardest working member of the Sherlock Holmes stock company had to be Eugene Decker, who appeared in seven different episodes, and was equally good in comic or serious roles.  Here he is pictured as the tempermental musician in "The Case of the Shy Ballerina".  Among other roles in the series, he can be seen as the crooked pawn shop worker Vincent Spalding in "The Case of the Red Headed League" and the psychiatrist Professor Fishblade (not a typo!) who attempts to learn what makes Holmes tick but is driven to a near nervous breakdown himself by the detective.  (For those who don't know who Sid Fields was, he was a great comic who played landlord "Sid Fields" on the 1950s Abbott and Costello show, where he also often played various relatives of Sid Fields, who just happened to look exactly like Sid Fields!)

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