John Barrymore’s 1922 Sherlock Holmes was not the first screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, the most well-known fictional character in English literature, and certainly not the definitive. This production, directed by Albert Parker as a mix of dime novel adventure and pulp crime thriller, is ostensibly based on Doyle’s stories but more directly on the play by William Gillette, a stage actor who made a career playing Holmes. It offers an origin story to the detective and his battle with criminal mastermind Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz) that begins at college, where Holmes’ friend and fellow student Watson (Roland Young) introduces him to a mystery that leads Holmes into the criminal empire of Moriarty. Jump ahead a few years and Holmes is now the brilliant (and publicly modest) detective of 221 Baker Street, dedicated to dismantling Moriarty’s underworld web and still carrying a torch for a beautiful young woman (Carol Dempster) he met once in his college days.
That young woman is Alice Faulkner and her plight — she’s held prisoner by Moriarty, who is after letters in her possession that he can use to blackmail a Crown Prince — brings Holmes’ battle with Moriarty to a head. That’s the simplified version of the story, which is overly convoluted and tangled and, for a Holmes mystery, often quite sloppy. Or is simply that Holmes is so smitten with Alice that he’s not thinking clearly when he leaves her in the clutches of her captors, convinced she’ll be safe for the time being? Not the most logical of deductions, to this untrained mind.
The confused motivations and complications are simply discarded when the film shifts from mystery to elaborate battle of wits between Moriarty, determined to finally kill the meddling detective, and Holmes, who plots to end Moriarty’s reign of terror. It’s also one of the wordiest silent films I’ve ever seen, filled with pages of intertitles explicating the overly convoluted plot and providing Holmes’ commentary of clues, deductions and schemes.