[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]
Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, and music scorer John Morris notwithstanding, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is no Young Frankenstein. What’s been crucially left out of the mix is virtually any feeling for those literary and cinematic forebears all but the most couthless of viewers must have in the back or front of mind. The Mel Brooks film’s attention to the traditions from which it sprang supplied it with not only resonance but also more sheer utilitarian structure than its catch-all creator had ever managed to come up with before. Lacking such scrupulousness, Wilder’s own directorial debut (he did help write Young Frankenstein) is reduced to a series of skits and skips—or hops, as it would musically have it—which stand or stumble according to the sweetness and sureness, or vagrancy and lameness, of the momentary shtick. Only one moment early in the film suggests a commitment to comedic extrapolation and embellishment of Conan Doyle’s abundant narrative quirks: As a menacing—and very literal—heavy (George Silver, the Fat Man of Gumshoe) crouches outside Sherlock Holmes’ door, Holmes (Douglas Wilmer) apprises Watson (Thorley Walters) of the fact by way of flashcard—then proceeds to run through a series of cards anticipating Watson’s ensuing reactions and questions.
To accommodate Wilder’s stardom, the Baker Street sleuth elects not to handle the case of the filched state secret (even though he will be continually in evidence on the periphery of the action) but rather to pass it on to his monotonously resentful brother Sigerson, ostensibly because (though the comic idea isn’t really developed) Sigi is such an irresistible ladies’ man and a certain music-hall entertainer (Madeline Kahn in her now-standard nympho number) is central to the problem. Wilder and Kahn have their moments, as does Marty Feldman in a one-joke performance as Sigi’s demi-Watson “with the world’s only phonographic memory.” More consistently pleasurable are Leo McKern as Professor Moriarty and Dom DeLuise as an Italianate villain a little downwind of Jack Oakie’s Napoloni, most especially in their first encounter when, carried away with their own evilness, they start biting each other. But I’m in great danger of making the movie sound more amusing than it manages to be. Silliness is lovely, but even silliness has to be sustained, and Wilder’s/Sigerson’s pretensions to graceful comic heroism are insistent enough that we are forced to be notably disappointed with the endeavor as a whole.
THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER
Screenplay and direction: Gene Wilder. Cinematography: Gerry Fisher. Music: John Morris.
The players: Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Leo McKern, Dom DeLuise, Roy Kinnear, Douglas Wilmer, Thorley Walters.
Copyright © 1976 Richard T. Jameson