The Holmes Who Wasn't There
- Cited in the Guinness Book of World Records as the screen's most portrayed character in history, Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic character Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed over 200 times on screen by more than 70 actors. For most audiences, the definitive Sherlock Holmes seems to be Basil Rathbone who played the iconic character on the big screen 14 times from 1939 to 1946. The lanky, witty, deerstalker cap-wearing, calabash pipe-smoking Holmes of the Rathbone mold tends to be the general image that embodies Holmes in the minds of audiences everywhere to the point that few remember that Holmes was portrayed by many different actors decades long before Rathbone. Although Rathbone seems to be the most iconic screen incarnation of Holmes (for now), the most prolific Sherlock Holmes is in fact Eille Norwood who starred in 47 Holmes silent film productions between 1920 and 1923.
However, another prolific Holmes also existed before Rathbone - Arthur Wontner, starring in five Holmes films from 1931-1937. The Sleeping Cardinal (1931; AKA: Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour - the American title that makes no sense at all) was Arthur Wontner's first Sherlock Holmes film - and one that is still very accessible. Unlike other Sherlock Holmes adaptations that set Holmes in his original late 19th Century setting, Wontner's Holmes stories were set in their present era (in this case, the 1930s) and are only lightly based on Conan Doyle's stories. While The Sleeping Cardinal could have been a stronger film, is a fairly enjoyable first vehicle for Wontner's Holmes, seeing Holmes on a case involving a rigged game of cards, bank robberies, murder and an introduction to Moriarty.
Arthur Wontner's entry into The Sleeping Cardinal is very low-key, even uneventful, almost a quarter of the way through the film. Wontner's Holmes films tend to place emphasis on the plot over the characters but The Sleeping Cardinal especially treats Holmes as almost a secondary character - basically a Holmes who wasn't there - giving just as much, if not more, screentime to its other characters. The other Sherlock Holmes film of 1931, The Speckled Band starring Raymond Massey, does this as well - however that film is so short (clocking in under an hour) that less screentime for Holmes is not as noticeable.
Arthur Wontner does not portray Sherlock Holmes in a way that can be considered a strict adherence to the character's literary roots. The violin playing, the calabash pipe, the deer stalk cap and the powers of observation are there but the eccentricity, depth and relationship with Watson (Wontner's Watsons - Ian Fleming and Ian Hunter - were largely poor, bumbling sidekicks) of Doyle's Holmes are hard to find throughout Wontner's five pictures. However, Wontner's greatest strength is his strong screen presence. Quite convincing as the benevolent detective, Wontner portrays a brilliant but tough Holmes, unafraid to dash into a room without sending Watson in first as his canary in a coalmine. So while Wontner is not the picture-perfect interpretation of Doyle's Holmes or one of the screen's greatest Holmes incarnations, I find him to be an enjoyable one nonetheless.
The film itself is only slightly more "there" than Wontner's Holmes is in the story of "The Sleeping Cardinal". Director Leslie S. Hiscott was not new to the talkies and, while he (with cinematographers Sydney Blythe and William Luff) create a nice visual picture (what I consider the finest photography of Wontner's films), the story suffers a bit. The Sleeping Cardinal starts out well but its slow-burning mystery unfortunately hardly warms up at all. Not helping matters much is the seemingly ill transvestite zombie Professor Moriarty (played by a nonexistent Norman McKinnell) who is unsuccessfully passed off as London's criminal mastermind and Holmes' intellectual equal.
One almost has to be a Holmes fanatic to like it (so what if I am?) but, despite the obvious flaws, The Sleeping Cardinal struck me as a fairly enjoyable 1930s Sherlock Holmes adventure thanks to Wontner's Holmes and the Hiscott-lead visual team. Wontner would continue on from 1931's The Sleeping Cardinal to four more Holmes adventures - some better, some worse: Sherlock Holmes and the Missing Rembrandt (1932 - officially a lost film), The Sign of Four (1932), The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935) and Silver Blaze (1937).
CBC Rating: 6/10