As London's preternatural sleuth, John Barrymore broods through the producers' emphasis on his matinee-idol "Great Profile" even as his alcoholism continued tightening his sharp features
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., June 26, 2009
Sherlock HolmesKino, $24.95
Time will tell where Robert Downey Jr.'s tweeds hang in the closet of Sherlock Holmes and whether Jude Law rejuvenates Dr. John Watson in suspect UK mastermind Guy Ritchie's forthcoming detective caper. One thing's for sure, however: There was a time when John Hughes' onetime brat packer seemed destined for the same fate as one of his Eighties precursors a century earlier. John Barrymore (1882-1942) only dons Holmes' coat and deerstalker hat toward the climax of 1922's Sherlock Holmes, unleashing a burst of pre-Ritchie machismo. The first family of acting's scion scowls well within his comfort zone here, adding to his silent film cast of classic characters – Don Juan, Ahab, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. As London's preternatural sleuth, Barrymore broods through the producers' emphasis on his matinee-idol "Great Profile" even as his alcoholism continued tightening his sharp features. In a supporting role, William Powell, 30, floppy hair and no mustache, looks thin, man, yet lived to be 91. Barrymore, a decade his senior and barely making it to 60, appears lanky, his arms too long like his brother Lionel's. Even then, seeing him sprint in the flickering expressionism of early cinema, accompanied contemporarily by psychedelic organ music, thrills. "I've been groping for my place in the scheme of things – I've found it," Barrymore's Holmes tells Watson, played by Topper's Roland Young. (Look for gossip queen Hedda Hopper as one of the baddens.) "My life's work is to rid the world of that gigantic menace, Moriarty." Holmes' archenemy drives this chapter of Watson's memoirs, less a mystery than a circular chase – Holmes chasing Moriarty and vice versa. Moriarty's almost as matted as Barrymore in Svengali (1931), his eyebrows later appearing as the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. When the two men converge at 221-B Baker St., lurking around corners with guns drawn, predators straining to pick up the other's scent – the soundtrack heating the aural mercury – all silent moviedom bursts to life with hero/villain/heroine-tied-to-the-tracks iconography. Moriarty's gang of thugs practically spills out of some ink-lacquered graphic novella from last century. And when Barrymore as Holmes strips off a disguise, it's a thrilling glimpse of Broadway, where the actor thrived before Hollywood bought him a castle. As Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, "Any attempt at recovering the bodies was absolutely hopeless."