Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Scrounger’s Cheapjack Christmas Special! #20: Sherlock Holmes

Just Enough Information: Sherlock Holmes! Now we’re talking! Victorian London! Gaslight and hansom cabs! Baker Street! And right at the center of it all, Basil Rathbone as the master detective! Right?

No? Okay, Jeremy Brett then. Wait, not even?

Peter Cushing? Arthur Wontner? I’m sure it can’t be William Gillette…just a moment, please.

One Google search later: Who the hell is Ronald Howard?

(Deep breath…)

Ronald Howard (son of everybody’s favorite Ashley Wilkes impersonator Leslie Howard) was the star of the first—and to date, only—American-made Sherlock Holmes television series, produced in 1954 by Sheldon Reynolds for syndication. As with a lot of American television adaptations of the time, some of the more contentious edges of the Holmes personality have been sanded off for home consumption (The needle? Not here you don’t…). If that wasn’t bad enough, only one story out of the 39 produced was actually from a Arthur Conan Doyle story, but Howard does what he can with what he’s given. H. Marion Crawford plays what by then was the standard Watson—that is, fluctuating between dense as a lead ingot and almost useful—and the part Victorian London is played by postwar Paris.

The Christmas Episode: “The Christmas Pudding”. Original Airdate: April 4(!!!), 1955. You see? As if we weren’t already in enough trouble. That’s the airdate given by The Usual Sources, but as with anything in syndication, your mileage may vary.

We open at the trial of John Henry Norton, notorious Bluebeard who is going to his fate thanks to some type of remarkable Sherlockian cleverness we never got to see. On his way out of the courtroom, he very pointedly asks his wife—the one he didn’t kill—to bring him his Christmas pudding (underlined and boldfaced, as if the title wasn’t enough of an alert). Then he dramatically turns to Holmes, who has a front row seat to this dog and pony show, and reminds him that it’s a long way from the courtroom to the gallows, screaming “I’ll kill you before I die!” That won't help his appeals case.

“I’ll get you, my pretty! And your little Watson, too!”

Cut to the Norton home and hey! There’s his missus making the Christmas pudding, just like in the title! Since we now know that the pudding is somehow involved in an attempted murder, we’re paying extra close attention to all things pudding-related.

Ladies and gentlemen: Chekhov’s pudding.

Whoop, still flaming! Is he going to burn the prison down? Well, she blows it out, so that couldn’t be it.

Back at Baker Street, Holmes receives what is supposed to pass for a mysterious note.

Watson: “What does it mean?” Viewer: “What the hell do you think it means? That the UPS man missed your delivery?”

After a visit to Newgate which does nothing to put Holmes’ mind at ease, Mrs. Simpleton Norton delivers that mysterious Christmas pudding. Once the superintendent casually stabs the thing a few times with a knife to make sure there’s not a saw inside (because nobody would be that thuddingly obvious in a Sherlock story, not even this one), the missus makes her delivery and Norton wears a smile like the cat who ate the canary.

A constipated cat, obviously.

By now, this Holmes is jumpier than anyone playing Holmes usually becomes in a tight spot, and he only gets worse when he finds out that Norton has somehow cut through the bars and escaped. Obviously we’re not going to end the show with a dead detective (Next week: The Adventures of Watson and Lestrade!), so the only real mystery is how the guy filed through the bars. The out-of-nowhere answer will make you beat your head against the wall repeatedly. (BIG BAD SPOILERS under the black bars…highlight to reveal) Anyone at a prison—let alone in charge of a prison—who can’t tell the difference between decorative glittery twine and a diamond-impregnated wire saw needs to get out of the penal system and take up goat farming. Correct me if I'm wrong here.

Our Holiday Lesson For Today: Never build a Sherlock Holmes story on a gimmick they’d throw out of Shylock Fox.

But Don’t Take My Word For It: via Tuvetube (aka “another site I’ve never heard of”)

Hulu also has this one in slightly better encoding (if not a better print quality), but as usual, all bets are off if you don’t live in the US. Just this once, I skipped the Youtube option, since the only available copy denies us the unforgettable sight of the producer’s name being larger than Sherlock Holmes in the opening credits. What a ham.

Extracurricular Reading: Reynolds later briefly controlled the Holmes copyrights, but like any story involving copyrights (especially in America), what happened next is a baffling mess…and an excellent reason why endless copyright extensions are a bad idea. The New York Times walked through the whole rights situation earlier this year.

Next: Joe Santa Claus!

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