The World’s Funniest Detective: A History of Sherlock Holmes and Film Comedy

By  · Published on August 18th, 2016

An elementary history lesson.

Guinness World Records has stated that Sherlock Holmes is the most widely-portrayed human character ever to appear on screen. He’s beaten only by the non-human Dracula, and if I know anything about humans, we’re not about to count a contest that doesn’t let us win.

We may associate Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern BBC interpretation or the action hero brought to life by Robert Downey Jr., but what about as a silent era slapstick comic? Or a VeggieTale? Holmes has a grand and nuanced cinematic tradition that features some weird side tangents into comedy, so don’t get bent out of shape that Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly will portray the detective and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, in an upcoming film. Embrace it as a return to form.

The most well-known stage actor to play Holmes, and the man most responsible for this character and how we think of classic Holmes, is William Gillette. He wrote, directed, and starred in a popular play version (one that later featured a young Charlie Chaplin as a side character during its run in London) of Sherlock Holmes in seven different Broadway productions from 1899 – while he was being provided with new stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – to 1930 (and Doyle’s death). After over 1,300 performances, Gillette had a pretty solid idea of the character.

His version of Holmes, smoking a large parabolic calabash pipe while wearing his deerstalker hat and Inverness cape, became the recognizable sleuth that current adaptations feel they must modernize.

While the deerstalker is sometimes in the original illustrations, it’s only ever vaguely mentioned by the text and then not as a part of Holmes’s regular wardrobe.

The hat and pipe – recognizable stage costuming at its most basic and effective – were artistic choices by Gillette. Calabash pipes are expressive and sharply curved, pipes you could identify from the back of a crowded theater as pipes. The pipiest of pipes if you will.

If he’d adhered to Doyle’s stories, Holmes would smoke a long-stemmed cherrywood pipe and then he and Gandalf would have to tango over who was to be Britain’s top smoke-blower. Gillette also popularized the catchphrase “elementary” to the dear sidekick Watson, another invention beyond Doyle. But I digress.

Holmes made his first film appearance (drawing from Gillette’s portrayal) in Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900), a 30 second film that shows Holmes bamboozled by a crook with seemingly magical powers of invisibility. He pops up, steals, and disappears before Sherlock’s eyes. A tough start to a cinematic career. Sure it was just made to show off the new-fangled editing tricks that Georges Méliès was pioneering, but it was something. It was clownish and absurd, definitely not what people expected from the logical detective, but it was a recognizable name and a new spin on the character.

The early character, seen mostly in silent films up to the recently discovered 1916 film starring Gillette in an adaptation of his own play (made in Chicago at the Essanay Studios, best known for a series of short Chaplin films), was described by one scholar as a “cowboy-in-deerstalker.” Without a voice, Holmes lost his intellectualism and his logic. The stoic detective who’d solve all his crimes by more or less standing around became a kinetic action hero.

The other 1916 comedically-inclined Sherlock film is a parody starring Douglas Fairbanks called The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. In it, Fairbanks plays a cocaine-loving detective named Coke Ennyday (honest) who wears a bandolier of syringes and dips liberally into a container labeled “Cocaine” on his desk while smoking that iconic pipe. It’s one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen, which is of course why I’ve included it below:

Yes, that clock does say “EAT, DRINK, SLEEP, DOPE” instead of numbers.

After some war and stodgy cycles of British Sherlock films, he returns to comedy (after a strange detour in Buster Keaton’s 1924 Sherlock Jr.) first in Germany’s The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes in 1937 as two would-be detectives masquerade as Holmes and Watson to investigate some attractive sisters. It seems Holmes had to leave Britain to become Bond. The Case of the Screaming Bishop, a 1944 cartoon marked the first animated appearance of the detective as he (as “Hairlock Combs” ha ha) finds that a xylophonist has stolen a dinosaur skeleton.

Daffy and Porky take on the duo next in Deduce, You Say! (1956). It’s like “The deuce you say?”, get it? This cartoon parodies the logical aspects of the character more than his mere profession or name, though it still gives him a silly one (Dorlock Homes this time). When a mailman falls into the pair’s home, Dorlock assumes poison, likely a South American alkaloid. The mailman gets up and yells at him for not fixing his steps.

The ’70s saw a resurgence in live-action comic detection as the dramatic Holmes had again wormed its way into the cultural consciousness enough to need a thorough drubbing. Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is not only a first-rate detective story, it’s also the first textual instance of Holmes and Watson as a gay couple (as an excuse to avoid the advances of a Russian ballerina).

They Might Be Giants, the 1971 movie that lent its name to the band, and 1976’s The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective featured men that believed themselves to be Holmes after some sort of emotional or physical distress. Both don the outfit made famous by Gillette and both, it turns out, are pretty good at being detectives. Gene Wilder’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother follows his younger, jealous brother in a lowbrow slapstick as enjoyable and charming as the Looney Tune. On the other side is John Cleese’s terrible The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It, which spoofs Holmes much closer to the 1916 cocaine debacle, and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978) which is so bad that its IMDB rating is 4.8/10 stars (for reference, Suicide Squad’s is at 6.8).

The Private Eyes leads the ’80s as Don Knotts plays an inept Holmes to Tim Conway’s dense Watson in what seems to have been a sort of Ernest Goes to Detective School. While either can be silly, the formula always works best when there’s a competent straight man. That’s what Without a Clue (1988) gets right. It features Watson as the crime fighter and author who must hire a ne’er-do-well actor to be his literary creation: Holmes. The public image of Holmes is so soundly British and upstanding that any instance of scoundrelish behavior is immediately fun.

Zero Effect (a 1998 film based on the Doyle short story “A Scandal in Bohemia”) follows suit with a ’90s Holmes-like character (Bill Pullman) so eccentric to border on mad and a straight-laced Watson stand-in (Ben Stiller). Its wry humor and abject weirdness seems to have influenced the black pseudo-comedies on TV that draw from Holmes like House and Psych. It helps that, in Roger Ebert’s words, the protagonist fits the description of every female TV protagonist:

“He’s hopelessly incompetent in his personal life, but when he goes into P.I. mode he’s cool, competent, suave and self-confident”.

Lucky in life, unlucky in love. Classic Holmes….right?

To round up the remaining odds and ends, Young Sherlock Holmes lightheartedly explained where Holmes got all of his trademarks (hat, cloak, cold and calculating disposition) in what’s basically an Indiana Jones story, because as we all know from Hollywood, our identity is always specifically formed by one major adventure in our lives that can be boiled down to about 100 minutes.

He’s also been seen in Tom and Jerry as a human and Great Mouse Detective in his own right, as an anime schoolgirl, and as a cucumber that treats his Watson-tomato so badly that he up and quits. He also fought a dinosaur thanks to the company behind Sharknado.

So yes, though Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Game of Shadows may be more glossy, sexy versions of the detective, there’s really nothing that hasn’t been done to the character over the years. John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell have never made a bad movie together, so why should they start now? I’m ready for Holmes to get back to his comedy roots. I just hope there’s an invisible man in this one.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).