The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
The 1970s Wilder Sherlock Holmes movie that ought to be undergoing the critical rehabilitation. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is as hit-and-miss as any spoof will inevitably be, such that Gene’s directorial debut is no more so than the average Mel Brooks affair. It’s a winning combination of the quite clever and the rather puerile, and if the mystery itself does little to hold together, that still makes his brother’s outing significantly more successful overall than Billy’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, mistakenly feted these days as an unsung classic.
Wilder (Gene) asked Brooks to direct, but he demurred. He was only interested in making movies based on his own conception or “in a way it would be a waste of his time” (presumably, this didn’t include To Be or Not to Be remakes). They’d wind up “competing” with spoofs for the rest of the decade (Brooks with High Anxiety and Silent Movie; Wilder with The World’s Greatest Lover). Wilder’s oeuvre was in no danger of eclipsing Brooks’, though, and as directors they both entered freefall during the ’80s. While his novice work may be undisciplined, however, he’s consistently inventive and full of ideas. Indeed, it’s easy to fall into step recalling the lesser, later Wilder (which includes any Richard Pryor pairing beyond their first two) and forget that, during the ’70s, the actor had a pretty good run, and was consistently pretty funny. His Holmes spoof was duly a hit (Per The Numbers, sixteenth for the year), but it has since drifted into semi-obscurity.
The premise – on the grounds that Wilder didn’t want to poke fun at the sleuth outright – revolves around hitherto unmentioned younger brother Sigerson (our star), called upon by Sherlock to deal with a case while he and Watson, menaced by murderers at every quarter, duck out of the way for a while. Wilder duly borrows a trick from his Young Frankenstein co-write with Brooks, making a family member of a famous literary character less than a fan; Sigerson (Sigerson and Marty Feldman’s Sacker were earlier or aliases of Holmes and Watson) fumes that his brother’s fame is “Sheer-luck!”, and while he needs the occasional prod, and makes the occasional deductive blunder, he isn’t identified as the idiot that, say, Michael Caine’s thespian Holmes is in Without a Clue.
The plot is a bit of fluff about a stolen document, one Moriarty (Leo McKern, playing up the Oirisihness of the name for all its hammy worth) is intent on securing. Queen Victoria (Susan Field) gave it to Foreign Secretary Lord Redcliff (John Le Mesurier). This opening scene is an ominous harbinger for the movie, with some crappy innuendo and the Anunnaki regent saying “Shit!”, but things quickly pick up, fortunately. Nevertheless, Douglas Wilmer, who played Holmes for the BBC a decade earlier – Cushing took over for the second season – was as disparaging about Wilder’s take as he had been his first stint as Sherlock. He complained his director had “no real feeling for the character of Holmes” and his part “ridiculed the man” (maybe as written, but not really on screen) and was also “far too lavatorial for my taste” (hardly likely to have been improved, had Brooks agreed to direct).
Which is a shame, as both Wilmer and Thorley Walters (who also played Watson before, and would again) come across rather well. Their opening scene, as Holmes nonchalantly smokes a pipe will flourishing cue cards to a stunned Watson, explaining there’s an ugly 6ft 3in murderer at the door, is nothing if not a celebration of Holmes’ acumen. Sure, we later see him and Watson in drag, but far from merely a cheap bit of cabaret schtick, it has precedence in the stories. Later, during a theatrical performance, Sherlock repeatedly throws sand over his shoulder, into the face of his brother (oblivious to his presence), in order to alert him to an assassination bid in the rafters.
Jenny Hill: My name is Jenny Hill, and I’m simultaneously funny and sad.
Wilder gives Sigerson an appealingly cantankerous edge, as well as a skill with the rapier utilising the actor’s own training (Wilder was so good that he was even called upon as an instructor). It’s true enough that his romance with Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn) isn’t exactly psychologically honed, but the picture is hardly reliant on such underpinning, in contrast to the grief-stricken Holmes of Private Life. Certainly not when Wilder and Kahn, abundant in chemistry and comedic chops, are sharing screen time. No sooner has “Bessie Bellwood” arrived at the door with a tale of woe about being blackmailed by opera singer Eduardo Gambetti (Dom DeLuise) than Sigerson is on to her: “Won’t you come in, MISS LIAR?”
Sigerson: You’ve just told me a magnificent success story. Overlooking the fact that you’re a liar, a thief, a traitor and a whore, I don’t see what should be bothering you.
Jenny is indeed a compulsive liar, hence a subsequent scene in which she admits to Sigerson, attempting to extract the identity of her father by sexually stimulating her, that dad is
Redcliff; the ridiculousness of this endeavour clearly isn’t lost on the pair, as both are corpsing by the end of the arousal. Wilder services Kahn with some hilarious lines, such as the detail of the compromising letter (“I said I wanted to touch his winkle”; “His what?” asks Orville). And, in response to Sigerson telling her he assumed she was lying, “One of these days you’re going to assume a broken ASS, Mr Holmes!” (it’s all in the delivery). Yeah, Wilmer had a point on the level of the content, but there’s a mix and match, and the crudity often lands because it’s delivered in a manner that is heightened or even absurdist (you could hardly have otherwise with Kahn and Wilder).
Quite how/why Jenny is both governess – it turns out she isn’t Redcliff’s daughter but his lover – and stage performer, I was never really clear, except that it covers a lot of bases. Besides Kahn, Wilder extracts some winning turns from his Young Frankenstein co-stars Feldman and DeLuise. The former barely needs to widen his eyes to induce mirth, and there’s much of that here (also a mutually bare-cheeked dance scene, in which they enter a formal event unaware that their near escape from giant saw blade has been very near).
Moriarty: (caught trying to break a vase over his head) You’ve got a lovely vase.
Gambetti: And you got a lovely face!
DeLuise is just extraordinary, completely unhinged, and his scene with McKern, the later showing up to buy the document, profoundly insane. It’s possibly one of the most batshit-inspired comedic exchanges in the history of cinema, culminating in Deluise biting McKern’s nose (and not enjoying the taste). Before they get into bed together. I’m hugely impressed too that McKern seems to be rising to the challenge, rather than wilting in the face of an insane American (well, insane Patrick McGoohan once nearly did for him, after all).
The first scene between Moriarty and his henchman Finney (Roy Kinnear, who knew Wilder from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) had me thinking they might both be tonally askew, just that bit too loud and thundering. But much of what follows is bliss from both, in particular a scene where Finney, scoffing his face, is told to spit out the contents of his mouth by Moriarty (who is generally afflicted by several tics and an “urge to do something really rotten every 24 minutes”).
The opera that takes up much of the final act is also stuffed with gems. Not all of the musical flourishes in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother land; I could have done without the baby dancing sequence, and the Kangaroo Hop outstays its welcome before the end of its first showing, let alone the encore. But the irreverence of the opera, with such “dramatic” dialogue as “You’ve got your hands on my wife’s boobies!” and sung verse “The chicken was delicious/Everyone is dancing/Up and down/All around/Let’s hope we don’t get sick”, is delirious, and punctuated by the invitation/code “Why don’t we all drink/some very sexy wine?”
Possibly anticipating this might be a curate’s egg, an Albert Finney fourth-wall-breaking cameo is on hand to ask “Is this rotten, or wonderfully brave?” David Stuart Davies in starring Sherlock Holmes deemed that the comedy “missed Mel Brooks’ steadying hand and suffered to some extent from self-indulgence”, while Alan Barnes’ Sherlock Holmes on Screen was closer to the mark when he suggested it “veers between wildly vulgar and near-sublime throughout” and emerged “a distinctly mixed bag”. However, his assessment that McKern “steals the show from… Wilder” may only be partially accurate; really, DeLuise steals it from both.
The nature of comedy is that – within reason – it depends as much on the beholder’s taste and mood as it does on the actual content. I’d seen The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother before, but I remembered it as little more than passable. On this visit, I’d suggest it’s more than on a par with Brooks’ celebrated ’70s offerings (which, dare I say it, tend to the status of a little overrated). You could do a lot worse than give it a chance. But don’t forget to do so with a glass of some very sexy wine.