In which I look more like Sherlock Holmes than Robert Downey did

'The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual'. Dr Watson watching Sherlock Holmes going through mementoes of his old cases. From The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle from The Strand Magazine (London, 1893). Illustration by Sidney E Paget, the first artist to draw Sherlock Holmes. Engraving.

Not a bad weekend, all in all. The storms did no damage to my house that I’m aware of. I’d planned on doing something constructive and diligent in terms of house maintenance, but wasn’t able to manage it. On Sunday I gathered with other Sons of Norway members at Wabun Park in Minneapolis, and oddly enough it wasn’t for anything having to do with Vikings (much). We had a picnic to celebrate the centennial of our district. Somebody had spoken vaguely of dressing in period for 1910, so I made an effort. I wore a white dress shirt with a tie, light-colored khaki trousers with suspenders (Y shaped. You’ve got to have the Y configuration). And I topped it off with my panama hat. I actually looked sort of like I might have come from the 1930s, if you didn’t look too closely, but I made the effort. This paid off when somebody showed up with a 1913 Moline automobile, and I got to ride around in it a little because I was dressed right.

Sometimes—rarely–virtue is rewarded in this world.

Also watched the DVD of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey.

What shall I say about this very odd concoction?

Modern technology has allowed filmmakers to re-create Victorian London in glorious detail, to the delight of all history lovers.

But you’ll learn more about the way actual Victorians spoke and thought by watching Basil Rathbone in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.”

Robert Downey’s performance was great, and not entirely sundered from the literary character he was playing. At moments, Conan Doyle’s detective was recognizable. But not from appearance.

Why has it become a sin to dress neatly? When was the last time a movie hero dressed up, in any movie?

“But Holmes was a bohemian, a misfit,” people will say. “Watson himself describes him as untidy.”

Well, yes and no. Here’s what Watson actually says, in “The Musgrave Ritual.”

An anomaly which often struck me in the character of my friend Sherlock Holmes was that, although in his methods of thought he was the neatest and most methodical of mankind, and although also he affected a certain quiet primness of dress, he was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow-lodger to distraction.

This is the formula for Holmes, according to the “Sacred Conan”: dresses neatly, keeps a messy room.

Worse than that, on a couple occasions Downey’s Holmes walks out on the street with nothing on his head.

This is an even greater sin than the occasion when, in “Murder By Decree,” Christopher Plummer as Holmes wore his deerstalker cap and Inverness cape to the opera.

Listen—until the early 20th Century, gentlemen in the western world never went out of doors without hats on. It wasn’t done.

There was even an American cartoon character named Happy Hooligan, who spoofed that societal norm by wearing a little tin can balanced precariously on top of his big round head, satirizing the fact that a man would wear almost anything he could get his hands on, rather than appear publicly bare-headed.

(This, by the way, is where the term “nut” for someone who acts strange and crazy came from. The first social rebels who went out without hats were called nuts, and the term stuck even after its reason for being had passed away.)

I would have truly enjoyed seeing Downey do Holmes properly. As it was, I can’t deny I had a good time with the steampunk Holmes.

But I am left asking, “What need does it serve?”

17 thoughts on “In which I look more like Sherlock Holmes than Robert Downey did”

  1. I recommend the series Granada did, with Jeremy Brett as Holmes. It’s the best I’ve seen; great look, writing, and acting. (I think they filmed all the stories.)

    – I don’t think the original stories (by Doyle) have ever been bested; but I’m no expert on the field.

  2. The Granada series is great. But Brett is too short (as is Downey, come to think of it), and he got fat in the later years. Also I read somewhere that he said he played Holmes as a closeted homosexual, which makes it all weird now.

  3. Jeremy Brett’s portrayal and the music that accompanied it is what I think of when imagining Holmes. I can’t keep anyone else in mind.

  4. This is the first time I’ve heard the dress criticized (which I suspect you are right about), usually it is that it is too violent, or Holmes wouldn’t have engaged in fisticuffs, etc., Except that he did. Many of the things people complained about were actually truer to the stories than were done on screen by Basil the Great, for instance.

  5. Doyle describes Holmes as an accomplished boxer and fencer, and he gets into a couple fights in the stories, with considerable success. He also shows remarkable physical strength in one story, unbending a fireplace poker that a tough guy had previously bent.

  6. I did like the portrayal of Watson, though. I always thought the Nigel Bruce picture of Watson was a total travesty of what Doyle wrote–Watson was NOT a bumbling idiot.

  7. I really did like that movie, and have watched it twice now, but you’re right. Holmes should have been wearing a hat, and been dressed a little more neatly.

    As far as the rest of the clothing goes, however, it was spot-on, especially the women’s clothing. I have made a lot of Victorian women’s clothing in the past, and it was nice to see the background clothing be just as good as what the main characters were wearing.

  8. As I am an ex-investigator and investigator instructor, I was in the habit of reading original Doyle/Holmes and using certain parts for my classes. I speak sincerely…

    I’ve watched Holme’s movies going back to I guess the 30’s. Although I was a complete fan of Basil Rathbone, I have completely adapted to Brett’s interpretations of the master.

    There was indeed a media story that Brett was introducing a homosexual concept into his versions but from what I’ve read later, this was just a rumor created by a homosexual group who wanted more “credibility” by saying Holmes was not straight….. So much for that tis-toff….

    I saw half of Downey’s Holmes and was disappointed. Holmes was not a handsome fellow.

    Downey is pretty good looking…at least as handsome as our Lars, here! (I believe Lars, for that matter could have given us a better Holmes than Downey did.)

    Downey’s attitude and approach to Holmes just didn’t have the snap that Rathbone or Brett comes with. I kept waiting for some woman to drag him off to bed or pinch his cheek….

    OFF the soap-box….

  9. From Tyler Cowen: Create Your Own Economy: An Economics and Autism Book Interview:

    Alex Plank: What about, um, Sherlock Holmes? That was one of the really interesting parts of the book. I know I’m changing the subject, but that’s just how my mind works. I was really interesting [sic] in what you said about he doesn’t necessarily look at the important fact, but the small details.

    Tyler Cowen: As I learned more about autism and the autism spectrum, it seemed to me that this fictional character was a classic example of what was being talked about. Especially cognitive strengths. He notices small details, he thinks very analytically about what he’s seeing, he sees things that other people don’t see. He’s also a very charismatic, and I think mostly likable character. So to me although of course he’s fictional, he’s not a real person. But it was a way of thinking about how one might visualize or explain to others some aspects of this whole topic. Because everybody knows Sherlock Holmes, and it’s remarkable what a positive image there is of him. Yet when you get a lot of those same traits, in people who are called autistic, it’s remarkable how negative that image can be. So that contrast is to me very interesting. There’s some evidence, as I say in the book, that Holmes was patterned after Doyle himself. Doyle said this, it’s hard to prove, of course, he’s long since gone, but I suspect it’s the case.

    Alex Plank: Didn’t he say that at one point?

    Tyler Cowen: He said it, absolutely. But can you always believe what an author says? No. But if you read Doyle’s son’s description of Doyle, it again sounds like Holmes was patterned after the author.



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