Judge Jonathan Weiss notes that Holmes' other brother, Mycroft, really is the smartest member of the family: he never sold out to Hollywood.
"I said I wanted to touch his winkle!"—Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother is a true oddity in the history of cinema if there ever was one. At first glance it would be totally justified to mistake it for a Mel Brooks movie. After all, the cast feels right—Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, and Gene Wilder—all synonymous with Mr. Brooks.
It also uses a recognizable "Brooksian" (to coin a term) formula in that it takes a specific genre and spins it on its ear—much like Young Frankenstein did with the classic Universal Pictures horror movies of the '30s and '40s, Blazing Saddles did with the Western. or High Anxiety did with the Hitchcock canon.
On closer inspection, however, something seems a little bit off. There's a sense of fearlessness afoot. The humour is less obvious and more surreal. Scenes shift from the uncomfortable, to the erotic, to the utter macabre. Musical numbers pop out of absolutely nowhere. No, my friends, this is not your typical Mel Brooks movie, and the reasons are as obvious as the noses on your face. Nose. nose on your face. Of course, nose, not noses—nobody has two nose on their face unless they…anyway that's not what's important right now. What is important right now is that The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother not only starred Mr. Gene Wilder, but it was also written and directed by him.
This is a film that has reached cult status in some very unlikely circles. Of course, it didn't hurt that it was never widely released to the home video market. In 1977 Magnetic Video did release both a VHS and Beta version, but after that—nothing. Here it is then, over thirty years later and with a commentary by Gene Wilder thrown in for good measure. So will this be the Holy Grail edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother that the few, the faithful, and the peculiar have been clamouring to get their hands on or will it simply be, well, merely elementary?
Facts of the Case
A case of empirical importance is initially charged to Sherlock Holmes (Douglas Wilmer). The legendary sleuth, however, feels that his younger brother Sigerson (Gene Wilder) is more than suitably equipped to face the challenge. Problem is, Sigerson hates his more famous brother's guts having spent close to thirty-five years becoming twisted beneath his long casting shadow. In fact if Sigerson refers to his brother at all it's as "Shear Luck" Holmes. Still, you don't become the stuff of legends for nothing, and Sherlock manages to get Sigerson to take the case without him knowing from whence it came or of its actual importance to the crown. To help him, Sherlock sends along Sgt. Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman) of Scotland Yard to fill him in. Orville is the only known person in the world with a photographic sense of hearing.
The case that Sigerson Holmes believes that he's undertaken is one of simple blackmail—the pawn of which being one redheaded lovely by the name of Bessie Bellwood (Madeline Kahn). Only she isn't really Bessie Bellwood. Her real name is Jenny Hill. She's a compulsive liar who needs to be either very much in love, or if that's not an option then sexually aroused, in order to tell even the slightest, most remote semblance of the truth.
Before too long Sigerson realizes that all is not what it seems and soon comes face to face with his older brother's arch nemesis—Professor James Moriarty (Leo McKern). This is Sigerson's moment of truth, in which he needs to use all his skills, both physical and mental, if he has any hope of coming out alive.
The Adventures of Sherlock Homes' Smarter Brother won't be everyone's cup of hot water. But if you're curious to see the inner workings of Gene Wilder's comedic mind left to its own devices, then I suggest you watch this disc pronto. You have to remember, he wrote this after collaborating on the script for Young Frankenstein, another comedic masterpiece, which means he was arguably at the peak of his creative powers. If anything, after watching the former you can't help but go back and start picking out the Wilder touch in the latter. Hell, it could be a credited course in any popular culture curriculum in the country. (Say that three times fast.)
The genius of Gene Wilder's comedic persona is in the juxtaposition between his innocent doe-eyed schoolboy looks and the manic frenzy that can explode at any minute from it. Nobody builds up to a psychotic outburst like Gene. And he doesn't disappoint here. Wilder's Sigerson Holmes is an equally combustible mixture of supreme ego, immense insecurity, and unflappable confidence. He is so convinced of his own genius that the very thought that he could be on the wrong track doesn't even come into equation—often leading to hilarious consequences.
But then a hero is only as good as the villain he faces. That's where Leo McKern comes in. Best known, perhaps, for his role as Horace Rumpole of the Rumpole of the Bailey series on PBS, Leo McKern is a sadistic delight as the evil Moriarty. McKern plays him with twitches, ticks and the uncontrollable urge to scream "Ya—Ya" at intermittent intervals and has the compulsive need to do something gloriously evil every twenty minutes. McKern is a pleasure to watch, and his interaction with Dom DeLuise as opera singer/blackmailer Eduardo Gambetti, who pinches, slaps, and pulls at McKern's rubber features, is pure magic. Yes, that's right. Dom DeLuise. Sadly people forget how funny this man can be. Today he's regulated to the same comedy ghetto as the likes of Tim Conway or Harvey Korman. And that's just not fair (for any of them). DeLuise's portrayal of Eduardo Gambetti is inspired. The screen comes alive whenever he shows up and even though he's just a supporting player, he almost steals the show.
To round out the cast Wilder chose two actors he had worked closely with in the past. In fact, as he notes in the commentary, he wouldn't have made The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother without them—and after watching the film you can see why. Nobody could have played Orville Sacker except for Marty Feldman; and nobody could have merged the innocence, sexiness, and lunacy of Jenny Hill than Madeline Kahn. Need proof? Check out the scene when Sigerson, Orville, and Jenny are sitting in a stagecoach when Jenny notices that they have just been sandwiched between two other sinister coaches—"Scream…scream." Jenny says softly. "What?" Sigerson asks. "Scream…" Jenny says a little louder and motions towards the window. Orville looks out and sees an evil face smiling back in on him and begins naming off street names in a rapid-fire succession. "What are you doing?" Sigerson asks calmly. "This is what I do when I'm nervous," explains Orville and continues on. And there the three of them sit, Jenny singing to herself and rocking to and fro, Orville slapping the side of his head and spewing out street names, and Sigerson taking it all in. Can you think of three other actors who could have pulled this off? Didn't think so.
The one place where this feature falls short of a fan's expectations is, as with many discs, in the commentary. Have moderators ever been used for commentaries? If not, the definitely should be. Here's a film that hasn't seen the light of day for the home viewer in over thirty years. The potential for insight is extraordinary. Sadly, Wilder just doesn't deliver. A moderator would have been very useful here in asking the types of questions fans would have dearly loved answered. Instead, we get to hear Wilder's incredibly calm and soothing voice talk about the score, make note of scenes that sprang from improvised rehearsals, comment on his own acting—"Don't try so hard Gene."—and lament on the fact like an innocent movie like The Adventure's of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother wouldn't be made today. That's about it. Maybe it's true what some say about having the film speak for itself. But if that was the case here then why not forgo the commentary entirely? Whatever. The movie looks beautiful—the sepia tones are lovely and lush and for a movie this old there doesn't seem to be a speck of dirt; and as far as the Dolby Stereo track goes, it's as sharp as a pin.
Here's the thing about The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother—it defies genres. It's a mystery where the mystery doesn't really matter. Someone steals a document and we find out who did it half way through the movie. Guess what? It doesn't matter. It's a musical with songs thrown in from the turn of the century wherever and whenever with no rhyme or reason. It even has an operetta thrown in for good measure. Guess what? It doesn't matter. It's a romantic comedy in which breasts are pumped together like someone trying to inflate a particularly stubborn soccer ball. Guess what? Doesn't matter. Action? Sure, it's got two fencing scenes—only one of them is with a homemade fencing robot that needs someone on a stationary bike to make work. So maybe you could throw cycling in as well. Does it matter? Of course not. What makes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother so damn enjoyable to watch is in how all these genres come together as an insanely unbelievable, delightful whole.
Even without a decent commentary track, it's still wonderful that The Powers That Be decided it was time to re-release The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother to the home entertainment market. We have lived far too long without it.
Verdict? Why that's elementary. Sigerson, Jenny, and Orville are hereby sentenced to do the Kangaroo Hop wherever and whenever they wish. Case closed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Gene Wilder Commentary
Review content copyright © 2006 Jonathan Weiss; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.