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ALL OF THIS STARTED with my viewing Reginald Owen in A Study in Scarlet, 1933 (when only a year before he had portrayed Watson). Today in Part 2, we find that a portly affable Owen portraying Holmes wasn’t the only incongruity; it wasn’t a real Study in Scarlet either. All in good Sherlockian fun.
A Study in Name Only. As described by Chris Steinbrunner and Norman Michaels in The Films of Sherlock Holmes, “Spurred on by the Clive Brook success and a Depression interest in mystery melodrama, a small Hollywood studio, World-Wide Pictures—with Fox as American distributor—decided to tackle Holmes, a decidedly road-company version with last year’s Watson elevated into the Holmesian spotlight and choosing one of Conan Doyle’s best titles for filming.”
“Only the title to A Study in Scarlet was used, however;” they continue, “the story dealt with members of a secret trust being killed according to the nursery rhyme about ‘little black boys’ being decimated one by one.”
What about Agatha Christie? Was this “little black boys” schtick swiped from Agatha Christie’s novel and flick? No, if anything it’s the other way about: Owen’s A Study in Scarlet came out in 1933. Christie’s mystery novel (its American title And Then There Were None; its original English title highly offensive then as well as now) was published in 1939.
The Plot of Owen’s Study. “The Scarlet Ring” is the name of A Study’s secret trust. Others may know such a scheme as a “tontine,” an annuity shared by subscribers, individual shares increasing as one or the other dies, leaving the entire income to the last survivor.
By the way, Robert Louis Stevenson (with Lloyd Osborne) wrote the definitive tontine tale in the 1889 novel The Wrong Box. It was produced in 1966 as a British comedy with quite the amazing cast, including John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Peter Sellers.
Wikipedia says of this flick, “… it adds up to a lively lark.” Michael Caine is quoted as calling The Wrong Box “so British that it met with a gentle success in most places except Britain, where it was a terrible flop. I suppose this was because the film shows us exactly as the world sees us—as eccentric, charming and polite—but the British knew better that they were none of these things….”
Back to Owen’s Holmes. In A Study in Scarlet, Owen portrays Holmes with—gad—a sense of humor. And, of course, his stature suggests DNA kinship with brother Mycroft, already documented as being of ample proportions.
Steinbrunner and Michaels wrote, “Reginald Owen received good notices for his role. The New York Times thought he gave ‘quite an effective performance, he is a good-looking Holmes and he speaks his lines with due reverence.’ And yet he was not to play Holmes on the screen again. He would—like Basil Rathbone, who would follow him into the Sherlockian spotlight—become a celebrated Scrooge and stage storyteller.”
One last Owen tidbit: Wikipedia notes that, “In August 1964, his mansion in Bel Air was rented to the Beatles, who were performing at the Hollywood Bowl, when no hotel would book them.” I would say that was certainly affable. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022
To hijack your blog post, I always cringe to see a precise word like “decimate” that has been so overused for so long that it’s lost its meaning.
If you read Roman histories, you’ll be very confused and miss the richness of the word. Consider that if Caesar was faced with a legion which ran from the enemy or mutinied in some way, he’d rehabilitate them by putting them in formation and executing every tenth soldier. There are so many words that mean destroy, ruin, lay waste to, or have a similar effect … but lack the strength of the original application.
We are murdering our language with abbreviations, lack of capitalization and punctuation. Sloppiness is NOT progress.
Consider the meaning of other words that have lost their original luxuriance through years of casual misuse:
Century: “a subdivision of the Roman legion.”
Forum: “the marketplace or public place of an ancient Roman city forming the center of judicial and public business.”
Awful: “full of awe.”
Tribune: “a Roman official under the monarchy and the republic with the function of protecting the plebeian citizen from arbitrary action by the patrician magistrates.”
Triumph: “a ceremony attending the entering of Rome by a general who had won a decisive victory over a foreign enemy.”
Fabulous: “like the contents of fables in being incredible, absurd, extreme, exaggerated, or approaching the impossible.”
Ovation: “a ceremony attending the entering of Rome by a general who had won a victory of less importance than that for which a triumph was granted.”
Missiles: “Gifts thrown to the crowds by Roman emperors.”
Actor: “In Roman law, one that conducts a legal action.”
Sinister: “on the left side.”
Legion: “the principal unit of the Roman army comprising 3000 to 6000 foot soldiers with cavalry.”
Dilapidated: “cannot properly be used of any but a stone building, as the word is from the Latin lapis, a stone.”
Those are just a few that come immediately to hand … I know you have many others in your vocabulary. Do you want to share?
Actually, your comment should be directed to Steinbrunner and Michaels. It’s their less than accurate arithmetic. I’ll look up the etymology of hijack too. All in good word-orgin fun.
I watched “The Wrong Box.” A great cast and a quaint concept, but the ending lacked panache.