Near the end of The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), Albert Finney makes an unbilled cameo appearance as an opera patron who, looking at the riot of activity onstage, asks, "Is this rotten or wonderfully brave?" By this point in the film audiences might well have asked themselves the same question, with many leaning toward the former. Though it was sold by its studio as a genre parody along the lines of the hugely successful Young Frankenstein (1974), also starring Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, and Madeline Kahn, the film really isn't anything of the sort, coming closer in spirit to free-for-all comedies of the early 1930s like Million Dollar Legs (1932) and Diplomaniacs (1933). Nevertheless the picture was quite successful, earning rentals of $9.5 million, though it only made about a quarter of Young Frankenstein's take yet cost about the same (an inexpensive $2.9 million).
The simple yet stupefyingly indecipherable story involves a document entrusted to but stolen from British Foreign Secretary Redcliff (John Le Mesurier) and coveted by Sherlock Holmes' arch-rival, Dr. Moriarty (Leo McKern), who wants to sell it to the highest bidding foreign power. To throw Moriarty off the trail, Sherlock Holmes (Douglas Wilmer), aided by Dr. Watson (Thorley Walters), assigns the case to Sherlock's heretofore unknown younger brother, Sigerson (Gene Wilder). (Note: Sherlock Homes' intellectually superior older brother, Mycroft, is also seen in a family portrait but otherwise doesn't figure into the plot.)
Bitter about Sherlock's success, Sigerson reluctantly agrees to take on the case, acquiring his own Watson in Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman), a police sergeant in Scotland Yard's Records Division. The Redcliff Document is somehow tied to Bessie Bellwood, alias Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn), who may by a music hall entertainer being blackmailed by opera singer Eduardo Gambetti (Dom DeLuise), or perhaps is the daughter (or lover) of the foreign secretary. Only time will tell.
The Adventure - not "Adventures" - of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother was Gene Wilder's first film as writer-director-star, and frankly it's a mess, in some ways much less successful and entertaining than the Dudley Moore-Peter Cook-Paul Morrissey spoof of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978), an unjustly maligned film that got terrible reviews and bombed at the box office. (It has its flaws, but charms in unexpected ways.)
The basic problem with Wilder's film is that literally every major character is conceived as a wild eccentric, from Kahn's multiple-personality wacko to McKern's cartoony villain and Feldman's balmy sidekick, with Wilder's pissed-off, enigmatic Sigerson at the center of it all. Since everyone's playing it for laughs, there's no one around to play scenes off of, to react to everyone's crazy antics. This was somewhat the case with Young Frankenstein, but it was grounded in a familiar story whose genre trappings were meticulously recreated, with Wilder's character in that functioning as much as a straight man to the whirlwind of eccentrics swirling around him, plus he was developed as a character to the point of engendering audience sympathy and interest.
That's not the case here, unfortunately, with comedy built around wild set pieces rather than logically developing out of a well-structured story (see Silver Steak), from its unfunny (and story-wise pointless) pre-credits opening - Queen Victoria, not amused, swears - to its Night at the Opera climax. There's a lot of the kind of crude bathroom humor popular in comedies of the time (Sacker admires Sigerson's work on "The Case of the Three Testicles"), and a preponderance of songs ("The Kangaroo Hop" being one of the more memorable) to the point where the film could almost be considered a musical.
Peculiarly, the film makes almost no attempt to parody Sherlock Holmes movies or even follow its conventions or build ideas around their iconography. Wilmer had played Holmes on British television in the 1960s while Walters had played Watson on and off going back to Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), and a brief but very funny scene at the beginning spoofs these characters, but mostly the film is just silly, though everyone seems to be having fun and trying their best. (Of the cast, DeLuise comes off best as this kind of broad slapstick is really his metier.)
Video & Audio
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother is presented in an okay if somewhat muddy 16:9 transfer at 1.77:1, approximating its original 1.85:1 release. (This is a flipper disc, with a full-frame version on the reverse side.) The film is on the grainy side with muted color, but reasonably sharp. The original mono sound (available also in an imperceptible "stereo" mix) is equally unimpressive, though serviceable. Spanish and French dubs are also available, as well as optional Spanish subtitles.
Extras include a welcome Commentary by Gene Wilder that's more interesting than the film; and a Theatrical Trailer.
With its great cast of comic actors and veteran character actors, and its sure-fire set-up, it's hard not to find The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother anything other than a big disappointment.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.