The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975, dir. Gene Wilder)
England’s foreign secretary has a critical document stolen from his home. There’s only one person who can track it down, Sherlock Holmes, with his assistant Watson of course. However, Sherlock knows this case will be a bit more complicated than his typical work and assigns it to his oft-overlooked little brother, Sigerson (Gene Wilder). Sigerson teams with Scotland Yard’s records clerk Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman) to uncover the circumstances behind the theft. The trail appears to lead to Bessie Bellwood (Madeline Khan) who claims the foreign secretary is her father. Also involved and lurking in the shadows in the infamous Professor Moriarty (Leo McKern).
Coming off the massive success of Young Frankenstein, Wilder was able to write and direct Smarter Brother. He brought Marty Feldman and Madeline Khan back into the mix, and it’s pretty obvious there’s an attempt to recreate the magic of Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. The film most definitely does not achieve that, but it isn’t a complete failure. There are some genuine laughs, and the plot structure holds up well. The comedy informs the plot which in turns let’s many jokes hit well. The problems arise in the form of the comedic tone. The script doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a farce of Sherlock Holmes stories or a simple comedy-adventure. There are moments with exaggerated sight gags, but then more subtle wordplay humor. The comedy rules of the universe aren’t established as clearly as Young Frankenstein does in its opening moments.
Wilder is hitting his mark quite well; he has the charming personality with the moments of ridiculous outburst. He has a couple of set pieces that involve stunts on top of horse carriages and some good sword fighting. You can see the seeds of a film like Silver Streak being sewn with Wilder’s interest in living out the dashing hero trope. I was particularly impressed with Marty Feldman’s acting. I don’t have a considerable knowledge of his work beyond Young Frankenstein, but I didn’t expect the sort of quiet, sly character we get. The dynamic between Wilder and Feldman is developed further here with Feldman’s Sacker being the smarter of the pair and playing his quiet intelligence off of Wilder’s arrogant Sigerson. Madeline Khan delivers yet another force of nature comedic performance. While we have many strong female comedic actresses today, I don’t know too many who just have the sheer power that Khan brings again and again to every film. She seems like she was a very fearless actress who understood what made comedy funny at its core more than most.
Helping from the sidelines are McKern as a Moriarty with a strange nervous tic, Dom DeLuise as Gambetti the loud and boorish opera singer, and Roy Kinnear (Veruca Salt’s dad from Willy Wonka) as Moriarty’s always shat upon right hand. Everyone does well with what they are given, but like I said it doesn’t reach near the comedy heights as Young Frankenstein. One set piece does stand out as some brilliant writing from Wilder, a staging of Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera, translated into English by DeLuise’s Gambetti. The lines are sung in a very casual, informal, almost slang version of English undercutting the rich production design. “Let’s drink some sexy wine” becomes one of the key lines of the performance.
As far as the less notable Wilder films I’ve explored, this stands out as one of the better works. This gives me hope for The World’s Greatest Love, The Woman in Red, and Haunted Honeymoon, all directed by the man. Wilder’s next picture would be Silver Streak, but that would be followed up by The World’s Greatest Lover which has him playing an actor during the silent film era. And we’ll look at that, next time.