I’d always known Marion Davies is one of the most gifted comediennes of the silent era, thanks to her collaborations with King Vidor, The Patsy (1928) and Show People (1928), two magnificent comedies carried by Davies’ charisma and empathy as well as her easy way with comedy, and readily available on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive. But she became a superstar thanks to a series of costume pictures produced by newspaper mogul William Randolph Heart, who fell in love with the chorus girl and was determined to showcase her in “important” pictures.
When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922) was her biggest production to that time. She plays Mary Tudor, 16-year-old sister to King Henry VII (Lyn Harding) and a spirited princess in love with commoner Charles Brandon (Forrest Stanley), an impossible given the realities of royal diplomacy. She’s promised to the aged King Louis XII (William Norris), a wizened old monarch who wins the marriage lottery. There’s pageantry galore—vast sets, a big cast, and plenty of elaborate period costumes—and a lot of plot packed into the two-hour picture. It opens on a jousting match (talk about your sweet sixteen party games!) and it features back room scheming, secret trysts, swashbuckling swordplay in the streets, a magnificent royal wedding, and plenty of comic flourishes. It co-stars an impossibly young William Powell (in his second film) as a cad of a royal nephew, and ends with a grand nighttime set-piece with knights and royal guards galloping through the French countryside and torches handpainted bright yellow that jump out from the blue tints of the black and white production.
John Barrymore’s 1922 Sherlock Holmes was not the first screen incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, the most well-known fictional character in English literature, and certainly not the definitive. This production, directed by Albert Parker as a mix of dime novel adventure and pulp crime thriller, is ostensibly based on Doyle’s stories but more directly on the play by William Gillette, a stage actor who made a career playing Holmes. It offers an origin story to the detective and his battle with criminal mastermind Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz) that begins at college, where Holmes’ friend and fellow student Watson (Roland Young) introduces him to a mystery that leads Holmes into the criminal empire of Moriarty. Jump ahead a few years and Holmes is now the brilliant (and publicly modest) detective of 221 Baker Street, dedicated to dismantling Moriarty’s underworld web and still carrying a torch for a beautiful young woman (Carol Dempster) he met once in his college days.
That young woman is Alice Faulkner and her plight — she’s held prisoner by Moriarty, who is after letters in her possession that he can use to blackmail a Crown Prince — brings Holmes’ battle with Moriarty to a head. That’s the simplified version of the story, which is overly convoluted and tangled and, for a Holmes mystery, often quite sloppy. Or is simply that Holmes is so smitten with Alice that he’s not thinking clearly when he leaves her in the clutches of her captors, convinced she’ll be safe for the time being? Not the most logical of deductions, to this untrained mind.
The confused motivations and complications are simply discarded when the film shifts from mystery to elaborate battle of wits between Moriarty, determined to finally kill the meddling detective, and Holmes, who plots to end Moriarty’s reign of terror. It’s also one of the wordiest silent films I’ve ever seen, filled with pages of intertitles explicating the overly convoluted plot and providing Holmes’ commentary of clues, deductions and schemes.