The truly exciting story of the 1922 Sherlock Holmes, starring John Barrymore, has nothing to do with the mysteries encountered by the titular sleuth in the course of the movie, but rather the amazing fact that we can, in 2014, talk about the film to begin with. Sherlock Holmes was one of the many, many silent films long thought lost, and one that was particularly grieved for: an early feature revolving around one of the most beloved characters in English-language fiction, starring one of the most famous actors of his generation would obviously be considered quite a desirable relic. And it was with that in mind that, 1975, historians Kevin Brownlow and William K. Everson threw themselves into the task of salvaging the movie from the mountain of footage held by George Eastman House. This material was in literally no order, nor anything close to a polished, edited state; it took consultation with the film's octogenarian director, Albert Parker, for Brownlow and Everson to even determine what footage belonged with what sequence, and what story the movie was even telling. As it was, it took another reconstruction in 2001 incorporating newly found material to get the film up to the coherent 85-minute feature presently available for all to watch and enjoy, and it's still quite a long way from the running time reported in 1922.

Rebuilding Sherlock Holmes was nothing shy of a heroic effort: it took time, care, cleverness, and an amount of research and study that probably none of us can truly imagine, and I frankly believe it to be one of the great triumphs of film restoration, willing something basically like what audiences say in '22 back into existence through nothing but grit and determination (that said, it is very important to keep in mind that this is Brownlow's interpretation of what the original film looked like, and we can never be truly sure exactly how close he came). It was not, perhaps, one of the most conspicuous gaps in the history of 1920s American cinema, but few lost films were ever won back with such labor and expense of time.

Now, as to whether it was worth it... I mean, it obviously, objectively was. Any lost film that can be made un-lost should be and must be. But Sherlock Holmes, to be completely unromantic about it, kind of sucks. There is always a possibility that the missing 20+ minutes would give it more weight and complexity and richness and turn it into a wholly involving masterpiece. But based on the version we have, I bet that at least ten of those minutes were title cards.

It is not, that's to say, especially sophisticated filmmaking, telling its story through text more than through visuals, and this is never the way you want silent film to go. To be entirely fair to Parker and the writers, Earle Brown and Marion Fairfax, they were starting off with source material that isn't inherently well-suited to silent filmmaking technique: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective is, above all else, an genius of thinking and explaining, the latter of which involves thick paragraphs of exposition in the stories and in most of the films based on them. But pointing out that it was a daunting task to overcome a limitation is not the same as excusing the filmmakers for failing to overcome it. Especially in the first half, Sherlock Holmes is honestly a bit of a chore to get through, with the momentum getting bogged down in so many intertitles. And not just simply little one or two-line intertitles: big slabby ones, where the screen is full of words. It's not a very exciting way to watch a movie, and "not very exciting" is one of the worst phrases you could possibly attach to a film that is, nominally, a thrilling mystery.

By no means is the film a write-off, though. For one thing, it has a largely great cast, starting with Barrymore: a perfect visual fit for Holmes, though he wasn't on his best behavior in this particular case. In his defense, he's saddled with a lot of close-ups looking thoughtfully offscreen at some important clue that nobody else has noticed, and there's just not much you can do with a shot like that after it's showed up three or four times. Of far greater concern is Barrymore's visible detachment from playing the story's more emotional elements; he's great when the story concerns the machine-like genius version of Holmes that is, I think, what most of us think of first when we imagine the character, with a certain smug pride hovering just below the hyper-competence, but he checks out completely from the romantic subplot that ends up contributing quite a lot to the film. And to be fair, a romantic subplot in a story even modestly attempting to present itself as a great Sherlock Holmes adaptation is exactly the sort of thing that oughtn't work. But it's there anyways, a relic of the fact that this was an adaptation of William Gillette's stage play more than any particular Holmes story, and just because something is stupid doesn't mean that you get to not try to do the best with it that you can.

Regardless, the standout member of the cast wouldn't be Barrymore anyway; Roland Young, whose film career wouldn't really pick up until the sound era, made his onscreen debut in this picture as Dr. Watson, and he is among the very best incarnations of that often-bungled character that I have ever seen: prim and officious where Holmes is erratic, but without ever coming within a mile of the bumbling doofus who has become the popular conception of Watson ever since Nigel Bruce played him that way in the Universal series of Holmes movies in the 1940s. He is an especially competent Watson, a professional Watson, a Watson of enough intellectual capacity that one can easily understand why Holmes would have wanted to keep him around as assistant and sidekick. Young pulls focus from Barrymore without even trying, no small feat when a newbie is sharing the screen with one of the most movie-looking faces in movie history.

Those two men are enough to keep the human element of Sherlock Holmes largely interesting, a feat in and of itself, given how clunky the plot is. The desire to have, all in one film, an introduction to the main characters, a "Holmes in love" story, a self-contained arc in which his archenemy Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz) is defeated, and a peculiar opening act about Holmes and Watson and everybody in their university days, setting up the rest of the movie with its own self-contained mystery, leaves the movie feeling horribly overstuffed, with the university sequence in particular feeling wildly out of place and ill-paced. By the time it becomes mostly a straight-up action film near the end, it is able to shake enough of the stiffness and meandering quality of the opening hour that it manages to be enjoyable, but the film's density, coupled with those title cards, and with Parker's limited vocabulary of images (close-ups, group shots, and a few inserts, and pretty much nothing else), certainly make it hard to remain interested in the thing. But Barrymore and Young put it over, somehow.

A couple other things that manage to work: the film opens with a stunning aerial shot of London, before immediately leaping into a dissolve comparing Moriarty with a spider, a gesture straight out of the German Expressionist playbook that wasn't meant to have started influencing American cinema for another half-decade yet. There is, in general, quite a lot of London location footage, and it is all beautiful; for that matter, all of the constructed sets are themselves fantastic, and even when Sherlock Holmes is depicting nothing of interest, it sets that nothing against some really lovely backdrops with some really evocative atmospheric lighting (which also suggests German Expressionism). It's not nearly stylish enough it to redeem how plodding so much of the writing and directing are, but it does set it out as being more than just a bland waste of an ideal combination of star and role on a tedious story.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1922
-Robert Flaherty completes the groundbreaking early documentary Nanook of the North
-17-year-old Anna May Wong becomes Hollywood's first non-white leading lady in The Toll of the Sea
-The talented comic performer Marion Davies stars in When Knighthood Was in Flower, one of the first of the films paid for by her lover William Randolph Hearst, a relationship that tends even today to overshadow her very real talents

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1922
-Two of the great masters of German silent cinema release the first outright masterpieces: F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu and Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler
-Dziga Vertov begins the Kino-Pravda newsreel series in the newly-established Soviet Union
-The Swedish/Danish co-production Häxan, a documentary/horror hybrid, is released