[box cover]

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother

In his first feature as writer/director/star, Gene Wilder walks softly but carries a big shtick. This 1975 comedy capitalized on Wilder's easy appeal, a cuddly likeability he'd earned in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and especially in 1974's enduring double-hitters with Mel Brooks, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Because he was a longtime fan of Universal's vintage Frankenstein films, his script for and performance in Young Frankenstein radiated his affection for the source material. This time Wilder the Sherlock Holmes fan — in this disc's audio commentary he says he reads Conan Doyle's entire Holmes canon every couple of years — tries to again capture lightning in a bottle with a costume comedy ably abetted by Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman. However, Wilder the director gives us less polished zaniness in a film that's pleasant but too inconsequential to make much of an impression. It's melbrooksian, alright, but without Brooks' boldness or his early talent for shaping and timing a gag or a scene.

Wilder plays low-rent sleuth Sigerson Holmes, the younger brother of the renowned Sherlock (or "sheer luck," as Sigerson spitefully puts it). Although "hopelessly twisted" in his famous brother's shadow, he receives a blackmail case from Sherlock, who has urgent business elsewhere. The victim is loopy music hall singer Kahn, as always supremely sexy and multitalented, who succinctly informs Holmes that she's "simultaneously funny and sad." The maguffin is a stolen government document in the hands of a villainous Caruso type (Dom DeLuise). In real life Wilder was a fencing champion and instructor, and finally we get to see this surprising swordmaster clashing blades with none other than evil Prof. Moriarty (Leo McKern). As the Watson figure, walleyed Feldman is in good comic form as Sgt. Orville Sacker of Scotland Yard. (Fans of TV Britcom will recognize Nicholas Smith from "Are You Being Served?" in a recurring walk-on. And catch Mel Brooks' unseen one-line cameo in an otherwise predictable "the lady or the tiger" gag.)

From start to finish The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother looks like a first film from a skilled comic actor trying his luck as an inexperienced director. The script is flabby, Wilder doesn't display a noticeably gifted eye behind the camera, the editing needed a more surgical hand, and too many participants (especially Kern) would rather pull gurning-contest faces than act. Fortunately, Wilder insisted that Kahn and Feldman co-star with him, and together their three-way chemistry is a many-splendored thing. The stepped-down Mel Brooks influence is obvious — the sex scene with Kahn must have a been a kick to shoot, and no other film exalts in Wilder's and Feldman's bare asses at a tuxedo ball, courtesy of a death-dealing buzzsaw. Enough of the funny stuff works so that we sit through the movie aching that the whole thing isn't better than it is. Some of the silliness feels inserted at random (Wilder's commentary says that Fox chief Alan Ladd Jr. requested the reprised "Kangaroo Hop" dance to goose up the ending), and the daisy-chain of prop gags, slide-whistle humor, and blackout sketches merge uneasily with the romantic and mystery-thriller components.

What glues it together, barely, is the talented cast in fine form. (Who else but Madeline Kahn could make the word "winkle" sufficiently funny?) It's occasionally charming, but — as the real Great Detective might put it — it's elementary, and so slight that the next day you may not remember that you watched it at all. Wilder's follow-up, The World's Greatest Lover, makes even less of an impact.

*          *          *

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother arrives on DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, and they did a nice job with it. This dual-sided disc gets its priorities reversed by putting the 1.85:1 anamorphic version on Side B, and a full-screen 1.33:1 version on Side A, but in each case the flawless print gets a faultless transfer. The default audio is DD 2.0 stereo that's unremarkable but delivers nothing to complain about, with options of mono English, Spanish, and French.

The big extra is Wilder's new commentary track. Anyone writing a biography of Wilder or a production history of the film won't get many data points from the track — it's mostly "I remember this scene" reminiscences — but those of us who want to take him home and snuggle him can enjoy his first-person annotations. He's soft-spoken and sometimes too self-critical, often sounding an inch away from melancholy, a 73-year-old lovable comic wistfully observing his younger self and his friends who've passed away. His praise for his castmates and his crew (notably production designer Terry Marsh, who went above and beyond) is touching rather than merely obligatory.

The disc's only other extras are Smarter Brother's theatrical trailer and trailers for The World's Greatest Lover, Young Frankenstein, and Silver Streak.

Still as irritating as ever, before the main menu Fox assaults us yet again with its bellowing anti-piracy nanny-ad. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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