Gene Wilder Was The Original Enola Holmes

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Gene Wilder Was The Original Enola Holmes

Netflix/20th Century Studios

This week sees the release of Enola Holmes 2, starring Millie Bobby Brown as Sherlock’s amateur sleuth kid sister with Zack Morris-esque fourth wall-demolishing powers. Clearly, the original film was a big hit, not just because it warranted a sequel, but because Netflix never once tried to market it as a Stranger Things spin-off set entirely inside Eleven’s literary daydreams. 

But Enola Holmes isn’t the first time we’ve gotten a movie about a previously unmentioned younger Holmes sibling living in the shadow of their famous brother. Back in 1975, we got The Adventure of Sherlock HolmesSmarter Brother, starring Gene Wilder, who also wrote and directed the now largely-forgotten comedy. Coming just one year after Mel Brooks’ wildly popular Young Frankenstein, Wilder re-teamed with two of his recent co-stars; Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn, plus frequent Brooks collaborator Dom DeLuise as a villainous opera singer, and even Mel himself, who makes a brief, voice-only cameo as some guy who gets eaten by a lion offscreen.

The story involves Sherlock Holmes going on a distant vacation (or so it seems) and referring his latest case to his bitter and envious younger brother Sigerson (Wilder), who happens to be a consulting detective as well (and who inexplicably speaks in an American accent). Sigerson soon teams up with a Scotland Yard records clerk with “photographic hearing” named Orville Sacker (Feldman) to solve the mystery – pausing only for the occasional song or fencing session with an old-timey bicycle-powered, sword-wielding automaton.

Sigerson receives a mysterious client (Kahn) who claims to be the victim of a blackmail scheme, one that threatens to show her fiancée letters to another man, in which she proclaims the urge to touch his “winkle.” Presumably, because this was the ‘70s and movie-going audiences were already strung out on quaaludes and the Watergate scandal, no one minded that the intriguing mystery immediately takes a back seat to several bonkers musical numbers.

Not unlike Enola Holmes, which focused on the suffragette movement, The Adventure of Sherlock HolmesSmarter Brother concerns the politics of the day – albeit in a far vaguer sense. Sigerson is ultimately tasked with reclaiming a mysterious, highly-important document that was stolen from the Foreign Secretary, who got it from Queen Victoria herself. Not surprisingly, Sigerson’s case finds him going head-to-head with the dastardly Prof. Moriarty and, somewhat surprisingly, witnessing Dom DeLuise hump an armchair while moaning in Italian. Oh, and exposing his buttcrack to a ballroom full of upper-class partygoers.

While a bit rough around the edges, The Adventure of Sherlock HolmesSmarter Brother was also ahead of its time in some ways – not just because of its similarity to Enola Holmes, but take the scene in which Sigerson embarrassingly makes a mess out of a box of chocolates while waiting to speak to a dignified person of interest (which admittedly is one of the lesser-known scenes involving Gene Wilder and chocolate): 

In retrospect, this gag feels as though it may have had some degree of influence on later comedies such as The Naked Gun.

Wilder conceived of the project, which became his directorial debut, during the making of Young Frankenstein. According to Wilder, he “wanted to write parts for both” Kahn and Feldman, telling them that he had “an idea for a romantic comedy, with music, about a brother of Sherlock Holmes.” Wilder didn’t even begin the writing process until both actors were aboard, eventually hammering out the script, the first he’d ever written on his own, on a yellow legal pad in “a little French restaurant” as Young Frankenstein was in the editing process. Kahn later referred to the experience of making the film as “the most enjoyable experience she’d ever had making a movie.”

The film is clearly a loving homage to the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories and full of winking references to Holmes lore; for example, “Orville Sacker” was “Conan Doyle’s original name for Watson,” while “Sigerson” was “an alias Sherlock used after his struggle at Reichenbach Falls.” Critics at the time appreciated its sincerity; The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “a charming slapstick comedy that honors Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original creation as much by what it doesn’t do as by what it does do … it makes no attempt to parody the great Sherlock himself.” Even Sigerson, while buffoonish at times and ill-equipped to completely fill his brother's shoes, is still a mostly solid detective in his own right. In addition to the positive reviews, The Adventure of Sherlock HolmesSmarter Brother was a big hit at the box office, making its subsequent descent into semi-obscurity all the more baffling. 

Of course, Wilder’s movie didn’t exist in a vacuum, the 1970s were a particularly nutty decade for Sherlock Holmes, who kept popping up in revisionist, often broadly comedic interpretations of the character. In 1970, there was Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, in which Sherlock is heavily implied to be gay and investigates a submarine disguised as the Loch Ness Monster. There was also 1971’s They Might Be Giants, in which George C. Scott plays a modern-day former judge who believes himself to be Holmes, and later, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, in which Sigmund Freud helps Holmes to kick his cocaine habit. 

More relevant to Gene Wilder’s take, there were other wildly silly ‘70s Holmes movies, such as the critically-reviled adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles starring legendary British comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who were apparently in the “maybe this will somehow work if we do painfully annoying voices for 90 minutes” phase of their career.

Even less well-known is The Strange Case of The End of Civilization As We Know It, which came out in 1977 and, we’re guessing, didn’t exactly give Star Wars a run for its money. Produced by ITV, the hour-long production stars John Cleese as Sherlock Holmes’ grandson, who solves crimes along with Watson, his “partly bionic” sidekick. And in the end – spoilers for something we’re guessing you didn’t even know existed until literally a moment ago – the heroes are murdered by Prof. Moriarty’s sexy granddaughter. 

The Sherlock Holmes-based comedy obviously continued into the ‘80s with movies like Without a Clue starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley and into the 21st century with (shudder) Holmes & Watson. But what made The Adventure of Sherlock HolmesSmarter Brother work is the same thing that makes Enola Holmes so popular; it reworks the Holmes narrative, not by tearing down the great detective’s mythology, but by expanding it with new characters – and, in the case of Enola Holmes, more cute, non-threatening boys.

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Thumbnail: Netflix/20th Century Studios

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