‘Ah, Sherlock Holmes, you had a dog shop, didn’t you?’
This 1932 Czech comedy, which is at heart yet another riff on The Prisoner of Zenda, opens with a montage of contemporary London, a Baker Street signpost, Sherlock Holmes’s nameplate and an entry into 221B, with flashing neon signs outside the windows, and Holmes (Mac Fric) – English-speaking but Czech-accented – brooding in an armchair, because he has yet to fulfil a commission from the Prime Minister of Puerto Rico to find a double to stand in for King Fernando XXIII to forestall assassination attempts. Holmes is so concerned that he has been playing his fiddle all night, annoying the neighbours. This Great Detective uses a tiny mirror in the bowl of his pipe to spy on ‘James’ (Fred Bulin), his manservant, and has the proper hawklike look. Looking through the Prague press, he finds a Fernando lookalike in Frantisek Lelícek (leading Czech comedian Vlasta Burian), a moustachioed, bowler-hatted ‘eternal student’ who is permanently broke and besieged by tradesmen (and his dentist) who want paying.
Trapped in his favourite café by creditors, Lelícek is approached by Holmes, puffing a pipe and wearing the oversized tweed cap the character often sported instead of a deerstalker in European films of the 1930s, and is offered any fee he likes to take a job. On a train with Holmes, instead of studying Spanish, Lelícek gives voice to a song he has written about ‘Rosita, Rosita, my Dearest Secret Love’ as they travel to Puerto Rico, which evidently is a landlocked Ruritania-Graustarkian monarchy rather than the place the Sharks come from in West Side Story. In the Royal Palace, various moustache-sporting, overdressed offcials and dignitaries – including a few obvious rotters with silent movie villain looks – attend the elaborate levée (which involves taking a caged cockerel into the bed-chamber) of the paranoid sovereign – allowing Burian to play a different brand of feeble-minded (and, it has to be said, not very funny) character. Holmes finally explains that the King is afraid of revolutionary assassins and needs someone to appear in public for him (‘so the King is the expensive salami and I’m the cheap imitation?’) and even the dimwit sees the drawback in this – until Holmes explains that he can order anything he wants to eat. The Queen (Lída Baarová) is annoyed at the King’s cowardice and also that he has no romantic interest in her – obviously setting up later developments. Lelícek does schtick about giving medals to cacti, hatstands and stools to show he can act like a king, and then a routine about eating meals in the manner of various national stereotypes (French, English). I assume from his filmography that Burian is some sort of Czech national treasure, but his basic, rather strained comic persona doesn’t hold up well all these years on and in translation.
Holmes introduces the King to his double (‘I’m terribly sorry for him – you should have brought four at least, since this one won’t survive til dinner’) via the old split-screen trick. After appearing in public and disliking the national anthem, the fake king drags a smoking anarchist bomb around on his train as he beards his shrinking cabinet with his suggestion that a song-writing contest be held for a new national anthem (it’s been established that Lelícek is a song-writer, remember). The queen is impressed with Lelícek’s heroic handling of the bomb, which Holmes tosses into a pond, and rells her maid Conchita (E. Jansenova) that she’s impressed with him. Lelícek poses for postage photos, standing or sitting on a stuffed horse inside giant-sized stamp frames. Lelícek and the Queen’s double appear in public, and they revert to silent movie flirt comedy while three solemn pianists hammer away at that dull national anthem – he orders them to play a merry tune, which sets all the uniformed and liveried courtiers to foot-tapping as he sings the winning entry in the song contest. The court watch a bullfight (uncomically gory stock footage) and Lelícek’s passionate support of the bull impresses the Queen. Lelícek is summoned to the Queen’s boudoir to help salve her migraine, leading to a comedy seduction – like many comics, wheni it comes down to it, Burian’s character is timid with women, but willing. Emerging from the bedroom, Lelícek sees Holmes coaching the Queen’s double and is confused as to which woman is which (‘now, I have a headache’).
All the wicked courtiers, plus some scarved, eyepatched gypsy types, scheme to blow up the King (‘not even his moustache will be left’) with an exploding gramophone playing the contest-winning tune. Holmes breaks into the plotters’ lair with a brace of pistols, but is tricked into a cell and locked up. Lelícek fusses with the record, turning back the needle just before the trigger passage in the tune and insisting even the nervy conspirators come close, while Holmes needs to shoot at a switch to escape and (to build up suspense) misses eleven times before getting away just in time to save the comedian. The Queen’s double quits after the explosion (which only injures the plotters, who have to be bandaged), and Lelícek admits he’s made love to the real Queen – which irritates Holmes. News comes in that the real King is dead (‘this means I should go and lie in the cemetery instead of him’) and Lelícek, against Holmes’ advice, decides to stay on as King because the Queen and the people love him. His first order is that Holmes should ‘take your pipe, hat and magnifying glass and find my double.’ One of the rarest Holmes films, it’s not really a skit at the Great Detective’s expense – though he is lightly ridiculed in his introduction – but it gets into the reference books for its unique Czech take on Conan Doyle’s hero.
Written by Václav Wasserman, from a novel by Hugo Vavris; directed by Carl Lamac. Fric also plays Holmes in Le Roi Bis, a French version of the same script directed by Robert Beaudoin (probably on the same quite elaborate sets) with Pierre Bertin as the comedy lead.