The only trouble is, Gee whiz, I'm dreaming my life away.--All I Have to Do is Dream (Boudleaux & Felice Bryant)
Hoo boy: Some people luuuv to hate The Eligible Bachelor. One observer called it a "farrago." (Oh my!) Someone on the Internet described it as "ashcan material." (My word!) Another netwit thought TEB was so bad, it could have been the work of Ed Wood, that pathetic purveyor of dreadful dreck such as Plan 9 From Outer Space. (Yikes!)
In my opinion, these critics are way, way off base. TEB is unusual, TEB is enigmatic, TEB is uneven--but it is most assuredly not ashcan material. (And there's not a flying hubcap in sight.)
It must be noted, however, that TEB was created under far-from-ideal circumstances. After the success of The Master Blackmailer, Granada was mandated to make more two-hour Sherlock Holmes films. This format worked well for other TV sleuths such as Inspector Morse, so wasn't it only logical that Holmes follow suit?
Actually, no--because, while Inspector Morse had a steady supply of source material, Granada was rapidly running out of "filmable" Holmes stories. Non-Doyle pastiches were verboten, and multi-part dramas weren't an option. However, instead of logically adapting a longer Doyle story such as The Valley of Fear, Granada stretched shorter, weaker stories to the breaking point to fill a two-hour slot. It was rather like trying to make a limousine out of a Yugo.
One of the "Yugos" Granada chose to stretch was The Noble Bachelor, which told the trifling tale of a renowned bachelor who finally married but misplaced his bride. (No wonder he was a bachelor for so long.) Holmes finds the bride, but she's legally married to someone else, anyway. (It seems she'd misplaced her husband!) The veddy proper "bachelor" finds the whole matter so offensive, he just lets it drop, and his bride happily ends up with her first husband.
Why The Noble Bachelor was chosen is a mystery in itself to me. It's not exactly a page-turner. Holmes could have phoned in the solution, and he's so cheerfully smug in this story you want to smack him. Even the author himself had little regard for the tale: According to The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Doyle wrote to a friend that he would rank TNB at "about the bottom of the list."
Nevertheless, the adapter, T. R. Bowen, set about making the story ready for prime time. Names were altered: "Hatty Doran" in the story became "Hettie Doran" in the film; likewise "Flora Millar" became "Flora Miller." Even the title was altered to The Eligible Bachelor, because the bachelor is quite ignoble in this version. Additional plot twists helped stretch the plot, including a veiled woman borrowed from another Holmes story.
Oh, and Holmes is on the verge of a nervous breakdown...
If one is aware of Jeremy Brett's struggle against mental illness, it may seem that TEB is as much (or more) about him as it is Sherlock Holmes. This is evident from the first scene, when the carriage Holmes and Watson are riding in passes an insane asylum. As tormented voices fill the night air, Holmes laments, "There's no escaping the tortures of the mind."
Jeremy Brett suffered from manic depression--what did this line mean to him?
For Holmes, it means he's being plagued by a recurring nightmare. First, he's in a distorted room with torn furniture. He sees himself plunging over Reichenbach Falls with Moriarty. Then, he's stuck in a quagmire and menaced by a haggish creature with claw-like fingernails. Finally, he's enmeshed in cobwebs. He awakes, terror-stricken. He sketches his dream in hopes of making sense out of it.
Meanwhile, Lord Robert St. Simon, the "eligible bachelor," is about to marry Hettie Doran, a wealthy, headstrong American lass raised in the goldfields of California. St. Simon really isn't much of a catch: He's broke, and his ruthless creditors are threatening to foreclose on his estate, Glaven. And, he has a mistress, alcoholic actress Flora Miller. Hettie's father wonders if St. Simon is only after Hettie's money. (Duh!)
Back at Baker Street, Holmes is still having his nightmare. Instead of consulting Dr. Watson (who's gone off to a seminar), Holmes tries to ward off sleep (and perchance the dream) by walking the foggy streets at night. This doesn't help much, because the streets are teeming with a nightmare of humanity. Holmes encounters ragged orphans, beggars and prostitutes during his melancholy wanderings. He sees a mysterious woman whose face is heavily veiled. Then, Holmes wanders into a theatre where Flora Miller is rehearsing a florid scene.
"I will not rehearse in front of strangers!" Flora haughtily exclaims, flinging her shawl in Holmes' face.
Poor Holmes returns to Baker Street in the wee hours, only to discover he's forgotten his key. An annoyed yet concerned Mrs. Hudson lets him in.
"I don't relish sleep these days," Holmes explains to his long-suffering landlady.
Flora Miller picks up a newspaper. What's this? "Lord St. Simon to Marry"?! And, the cad didn't even invite Flora to the wedding. Flora shows her appreciation by firing a pistol at St. Simon as he enters the Park Club. Flora isn't a very good shot, however, and St. Simon is unharmed.
Undeterred, St. Simon marries Hettie the next day. However, they don't get hitched without a hitch--Hettie drops her bridal bouquet and becomes upset when it's handed back to her by a stranger in the church. Hettie is so agitated she curses as she and St. Simon leave the church.
Flora Miller, the woman scorned, shows up and demands a word with St. Simon. They have a heated discussion, and she scratches his face. St. Simon shoves her against a wall.
Things gets even weirder when Hettie covers her wedding dress with a dark cloak and disappears before her wedding breakfast. She encounters Flora Miller...
Dr. Watson returns from his seminar to find a distraught Mrs. Hudson waiting for him at Baker Street. She tells him that Holmes is obviously ill. (Obviously--he's twirling around in his nightclothes and torturing his violin.) She can't deal with him--perhaps the good doctor can?
Of course he can. He persuades Holmes to sit down and tell him about his nightmare.
"My dream is horrible," Holmes begins. He describes his nightmare, concluding, "And I'm trapped."
Watson feared something like this would happen. (As he left for his seminar his parting words to the detective were, "Don't get bored, Holmes.") Watson asks Holmes if he's been eating. Holmes' guilty little-boy look reveals that he hasn't been.
"You don't eat and you have bad dreams," Watson surmises.
"I have one dream more than once," Holmes corrects him.
Holmes proceeds to tell Watson that he regrets Professor Moriarty's death. Moriarty may have been a "giant of evil," but at least "the Napoleon of crime" presented more of a challenge to Holmes than the trivial problems he's been offered lately.
Watson tells him that may change. He opens an envelope marked with a fancy coat of arms. "It's about the Lord St. Simon wedding," he tells Holmes.
"Dull, dull!" Holmes answers dismissively, and toddles off for a nap.
Watson quickly checks the drawer where Holmes keeps his syringe. He's relieved to see that it's untouched. (Um, didn't Holmes bury his syringe on the beach in Granada's version of The Devil's Foot?)
Robert St. Simon arrives to consult with Holmes. Watson notifies Holmes, who shoos him away: "Watson, I'm trying to sleep! You know my methods."
Watson interviews St. Simon about his missing bride. Instead of napping, Holmes listens in. Then, he glances out the window and sees "the woman obscured"--the veiled woman he saw during his nocturnal stroll.
The woman leaves a note with Mrs. Hudson. Mrs. Hudson tries to deliver it to Holmes, but doesn't want to disrupt Watson's interview. When she knocks on the door a second time, Holmes walks past Watson and St. Simon and answers the door himself. Mrs. Hudson explains the urgency of the note.
Holmes reads it: "Lady Hettie Gone--What of Ladies Maude and Helena?"
Holmes asks St. Simon if the names "Maude" and "Helena" mean anything to him. St. Simon reveals those were the names of his first two wives. An intrigued Holmes takes over the interview from Watson.
It seems the celebrated bachelor St. Simon kept his first two marriages a secret because, as he explains to Holmes, they were "uncomfortable" and "painful." (Especially for his wives, we later learn!)
After interviewing St. Simon, Holmes asks Mrs. Hudson to describe the veiled woman to him. She starts to, and then looks out the window: "That's her!"
Mrs. Hudson points to the woman, who is standing across the street. Suddenly, the woman alights into a passing omnibus and vanishes.
And, thus we come to the famous (infamous?) "nightie" scene, where Holmes (clad in his nightshirt) runs out into the rain and frantically tries to stop the woman's coach. After he's nearly run down, he plops down on the curb and curses: "Damn!"
"Holmes, I despair!" Watson chides.
Holmes does look a bit silly sitting in the rain in his nightie. But, he finds the veiled woman's accounts book in a puddle. His mad dash outdoors re-energizes him. He returns to 221-B, brainstorming with Watson: "To lose one wife is unfortunate, but to lose three starts to look like carelessness! I must read your notes on Lord Robert!"
By this time, a wedding gown has been fished from the Serpentine. Inspector Montgomery (spelling Inspector Lestrade in this episode) brings the dress to Mr. Doran, who identifies it as Hettie's.
Montgomery goes to Baker Street to gloat. Scotland Yard has all but solved the case, thank you very much. Montgomery tells Holmes that Flora Miller has been arrested in connection with Hettie's disappearance, because of a note found in the pocket of the wedding gown:
You know where to come as soon as you can. I will wait all day. Signed, F. M.
However, Holmes finds the reverse side of the note more revealing. It's a fragment of a hotel bill.
Holmes and Watson interview the Park Club doorman who witnessed Flora's attempt on St. Simon's life. The doorman is sure the shot came from Flora's gun--he heard a carriage door bang shut just as the gun went off. The bullet struck a stone column, and the doorman looked up to see Flora. However, Holmes is convinced otherwise: "The gun's yet to be invented that shoots around corners." He finds Flora's bullet embedded in a wall. Who, then, shot at Lord Robert?
The detective and doctor interview Flora in prison. Holmes asks Flora if she's involved in Hettie's disappearance.
Flora admits she spoke to Hettie, but denies being involved in her disappearance: "The child simply had the common sense to see what she was getting herself into." Flora talked to Hettie and bought clothes to replace her wedding gown, but didn't see her after that. Flora refuses to tell Holmes what she knows about Ladies Maude and Helena. Nevertheless, Holmes promises to have her released.
Back at Baker Street, Holmes carefully examines the veiled woman's accounts book: "These pages are like the delicate membranes of a butterfly...The poor woman is destitute!...There's rage on this page--the paper's cut with a knife...Ah, she reads--Jane Austen, and Sophocles!"
The veiled woman herself visits 221-B Baker Street.
"I am Agnes Northcote," she reveals. She begs Holmes not to find Hettie, because "no woman with a fortune is safe" with Lord Robert St. Simon.
Holmes asks her for proof. Agnes pours out the heart-wrenching story of her sister, Helena--Lord Robert's second wife. He married her, had her committed to an insane asylum, and annulled the marriage, just so he could steal her fortune.
Watson points out that since the Lunacy Act was passed, people can't be committed without just cause.
"They can if your uncle is a duke, and you're handsome and plausible," Agnes retorts.
She explains that she tried to expose St. Simon's scheme. However, St. Simon made a big show of being the loving husband who'd reluctantly had his troubled wife committed. Just one problem: the woman he displayed was not Helena. (It was Flora Miller, of course.)
"Where is Helena now?" Holmes asks.
Agnes answers, "I went to Glaven myself. I had to find the truth. My reward was this..."
Holmes gently removes the veil, revealing Agnes' horribly scarred face.
In a flashback, Agnes wanders through the dilapidated halls of Glaven. Her face is raked by a man wielding a pronged gardening implement, and by a jaguar that roams freely through the house. She is left for dead.
Back in the present, Agnes admits to Holmes, "I live only a half life of not knowing--nothing seems to break the gray circle I live in--nothing I do."
"Nothing?" Holmes asks.
She adds, "I walk the streets at night. By looking for danger, sometimes I think I'm asking the world to hurt me so I can feel alive."
Holmes has a hunch. He inquires if her "nocturnal meanderings" take her past the Park Club.
Bingo! Agnes confesses to shooting at Lord St. Simon: "Couldn't bear to see another life destroyed."
Agnes also reveals that St. Simon's first wife, Maude, was murdered. The murderer was convicted, but later escaped from prison. Agnes suspects the murderer, Thomas Floutier, now works at Glaven.
Holmes laments that Agnes' shot didn't faze St. Simon in the least. He tells Agnes, "I cannot expect you to understand how much I envy you, the delight it must be to face an opponent of some worth."
Later, Holmes interviews an old woman who attended Hettie's wedding to St. Simon. She reveals that a handsome young man handed Hettie's bouquet back to her. The woman assumed he was one of the Dorans.
At last, the pieces fall into place. Holmes and Watson visit the hotel room of one Francis Hay Moulton--"F.M." Moulton explains that he'd secretly married Hettie back in California, and went off to make his fortune. However, Hettie was mistakenly told that he'd died, and that's why she was so startled when he appeared at her wedding. Holmes asks where Hettie is now.
"She went to see Lord Robert," Moulton answers.
"I wish she hadn't done that!" Holmes declares.
Meanwhile, St. Simon's creditors are tightening the screws. He knows he must find Hettie so he can keep Glaven. Unfortunately, his creditors heard about his wedding-day spat with Flora Miller, and they're afraid that Flora (who is free again) might influence Hettie against him.
Therefore, St. Simon silences Flora by flattening her with a huge chunk of scenery at the theatre. Flora has the last word, however: With her dying breath she reveals that she told Hettie everything!
Hettie wanders through the dilapidated halls of Glaven, much as Agnes did. She finds Lord Robert and confronts him about Helena: "Where's your wife?"
St. Simon answers that she is his wife, and the past doesn't matter.
Hettie persists. St. Simon tries to force her to see things his way, but she refuses and tells him, "It's over."
St. Simon responds that not only will Helena have to die now, but an accident will be arranged for Hettie, too, and he'll get all her money. After all, she's his wife, and the law is on his side.
Then, Hettie drops the bombshell about Francis Hay Moulton.
"I've been with my husband!" she exclaims.
St. Simon ties her up and leaves her in the room with the jaguar.
Luckily, Holmes and Watson have arrived at Glaven. Holmes is astonished to recognize elements from his dream: empty rooms, torn furniture, cobwebs. He catches the scent of Hettie's perfume, which he'd sniffed in Moulton's room. He and Watson run to find her.
The jaguar doesn't harm Hettie, but Thomas Floutier lunges at her with the same tool he used to disfigure Agnes. Holmes stops him and is nearly stabbed himself. Watson shoots Floutier, and tends to Hettie as Holmes tracks Lord Robert.
St. Simon comes to the ruins of a stone chapel in the woods. He whistles, as if for a dog. A bizarre creature emerges from a carpet of leaves within the ruins. St. Simon speaks to the creature. Suddenly, the ancient stones collapse upon St. Simon, killing him.
Holmes shows up. He recognizes the "witch-like, hag-like" figure from his dream. She claws at him. Holmes is momentarily repulsed by the creature's appearance, but, he rescues her--because the pitiful wraith is actually Lady Helena. St. Simon had kept her penned like an animal for seven years. However, Helena was anything but insane. Knowing she couldn't escape, she devised an ingenious plan to stop St. Simon instead. And, it worked.
Holmes remarks, "It is unique in my experience for anyone to serve the sentence before the crime."
All's well that ends well: Helena and Agnes are reunited, and Helena rightfully inherits Glaven, which she happily turns over to Hettie and Francis Moulton.
Surprisingly, the diverse threads of The Eligible Bachelor actually weave together. The subplot about Holmes' prophetic nightmare may seem to have come from left field, but it's apparently a nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fascination with spiritualism. Doyle wrote a book entitled The Edge of the Unknown, inspired by odd dreams he'd had years earlier. Doyle wrote of dreams people around the world had described to him. For example, an Irishman claimed to have dreamed the winners in horse races that hadn't been run yet. Doyle himself claimed to have dreamed of a decisive event in World War I over a year before it actually occurred.
"Agnes Northcote" was obviously suggested by the title character of The Veiled Lodger, a Holmes story where a woman is savagely mauled by a lion.
The overly "artsy" approach taken by director Peter Hammond does threaten to obscure the narrative of TEB at times, though. The photography is fancy throughout, including the obligatory "mirror shot" where actors are framed in the little mirror on Holmes' mantle. The introductory switching between Hettie and St. Simon's bucolic bliss and Holmes' dream-induced distress is somewhat confusing. The special "nightmare" effects are quite eye-catching, however, with Reichenbach Falls appearing to cascade from the ceiling.
Holmes'/Brett's anguished flailings during the nightmare sequences are unsettling. In fact, my mom, the original Granada Holmes fan in my family, told me she changed the channel during one of these scenes and didn't return.
I kept watching, however, because I felt a strange kinship with Holmes as I first viewed The Eligible Bachelor. No, I wasn't having nightmares, but I had just been downsized from a job I'd held for nearly a decade. I'd gone through outplacement counseling and thought I was reconciled to the fact that my job was coming to an end. However, nothing could have prepared me for the almost overwhelming feelings of rejection and worthlessness I experienced once I actually had no job to go to. As I watched Holmes wander alone through the night streets of London, I thought, "I know how he feels!" It wasn't until a few months later that I learned of Jeremy's real-life manic depression. (Still later, I learned of the heart condition which caused his bloated appearance in TEB.)
Despite his illnesses, Jeremy was able to deftly explore the more "human" side of Holmes in The Eligible Bachelor. His Holmes treats the upstart Inspector Montgomery with withering contempt; yet, he is incredibly sympathetic when dealing with Mrs. Hudson, Agnes Northcote, Lady Helena, and even Flora Miller. Holmes snaps at Watson when the doctor expresses concern for his health, but later obediently complies with Watson's orders to eat and rest.
Like the "kiss scene" in The Master Blackmailer, JB was originally enthusiastic about the "nightie" scene, but after it aired, he changed his mind. Actually, the scene is a turning point in the story. The drenched Holmes snaps out of his doldrums and gets back to work. (Much like I did--I quickly found a better job which, thankfully, I still have today.)
As usual, the other performances in TEB are also top-notch, from Edward Hardwicke's dependable Dr. Watson to Simon Williams' despicable Lord Robert. Anna Calder-Marshall plays the demanding dual roles of Agnes Northcote and Lady Helena with immense skill and sensitivity. (Incidentally, Ms. Calder-Marshall is the real-life wife of JB's first Dr. Watson, David Burke.)
So, there you have The Eligible Bachelor. It's not Citizen Kane--but it's not Plan 9 From Outer Space, either.
Next: The Problem of Thor Bridge