Thursday, April 26, 2012

World Penguin Day

As you may already know, I am a huge hockey fan. My favorite team is the Pittsburgh Penguins. And while I am still a bit sad over their early exit from the NHL playoffs this year, I was very happy to see that April 25th was World Penguin Day! My love of the Penguins came before my love of penguins. I went to my first hockey game when I was 9, but didn't start collecting penguins until I was a teenager. My collections has grown through the years, but it is still in boxes in my garage, even though we have been in our house almost four years. I'm still working on a permanent space for them in my home.

Many people think of an Emperor penguin, like in The March Of The Penguins, when they think of penguins (if they think of them at all!). But, in fact, there are 17 different types of penguins:

  1. Emperor
  2. King
  3. Adelie
  4. Chinstrap
  5. Gentoo
  6. Erect-crested
  7. Snares crested
  8. Fiorland
  9. Rockhopper
  10. Macaroni
  11. Royal
  12. African
  13. Humboldt
  14. Magellanic
  15. Galapagos
  16. Yellow-eyed
  17. Little Blue

These birds (and they are birds) are only found in the Southern Hemisphere, although most of them do not live at the South Pole. (The Galapagos penguin actually lives off the coast of South America near the equator.) They range in size from the largest, Emperor, which stands about four feet, to the smallest, Little Blue, which stands about 1 foot. 

Penguins are excellent swimmers, which is why they lost the ability to fly millions of years ago. They spend most of their time in the water and usually come back to land only for mating season. Most penguins do mate for life, or at least for many seasons, as most people have heard. And both the male and the female take part in the incubation and the first two to 12 months of their chick's life. Once the chick is ready to be on its own, the adult penguins are off to the oceans to stock up on food to sustain them until the next mating season.

It's hard for me to say why I exactly love penguins -- other than it started as a teenage girl thinking they were cute, but now has grown into a respect for an animal that lives in a very harsh environment and continues to survive even when the odds are against them. 


Penguin by Frans Lanting

Penguins by Roger Tory Peterson

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater


Surf's Up (2007)

Happy Feet (2007)

And in honor of my favorite penguin:

Also, if you have nothing better to do, watch this!

Live broadcast by Ustream

 -- Post by Tracy

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Brothers and Sisters

National Siblings Day: April 10

National Siblings Day has come and gone this year, but I for one feel it's never too late to reflect upon the many joys -- and teeth-grinding frustrations -- that come about from those most unique of people in our lives: siblings.

Whether you're the older child who feels replaced, the middle child who feels ignored, or the younger child who feels you'll never measure up, having a sibling means having a lifetime of conflicting emotions. (Read more about the theory of how "birth order" can affect our personalities here.) On the one hand, they're your built-in rivals -- and, having grown up together, your siblings probably have a better idea than anyone else of just how to push your buttons. 

But the fact that you've known each other all your lives -- and have played an important part in each other's lives from the beginning -- means that your siblings "get" you in a way no one else ever will. Who else could ever believe just how weird your parents are, how frustrating your relatives can be, and how awkward that one holiday dinner really was?  Having a sibling means having someone who will always understand just how crazy your lives have been -- even if you don't always quite understand each other. But, then again, that can be part of the fun.

So, in honor of April 10th, here are ten sets of fictional brothers and sisters who show us just how frustrating -- and fantastic -- our own, real-life siblings can be:

Lots of the Greek gods were related. But Apollo (the Sun God) and Artemis (the Goddess of the Hunt) were twins!  The kids of Zeus and a minor goddess called Leto, these sibling gods were both quite skilled with a bow and arrow, and often used these weapons to defend those under their care (including their own mother). Despite being twins, Apollo and Artemis definitely had their differences (Apollo was associated with the sun, Artemis with the moon) -- but that didn't stop these siblings from getting along. They hung out together often, usually on hunting excursions.

2. Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa

Nothing helps you bond with your long-lost sibling like reminiscing over just how screwed up your parents are. Luke and Leia share the ultimate in evil fathers -- Darth Vadar himself -- but that doesn't stop these twins from catching up on lost quality family time once they team back up. Then again, working together to overthrow an evil Empire could probably help any estranged family members find some common ground again.

3-4. Literary Duos:

Elizabeth and Jane BennetSherlock and Mycroft Holmes

If you're a regular reader, you know that we're big fans of Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes around here. So it should come as no surprise that we're including two of our favorite families: the Bennets and the Holmeses.

In a family of five sisters, eldest Bennet sister Jane finds her best friend in next-oldest Elizabeth. Jane, the "beauty" in the family, is much less critical than her sister of people and their society. Elizabeth, with her quick wit and sharp opinions, is dismissive of many of their acquaintances -- but loves her somewhat naive sister for her good heart. Despite being opposites, the sisters are also steadfast confidants, supporting each other as only siblings can.

Everybody knows Sherlock Holmes. But less well-known (he's unknown, for some time, even by Dr. Watson himself) is Sherlock's older brother, Mycroft. These two siblings are occasional rivals, as each tries to out-deduce the other; but while Mycroft is arguably even more of a genius than Sherlock, he lacks his younger brother's force of will and determination. So, despite his older brother's intellectual superiority, Sherlock's passion for "the game" will ensure that the younger Holmes will always remain the greatest Great Detective. 

The one thing Harry Potter wanted most of all was a family -- so it's easy to see why he'd come to love a family as loud, boisterous, and loving as the Weasley clan. With seven kids in all (that's Ron, Ginny, and twins Fred and George in the picture), the Weasley siblings are the ultimate example of a big family that frustrates, exasperates, and annoys one another to no end -- but who will always be there for each other no matter what. Which, as you know if you've read it, is what makes the last book in the series so heartbreaking ...

Speaking of brothers and sisters who drive each other crazy -- Bart and Lisa may be the poster children for sibs who can't quite seem to live with each other ... but who just might grudgingly admit that they don't want to live without each other, either. Bart and Lisa love each other, but, like all siblings, they have their share of fights -- often while a disgruntled Maggie looks on.

For over fifty years, Dick and Jane (and their baby sister Sally) taught American children how to read. With simplistic, repetitive words to describe their adventures with Mother, Father, Spot, Puff, and Tim, Dick and Jane emphasized memorization to learn reading. That's a practice that has fallen out of favor (the focus is on phonetics now), but the iconic characters have become a part of pop culture.

Argh!  Who can't relate to the sibling rivalry of Lucy and Linus van Pelt?  Linus is generally a calm and quiet sort, but with a fussbudget for an older sister, he often finds his nerves put to the test. Lucy, for her part, would probably claim she always means well (like when she hides Linus's blanket from him only because she wants him to learn how to get along without it) -- but, as with all great characters, it's left for the readers to judge.

Elwood and Jake Blues began as characters on Saturday Night Live, before proving popular enough to warrant their own musical comedy film in 1980. John Belushi's Jake is out on parole when he teams up with his brother, Dan Aykroyd's Elwood, to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up from being foreclosed. Reuniting their blues band to come up with the money, the brothers must dodge Neo-Nazis, a country band, and a crazed Carrie Fisher -- all while keeping under the radar of the police. Encountering such legends as Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and James Brown, you don't have to have seen the film to enjoy the outstanding soundtrack

If you asked me, I'd probably claim Everybody Loves Raymond or The Big Bang Theory as my favorite sitcom. But I think, when it comes to fictional families, there's no denying that the sibling duo from Frasier is the one I love best. These sibling psychiatrists are a bit ... particular in their styles and habits (which is to say, they'd give Lucy van Pelt a good run in the fussbudget department). Fortunately for those around them, they tend to take out the worst of their nit-picking peculiarities on each other, fighting and competing with each other on every project they take on. Whether trying to open up a gourmet restaurant or co-authoring a book together (a book on the topic of, ahem, sibling rivalry), Frasier and Niles will find a way to turn it into a competition -- with hilarious results.

But, like so many real-life siblings, the rivalry masks the real affection these two brothers have for each other. 

You know. Most of the time, anyway.

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Birthday Biography: Charlotte Bronte

If you have followed this blog at all, you will know that my favorite author is Jane Austen. My favorite book is Pride and Prejudice. One of my other favorite books, however, is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. That may not seem out of the ordinary to some of you, but ironically, Ms. Bronte and her sisters (Emily and Anne) were not fans of Ms. Austen. Nonetheless, I still am a fan of Charlotte Bronte.

Charlotte was born April 21, 1816 in Thornton, England. She was one of six children, but after her two older sisters died (only a few years after her mother died), Charlotte was suddenly the oldest child. Along with her sisters, Anne and Emily, she lived with her father, her brother Branwell, and an aunt, who helped raise them all.

She lived a relatively quiet life, although all of the Bronte children were very imaginative and filled their days with creating and writing about different and exotic worlds. Many of the characters and images for Jane Eyre can be found in these early childhood writings.

Charlotte and her sisters spent there early school years at the Clergy Daughters' School, which would provide much inspiration for Jane Eyre. After a short time, all of the girls were at home in Yorkshire, where their father educated them. Around the age of 16, Charlotte continued her education with the help of her godparents. She attended a school in East Yorkshire for one year and would eventually return there as an instructor. She taught there for several years before giving up that post. For the next several years, she worked as a governess for a few different families, before departing for Brussels with her sister Emily. There they attended a school, intent on improving their French and German so that they could return to England and open a school of their own. While there, Charlotte fell in love with the married headmaster. While this was an unrequited love, it would eventually provide inspiration for her first novel, The Professor, which was published posthumously in 1857.

Charlotte and Emily returned to England in 1842, due to the deaths of their aunt and several family friends. Charlotte did return to Brussels in 1843 by herself but only stayed for a year. Emily and Charlotte had planned on opening their own school with some of the money their aunt had left them, but no one applied to be a student.

Of all of the Bronte siblings, Charlotte was the most prolific and the most successful in her lifetime. In 1846, all three of the sisters published their poetry using masculine pseudonyms. Unfortunately, only two copies were sold. But this venture into publishing empowered them to continue writing and to eventually publish their novels. Charlotte tried publishing The Professor in 1846, but it was rejected by many publishers. One publisher, however, encouraged her to submit another piece, so she sent him Jane Eyre. In October 1847, Jane Eyre: An Autobiography was published in three volumes, "edited" by Currer Bell (the name she used to publish her earlier poetry). It was an instant success.

Unfortunately, a year later she would lose all three of her siblings, leaving only Charlotte and her father as survivors. As a form of solace, she continued writing. Her next novel, Shirley: A Tale, was published in 1849, and her third novel, Villette, was published in 1853.

In June 1854, Charlotte married Arthur Bell Nichols, one of her father's curates. Within a few months Charlotte realized she was pregnant, but due to severe nausea and vomiting, she died on March 31, 1855.

Before her death, Charlotte had begun to become friends with other literary figures. One of those, Elizabeth Gaskell, would later write a biography, The Life of Charlotte Bronte.

Jane Eyre would become Charlotte's legacy. Strong-willed and independent, Jane was a unique literary character for her time. Many Victorians were appalled by the idea that a woman didn't have to be submissive or passive. Now, Jane Eyre is often seen as a very modern woman. She refused to live with a man that she loves, knowing that he was already married, and then later refused to marry someone she didn't love. Jane defied the customs of the day in just about everything she did. Being a plain young woman, with no family to protect and love her, forced her to take care of herself. And while Charlotte did have a loving and protective family to support her, she, like Jane, still took many risks and lived the way she wanted, as much as she could for the times.


The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte: A Novel by Syrie James

Romancing Miss Bronte: A Novel by Juliet Gael

The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte by Laura Joh Rowland

Film Reviews:

There have been over 20 filmed versions of Jane Eyre, for television and theatre, dating back to the early days of film right up to 2011. I haven't seen them all, but I've seen most of the more current versions, which is what this list will show. For an entire list, check out IMDB.

Jane Eyre (1983) This version is my personal favorite. It stars Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke. This was a made for TV mini-series from the BBC and is a rather faithful adaptation. It is showing its age a bit, but it is still worth watching.

Jane Eyre (2006) This is another version from the BBC starring Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson. This is a very close second to the 1983 version.

Jane Eyre (1996) Stars William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg. This is my least favorite version. I felt that they changed too many things about the story and I felt that the actors were miscast.

Jane Eyre (2011) The most recent version starring Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska. While still not anywhere near my favorite of versions, this one was still very good. It gave it a bit of a different interpretation with out going too far off track. And the two leads were very well cast.

Other Resources:

The Bronte Parsonage Museum and Bronte Society

Books and Writers

The Victorian Web

   -- Post by Tracy

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Unsinkable Dream

April 14, 2012 saw the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Famously thought to be "virtually" unsinkable, the passenger liner R.M.S. Titanic hit an iceberg during her maiden voyage. It took less than three hours for the ship to sink into the Northern Atlantic.

In the century that's followed, the tragedy of the Titanic has captured the fascination and imagination of people around the world. Books, documentaries, and films abound, making the Titanic the subject of about as much fascination now as she was a century ago.

And the Titanic was, indeed, a source of much fascination even before she first set sail. When the hull of the Titanic was launched in 1911 at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Ireland, a crowd of 100,000 spectators came to see. The ship had been conceived by J. Bruce Ismay (president of the White Star Line company) and Lord Pirrie (chairman of Harland and Wolff shipbuilders) as one of three gigantic ocean liners. Titanic -- and her sister ships Olympic and Britannic -- were meant to be the ultimate in travel experiences, ships unrivaled in size, speed, and elegance.

Whether or not the White Star Line ever billed their ship as truly "unsinkable" is a source of debate to this day. But if aspects of the Titanic disaster has been romanticized in our popular fiction, perhaps it's understandable. The hopes -- and the hubris -- that launched with the ship on her maiden voyage only made her ultimate fate that much more tragic -- and that much more unforgettable.

Some Titanic Facts & Stats:

- The ship was 268 meters long (or 882 feet and 8 inches), and 28 meters (92.5 feet) wide at her widest point. The ship's full length exceeded the height of all the skyscraper buildings of her day.

- From the waterline to the boat deck, the Titanic was 60.5 feet high. The full height, from the keel to the top of the funnels, was 175 feet.

- She needed 825 tons of coal per day.

- Her three anchors weighed a total of thirty-one tons, roughly the same weight as twenty cars.

- The ship cost $7,500,000 to build. (That's $400 million in today's money.)

- A first-class ticket cost £870 -- that's $4,350. Translated to today's money? $50,000. (An original ticket for the maiden voyage launch was recently sold at auction, fetching $56,250.)

- The Titanic struck the iceberg at 11:40 P.M., "sideswiping" the starboard side of the ship. Had the Titanic hit the iceberg directly -- instead of attempting to avoid it, resulting in the sideswipe -- it's theorized that the ship likely would have survived.

- The ship sank two hours and forty minutes later, at 2:20 A.M.

- 710 people survived the sinking. 1,517 did not.

Some Little-Known Facts:

- Only three of the four famous smokestacks were working. (The fourth one was just for looks!)

- Isidor Straus, who was the owner of Macy's, died in the shipwreck. Andrew Carnegie spoke at Straus's funeral.

- The sinking of the Titanic was "predicted" fourteen years earlier, by American author Morgan Robertson. He wrote a book entitled Futility, or the wreck of the Titan, about a ship called the Titan that was described as unsinkable, only to hit an iceberg and sink in mid-April. Fourteen years later, it really happened -- to the Titanic.

- There were 20 lifeboats on the Titanic. The lifeboats could carry 1,179 people; Titanic was carrying 2,228 passengers. However, Titanic was actually carrying more than the number of lifeboats required by regulation standards. The maritime safety regulations were based on the tonnage of the ship, not the number of passengers. (The sinking of Titanic would go on to prompt changes to the outdated rules.)

- One of the survivors of the Titanic disaster was Dorothy Gibson, a silent film actress. She would go on to star in the first motion picture about the tragedy, a short picture entitled Saved from the Titanic. It opened less than a month after the ship was lost; the film itself has since been lost.

- Believe it or not, Titanic Captain Edward J. Smith had put in thirty-eight years of service with the White Star Line ... and was planning on retiring after this final voyage.

For more on the Titanic:

- Titanic's Dead Mourned 100 Years Later in Poignant Ceremony at Sinking: Reuters

- TITANIC: 'The Titanic Was Unsinkable' - Myth or Not?

- Titanic Universe: Extensive information and resources for Titanic enthusiasts.

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Drop Everything And Read

Mrs. Whaley printed four big letters on the blackboard, and as she pointed she read out, "D. E. A. R. Can anyone guess what these letters stand for?"

The class thought and thought.

"Do Everything All Right," suggested someone. A good thought, but not the right answer.

"Don't Eat A Reader," suggested Danny. Mrs. Whaley laughed and told him to try again.

As Ramona thought, she stared out of the window at the blue sky, the treetops, and, in the distance, the snow-capped peak of Mount Hood looking like a giant licked ice-cream cone.
R could stand for Run and A for And. "Drop Everything And Run," Ramona burst out. Mrs. Whaley, who was not the sort of teacher who expected everyone to raise a hand before speaking, laughed and said, "Almost right, Ramona, but have you forgotten we are talking about reading?"

"Drop Everything And Read!" chorused the rest of the class. Ramona felt silly. She should have thought of that herself.

-- From Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary

April 12 is National Drop Everything And Read Day. A program designed by such organizations as the National Education Association, the American Library Association, and HarperCollins Children’s Books, the day was designed to "remind and encourage families to make reading together on a daily basis a family priority." Celebrating the holiday is simple: take 30 minutes today to read a book!

And why April 12? Simple: it's Beverly Cleary's birthday.

Turning 96 today (she was born in 1916), Cleary is a children's book author who says she got her ideas for her characters and stories merely by a desire to write the sort of books she wanted to read as a child -- but could never find. She wanted to read books about children who were just like herself. And since her books made their first appearance over fifty years ago, they've been loved the world over for their extraordinary "ordinary" characters: Henry Huggins, Ralph S. Mouse, Leigh Botts, Ellen Tebbits, Otis Spofford, and, of course, Ramona Quimby.

Born and raised in Oregon, Clearly was initially a slow reader -- struggling to learn, in part, because she found the books she was assigned to read to be uninspiring. But in third grade, she had a life-changing experience when she tried The Dutch Twins, by Lucy Fitch Perkins. For the first time, a story had hooked her. "In this story, something happened. With rising elation, I read on. I read all afternoon and evening, and by bedtime I had read not only The Dutch Twins but The Swiss Twins as well. It was one of the most exciting days of my life."

Cleary would go on to become a librarian, only to find that she was in agreement with the children of her library that many of the books geared to kids weren't that engaging. So she wrote a book of her own: Henry Huggins. The book was accepted by the first publisher she sent it to, embarking Cleary on a career that has spanned more than half a century. Her books have been adapted into a television series and films, and statues of her most famous trio of characters (Henry, Ribsy, and Ramona) are displayed in a park in Portland, Oregon (Ramona's "hometown").

So what makes Cleary's books so popular?

In some ways, they are among the first of their kind. Cleary did not want to write books with morals and messages, about children who "learn their lesson" by the end of the story and become better-behaved. She wanted to write about realistic children, with problems and situations that real kids could relate to. Her characters don't learn an Important Moral by the last page -- they simply change and grow from their experiences, getting closer to becoming adults. (As Ramona herself notes at the end of one novel, she's "winning at growing up.")

I understand Cleary's connection to The Swiss Twins as the first book that made her love reading. Cleary's Ramona books were the first books I ever read on my own, and were the first "chapter books" I ever loved. I read and reread my Ramona books until the covers fell off, and Ramona herself became both a character I related to and a role model I looked up to. Ramona was stubborn, determined, enthusiastic, curious, confused, wise, and imaginative -- all while tackling the sort of problems any "ordinary" kid could relate to. Ironically, Cleary's determination to write books without "a moral" allowed her to tell stories that inspired.

Such is Cleary's talent that she didn't just make me fall in love with Ramona. She made me fall in love with reading. She's done the same for millions of children -- now adults -- worldwide. So celebrate this former librarian's birthday by taking a few moments today to Drop Everything And Read!

-- Post by Ms. B

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Happy National Library Week!

Whether you are a job seeker looking for resources to land a new job, a parent looking for free activities for children or a student searching for your next favorite book, you belong @ your library.

Today's libraries help level the playing field by making both print and digital information affordable, available and accessible to all people. Libraries provide cultural heritage and genealogical collections, materials in print and electronic formats, job seeking resources, English as a second language and citizenship classes and many other creative and resourceful programs.

Libraries have historically served as our nation's great equalizers of knowledge. The strength of libraries has always been the diversity of their collections and commitment to serving all people. This National Library Week, join our nation's libraries and librarians by celebrating the place where we all belong.

First sponsored in 1958, National Library Week is a national observance sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) and libraries across the country each April.

A fan of audiobooks?  Stop by Monroeville Public Library this Wednesday from 1:00 - 5:00 p.m. for our Playaway Day. We'll be talking all about Playaways -- pre-programmed mp3 players that make it easier than ever to listen to your favorite audiobooks on the move. Stop in to learn more -- and to help yourselves to some free treats we're giving away in honor of National Library Week!

Author, host of the History Channel's "Decoded" and Honorary Chair of National Library Week, Brad Meltzer on the value of libraries and librarians.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

On-Screen Sherlocks

I've become quite the Sherlock Holmes fan over the past couple of years -- although "fan" is, perhaps, too subtle a word. (It just sounds so much nicer than "obsessor," doesn't it?) My enthusiasm aside, however, it is an admittedly new interest. Despite previous attempts to try the books (or one of the myriad film adaptations), and despite my long-standing affection for the mystery genre, I could never quite seem to get hooked by Holmes.

That was until the theater release of Sherlock Holmes, the 2009 film starring Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role (and Jude Law as Dr. Watson). It turned out that this high-action, rough-and-tumble, steampunkified version of Sherlock Holmes was exactly what I needed to draw me to the character, and I haven't looked back since.

I've since then dove happily into the Holmes canon (the four novels and 56 short stories originally written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), as well as a number of pastiches (novels and short stories written by authors other than Conan Doyle about the great detective). I've also started exploring the myriad on-screen portrayals of Sherlock Holmes -- which, given their sheer number (the Guinness Book of World Records has repeatedly listed Holmes as "the most-portrayed movie character" of all time), is a project I'm happy to say won't be completed anytime soon.

So in honor of my first Holmes's birthday (Downey turned 47 yesterday), I thought I'd use the occasion to take a look at some of the best-known -- and the least-appreciated -- actors to bring life to the most famous of fictional detectives.

Jeremy Brett

Over seventy actors have portrayed Sherlock Holmes -- and yet, of those seventy, two in particular have been consistently regarded as the best. Brett is one of them.

Born in England, Brett would play the character of Sherlock Holmes for 41 episodes of the Granada Television series, which was produced and aired in intervals from 1984 through 1994. From the start, Granada was interested in producing a series that was as faithful to the original Conan Doyle stories as possible. Full sections of dialogue from the stories made it into the scripts verbatim, and costumes and even poses from the original Sidney Pagent artwork appeared onscreen.

After agreeing to take on the role, Brett studied the original stories and made notes on the character's quirks, tics, and more eccentric behaviors. The result was a portrayal of Holmes that many fans find to be definitive, reflecting the intense research and thought that Brett had put into the character.

-- Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Arthur Wontner
Virtually forgotten today, Wontner was wildly popular as Holmes in his time, praised by critics and fans alike as "the perfect Holmes." One of the first actors to appear as Holmes after movies had gained the ability to "talk," Wontner's films were produced in the 1930s, and the first of these in particular was a box-office smash on both sides of the Atlantic.

Though the series appears slow-moving to modern eyes and ears, Wontner's portrayal -- and its cultural impact on the 30s -- should not be ignored. Perhaps the best praise to give his performance is to quote from a letter sent by Arthur Conan Doyle's widow, Lady Jean, who wrote to Wontner that she loved "your really splendid acting ... [and] masterly presentation of Sherlock Holmes."

-- Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Ronald Howard

This 1950s TV series plays something like a Sherlock Holmes sitcom -- although, technically speaking, "family show" would be the better term. But there's a quirky, sometimes silly, entertaining humor to the series that differentiates it from most of the other Holmes adaptations.

The show was produced and filmed in Paris on a shoestring budget, with scripts that rather varied in quality. But Howard can still be lauded for performing one of the more faithful portrayals of the character. The series is also noteworthy for breaking from the then-tradition of portraying Holmes as a middle-aged professional at the height of his career -- presenting him instead as a thirtysomething who was still somewhat close to the beginning of his detective days. And to modern eyes, the occasional lapses into the ridiculousness can add to the quirky charm; when the series works, it works well.

-- Ronald Howard in The Complete Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Peter Cushing

Still perhaps best-known as Grand Moff Tarkin -- Darth Vader's partner-in-crime from the original Star Wars film -- Cushing was a lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes who was eager to portray the detective as closely to the original stories as possible. First appearing as Holmes in the 1959 Hammer Film The Hound of the Baskervilles (with fellow Star Wars villain Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville), he'd resume the part a decade later in the then-latest BBC Holmes series.

Filming for the television series was rough, with the production schedule rushed and demanding. And yet, despite the difficulties, Cushing continued to strive for as accurate and well-researched a portrayal of the character as possible -- and he succeeded. After the series ended, he'd go on to appear as the character one final time, in a 1984 production entitled The Masks of Death.

Sadly, while the Hammer Film's Hound and Masks of Death are still available, all but five the Cushing episodes of the BBC series have been lost. But the ones that remain are as faithfully entertaining now as ever.

-- Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Benedict Cumberbatch

(That's Cumberbatch on the left, for those of you who don't watch the series ...)

A cell-phone-wielding Sherlock Holmes may seem like sacrilege to some fans. And yet, the idea of placing Sherlock Holmes in a modern-day setting is not a new one. The only difference is when, exactly, "modern day" is. For years, film, stage, and TV adaptations have been taking Holmes out of his original Victorian setting and placing him in the era in which the adaptation is taking place -- sometimes for artistic reasons, sometimes for financial ones.

First airing in England (and being shown here on PBS), the British TV series Sherlock is placed in the 21st century for reasons decidedly artistic. Cumberbatch plays Holmes with as dash of Dr. Gregory House to him -- an analytical, aloof sleuth who is interested in solving crime simply for the challenge of the puzzle, and who may sometimes be out to prove just how clever he is. His put-upon roommate, played by Martin Freeman, adds an important dash of humanity to this modern-day detective series.

With nods to and variations on the original Conan Doyle stories, the show is prized among fans for its cleverly worked plotlines and quotable humor. With a long wait for the third series to come out, now's a great time to catch up on what you've missed so far!

-- Series One of BBC Sherlock on DVD

Robert Downey, Jr.

Downey's quirky, rough-fighting Holmes is not every fan's cup of tea. However, despite the films' emphasis on action -- and some decided elements of advanced Victorian technology (a style of alternate history fiction known as the "steampunk" genre) -- the movies have drawn all of their inspiration from the original canon. From Holmes's fighting and boxing prowess to Watson's new wife (and the good doctor's gambling addiction!), the adherence to Conan Doyle's written details makes this adaptation of Holmes a version of the character that is inspired by the canon, not a departure from it.

Though not a physical match for the part, Downey easily captures Holmes's sardonic manners and fascination with the details of his cases (he "[plays] the game for the game's own sake"). I was drawn to Downey's balance of Holmes's aloof detachment with his honest compassion for the people around him -- and to the patience-trying, laughter-inducing, genuine friendship between Downey's Holmes and Law's Watson.

They're Guy Ritchie films, which means lots of action, a few explosions, and plenty of fancy camera work. But, at its heart, this film series is also a Sherlock Holmes story, and the director, writers, and actors never lose sight of that.

-- Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Basil Rathbone

Of the two actors still regarded today as the "definitive Holmes," it is Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone who tie for the title.

Born in 1892, Basil Rathbone was first and foremost a stage actor who went on to appear in a plethora of classic films in the 30s:  Captain Blood, Anna Karenina, The Adventures of Robin Hood. But it was when he teamed up with Nigel Bruce to start making Sherlock Holmes pictures that his legacy was born.

He first appeared as the character in two box office blockbusters: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. After the films, Rathbone and Bruce took to the radio, making some 200 episodes of a popular radio Holmes series. (Sadly, only about fifty of these radio plays remain.) In 1942, the two actors returned to the screen for a fresh series of Holmes pictures by Universal Studios -- at which point the series, both for concerns of budget and for a desire to keep the attention of "modern" audiences, was moved from its original Victorian setting and placed into the world of WWII London.

Despite the "B picture" quality of the budget allotted these "modern" Holmes movies, there's a quirky charm to them that only increases with time. Rathbone plays Holmes with a mixture of keen analytical focus and high good humor, adding a dash of humanity to the character that I feel other actors often miss. Nigel Bruce, while often criticized for his bumbling, fumbling Dr. Watson (who is certainly as unlike the Dr. Watson of the Conan Doyle stories as a character can get), is still undeniably charming, and the real-life friendship between Rathbone and Bruce shine through in Holmes's and Watson's interactions.

Downey's Holmes was my first on-screen introduction to the character and will always hold a special place in my heart. But Rathbone, I think, will always and forever be my Holmes -- just as he'll remain the quintessential, ideal Holmes for millions of fans to come.

-- Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes on DVD

Honorable Mentions for other Movie Holmes:

Christopher Plummer
Murder by Decree
Holmes meets Jack the Ripper.

Nicholas Rowe
Young Sherlock Holmes
A teenaged Holmes and Watson team up at boarding school.

Michael Caine
Without a Clue
Turns out the real genius consulting detective ... is Dr. Watson.

Robert Stephens
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
A bit of a parody, this quirky film involves submarines, sea monsters, and a determinedly romantic Russian ballerina.

George C. Scott
They Might Be Giants
A rich man retreats into a fictional world -- in which he sees himself as Sherlock Holmes -- after the death of his wife.

Nicol Williamson
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution
Sherlock Holmes is coached through his neuroses and addictions by Dr. Sigmund Freud.

-- Post by Ms. B