It’s not exactly a cutting-edge theme to poke fun at the British aristocracy. In our time, this theme has become over-used and little more than a political trope by the democratic masses. I’d love a movie or two that showed how important it was to Britain’s success and standard of living to have goals larger than getting drunk every night and staggering home.
But one aspect of “The Master Blackmailer” is that the aristocracy is shown as so pretentious (without being cartoonishly so) that you’ll likely have little sympathy for the victims of this blackmailer. Interesting that in a new Thorndyke novel I’ve started (a glutton for punishment I am), “As a Thief in the Night,” Thorndyke describes the one circumstance in which he might find himself to be a murderer, and that was to take out a blackmailer. In fact, in this novel from 1928, he almost exactly describes the plot of “Mr. Pottermack’s Oversight.” So one supposes that in British society, in particular, blackmailing was seen as an especially dark art.
Reading another review of “The Eligible Bachelor,” it would seem the fault is all in this horrible screenplay. One reviewer describes the original Conan Doyle story as a fairly good story. Here’s his review from IMDB.com in full:
This episode of the Jeremy Brett "Sherlock Holmes" series was the worst in terms of being a bloated two hour reconstructed story. Despite good work by Brett, Edward Hardwicke, and Simon Callow, it again demonstrates how the writers of a screenplay can wreck the work of a better writer.
THE ADVENTURE OF THE NOBLE BACHELOR appears in the first collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. The story details how Holmes and Watson get involved with tracing the whereabouts of a young American woman, the daughter of mining millionaire, who was about to marry one Lord Robert St. Simon, a man of impeccable breeding and background - one of the most available high profile aristocrats in the marriage market. The young woman (Alice Doran) disappeared at the chapel where the marriage was about to commence. The police (Lestrade in charge again) are suspicious of the antics of a former girlfriend of Lord Robert, who may have threatened the missing bride. And then there is also a mysterious man who was seen near her hotel on several occasions. Holmes, in the end, is able to figure out what exactly happened, although it does not please his client.
Now Lord St. Simon appears to be a well-mannered, self-important jerk in the story, but he gives no indications of being the conniving monster that was created by the scriptwriters. They turn him into a violent version of Edward Rochester, with a still living wife hidden in the ancestral house, in squalor (similar to Bertha Mason Rochester in the attic in JANE EYRE). He is a fortune hunter who marries and gets rid of wives (so why not the first one?). The conclusion of this film is about as far off base as one could get from the short story, which ends on a friendly note.
When he wrote THE NOBLE BACHELOR, Conan Doyle was making subtle comments about a trend of his time.
SPOILER COMING UP:
Alice turns out to have been reunited with one Francis (Frank) Hay Moulton, a young American who prospected near her father in California, but had no luck. Mr. Doran (when he struck it rich) would have nothing of Moulton, pulled Alice away to Europe, and decided to buy a title for his daughter. It was very common in the "Gilded Age" for multi-millionaires in America to marry into French or British aristocracy. The best recalled marriages were of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the Duke of Marleborough, and of Jennie Jerome to Lord Randolph Churchill (the latter producing Winston Churchill). Anne Gould married Count Boni de Castlelaine. The trend continues to this day (Jackie Kennedy Onassis' sister Lee Bouvier becoming Princess Radziwell of Hungary). But it was at it's height in the 1890s - 1920s.
Conan Doyle was poking fun at this ridiculous right of passage of a new snobbish American aristocracy, and showed that Lord St. Simon really was not worth the trouble (when he learns the truth St. Simon will not congratulate the Moulton's on their marriage). Conan Doyle ends the story with Holmes demonstrating a better approach to good international relationships, in a memorable comment suggesting that one day the memories of the idiots who caused the American Revolution will fade and Britain and the U.S. may yet be reunited again.
As I have said before, Conan Doyle could write the heads off of some screenplay writers.