PART 4: SILENTS TO EARLY SOUND (1900-1939)
BY DAMIAN MAGEE
Like the early days of television, Holmes became part of the early days of film. Who can say how many were made? During those days, many films were untitled, and as soon as they were shown to the public, were dumped or destroyed. It was not until in the 1930's a Frenchman, Henri Langlois, sought out silent films and films in general to preserve them for everyone's enjoyment. In 1935, he and a friend, Georges Franju, established the famous Cinematheque Francaise. Without him and people like him, so many of the early silent and sound films would have been lost. In this part of the series I shall be taking a look at those early silent films, that we do know exist, and of the early sound films.
Two Holmes actors from different decades, were Holmes to the public: Eille Norwood in the 20's and Arthur Wontner in the early 30's, until the coming of Basil Rathbone in 1939. The First Holmes Film was made in 1903, and was called "Sherlock Holmes Baffled". It was made in America by the Mutoscope and Bioscope company. It seems that the film bore no recognisable plot, and an unknown in the part of Holmes. The next Holmes film, made in America in 1905, was called "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", this time it had something of a story line, with Holmes played by Maurice Costello. Three years later, in 1908, two Holmes films appeared and the first series. One was from America, "Sherlock Holmes and the Great Murder Mystery". This film was inspired by Poe's story "Murder in the Rue Morgue". The other film was made in Italy, "The Rival of Sherlock Holmes". In Denmark, the first true Holmes series was made by the Nordisk Film Company, which starred Viggo Larsen as Holmes. The film company made five films from 1908-1911, none of which were based on the Canon.
In 1912, a series of two reelers was made by an Anglo-French company, Eclair, with the cooperation of Conan Doyle himself. For the first time a Holmes film was made in Britain. A Frenchman, George Treville, played Holmes and also directed the films. They were for the first time based on the Canon, and it has been said that the films were closely related to the original stories. There were eight films produced from 1912-1913. In his book;"Holmes of the Movies" by David Davies, the film '"The Copper Beeches" has the distinction of being the earliest known extant Holmes film, although now it is too battered and delicate to risk projection. The French continued to film Holmes stories in 1914-15, with "A Study in Scarlet" and the first version of "The Hound of the Baskervilles".
In 1913, in America, the first version of the "The Sign of Four" appeared. In 1914 the Samuelson Film Company produced their version of "A Study in Scarlet", with James Bragington. Looking at a photo of Bragington, he was very gaunt and suitable as Holmes. Bragington was the first English actor to play the role. The same company made the "The Valley of Fear" in 1916 with a different actor playing Holmes, H. A. Saintsbury. The Samuelson film company was not a company who had high standards for making films.
Made also in 1916 was Essanay's film version of the play "Sherlock Holmes" by the great stage actor who for many was Holmes on stage, William Gillette. This was his only apperance on film. In 1914 a German film company made "The Hound of the Baskervilles", which had five sequels lasting until 1920. The first "Hound" was directed by Richard Oswald. During the war, another German film company, Kowo made Holmes films, eight in total, with two different actors as Holmes; Hugo Flink (1917-1918), and Ferdinand Bonn (1918). Also in 1918 came another American film on Holmes, called "Black Sherlock Holmes". At the end of the war, Kowo made one more Holmes film, "The Murder in the Hotel Splendid", with Kurt Brenkendoff as Holmes (1919).
It was not until the twenties, the golden era of the silent films, that the first actor to be identified with Holmes for his generation, Eille Norwood (1861-1948) appeared. Norwood was a stage actor who first played Holmes on screen at the age of sixty in 1921 in the first of three film series for Stoll Picture Production. The first series was called "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"; within this series 15 films were made. Also made in 1921 was Norwood's version of the "The Hound Of the Baskervilles".
Norwood said he based his performance on Sidney Paget's illustrations. Norwood became so popular as Holmes, even Doyle wrote of him, 'He has that rare quality which can be described as glamour, which compels you to watch the actor eagerly when he doing nothing. He has a brooding eye which excites expectation and he has a quite unrivalled power of diguise. His impersonation of Holmes amazes me. ' Norwood continued to play Holmes in another film series called "Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", then in 1923, the last series of 15 films called, "The Last Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" appeared. Also within that year Norwood made his last appearance as Holmes, in the first British version of the "The Sign of Four". Luckily, a few of Norwood's films have survived. I have seen a few of these films, and given the time period these films were made, they do hold up even by today's standards.
Between Norwood's film series, in America the first elaborate Holmes film was produced by the one legends of early cinema, Samuel Goldwyn, in 1922. Its plot was based on the William Gillette play. The famous stage actor, John Barrymore (Brother of Lionel & Ethel) played Holmes. The film was immensely popular at the time and had a generous budget, which allowed extensive authentic location shooting in London. Moriarty was played by Gustav Von Seyffertitz, who was a mentally and physically corrupt character. This film was very sinister, what I recall of it. The film has two titles, perhaps because of legal reasons; in the US it is called "Sherlock Holmes", however in the UK it is called "Moriarty". In 1924, also in America, there came a spoof, in the way of Buster Keaton in "Sherlock Jr". Keaton plays a film projectionist who is unjustly accused of stealing a watch, and dreams of being a great detective. This film, one of Keaton's best is a very fast moving comedy, and in the end he does find out who the stole the watch.
In the late twenties, movie audiences grew tried of the silent film. They were staying at home in increasing numbers, to listen to the radio. Only big films did any business, like "Ben Hur" (1925). The film industry had to get the people back again. In 1927, sound had been developed by engineers and technicians from the Bell Telephone Company helped add short sections of soundtrack music to the film "The Jazz Singer", which starred Al Jolson. The film was still mostly silent, but with three songs and snatch of dialogue, it started a revolution, the talkies!
As 1929 come around, we saw the death of the silents and the birth of the talkies. It was the year we saw the last of the silent Holmes. Another German version of the "The Hound of the Baskervilles" directed by Richard Oswald failed as many film companies were fading out because of sound. This year saw the first sound Holmes with an English actor, Clive Brook. It was called, "The Return of Sherlock Holmes". The whole film was set on a ocean liner, and, according to Brook, the whole film was shot quickly and cheaply for Paramount Pictures. Brook portrayed Holmes with just enough detachment.
The plot of the film has Holmes attending the wedding of Watson's daughter, only to find the father of the groom is dead. Eventually Holmes finds the murderer, his arch-enemy Moriarty. At the end of the film, rather than be taken alive, Moriarty kills himself. Here we can take a look at Watson for the first time. Watson was played by H. Reeves Smith - an older Watson, and portrayed as a bumbling fatuous character (Which means Nigel Bruce was not the first to make Watson look like a fool).
Clive Brook appeared as Holmes two more times on screen. In a short feature, called "Paramount on Parade", and in a comedy sketch which featured two other charcters: the private eye, Philo Vance played by William Powell and the evil Fu Manchu played by Warner Oland (who later to known as Charlie Chan). This was the first time that Holmes died on screen. Brook's last appearance as Holmes was in 1932, called "Sherlock Holmes", loosley based on Gillette play and the Doyle story, "The Red-Headed League". At the end of the film, Holmes gives up his life of danger to marry Alice Faulkner and keep chickens!! Brook's Watson was played by Reginald Owen, although his Watson only appear in two scenes and was more pompous than Bruce.
Owen has the distinction on film as the only actor that has played both Holmes and Watson. The next US Holmes film was called "A Study in Scarlet" in 1933. Owen as Holmes was less effective, and rather plump. The film itself was a failure. The film had no elements from Doyle's novel, just another B-grade crime film in which Holmes is one of the characters. Owen's Watson was played by Warburton Gamble, who played him rather dim. This was the last Holmes film made in the US until 1939.
During the 30's, two other countries filmed Holmes stories: Germany and Britain. In 1936 German film makers renewed their interest in Holmes, with another version of "The Hound of the Baskervilles", which was followed in 1937 by "Die Graue Dame" (The Grey Lady) and a Holmes spoof called "Der Mann Der Sherlock Holmes War". This film was about two private detectives down on their luck, so they pass themselves as Holmes and Watson, and solve a mystery. Throughout the film, the two encounter an Englishman who bursts out laughing each time they meet, who is identified as Doyle. Meanwhile, in Britain during the period of 1931-1937 there were seven Holmes films. Five of them belonged to Arthur Wontner.
The first British sound Holmes was played by Canadian born actor Raymond Massey in "The Speckled Band" in 1931. The film followed the plot of the story closely. Massey thought the script was a fair one. He did not wanted to work in talking pictures, however he needed the job and the money. For most film Sherlockians, Massey's Holmes failed to convince. In fact even Massey agreed with this comment. To quote from his second autobiography, 'A Hundred Different Lives': "The film makers would have nothing to do with the calabash pipe, the tobacco in the Persian slipper, Mrs Hudson and the enchanting disorder of Baker Street, the violin and the hypodermic needle. Instead Holmes was given a magnificent suite with glass flowers and modern art furniture, typist ,secretaries, dictaphones, card indexes and mechanical devices which predated IBM by a quarter of a century. I could not avoid a sense of guilt at my participation in this travesty of a classic". Of the other cast members, Massey thought that his Watson played by Athole Stewart and the villain, Dr Rylott played by Lyn Harding came from the pages of Doyle.
In 1932 came another version of the "The Hound of the Baskervilles", this time by the famous Gainsborough Pictures. Holmes was played by Robert Rendel and as Watson was Fred Lloyed. The film itself had good production values, yet still failed to convince the movie public that Rendel and Lloyd were Holmes and Watson. Rendel's physical appearance lacked what Holmes should be.
This was remedied by the appearance of Arthur Wontner (1875-1960), the critics' choice. To quote from Vincent Starrett's 'The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes' about Wontner: "No better Sherlock Holmes than Arthur Wontner is likely to be seen and heard in pictures, in our time... The keen worn, kindly face and quiet prescient smile are out of the very pages of the book". Wontner even had a letter from the wife of Doyle about his masterful presentation of Sherlock Holmes. Even the critics called Wontner the perfect Holmes. Wontner only made five films as Holmes from 1931-1937.
I have only seen clips of Wontner's films in an episode of "In Search Of". He looked as if Holmes had jumped off the pages onto the screen. Wontner, like most of the recent actors who have played Holmes on the screen small or large was a stage actor. He did not played Holmes until he was 56. He had two Watsons: Ian Hunter in one film, "The Sign of Four" (1932), with the other four by Ian Fleming (no relation to the Bond author). Fleming, an Australian actor, played Watson as likeable, yet rather stupid, to emphasise Holmes' brilliance. The films were made by an ambitious company, Twickenham Studios. The films did lack polish because of their budget, unlike some of the American films, but did have the faithfulness of characterisation, which was the real appeal of the films.
The first film made in 1931 was called "The Sleeping Cardinal". The story was a cross between "The Empty House and "The Final Problem". The film was a hit for the studio, and even bigger in America, where the film was called, "Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour". Even the Americans took notice of Wontner's Holmes,which one critic said, "'. . . put the real Sherlock Holmes on the screen". Wontner's next film was the "The Sign of Four"(1932). The studio changed Watson because Hunter was much younger to suit the romance of Mary Morstan. The film did not do well as the first film. So in the next three the studio brought back Ian Fleming as Watson. The next film was "The Missing Rembrandt" (1932) and did a better job. It was a good mystery, loosely based on "Charles Augustus Milverton". The villain was not Milverton, but Baron Von Guntermann. The Next Wontner film was in 1935, called the "The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes" this film was based on the novel "The Valley of Fear", the weakest of the four novels. The plot of the film stays fairly close to the story. As the story begins, Holmes is in retirement looking after his bees. Lyn Harding appeared as Moriarty for the first time, and was a success.
The next film was called "Silver Blaze"(1937). Once again the film was based on a story. Only two major changes to the story, with the presence of Moriarty, who was trying to fix the big race, and the owner of Silver Blaze as not Colonel Ross, but a Baskerville. When the film was released in Britain it had a cool reception, so the producers did not release the film in the US until 1941, under the title of "Murder at the Baskervilles", so the studio could cash in on the Rathbone-Bruce film, "The Hound of The Baskervilles". These films of Wontner; in fact, all the early sound films are rarely shown on TV because of the more famous films made in 1939, and the forties series. All these films have been forgotten. Two things come to mind because of this: firstly, you don't get to see other actors portraying the master and to compare them; secondly, all the films were set in the modern day, which Rathbone-Bruce films were heavily criticised for in their later years. If you must judge one, you must judge the others.
This was the last English film, for a while and the last of those early Holmes films. Changes were coming; it was an end of a decade, and the beginning of a new one. The movie goer would soon forget about Eille Norwood and Arthur Wontner as Holmes. Soon the actors who would always be best remembered as Holmes and Watson would arrive: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. This will be the subject of the next part of the series.
Bunson, Matthew E, Encyclopedia Sherlockiana, 1994.
Davies, David Stuart, Holmes of the Movies, 1976.
Massey, Raymond, A Hundred Different Lives, 1979.
Pointer, Michael, The Pictorial History of Sherlock Holmes, 1991.
Starret,Vincent, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1961.
© 1997 Damian Magee