Who was the first to portray Sherlock Holmes on the motion picture screen? The first known images of Sherlock Holmes on the motion picture screen are in a film entitled "Sherlock Holmes Baffled." Other than the photographer (Arthur Marvin) and the producer (American Mutoscope and Biograph Co.)(1), little is known about the film. In 1968, Michael Pointer, the Sherlockian film historian, obtained a copy from the Library of Congress and viewed it. "I can report," he writes, "that it is an early trick film clearly made for viewing on a mutoscope or peepshow machine. Although a tiny, trivial piece, it is historic as being the earliest known use of Sherlock Holmes in moving pictures..."(2) However, no identification was made of the actor who portrayed Holmes.
The next known Sherlockian film is "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," released in England under the alternate title of "Held for a Ransom." This one-reeler was filmed in Brooklyn, New York, and was released by the Vitagraph Co. of America and registered at the Library of Congress on September 6, 1905. No copy exists today. The earliest published Sherlockian filmography, Michael Pointer's Public Life of Sherlock Holmes(3), states that the film was made in 1903 and that it was directed by J. Stuart Blackton and written by Theodore Liebler. He also states that Sherlock Holmes was portrayed by Maurice Costello and even reproduces a portrait of Costello.(4) Pointer's source of information is unknown.
Maurice Costello: The Likely Suspect?
Yet the identification of Costello as the first-known portrayer of the Master appears questionable. Pointer claims that the film was made in 1903, although the first copyright date was September 1905 and the first advertisement for the film appears in October 1905 (in Moving Picture World). In an interview, Costello states that he joined the old Vitagraph Company ("at $30 a week") in 1905. "In those days," Costello said, "the actors had to help make the scenery and the names of the performers were not used. I was known as 'Curly' and 'Dimples,' but no one knew my name."(5) However, in The Big V(6), the definitive history of the Vitagraph company, his biography states that he joined the company in 1907.
This starting date for Costello's Vitagraph employment is repeated in a November 19, 1940, press release issued by Paramount Pictures, which purports to quote Costello as saying, "'When I entered pictures for Vitagraph in Brooklyn back in 1907, the cinema was called "movies" for an obvious reason--they moved and move. Those making pictures seemed to think movement was all that counted. Actors ran or hustled across the screen. If they walked forward, they did so at an angle. Heading straight into the camera was taboo because then the movement wouldn't be apparent.'" The press release goes on to credit Costello with "instituting the vogue of players halting to emote. As far as is known, he was the first to star in a picture which ran an entire reel."
Combining these sources, it appears likely that Costello actually went to work for Vitagraph in 1905, as a member of their stock company, where he appeared in numerous films in uncredited parts. Costello's background was stage--vaudeville first, then stock theater. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 22, 1877, he recalled his first vaudeville appearance as an Irish comedian in 1894. He graduated to stock companies, where he played in "The Cow Boy and the Lady," "The Kentucky Feud" and "Scotland Yard." in 1902. He married in that year, to May Altshuk, and had two daughters, Dolores and Helene, both of whom appeared in films themselves.(7)
From 1908 to 1928, Costello was credited with appearances in at least 51 films, and in 1918 he was hailed as the outstanding male personality in the American cinema. Songs were written about him, love lyrics dedicated to him. He was the first screen player to receive "fan mail. Women were mad about him; crowds followed him on the streets; his every act was recorded by the newspapers. A personal appearance meant a "Standing Room Only" sign in front of the theater hours before the performance. Madison Square Garden was not large enough to hold the throng that stormed the gates when he was presented with the trophy for winning the most popular player contest.
But did Costello play Holmes? The film "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" is not listed in any filmography of Costello, nor do any standard reference works indicate a cast of the film. The actors usually worked uncredited in the earliest films, and this film was unlikely to be an exception. Costello himself never mentioned the film in any interview, nor did his daughters in their many interviews. If Costello appeared as Holmes, he quite evidently forgot about it.
Is it likely that Costello in fact portrayed Holmes? Although Moving Picture World described him in 1910 as an actor with "a handsome stage presence and...a finished and experienced actor," can we credit an actor popularly called "Dimples" with the role of the Master?
1905: A Year of Mystery
The year 1905 was a year full of portents of the stormy 20th Century. There was turmoil in Czarist Russia, as the Russo-Japanese War came to its conclusion. A general strike in Russia, the formation of the first workers' soviet, the sailors' mutiny on the battleship "Potemkin," all were harbingers of the Russian Revolution. Sun Yat-Sen formed a union of secret societies to expel the manchus from china. William Haywood and others founded the International Workers of the World. In Ireland, the Sinn Fein party came into being.
The world was changing in more subtle ways as well. Henry Irving, the great British actor, so long identified with the theater in London, died, as did Jules Verne and General Lew Wallace, author of the then-all-time best-seller, "Ben Hur." Albert Einstein formulated his "Special Theory of Relativity"; Franz Lehár' "Merry Widow" operetta was performed. Albert Schweitzer published his profound biography of J. S. Bach, and Ty Cobb began his major league baseball career. The first motor buses appeared in London. The first neon light signs appeared. James Jeffries, the first black boxing champion, retired.
Where was Sherlock Holmes? Between 1903, when he was involved in the matters of The Blanched Soldier, The Mazarin Stone, The Creeping Man, and probably The Three Gables(8), and 1907(9), when he himself recorded The Adventure of the Lion's Mane, nothing is known of the Master's activities. In 1907, he wrote:
[The Adventure of the Lion's Mane] occurred after my withdrawal to my little Sussex home, when I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years spent amid the gloom of London. At this period of my life the good Watson had passed almost beyond my ken. An occasional week-end visit was the most that I ever saw of him.
There is no specific indication in the tale of how long Holmes had been in Sussex, but it was apparently long enough so that in July 1907 several neighbors knew Holmes by sight, and as to Harold Stackhurst, Holmes writes, "He and I were always friendly from the day I came to the coast, and he was the one man who was on such terms with me that we could drop in on each other in the evenings without an invitation." This suggests that Holmes had been in Sussex for a few years, but probably not continuously since 1903. In his introduction to the book version of His Last Bow, published in 1917, John Watson writes,
[Holmes] has, for many years, lived in a small farm upon the Downs five miles from Eastbourne, where his time is divided between philosophy and agriculture. During this period of rest he has refused the most princely offers to take up various cases, having determined that his retirement was a permanent one. [Emphasis added.]
And so the question remains: Where was Holmes between 1903 and 1907?
Interlude: Crime in America
In the late 1890's Mrs. Leroy Chadwick ("Cassie" to her friends) travelled from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City, where she engaged a suite at the Holland House. Bumping into a Cleveland lawyer named Dillon, she asked him to drive her to the residence of Andrew Carnegie, America's richest bachelor. When she returned to the cab after twenty minutes, she dropped a paper, which Dillon retrieved and notice that it was a promissory note for $2 million signed by Carnegie. Cassie told Dillon--in strict confidence--that she was Carnegie's illegitimate daughter and that Carnegie, who doted on her, had previously given her $7 million in securities. When Dillon returned to Cleveland, rumors started about Chadwick, and when Cassie herself returned, the city was abuzz with her story. Dillon arranged for her to deposit the "securities" in a safety deposit box, and Cassie found herself sought out by banks and businessmen as a customer.
Cassie Chadwick borrowed heavily and spent lavishly. In November 1904, however, a Boston bank from which she had borrowed $190,000 actually had the gall to ask her to repay the loan. When she failed to do so, the bank sued. In 1904, with his own reputation under question, Andrew Carnegie turned to Wilson Hargreave of the New York Police for assistance. Hargreave immediately telegraphed Sherlock Holmes at his Sussex home and begged him to come to New York to help Carnegie.
With typical diffidence, Holmes refused. The peccadilloes of American millionaires held no interest for him. But then came another plea for help, this time from the father of a young woman on trial for murder. Sherlock Holmes decided to sail to America.
Nan Patterson, daughter of the supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury, was a Floradora Girl. Unlike many of the Girls who married millionaires, Nan fell in love with a gambler, Caesar Young, an Englishman. When Young met Nan in 1902, he had been married for ten years. For two years, Young shuttled between wife and mistress, keeping them in nearby hotels in New York City. Young booked tickets on the Germanic for himself and Mrs. Young. He tried repeatedly to persuade Nan to travel with him, but she refused.
On June 4, 1904, Young picked up Nan early in the morning, and they commenced "bar-hopping." They then boarded a hansom cab, apparently bound for the pier. At West Broadway and Franklin Street, about halfway to the pier, passers-by heard an explosion in the cab. Caesar lay sprawled across Nan's lap, dying of a bullet wound in the chest. His gun was found in his pocket.
Nan's testimony was that Caesar had shot himself in agony over leaving her. Notwithstanding that only a contortionist could have shot a bullet into himself at the angle Caesar's entered, and that a dying man was unlikely to replace a gun carefully in his pocket, Holmes agreed to help Nan's father defend his daughter. Perhaps, as in the case of "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," the girl's story was so unlikely and feeble a defense that Holmes believed it could only be the truth. The prosecution was relentless, but two trials resulted in split juries, and in 1905, the State finally gave up and released her from jail.(10)
When, in late 1904, it became clear that Nan Patterson would go free, Holmes visited with Superintendent Hargreave and again heard of Carnegie's embarrassment. Hargreave impressed Sherlock Holmes with tales of Carnegie's renowned charity, and at last Holmes relented and agreed to advise Carnegie. At his urging, Carnegie issued a statement: "Mr. Carnegie does not know Mrs. Chadwick of Cleveland. Mr. Carnegie has not signed a note for more than thirty years." With Holmes's assistance, the "Carnegie" notes were proved to be forgeries.
As Holmes followed her trail, it became clear that Cassie could not cover her debts. Holmes estimated that Cassie had swindled $10 to $20 million in her short criminal career. Finally, in late 1904, Holmes's case was complete, and Mrs. Chadwick, then living in an entire floor of the Holland House, was exposed and arrested by Hargreave. She was returned to Cleveland, tried, and sentenced to ten years in prison; she died there in 1907.(11)
Impressed by Carnegie, Holmes lingered in New York at his vast mansion, to enjoy its renowned library and to share views with Carnegie on education and the future of democracy.(12) Holmes refused all direct reward from Carnegie for his work. However, as an expression of his gratitude to Holmes, in 1905, Carnegie established the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
The Making of the "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"
In early 1905, J. Stuart Blackton decided to make a film about Sherlock Holmes. He had learned that Holmes was in New York and arranged an interview. Interested in the new science of motion pictures, Holmes agreed to a filmed interview.
Blackton convinced Holmes that, in order to produce an entertaining "documentary," Holmes should demonstrate some of the techniques of the "whole art of detection." Little did the Master know that, after he had returned to England, Blackton would sell his "documentary" to Vitagraph as an entertainment, an "adventure" of Sherlock Holmes.
Who was the first to portray Sherlock Holmes on the motion picture screen? The answer is Sherlock Holmes.
1. Identified in Pointer, Michael, Public Life of Sherlock Holmes. Newton Abbot, London and Vancouver: David & Charles (1975) [hereinafter "Public Life"], at 135.
2. Pointer, Michael, "Earliest Holmes film," Sherlock Holmes Journal, 8, No. 4 (Summer 1968), 138, 140 (Wigmore Street Post-Bag).
3. See note 1, supra.
4. The information is repeated in numerous other books, all apparently relying on Public Life: Davies, David Stuart, Holmes of the Movies: The Screen Career of Sherlock Holmes, London: New English Library (1976); Haydock, Ron, Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen, Metuchen, N.J., and London: Scarecrow Press (1978); Steinbrunner, Chris, and Michaels, Norman, Films of Sherlock Holmes, Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press (1978); Kelley, Gordon E., Sherlock Holmes Screen and Sound Guide, Metuchen, N.J., and London: Scarecrow Press (1994).
5. Los Angeles Times, Nov. 6, 1929.
6. Anthony, Slide, The Big V: A History of the Vitagraph Company. With Alan Gevinson. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press (1987).
7. It is pleasant to note that Dolores went on to marry John Barrymore, who appeared as Sherlock Holmes in the 1922 Goldwyn film production of "Sherlock Holmes," the Gillette play, also starring Roland Young as Dr. Watson.
8. See Peck, Andrew Jay, and Klinger, Leslie S., "The Date Being--?," at 25-26, 28.
9. Some scholars believe that the "1907" date is a typographical error and place the case in 1909. Id., at 29.
10. Levy, Newman, The Nan Patterson Case. New York: Simon & Schuster (1959).
11. Churchill, Allen, "Andrew Carnegie's 'Daughter,'" A Pictorial History of American Crime, 1849-1929. New York, Chicago and San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1964).
12. "Light-houses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future." (NAVA)