Each generation has its own screen Sherlock Holmes. Today it is Benedict Cumberbatch; in the ’80s Jeremy Brett; in the ’40s (and for all time) Basil Rathbone – Holmeses who define the look and manner of the master detective. For the silent era, the great cinematic Holmes was Eille Norwood. Although by no means the first Sherlock Holmes on the screen (Holmes had been appearing in movies since the Mutoscope era), he was the first iconic Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was impressed enough with Norwood to say of him, “He has that rare quality which can only be described as glamour, which compels you to watch an actor eagerly when he is doing nothing. He has a brooding eye which excites expectation and he has a quite unrivaled power of disguise.”
Norwood still holds the record for having appeared in more Sherlock Holmes films than any other actor – no fewer than 45 two-reelers, virtually all the Holmes stories Sir Arthur had written up to that time, and in two of the four novels: “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and, the jewel in the crown, “The Sign of Four”. He was successful enough that a play was written for him, “The Return of Sherlock Holmes”, which, with Conan Doyle’s blessing, opened on the West End and toured the United Kingdom. Only William Gillette, America’s legendary stage actor who had made a career portraying Holmes since his theatrical version of Sherlock Holmes opened in 1899, surpassed him in popularity and critical acclaim.
That rivalry helps explain why you might not have heard of Norwood. Although his Sherlock Holmes career lasted through the better part of the 1920s, only a small fraction of his one-reelers appeared over here, and they came and went in record time. Of his two features, only the greatly inferior “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was exhibited and, competing with the Goldwyn version of Sherlock Holmes starring John Barrymore, sank without a trace. What kept the rest of Norwood’s output off American screens, however, was the circumstance of their production.
The films were caught up in an ongoing feud between Goldwyn and Sir Oswald Stoll, the man who produced the Norwood series for his new company, Stoll Picture Productions. That feud began in 1919, when Stoll was principally a film exhibitor, and became entangled in a contract dispute over screening Goldwyn’s A-line features. And by 1923 when Stoll’s Picture Production company had established itself as Britain’s foremost studio, the feud was still festering, fueled by a separate disagreement that pitted Conan Doyle against William Gillette. At stake was who owned the theatrical and film rights to the title Sherlock Holmes: the author of the original stories, or the author of the world-famous play. Gillette had sold Goldwyn rights to his famous play a year after Conan Doyle had sold film rights to the stories to Stoll. So Goldwyn, as was his wont, sued to have the rival series suppressed. And although he lost the lawsuit, it had achieved its purpose. Feeling American distribution was not worth the candle (Stoll was also having difficulty with his American distributor, Educational Pictures), Stoll withdrew the films from the U.S. and focused on the extremely lucrative markets in Europe, Australia, and Japan.
Americans until recently had no idea what they were missing: beautifully produced films with a flair for pace and local color, often shot on actual locations where the original stories took place. “The Sign of Four” was the last in the series, the culmination of three years experience with movies about the great detective. The Stoll Sign cannot be called a faithful adaptation, but it shows off Maurice Elvey’s skills not just as Stoll’s leading director, but also as a writer reworking the novel in an imaginative way, especially sensitive to melodramatic thrills. Enough of the original story has been retained to make it recognizable: an escaped convict from the Andaman Islands with his faithful pygmy companion pursues a stolen treasure chest in London, swearing revenge on the men who cheated him. But great liberties have been taken in order to streamline the story.
The convict, one-legged Jonathan Small in the original, and his deadly friend have been demoted to incidental characters, semi-innocent bystanders, meaning that they no longer take part in the brilliant chase down the Thames. The Four mentioned in the original title are, in fact, no longer Small and his loyal Sikh confederates, but a backstabbing set of scoundrels out to cheat each other. The new villain, the swarthy Abdullah Khan, introduced in a scene carved out of Conan Doyle’s Holmes short story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” heads an original gang of cutthroats who murder and kidnap as they go along.
If Elvey plays fast and loose with Sir Arthur’s original story, Norwood is a stickler for portraying the detective as Conan Doyle wrote him. As we might expect of a serious actor, he studied the stories and used Sidney Paget’s Strand illustrations for clues about costume and posture. But more than that, he worked through the stories to give the detective a fresh, distinctive inner life.
In a May 1921 edition of Stoll’s Editorial News, he wrote, “My idea of Holmes is that he is absolutely quiet. Nothing ruffles him, but he is a man who intuitively seizes on points without revealing that he has done so, and nurses them with complete inaction until the moment when he is called upon to exercise his wonderful detective powers. Then he is like a cat – the person he is after is the only person in all the world, and he is oblivious of everything else till his quarry is run to earth. The last thing in the world that he looks like is a detective. There is nothing of the hawk-eyed sleuth about him. His powers of observation are but the servant of his powers of deduction, which enable him, as it were, to see around corners, and cause him, incidentally, to be constantly amused at the blindness of his faithful Watson, who is never able to understand his methods.”
“His powers of observation are but the servant of his powers of deduction” – a remarkable insight. We might have expected the opposite from an actor working in a visual medium that favors visual data over logical exercises. Norwood gives himself interesting challenges by finding ways to dramatize how his thought processes work.
Watson, as ever in the silent Holmes films, is the Achilles heel. In these pre-Nigel Bruce days, he barely registers as Holmes’s partner, and the theme of a famous friendship, so important in all post-Rathbone films, is, here, all but ignored. The Stoll films were, in fact, unusual in including Watson at all. Customarily, in the silent era his part was omitted altogether. In “Sign of Four” he is little more than room furniture, so bland that he seems dull even when being tortured. True to the original story, he falls in love with Mary Morstan and we end with him abandoning Holmes to his violin and briar. The inside joke is that even his sweetheart has been borrowed. In real life, Isobel Elsom, the actress playing Mary, was married to Eille Norwood.