Thursday, May 26, 2016
On April 26, 1900, two actors walked onto a hastily designed movie set on the roof of 841 Broadway in New York City and unknowingly prepared to make history. One donned a head-to-toe black outfit in an attempt to look like a burglar, and the other put a robe on over his clothes. He stuck a pistol in one pocket and matches in the other. In his mouth hung a cigar.
The "story" itself bears no resemblance to any Canonical case. In its entirety it goes like this...
In 1968 the eminent Sherlock Holmes film historian Michael Pointer identified a paper copy of the print in the Library of Congress Paper Print archive. It was thought that it had been lost. Until 1912 motion pictures were not covered by copyright laws, so any companies that produced films submitted paper prints to register their work. Developed like a still photograph, the light-sensitive paper was the same width and length as the film itself. This is how thousands of movies from that time are preserved. This film has since been transferred to 16mm film and is in a collection at the Library of Congress.
1. The work is not flawless. When Holmes sits to contemplate what just happened he lights his cigar and then jumps back when the thief reappears in front of him. But, he reacts before the reappearance. The timing was off.
2. I have watched this thing many times, and I am always convinced that the thief is being portrayed by a woman. Watch it and see what you think.
3. The look of Holmes is almost certainly a loose copy of Gillette's on-stage outfit. It's amazing to think so since the Gillette play had debuted only 5 1/2 months earlier!
This is nearly everything we know about it. Research makes it possible to determine which types of machines it was shown on, the other titles it was shipped with, and which theaters it was shipped to, but what has never been discovered is the name of the actors. The producers used anyone they could find, from vaudeville performers, to friends and family. I have also read that they would go out and get people walking on the street for extras. The "stars" were kept nameless since the movies were the draw, not them. The folks at AMBC may have had the names recorded somewhere, but that information has never been found. In fact, the payroll records still exist, but unfortunately yielded no usable information.
There are a few candidates for title of World's First Screen Holmes: William Gillette, Walter Huston, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. All of these are very doubtful, but further research may be necessary before ruling any of them out completely. Maybe someday new evidence will come to light that will tell us the name of this man and his companion, but until then it will remain a Sherlockian/Holmesian mystery of the highest order. Watch the full movie here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jP_aPe-YsCI