The earliest surviving Sherlock Holmes film is "Sherlock Holmes Baffled" (1903). Less than sixty seconds long, it depicts Sherlock Holmes sitting in his flat in Baker Street. A burglar enters through a window. Holmes attempts to pounce on him but he disappears and shows up on the other side of the room. Holmes again pounces and for sixty seconds this continual disappearance and reappearance goes on. (The magic of stop-action camera was a novelty used to create this early "special effect.")
"The earliest known extant Holmes film," according to David Stuart Davies in Holmes of the Movies: The Screen Career of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Bramhall House, 1968) was The Copper Beeches, featuring Georges Trevilles as Sherlock Holmes. The credits indicate that Doyle may have been directly involved with this production. Critics and reviewers are skeptical of Doyle's involvement because the story is developed quite differently than in the printed version. But, as we have seen in our examination of "The Speckled Band," Doyle was aware that cinema is a different medium than print, I am less skeptical than the critics I've read and I'm more open to the possibility of Doyle's involvement in this production.
Georges Trevilles's gestures were very hammy and overexaggerated by later standards but this was film in its infancy. In 1915, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation would change cinema forever. It was to set a new standard, as it introduced a more natural style of acting and showed that even silent films could present epic drama. (I won't elaborate on the racial overtones of the film here because it is off topic for this discussion. Justifiable criticism has been made by numerous others in this light. D.W. Griffith's father was a colonel in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. The film sympathized with the viewpoint of the slave owners in the American Deep South and even depicted the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. In this context, it is an important document in the sense that Hitler's Mein Kampf is important. For someone such as myself who is neither sympathetic to this viewpoint nor understanding of it, these documents help me gain insight into a viewpoint that is utterly foreign to my own.)
Cinematically, however, Birth of a Nation made a hugely important contribution to how films were made from then on. (Griffith tried to live down his racist reputation by following it up with films such as Intolerance and Broken Blossoms.)
Films about Sherlock Holmes were greatly affected by the new cinematic techniques, and films with Eille Norwood were to turn Holmes films into an art form.
Born Anthony Edward Brett (October 1861 to December 24, 1948), he apparently took the name Eille from his girlfriend Eileen, and the name Norwood from a town of that name.
Eille (I've always heard it pronounced to rhyme with "Ellie" in Sherlockian circles) looked the part of Holmes, and Conan Doyle said of him, "His wonderful impersonation of Holmes has amazed me."
A few of the Norwood films have shown up on the collectors' market, giving us a glimpse into just how good these were. Norwood made more films than any other actor during his time:
The few that I've been able to acquire for my collection -- The Blue Carbuncle, The Dying Detective, and The Man With the Twisted Lip -- are brilliant. Already one can see the inclusion of automobiles, so Holmes was already being modernized and not set in the gaslight period.
Some Eille Norwood films are available on DVD. One hears of showings of other Norwood films, and discussion on the web indicates that many of the Norwood films have survived and are "in the vaults." It is greatly hoped that these will be made available to the general public.
In 1916, William Gillette starred in a film version of his play but, unfortunately, no copies are known to exist.
FLASH UPDATE! EXCITING FIND!
In The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1920), Douglas Fairbanks stars as detective "Coke Ennyday," a humorous takeoff on Sherlock Holmes.
John Barrymore starred as Holmes in "the first really elaborate Holmes film" (Davies). Sherlock Holmes (1922) was based on Gillette's play but added a little about Holmes's days as a student and his working out how to apply his great skills at deduction to life. (The Doyle story "The Gloria Scott" is an origin story in which Holmes shares with Watson his first use of these skills. He always knew he had them but thought everyone had them, so he failed to see them as unique until others reacted to his observations.)
To Be Continued...