The Youth of Sherlock Holmes

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Youth of Sherlock Holmes is an article written by Hayden Church published in The Strand Magazine in april 1922.

The Youth of Sherlock Holmes

The Strand Magazine (april 1922, p. 355)
The Strand Magazine (april 1922, p. 356)
The Strand Magazine (april 1922, p. 357)
The Strand Magazine (april 1922, p. 358)
The Strand Magazine (april 1922, p. 359)
The Strand Magazine (april 1922, p. 360)

By Hayden Church

In the following striking interview Sherlock Holmes's latest impersonator – Mr. John Barrymore, the famous American actor — announces his intention of introducing us to the detective at the opening of his career, and portraying his development as the master sleuth.

Actors of Sherlock Holmes, alike on the stage and the screen, increase and multiply as time goes on. The first to impersonate Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous sleuth was, of course, the distinguished American actor-dramatist, William Gillette, whose exciting play, after a triumphant career in the United States, was given at the Lyceum Theatre, and was performed to packed audiences for close on a year. A detail of that production now interesting to recall is the fact that part of the page-boy, Billy, was taken by Charlie Chaplin, who thus, at the age of fourteen, made his first appearance in the "legitimate."

Later on the name-part in "Sherlock Holmes" was assumed in England by Mr. H. A. Saintsbury, one of our most capable, romantic actors, who appeared in the Gillette drama some thousands of times. Mr. Saintsbury also enacted Holmes in the dramatic version that was made later by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself of one of the most thrilling of his detective adventures "The Speckled Band," and has again been seen therein in the recent revival of the play.

Another Sherlock of the stage has been Mr. Dennis Neilson-Terry, who, at the Coliseum and elsewhere, has been seen as the detective in "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone." Almost simultaneously we have had a Sherlock Holmes of the screen in the person of Mr. Eille Norwood, who, in "movie" versions of some the most renowned of the Adventures, has revealed a genius for disguise and make-up worthy to rank with that possessed by Holmes himself.

And now forward comes Mr. John Barrymore, the famous American actor, with intent to give us another, and one may say at once, a somewhat startling conception of Sherlock Holmes in a new and strikingly original film version of the Gillette play which is now being written for him in the States.

What renders Barrymore's forthcoming appearance in the role of Sherlock Holmes specially interesting, however, is the striking originality with which, at the actor's behest, the authors of this new version of William Gillette's play have "handled" the principal character. In a specially-written prologue they have projected Sherlock Holmes back into the days of his youth, days of which the detective's creator has told us next to nothing, with a view, as Barrymore explained to me, of tracing Holmes's "development" into the Master Investigator.

We are thus to see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective as a young student of a dreamy, indeterminate, half-poetic type, as yet undecided as to what his vocation in life will be. We are to see him embittered by an early and unfortunate love affair. And finally (so far as this surprising prologue is concerned), we are to see him, still immature, brought into sudden contact with Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime of "The Final Problem," and from that moment resolved upon his mission in life – nothing more or less than to rid the world of the Professor and the vast criminal organization of which he was the master brain.

It was in a bedroom of the Ritz that I discovered Mr. Barrymore, who, arrayed in flowered silk pyjamas, was at that very moment engaged in making-up as the great Sherlock. This process, in his case, consisted, and needed to consist, of little more than a judicious lengthening of the eyebrows, plus application of the pigment which provides the correct film complexion and gives all actors the appearance of suffering from jaundice.

For Barrymore, with his long, narrow, aquiline face, deep-sunk, magnetic, penetrating eyes, and somewhat brooding expression, is already Holmes in the flesh so far as countenance is concerned. He has the lithe, loose-limbed figure that one associates with the great detective, too. All that he needs to be an ideal Sherlock is a few more inches, but the illusion of commanding height will be obtained, his producer later assured me, by having players of inconsiderable stature in the subsidiary parts.

"My producer and I are in England," said Barrymore, "for the purpose of getting the correct settings and the real atmosphere for certain exterior scenes in our film version of 'Sherlock Holmes,' which will connect up with the original ones of the Gillette play, the entire action of which passed, you will remember, indoors. The other scenes will be built in New York, where the remainder of the film will be produced. I flew over here from the Continent, where I've been climbing Mont Blanc and doing a few other little holiday stunts, and since then we've been "shooting" here. One of our best scenes was done at St. John's College, Cambridge, and others in Stepney, on Lambeth Pier, and in Torrington Square. To-day we are going to Hampton Court to do a houseboat scene, and to-morrow we shall be working outside Scotland Yard and in Trafalgar Square. We shall then be finished, and I shall jump aboard the Carmania for home."

"You've forgotten to mention Baker Street," I put in. "Did you make any attempt to locate Sherlock Holmes's old rooms?" (This with memories of my own futile attempts, soon after my arrival in London, to find "221B.")

"We didn't make any pictures in Baker Street," the actor replied. "We discovered to our sorrow that, with so many of its houses replaced by shops and its very modern motor-buses, the Baker Street of to-day no longer suggests the Baker Street of Sherlock Holmes's time. Of all London's streets Gower Street seems to me most to suggest the Baker Street of the Adventures, but Gower Street proved a bit too busy to enable us to stage our 'Baker Street' scene there, so we took it in Torrington Square. The scene I refer to is the one in the Gillette play in which Professor Moriarty, after clearing Baker Street of the police and picketing it with his confederates, pays a visit to Sherlock Holmes. He drew off the police, you may remember, by arranging a fight in the street. This, by the way, was the only one of the scenes we have made in London is which we used 'supers' to any extent. Our policemen were the real article-former members of the London Police who were forced out by the strike. We obtained them from the Vigilance Society. Yes, out street fight was quite a realistic little affair and drew a keenly-interested and vastly amused audience.

"A propos, I want to say," Barrymore went on, "how charmingly we have been treated while picture-making in London. Crowds have collected to watch us, of course, but they have been wonderfully decent about keeping out of our field of operations, and the police have been kindness itself. At Cambridge we were treated right royally and given every possible facility. The undergraduates chaffed us a bit, but several of them helped us immensely by inviting us into their rooms and allowing us to make sketches and measurements. As a result we shall build students' chambers in our New York studio that will be the real thing to the last detail."

"But what on earth has Cambridge to do with Sherlock Holmes?" I burst out.

"It comes into the special prologue that the authors of our scenario, Marion Fairfax and Earl Browne, have written as an introduction to the original play," replied Barrymore, calmly.

"This is my own idea," he added, "and I consider that it will add immeasurably to the effectiveness of the play. My feeling is that, for film audiences, audiences scattered the world over, it is not sufficient merely to bring on Sherlock Holmes and show him at work. Of a cinema audience, even in London or New York, perhaps twenty-five per cent. have read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, while seventy-five per cent. have not. For the benefit of that seventy-five per cent., and to explain the conflict in the drama which we are presenting, we desire to make it clear why Sherlock Holmes is what he is – to trace, in other words, his development as the Master Sleuth. Our film, too, will bring out the romantic side of Holmes."

"But he didn't have one," I objected, "His biographer tells us, in so many words, in 'A Scandal in Bohemia,' that 'all emotions, and love particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise mind.'"

"But this is Sherlock Holmes as William Gillette depicted him," countered Barrymore, "and Gillette, you will remember, had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's permission to marry Holmes or kill him or do anything he liked with him. We merely avail ourselves rather more generously of that permission.

"We begin with Holmes and Dr. Watson as college mates at Cambridge," Barrymore went on. "We know, from 'The Adventure of the Gloria Scott,' that Holmes was a university man, and we selected Cambridge because it affords such wonderfully beautiful 'locations.' We picture the youthful Sherlock as a peculiar, half-poetic type, who is misunderstood by others and fails to understand himself. His wonderful deductive powers have begun to develop, but he himself has no idea how he will employ them. We introduce him at a time when he has become embittered by an unfortunate love affair. All at once a chance episode brings him into conflict with Professor Moriarty and reveals to him the extent of the ramifications of the devilish system which Moriarty has created, and in the centre of which he sits, in Sherlock Holmes's own words, motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web.'

"'At the beginning of the hour,' says Holmes in our script, 'I met love and it passed me by. At the end of the hour I met monstrous evil.'

"Holmes now decides what is to be his life work. It is to rid the world of Moriarty and his organization, and to this task he consecrates all his marvellous powers. Thus we work up to what was the motif of Gillette's enormously-successful play – the duel of wits between the Master Sleuth and the Master Crook. In the 'Memoirs,' of course, that duel ended with the antagonists falling, locked in each other's arms, over an Alpine precipice. In the Gillette play it concluded with the final capture of Moriarty by Sherlock Holmes, and with the detective finding happiness in the love of Lucy Faulkner.

"The latter's part in the story, which Gillette built out of the episode of Irene Adler, we develop also. Irene Adler, you will recall, possessed compromising letters written to her by a Bohemian royal personage with whom she had had love passages. She declined to give them up or sell them, and Sherlock Holmes was called in to attempt to recover them. In the play it was Alice Faulkner who had the letters, which had been written to her elder sister.

"In our prologue we tell this sister's story, and show her, jilted by her royal lover, committing suicide by hurling herself into a Swiss crevasse. This gives an even stronger motive for Alice Faulkner's attempted revenge, and leads up to the opening scene in Gillette's play, which passed at the home of the unscrupulous Larrabees."

Barrymore's next words revealed how real a character to him is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great sleuth.

"He was a very brilliant, odd man," he said thoughtfully, "very lonely and whimsical. His essential kindliness was one of his dominating traits. He might have been the greatest crook that ever lived had it not been for this leaven of altruism in his nature. Moriarty fascinated him because he recognized in him an artist in crime, saw in him an adversary worthy of his steel. He understood the Professor's psychology. One man was for Society, the other against it. The line is really rather slender."

While he talked, Barrymore had been engaged is assuming the habiliments of Sherlock Holmes. From a pile of brown cardboard boxes on the floor bearing the classic name "Clarkson," he exhumed a pair of rather badly-cut trousers, tweed with a faint blue check on a background of blue-black, which he proceeded to don. Next he put on a somewhat disreputable stiff collar and tied round it a black cravat, carefully knotting the latter so it sagged a little below the collar button. ("It was usual in those days to show a bit of the button," explained this keen student of detail.)

Next he got into a tight-fitting coat, of the "pea-jacket" type, brown tweed with an imperceptible check; the worst possible match for the trousers. And so, with the natural gauntness of his countenance emphasized by the make-up, stood revealed as the flesh-and-blood replica of the celebrated detective of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's imagination as first pictured in the famous STRAND illustrations of the late Sidney Paget.

An interesting interlude at this point was the unexpected advent of Gerald du Maurier ("one of my oldest and best friends," Barrymore explained), who had popped in to learn of the progress of the London "shootings," and incidentally to arrange a supper part. This was a situation with a special piquance — Raffles calling on Sherlock Holmes!

An instant after du Maurier's departure the telephone bell pealed, announcing that Barrymore's producer, Albert Parker, and his attendant satellites, including the camera men, were waiting below.

"So we are off for Hampton Court," said the actor. "Care to come along and see us at work?"

Who wouldn't jump at the chance of watching a Sherlock Holmes film in the making, of studying the methods of as acknowledged a master of his art as John Barrymore? I hastily signified my willingness to accompany him not only to Hampton Court but to John o' Groats if necessary.

"We are off, as you know," said Mr. Parker, "to picture a scene which occurs on a Thames houseboat. No, you are quite right, there's no such episode in Gillette's play, nor in the Adventures so far as I am aware. A houseboat struck, however, as a picturesque 'location' and a novel one so far as American films are concerned, so we decided on this as the scene of a murder which Holmes investigates in our version."

Sitting there with the mimic Holmes at my side, and with Knightsbridge, Hammersmith, Putney slipping past, I was, in fancy, Dr. Watson off with his friend and idol on one of their expeditions into the heart of a baffling mystery, too complex for solution by the professional sleuth-hounds of the Yard.

Barrymore broke in on my thoughts by beginning to talk of Edgar Allan Poe, traces of whose famous criminologist, Dupin, are readily discernible in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's characterization of his far more human and infinitely greater investigator.

"It is interesting to compare Dupin with Sherlock Holmes," he said, "and to realize why the one is a mere lay figure and the other a living, breathing human being. Poe occasionally dabbled in analysis as a distraction from the exercise of his fantastic, eerie imagination. His dynamic, eccentric handling of character naturally resulted in making his people marionettes. He was a Gordon Craig of literature, far more concerned with weird effects than with humanity.

"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, on the other hand, is essentially a creative artist. He has the quality of drawing characters of extraordinary interest and charm. His heroes are vivid, vital, living. To me they are all real: Sherlock Holmes, Professor Challenger (a wonderful conception, the Professor!), Sir Nigel. Have you read 'The White Company'? To me it is Sir Arthur's finest achievement. I re-read it every two years."

Such talk made short the ride to Hampton Court, and it was with surprise that one discovered that we were passing the stately gates of the old Palace.

And now an experience was forthcoming of which I shall unfailingly boast as often as opportunity occurs, I even I who write these lines, have "acted for the films." What is more, I have enacted a part, a "very little" part, it is true, but a part nevertheless, in John Barrymore's production of "Sherlock Holmes."

It fell out thus. The principal scene which we had come to "shoot" was enacted around the gateway giving entrance to the houseboat (moored close to the Karsino) that had been the scene of the murder in the film story. I fancy that only the authors of the scenario know at present who was murdered or why, but the idea of a houseboat as the scene of a killing is a splendid one, you will agree.

At the suggestion of the producer I became one of a crowd, an excited crowd otherwise composed of horny-handed sons of toil in their shirt-sleeves, a milkman (complete with pails), a girl with a white bulldog on a lead, a couple of young men of the "knut" variety, and one or two slaveys (all these secured the day before by the resourceful producer), who fought for entrance to the scene of the crime – but who were sternly denied entrance by a Cerberus of a "bobby," who held the gate in the name of the law.

Crestfallen and murmuring, we satisfied our curiosity as best we might by gazing through the intervening palings. And then turned to gape open-mouthed as there stalked up to the gate a gaunt, hawk-faced man, with an air of quiet masterfulness, who likewise sought entry and was, at first, as sternly denied.

A card was produced, silently handed to the representative of law and order, who grudgingly consented to read the name it bore. Instantly his forbidding expression changed to one of mingled surprise and awe. "Mr. Sherlock Holmes!" Up went his hand to the peak of his helmet in respectful salutation, open he flung the gate. And through it strode the great detective. Obedient to instructions we of the crowd surged forward again, thinking to enter in his wake, but only to be again repelled. Six times we rehearsed this scene before our cumulative efforts satisfied Mr. Parker, one of the most conscientious of producers. But at last came the magic word "Camera!" and we went through it again, the while two operators feverishly turned the handles of their clicking machines. The picture had been "shot." The gates of Hampton Court Palace, with their perfectly wrought Lion and Unicorn, and the front elevation of Wolsey's masterwork in the background, had proved too fascinating a "location" to be neglected by the producer, and presently were made the setting for another picture. There was nothing much in this scene, which consisted of the descent of Sherlock Holmes from an ancient fly, hastily requisitioned from the nearby railway station. But the episode, with its effective background, no doubt will vastly intrigue America's army of "movie" enthusiasts.

And so back to London, in the gathering dusk of an autumn afternoon, the entire business, the journey included, having taken less than three hours.