The Many Watsons – Roland Young

Roland Young played Dr. Watson in the 1922 silent movie “Sherlock Holmes”. The movie was not based on the Doyle stories directly but on the William Gillette play, “The Strange Case of Alice Faulkner”. It, in turn, was VERY loosely based on “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Sherlock Holmes marked the film debut of both Roland Young and William Powell (of Thin Man fame). Sherlock Holmes was played by John Barrymore.

“Sherlock Holmes” had been lost for decades to the movie audience and was one of the Holy Grails of silent film buffs. In the 1970’s 4,000 feet of negative were found by the George Eastman House in their vaults. Film historian Kevin Brownlow, working with the help of the original director, Albert Parker took on a project that took a decade and reassembled, to the best the available film would let him, the original movie. There have been complaints that Holmes is not portrayed correctly (he gets married in the end!) But one should remember that Doyle had disowned his creation when allowing Gillette to use him. I think the quote was something like ‘You may marry him or murder him or do what you will”. (That’s close anyway) And in fact Doyle came out with an endorsement of the movie.

There are also complaints about too many intertitles and too much information in them. Probably somewhat true. There are complaints about the pace of the movie. Again, true; However, one needs to remember that this film was pieced together and some of the parts from the original script are not there, what is there needs amplified explanation and the pace is fairly common for the transition of what is really a stage play (which has little physical action) to the silent screen. At least as a piece of cinema history it is well worth seeing.

Roland Young plays an admirable Dr. Watson but his part is fairly small. There is actually little opportunity, until the last scene, for Watson to show what he can do.

Most people will probably remember Mr. Young as the character Cosmo Topper who had to deal with the ghosts of Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. Mr. Young was born in London, England on 11 November 1887 and made his first stage appearance in London’s West End in 1908 and made his Broadway debut in 1912. When WWI came along he enlisted in the US Army. On returning from France he went back to the stage and became an American citizen. 1922 saw his film career start with “Sherlock Holmes” and started alternating between Broadway and Hollywood. From 1929 to 1932 he was a contract player for MGM and then became a free lance performer who remained busy until his death in New York in 1953. The three Topper movies were his high water mark but my favorite has always been “King Solomon’s Mines” (1937).

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