We’ve all heard the name of the famous silent film star Eille Norwood who played Holmes in the early 1920’s (both on film and stage) but little is actually on record about his co-star Hubert Willis who played Dr. Watson. It’s truly tragic that so little information is available for the man who played Watson in more films than any other actor. Hubert Willis
played Watson in 45 two reel shorts and one 6 reel feature film, “The Hound of the Baskerville’s”. The shorts were spread out over a three year period of 1921 to 23 and grouped in sets of fifteen. 1921 was “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, 1922 was “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, and 1923 was “The Last adventures of Sherlock Holmes”. 1921 was also the year of the Hound. The last film by the Stoll studios (an English company) in the series was “The Sign of Four” but for some reason Arthur Cullin replaced Willis as Watson.
Fortunately many of the Norwood – Willis movies are still available to this day. Yesterday I found 16 of the short films available on Amazon.com, though they used stills from the Jeremy Brett series as pictorial placeholders. The copies I have watched are not bad considering their age though some of the title slides are a little difficult to read. The acting by both Norwood (who, by the way, was born Anthony Brett, hmmm) and Willis is exceptional. Neither seem to overplay the parts or have that characteristic overdramatic, physical movement so common in early silent to try and show emotion. In fact their acting is interesting to watch when compared to some of the other characters. I have to try not to laugh when watching “The Man with the Twisted Lip”, as Mrs. St. Claire throws herself about the room.
Willis does a sterling job as Watson. He shows interest in his compatriot and certain deference but he is the affable, intelligent man of medicine. A bit dull perhaps, none-the-less a perfect foil.
Trying to get biographical information on Mr. Willis has been challenging to say the least. He was born in Reading, England the same year as George Custer was eliminated by the Sioux, 1876. He debuted in film in 1913 and in fact the second movie he appeared in was “The House of Templey” which was a rewrite of the Arthur Conan Doyle story “Rodney Stone”. Allegedly Doyle was in on the production. Willis seemed to have steady work in the movies until 1923 when his credits vanish. This is where it gets strange, a number of references (including IMDb) show Willis living to the age of 107 and dying in 1984. BFI, however, shows him dying in 1933. As of this writing I have not been able to find an obituary to confirm or deny either date.