Arthur M. Cullin played the role of Dr. Watson twice in his career in film. The first time was in the 1916 G.B. Samuelson Productions film The Valley of Fear. Unfortunately this is a lost film. Cullin played opposite H.A. Saintsbury as Sherlock Holmes. The second time Cullin played Dr. Watson was in the 1923 silent film The Sign of Four.
Eille Norwood played Holmes in 47 separate movies. Forty-five of these films were basically shorts which ran about twenty minutes each and two were feature films. In all these films, except one, Dr. Watson was played by Hubert Willis (who was profiled earlier in this blog). Arthur Cullin was that one exception. Isobel Elsom was chosen to play the part of Mary Morstan and the executives of Stoll Studios, that produced the films, felt that a younger Watson was needed as the love interest. In this they were assuredly correct just based on the example of Crucifer of Blood with Charlton Heston.
The movie Sign of Four still exists in a private collection and one can only hope that someday it will be copied and released on DVD by a conservation trust. From the accounts available from the time of release the movie follows the book in spirit if not in exact detail. For example; the characters are updated to the 1920’s and instead of Holmes and Watson chasing the bad guys down the river in boats, the bad guys chase Holmes and Watson. Our heroes are in a boat on the Thames and the bad guys in a car running along the river. The chase scene took 29 days to film, unheard of today and even then considered exceptional.
If the critic from Variety is to be believed this silent film was the first version of the Guy Ritchie Holmes. In his review hestates “Maurice Elvey (director) has seized every opportunity the story gives and the result is a ‘Sherlock Holmes’ story which is fine entertainment of the strong, sensational type.” It seems that Stoll Film Company was trying to make Holmes more saleable in the US and so started the transition of Holmes to “action figure” status. The Sign of Four also adapted the story by having Holmes explain parts of the mystery as they worked through it rather than using the original stories long, drawn out explanation and flashback at the end. In fact, the use of the ongoing explanation and an overlay of figures on the characters talking was a piece of cinema history. Holmes also breaks the fourth wall by turning to the audience (camera) and exclaiming, “This is going to be exciting”.
Doyle was alive at the time the Eille Norwood movies were made and was very happy with Norwood and the films in general. His only outstanding complaint was that the characters were brought into the 1920’s and not left where it is “always 1895”.
Arthur Cullin was the right choice for Watson in this case, although, he was significantly younger than Holmes. It was a concession that had to be made if Norwood was to be Holmes. Cullin was a fine Watson, at least according to the critics. He was active in the movies from 1914 through 1924 and then drops out of sight. He was born in London and was out of the business before talkies came along. His first movie was England’s Menace in 1914. I have failed miserably in finding a single photograph of the man.