The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for Ransom of 1905 is considered to be the first “serious” attempt at bringing Holmes to the big screen. In 1900 had been the short “Sherlock Holmes Baffled”, which is one of those early shorts that just don’t seem to make much sense. Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for Ransom was an adaptation of Doyle’s “The Sign of Four” by Theodore Liebler. It was also a one reel short. One Reelers, in the silent era ran between 11 and 14 minutes. Now how you can possibly complete The Sign of Four in 11 to 14 minutes is something I would love to see. Unfortunately, the movie is considered lost as no known print exists. There is, however, 14 feet of paper print in the Library of Congress and if I can ever get up that way it is one of my missions to find it.
There are only three known credits for the film: Maurice Costello as Sherlock Holmes, H. Kyrle Bellew as Watson, and J. Barney Sherry in an unnamed part. There is some dispute as to whether or not Costello really played the part of Holmes. In those days “credits” were not usually given and Costello never mentioned playing the part nor included it in his biography. In spite of this the conventional wisdom is that this was Costello’s first film outing. Costello would have an incredible 278 other film credits as well as 79 directorial outings in a lifetime that spanned from his birth in Pittsburgh in 1877 to his death in Hollywood in 1950. He was the first “superstar” of film. He made his stage depute as an “Irish” comic in vaudeville in 1894 and was the father of Dolores and Helene Costello and great-grandfather of Drew Barrymore. But most importantly, to any guy, is the fact that Costello discovered Moe Howard and gave him his first break in 1909!
Our Watson, H. Kyrle Bellew was one of those adventure filled lives of the 19th century. There are conflicting claims of where and when he was born. Some sources say 1850, some 1853 or 1855 or 1857. There are also tales that he was born in England or born in India. What can be established is that he was christened in England in May of 1850. His father was an Anglican preacher and his parents had a very unhappy marriage. They did go to the India in the early 1850’s where his father sued for divorce in 1855 and returned to England with all four children. In 1866 Kyrle was sent to the training ship HMS Conway where he served for 2 years before shipping out for five more in the merchant marine. He eventually arrived in Australia where he worked as a laborer, gold miner, station hand and sign writer. Kyrle became a journalist and finally turned his hand to acting. Kyrle Bellew was now constantly traveling a circuit of Australia, England and the US and was a kind of matinee idol. He married in 1873 to a French actress named Eugenie Le Grand but the marriage actually only lasted days with Le Grande returning to her former lover. In the 1880’s and 1890’s he was touring with American Actress Cora Brown-Potter.
Besides being the first “legitimate” film Watson (Bellew was to have only three film credits before his death from Pneumonia in 1911), there is another, rather roundabout connection to Doyle in Bellew’s history. Bellew premiered the play “Raffles” to US audiences. A play based on the famous character developed by Doyle’s brother-in-law E.W. Hornung. One interesting event occurred on 27 December 1887. On that date a Miss Harriett Coffin tried, multiple times, to shoot Bellew at a theater in Boston where he was playing. Bellew evidently refused to return the woman’s affections which greatly upset her. She was eventually committed to an asylum. Here was another man like our Watson with the experience of “women on three continents”.
This interests me, but I would like more information on your sources. Last year in an e-mail to Phil Bergem discussing items and corrections for his fine Sherlock Holmes film/TV checklist, I commented that I had a theory Bellew was the first film Watson based on a newspaper article which placed him in the area of the filming at the precise time of the filming. However no mention was made of him being in the film in that piece, so it was only my theory.
Essay “The Case Of The Vitagraph Holmes” http://www.nplh.co.uk/vitagraph-holmes1.html makes the case for Gilbert M. Anderson not Maurice Costello being the first Holmes of film.
Part 1 of essay series “Silent Sherlock” http://www.nplh.co.uk/silock.html states: 1908 – “Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery” – Actors unknown. Crescent Film Mfg.
“The first screen appearance of Dr. Watson… Sherlock Holmes goes into a trance to pin a murder on an escaped gorilla after a woman’s suitor is blamed for the crime. Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” If this is correct it would indicate there was no Watson in the Vitagraph Holmes film of 1905.