The first screen appearance of Sherlock Holmes… or is it? This tiny film was meant to be played in a Mutoscope peepshow and it features the supposed Mr. Holmes being baffled by a burglar of ambiguous gender.
At the risk of being one of those “Actually…” people, there are a whole bunch of misconceptions about this film. We’re going to clear some of them up, cloud the waters with some speculation and generally sink our teeth into the picture. Fasten your seatbelts, kids!
First, the plot: A man (Sherlock?) catches a burglar in the act of, well, burgling and attempts to apprehend the miscreant. Thanks to the magic of trick photography, the burglar appears, disappears and gets clean away. The whole thing lasts less than a minute.
While the exact release date of this film is unknown (it wasn’t copyrighted until 1903), it is generally agreed that it was released in 1900 by the American Mutoscope Company but copyrighted by its successor, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Got all that? The company is best known simply as Biograph these days and is mostly remembered as D.W. Griffith’s alma mater (the film trade was learned on the job back then). At this point, the Mutoscope portion of the business was quite important.
Mutoscopes were machines that allowed individual viewers to watch motion pictures through a peephole. Instead of film, they used printed cards fixed to a drum that rotated with a hand-turned crank. And now you see why I scoff a bit at people confidently naming exact runtimes for the film. Its speed depended on how fast the viewer wanted to crank. (You can see a detailed demonstration of the process with a homemade Mutoscope here. I want one, how about you? Apparently, there are kits you can buy to make “GIF machines” but I am too disgusted with the name to make a purchase. GIF machine. Ugh. Here are DIY instructions.)
So, is Sherlock Holmes Baffled technically a “film” at all? Depends on exactly how pedantic you wish to be but I’m ready to accept it as one. What I am a little less confident about is the idea of calling this a Sherlock Holmes picture at all.
Some of that promised context: Film copyrights were funky as all getout until the late-1900s to mid-1910s. I’ve often mentioned the Kalem Co. vs. Harper Brothers case, which concerned the unauthorized 1907 production of Ben-Hur and was finally decided by the Supreme Court. Kalem claimed that motion pictures were “pictures” and thus could not be violating copyright as taking photos of plays was considered legal. The court ruled that motion pictures were dramatizations and that Kalem had marketed the film as such. From that point forward, motion picture producers were obliged to purchase adaptation rights.
Of course, 1900 was well before this 1911 ruling but we can learn a lot by comparing Sherlock Holmes Baffled to the Kalem Ben-Hur. That film was a bald cash grab with director Sidney Olcott photographing a chariot race that was already being held (it was quite the fad among firemen at the time to be amateur charioteers) and then shot a few scenes to fill out the reel. In short, it was no more an adaptation of Ben-Hur than Turkish Star Wars was an adaptation of Star Wars.
And so let’s get back to Sherlock Holmes Baffled. There’s not really very much Holmesian about the picture. Yes, the main character a dressing gown but Holmes doesn’t hold the trademark for that particular garment. My point is that we could argue that this film might have been totally unrelated to Holmes (burglary was a popular subject in early film) and the Sherlock Holmes brand was added later in order to cash in on the Holmes craze. In which case, this would not really be a Holmes film at all.
I realize that we are into pure speculation here but I think it’s a reasonably enough hypothesis to warrant consideration. Slapping a ripoff brand name on an unrelated film is as old as films themselves and is still regularly done, as fans of bargain bin films can tell you.
For those of you keeping score at home, Holmes was “killed” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1893, the character was brought to the stage by William Gillette in 1899, appeared in the prequel story The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901 and was finally resurrected in 1903. After dealing with numerous copyright headaches and unauthorized movie adaptations, Doyle sold the rights to France’s Éclair film company, which produced some of the most unintentionally hilarious Holmes pictures ever made. Doyle then sold the right to Stoll Pictures, which made some of the best silent Holmes adaptations helmed by Maurice Elvey and starring Eille Norwood. Unfortunately, the rights to the Gillette play belonged to Goldwyn, which, you guessed it, led to even more headaches as there were two companies claiming the One True Holmes.
Another bit of pure speculation: I consider myself to be pretty good at spotting women in disguise. I think it’s due to the fact that I got annoyed at the shortage of women characters when I was watching movies as a child. I was always on the lookout for characters who were really female or who could reasonably retconned. (I used to insist that Chewbacca was a girl. It totally works.) My point is that I think the burglar is a chick. Look at the way the miscreant moves! The swing of the hips, the prim way of sitting. Total chick. Of course, there’s no way to prove this as the records related to the film are long gone and Biograph was never good about identifying its stars anyway.
Does this mean anything? Probably not. Movies were smalltime affairs back in 1900 and the star of a film was often the person who happened to be walking down the street that day. I just think it’s interesting and I’m sure there’s a fun story related to the casting that is, alas, lost in the sands of time.
One last bit of copyright nerdity before we conclude. Sherlock Holmes Baffled was thought lost for years before being rediscovered in the paper print collection at the Library of Congress. Remember how Kalem argued that movies were just a series of still pictures? Well, that was the reasoning behind paper prints. Movies weren’t copyrightable entities in themselves until 1912 and so studios (particularly Biograph and Edison) would submit every single frame on strips of photographic paper. Crazy, huh? But it turned out to be a blessing in disguises as paper is far more stable than nitrate and a good number of early films only survive on paper. Sherlock Holmes Baffled is one of them.
Oh, and some people list this as a 16mm film, which is ridiculous. 16mm was released in 1923 and while Sherlock Holmes Baffled is on 16mm now, it was a transfer from the old paper print which was itself likely a transfer from—wait for it—the oddball 68mm film Biograph was using at the time to avoid infringing on Edison’s patents. It punched perforations into the film as it shot images and then could be printed onto standard 35mm stock or Mutoscope cards. The paper print may also be derived from the 35mm stock (film gauge geeks, feel free to jump in here) but POINT is that there ain’t no 16mm and don’t pretend there was. (The exact size of the Biograph film is, like most other things, the subject of film geek debates but everyone agrees it was ginormous.) So, calling Sherlock Holmes Baffled a 16mm film is like calling Casablanca “Michael Curtiz’s Bluray film.” Yes, I am scoffing and judging. I was driven to it. And yes, I did bash pedantry but this is MY pedantry. Neener neener.
(I sure hope someone stumbles across an old Mutoscope drum with the movie inside but the chances of that are slim and none.)
Sherlock Holmes Baffled is a cute little curio but I have serious misgivings about classifying it as a Holmes film. Still, it’s fun to discuss and it certainly is easy to watch.
Where can I see it?
Sherlock Holmes Baffled has been released in various Holmes discs but if you want to see it at its best, check out the DVD/Bluray combo pack from Flicker Alley, which includes the long-lost 1916 William Gillette film. The short is accompanied by a delightful piano score performed by Cliff Retallick
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