Friday, October 26, 2012

"Eille Norwood, My Dear Conan Doyle!" - Silent Sherlocks in Strand Magazine (1).

Exactly 30 years after A Scandal in Bohemia appeared in The Strand Magazine Conan Doyle's famous detective took centre stage in the July, 1921 issue.

The Mazarin Stone (first in the final Casebook series) would be published in October but by then the first batch of 15 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in Stoll's series of silents starring Eille Norwood were on release.

This post looks at Fenn Sherie's 1921 interview with Eille Norwood and the American, Hayden Church's companion article on John Barrymore - The Youth of  Sherlock Holmes - published in The Strand in April, 1922 is the subject of my next post. 

1. The Old Pretender.

Eille Norwood & Conan Doyle.

"I think these photographs of Sherlock Holmes quite wonderful."

(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introducing the Norwood interview)

Filming had begun the previous November, as soon as Sir Oswald Stoll had bought the rights from Doyle.
Norwood was just 59 and would spend the next three years as Holmes directed (mostly) by his friend, Maurice Elvey.

I have dubbed him The Old Pretender only in part because of his age. Barrymore(my Young Pretender)would be 40 when he came to play Holmes in 1922.
Both, of course, were Pretenders to the throne (or rather armchair ) of 221b. Baker St at a time when William Gillette was still regularly performing the role (not least in the lost 1916 film).

I chose these titles however to reflect the focus of The Strand interviews. Eille Norwood is presented very much as the master of makeup and disguise while the novelty intended to attract audiences to Barrymore's film Sherlock Holmes (called Moriarty in the UK) is the significant addition of scenes from Sherlock's youth to a script based on Gillette's play.

The Norwood interview begins with a glimpse of the new Stoll Film Studios in Cricklewood.

Fenn Sherie's pen slips as he describes the "erection of a perfect replica of Holmes's famous residence at 144 (sic) Baker Street." But it is interesting to know a whole street was built, complete with motor cars(not hansom cabs) ...and the director could summon rain or sunshine at will.

Holmes's study has been created so faithfully that "when the dazzling arc-lights are turned off...the visitor who wanders into the apartment feels somewhat like a tourist standing upon historical though Sherlock Holmes himself had actually existed."

The lion's share of the interview is given over to "the outstanding feature of these productions", Norwood's Holmesian talent with make-up and disguise.

There is matter of genuine historic interest here in the insights into the difference between stage and cinema make-up techniques. Eille Norwood was a very experienced stage actor and it is fascinating to watch him experimenting and adapting to the new medium.

Clearly he was successful too in satisfying the eye - the operative sense with silent film audiences, as here, disguised as a Japanese opium smoker, "strapping"his eyes invisibly to change their shape.

So proficient was Norwood that I think it possible the Granada production team took some inspiration for Jeremy Brett's disguises from surviving images of Norwood.

Here is his non-conformist minister of A Scandal in Bohemia.


And here Jeremy Brett in the part.

Both these actors seem to mimic Holmes's remarkable skill. As Fenn Sherie so aptly quotes:
"It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part he assumed." (SCAND).

Readers of my blog will find the central interview with Eille Norwood fascinating as he describes breaking new ground in the art of make-up in "my advent into the realms of the silent drama". Magnifiable pdf pages of the original article may be accessed via the link below this post.

Eille Norwood's interview is also amusing: it must have been great fun to work on set with him. He was an inveterate practical joker and here describes trying out new disguises in real life on the production crew.
In character as the taxi driver shown here, Norwood was almost thrown off the set when the Managing Director called for his removal.

" 'Lor Lumme!' I explained in a hoarse voice. 'I ain't doin' no 'arm, am I? I'm waiting for some bloke 'ere, and you don't think I'm goin' to 'ang about outside in the perishin' cold, do yer?'"

At that moment the director called for Eille Norwood and he stepped straight onto set, leaving the Manager, Jeffrey Bernerd,  non-plussed.

Even greater pleasure was gained in deceiving his close friend, director Maurice Elvey. A few days before shooting SCAND he donned the disguise shown and wearing a huge ulster walked into the studio with his knees bent, thus reducing his height to about 5'4".

"Assuming a weak and nervous voice I approached ...Elvey. 'Please, I've been told to see you about the part of Dr. Watson'.

After some discussion of his shortness and wrong moustache, Elvey dismisses him as "quite unsuitable".

" 'Then how would I do for Sherlock Holmes?' I asked, reverting to my natural voice and drawing myself up to my full height."

Deliciously, Elvey was duped yet again!

Failing to recognise Eille Norwood on set dressed as the non-conformist minister, the director nodded to him affably and then stopped in the middle of the set as if looking for someone. He strode across to a tall "super" or extra who was disguised with a heavy moustache and bushy eyebrows...

"'It's no use, Eille,  old man, I've found you out this time!' he exclaimed gleefully.
'That's where you're wrong', said the old minister, who was by this time standing at his elbow. 'Try again!' "

Practical jokes? Certainly...but also very serious rehearsal by a master of his craft. And, in closing, I would remind the reader of all those times in Doyle's original stories where Sherlock Holmes utterly confounds Dr. Watson, his closest friend, through the use of disguise.

Eille knew that and judge for yourself from one or more of the 3 films available on Youtube but in my book Norwood was very close to Holmes and I'd love to have worked on set with him.


To read the complete Strand Magazine interview please click HERE  for The Strand,  July 1921.

To view Youtube videos of Eille Norwood as Sherlock Holmes please click on a still:

1. The Dying Detective 1921.

2. The Man with the Twisted Lip (1921)

3. The Devil's Foot. (1921).

To go straight to "The Youth of Sherlock Holmes" - John Barrymore. Part 2 of Silent Sherlocks in The Strand please click PART 2 .

Additional link!
Here is the link to British Pathe short film entitled All Change which shows Eille Norwood making up as Sherlock Holmes in 1923.


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