Monday, January 27, 2014

Eille Norwood and the Three Watsons.

In March, 1923, readers of The Strand Magazine were treated to a new Sherlock Holmes story, The Creeping Man, in the (very) occasional series collected in 1927 as The Casebook.

That same month saw the release of the last batch of  Stoll's silent versions of the short stories, starring Eille Norwood. Totalling 45 shorts, directors Maurice Elvey and (for the 1922 Further Adventures) George Ridgwell captured on film every short Holmes story so far published (except for The Five Orange Pips), including 1921's MAZA and 1922's THOR.

In addition, the success of 1921's Adventures prompted Stoll's feature-length HOUN and June, 1923 would see the release of the other long novel adaptation, SIGN, crowning a body of work unrivalled before or since.

No attempts were made to link the stories - indeed, the order of filming and release follows neither canonical nor chronological order. For example, both LAST and FINA appear in the last 1923 series. Norwood is the common thread and (until SIGN) his Watson, played by Hubert Willis.

Conan Doyle could happily remain in his 'Steven Moffat' mode of drip-feeding new stories, for the cinema had joined live theatre in keeping Sherlock Holmes before an international audience. Three of the greatest early portrayers of Holmes - Gillette, Saintsbury and Barrymore - already graced the silver screen; but 1923 was Eille Norwood's year for from October 1 you could put a voice to the silent Norwood by visiting the theatre to see The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The Holmes fan who saw all Norwood's output on stage and screen in 1923 would have encountered three different Doctor Watsons: Hubert Willis in the shorts, Arthur M Cullin in SIGN and H G Stoker on stage.
Martin Freeman & Benedict Cumberbatch preview still, BBC Sherlock.

Imagine our own Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, paired with such a succession of Watsons in the space of a year and we can see just how differently the good doctor is viewed today. Where we see parity and intimacy in a classic double act, producers in 1923 were following established theatrical tradition in putting Holmes alone centre-stage along with such thoughtfully-cast villains as Dr Grimesby Rylott (Roylott in the original story), played by character actor, Lyn Harding, in Doyle's SPEC play. William Gillette had set this trend and worked with numerous Watsons in his long career as the Great Detective.
Nigel Bruce & Basil Rathbone publicity still.

Bumbling as some find Nigel Bruce's portrayal in the Rathbone series, he was a fine, likeable actor of great presence who proved the perfect foil and modestly elevated the figure of Watson to equal billing, establishing the new tradition. 

Modern producers would chop and change Watsons at their peril, the only acceptable reason being for the kind of personal reasons that necessitated David Burke's departure from the Granada series. It required the finest of actors to replace him. The late Edward Hardwicke was just that. 

With this background in mind I just want to record something of the three rather neglected Watsons who supported Eille Norwood in 1923. Who were they?

Hubert Willis & Eille Norwood in The Man with the Twisted Lip.
1. Hubert Willis.


 This image is typical of the audience's experience of Watson in the 3 Stoll shorts available on Youtube. Rarely is he shown in close-up; characteristically, we see him in profile behind Holmes or at the side of the screen following events in the background. Born in 1876 in Reading, he was in his mid forties at the time of filming, younger than a Norwood in his early sixties, but not young enough in looks to portray SIGN's Watson in love.

Willis was active on screen from 1913, the year he played Shelton in Doyle's House of Temperley. Wikipedia and IMDb are at odds over the date of his death: the former records 1933, while the latter has Willis living to the ripe old age of 108, dying 1984, in Suffolk. I've not been able to resolve this discrepancy, but I can't believe the IMDb entries which have this Hubert Willis in a series of TV appearances in the 1960's, playing police constable or ambulance man! Kieran McMullen has a little more on Willis HERE . 

2. Arthur M Cullin.

More mysterious still is the actor brought in especially for Stoll's last Holmes film, SIGN, to play opposite Isobel Elsom's Mary Morstan. Cullin was also born in the 1870's but looked the more youthful and had specialised in smart gentleman roles. He'd also played Watson before in the (lost) 1916 Saintsbury film, The Valley of Fear. Again McMullen has a little more HERE  but neither he nor I has been able to find a photograph of Cullin. Jay Weissberg has seen SIGN and there's a fascinating, detailed review on NitrateVille HERE . 

Stoll may well have cast him because of a more recent "Doctor" appearance - as Dr Cumberly in the company's feature film of 1920, The Yellow Claw, by Sax Rohmer. This film exists in its entirety at the BFI and was given a rare airing in April 2013. Here is the BFI entry - click 'More' on the page to read a detailed summary of the whole film: BFI ENTRY .
update on possible photo of Arthur M Cullin:
I have just come across the following webpage in which 2 lobby cards from the lost 1921 "Dangerous Lies" are stated to feature Arthur Cullin. If so, he must be the older gentleman in the first frame (they may be magnified if you download). He looks to me just a little younger than Hubert Willis. Please click HERE .

3. H G Stoker.

Cast list from my programme of The Return of Sherlock Holmes 1923 Princes Theatre.

 I was pleased recently to acquire a programme hand-dated 10/11/1923 of Norwood's stage appearance as Sherlock Holmes. Himself a playwright and composer, Norwood was perhaps more feted as such in Australia where Melbourne ever considered him one of their own after his work there in the early 90's. His uncle, J E Harold Terry, proved a better dramatist, collaborating with Arthur Rose in The Return of Sherlock Holmes which opened at the Princes (now Shaftesbury) theatre on October 9, 1923, after previewing in Cardiff at the Playhouse on 1 October. Norwood produced himself and the play filled the capacious theatre for 130 performances, closing on January 26 of 1924. Arthur Lloyd has an excellent page on The Princes HERE .

Amnon Kabatchnik describes the play and its reception in Sherlock Holmes on the Stage, which may be sampled HERE . This reference also details further productions after the Princes run, at home and abroad. Norwood took it first on tour in England, especially to his home county of Yorkshire. I Know for certain he took it to Huddersfield and was warmly received - see the BBC article HERE . His home city of York disappointed him with a low turnout at the Theatre Royal as indicated in this item currently on Ebay: HERE . Perhaps other Watsons joined him on the road, but I shall close this post with a look at the one I'd most like to have seen, H G Stoker, the most Doylean of Watsons.
Commander H G Stoker DSO RN.

To explain: (NB: What follows assumes the references I have discovered all refer to one actor known as H G Stoker). Cousin to Bram, Henry Hugh Gordon "Dacre" Stoker was born in Dublin in 1885 and died in London in 1966. He was thus 38 years old in 1923 and clearly considered a preferable stage Watson to Arthur Cullin, who, as the programme above shows, was available and actually in the cast playing 'The Rev Dr Shlessinger'.

Conan Doyle attended one of the Princes performances and addressed the audience, praising the authors: "I am only a grandfather; these are the parents." He will therefore have seen a Watson whose actor's life mirrored both the Doctor's and his own, for here was a man recently out of the navy after distinguished service. The Stoker website has his obituary HERE and details his contribution to the Gallipoli campaign HERE .

Henry Stoker was ACD's kind of man - a fearless adventurer, hero, sportsman and patriot. As the biographies indicate, he had a flair for acting (he entertained his own men while imprisoned by the Turks) and put it to good use from about 1920 while waiting for a recall to the navy.

I would suggest he will have recommended himself for the part of Watson after appearing with Felix Aylmer in the Gaiety Theatre on Broadway from September 27, 1922 to April, 1923. The play was John Galsworthy's Loyalties and Stoker played the part of Charles Winsor. The play may be read online HERE .

Stoker progressed to film acting from 1933 to his recall to active service in 1939. That done, he returned to act in film and on television. Delightfully, IMDb records his part as Colonel Hayter in the sadly lost 1951 TV production of The Reigate Squires which starred Alan Wheatley as Holmes and Raymond Francis as Watson.

I leave the reader with this lovely image of H G with Lilli Palmer in the 1938 film "Crackerjack", looking, for me, so reminiscent of Conan Doyle himself in Colonel Blimp mould, just before stepping up to serve his country one more time.



  1. Nice job! Really enjoyed seeing the program with Arthur Cullin in a different role, now if we could only come up with his photo too.

    1. Thanks, Howard! No photos in programme unfortunately! Any of Cullin's other films survived? Must be some stills of SIGN out there...needs an Ostrom to track 'em down!