BOOTLEG FILES 364: “Sherlock Holmes Baffled” (1900 film that provided an unauthorized introduction of Sherlock Holmes to movie viewers).

LAST SEEN: The full 30-second film is available on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It may have been included in anthology collections of silent films.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A long-expired copyright.


Few literary characters have been more popular than Sherlock Holmes. Even today, the mere mention of his name calls up the image of a mastermind with extraordinary powers of logical deduction. And even if people have never read any of the classic novels or short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, they are certainly familiar with the fabled character through a number of well-known movies and television productions.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the popularity of Sherlock Holmes was well rooted on both sides of the Atlantic. Conan Doyle was a best-selling writer in America, and in New York the theater icon William Gillette played Sherlock Holmes in a very popular Broadway drama. Elsewhere in New York was the American Mutoscope and Biography Company, one of the pioneers in the U.S. motion picture industry. That company recognized the popularity of Sherlock Holmes and decided that the celebrated detective would be the perfect subject for the new film medium. However, there were several problems with this decision.

For starters, the films being produced by this company were on the short side – if the production ran 60 seconds, it was considered overlong. Telescoping a Sherlock Holmes mystery into less than a minute – in a medium that had no sound recording or broadcasting, no less – seemed like a terrible idea.

Another terrible idea was the decision by American Mutoscope and Biography Company to help itself to the Sherlock Holmes character without clearing the rights from Conan Doyle. Obviously, such a decision would cost a fair degree of money, and that would be financially impractical since films in 1900 were made on the cheap. Thus, it was considered easier to “borrow” the Sherlock Holmes character and hope that Conan Doyle did not find out. Thus, intellectual property theft for cinematic purposes came into being!

Actually, American Mutoscope and Biography Company had a talent for borrowing good ideas without proper attribution. Their productions were not projected in auditoriums, but were viewed in a coin-operated peep-show machine called the Mutoscope. The concept of the Mutoscope was very, very similar to a machine called the Kinetoscope, which was created by Thomas Edison’s laboratory. In order to avoid a blatant violation of Edison’s patents, the Mutoscope team used a film stock that was somewhat larger than the film used for Kinetoscope productions.

From this unlikely scenario came the cinema’s first-ever Sherlock Holmes film: a 30-second offering called “Sherlock Holmes Baffled.” Details on the film’s back story are scant – although it carries a 1903 copyright on its title card, researchers have determined that it was actually shot in 1900 in the production company’s New York studio. Arthur W. Marvin has been identified as the film’s director and cinematographer, but there is no record of who wrote the film. Even more unfortunate is the lack of a cast record – the man who first played Sherlock Holmes for the camera remains unknown to us.

“Sherlock Holmes Baffled” opens in what appears to be a fashionable Victorian drawing room. A hooded man is seen stuffing objects into a large bag. Sherlock Holmes enters the room – he is wearing an open dressing gown jacket and he has a large unlit cigar in his mouth. He is initially unaware of what is happening, but then views his unwanted visitor and taps him on the shoulder. Holmes is startled as the intruder abruptly vanishes before his eyes.

Not thinking twice about what transpired, Holmes sits down at his table and lights his cigar. The cigar suddenly explodes and the thief magically reappears.  Holmes draws a pistol from his dressing gown pocket and fires at the burglar, but the miscreant vanishes again. Holmes then spies the bag of items that the thief was filling.  He picks up the bag, only to have it magically disappear from his hand and reappear in the hand of the returning thief, who exits through a window. The fabled detective stomps around this drawing room, visibly baffled by what occurred.

Okay, what does any of this have to do with the Sherlock Holmes of the Conan Doyle stories? The answer, of course, is nothing. Sherlock Holmes didn’t smoke exploding cigars, nor did he haphazardly pull guns on suspects, nor did he allow burglars to get the best of him.

However, the very early movies enjoyed a surplus of camera trickery that allowed for special effects that could not be duplicated on a stage. “Sherlock Holmes Baffled” is a Baker Street equivalent of the influential fantasy films of French filmmaker Georges Melies, which were filled with people abruptly vanishing and reappearing. Anyone in 1900 who would stick a penny into a Mutoscope would be expecting and enjoying this type of trickery.

If there is any mystery, it might involve the 1903 copyright. No reason has been determined as to why American Mutoscope and Biograph Company waited three years to put the copyright notice on its film – especially since film bootlegging was rampant in that period. Nonetheless, it seems that “Sherlock Holmes Baffled” had a very long release in the Mutoscope machines.

It is not clear if Conan Doyle was ever aware of “Sherlock Holmes Baffled,” but the loose climate that allowed the unauthorized use of his character was quickly changed. In 1905, the Vitagraph Company arranged to adapt Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of Four” with its one-reel film “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for a Ransom.” Broadway matinee idol Maurice Costello was cast Holmes, which drew attention to the film.

The Mutoscope fell out of favor as movie lovers preferred to see their films on a big screen. Since it lacked reissue value, “Sherlock Holmes Baffled” was quickly forgotten, and for many years it was considered lost. A paper print was located in 1968 by Michael Pointer, a historian researching the cinematic odyssey of Sherlock Holmes. It has been preserved as a 16mm print in the Library of Congress collection.

Since it is no longer protected by its copyright, “Sherlock Holmes Baffled” can be duped by anyone. Indeed, there are numerous poor quality videos all over the Internet – which is no surprise, considering the Sherlock Holmes name value and the compact 30-second running time.

Although it is hardly characteristic of the Conan Doyle stories, “Sherlock Holmes Baffled” set off a chain reaction that has yet to abate. The next film inspired by the master detective, Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, will be in theaters this December. Imagine that: 111 years of Sherlock Holmes movies!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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