In October 1905, audiences at the Duke of York’s Theatre in St Martin’s Lane, waiting to see Irene Vanbrugh in her latest play Clarice, had an unexpected treat. For, as a curtain raiser, they saw a short piece called The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes, featuring her co-star William Gillette who was already famous for his stage portrayal of the great detective. The Painful Predicament is notable for Holmes solving a mystery without saying a single word… though he does pass a note to his pageboy Billy.
While audiences were undoubtedly amused by the piece (which was performed many more times as a curtain-raiser to Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes), it is unlikely that many took much notice of the 16 year old boy who played Billy, Holmes’ faithful page, and even less likely that they would have realised that within 12 years Master Charles Chaplin, as he was credited, would be one of the most famous people in the world.
The young Chaplin was already a showbusiness veteran at this point, having started his career seven years earlier the as one of the Eight Lancashire Lads. You can read about his impoverished childhood, which included a period in Lambeth workhouse, in his book My Early Years. Incidentally the workhouse is now open to the public as the Cinema Museum.
Chaplin spent the next couple years touring with William Gillette and also HA Saintsbury, another actor noted for his portrayal of the great detective, acting in both the Painful Predicament and in the play Sherlock Holmes itself. While the character of Billy was created by Gillette (though an un-named pageboy had been mentioned by Doyle), he subsequently appeared in several Holmes stories, starting with the Valley of Fear.
The Chaplin connection with Sherlock Holmes continues to the present day with recent screen Holmes Robert Downey Jr having played Chaplin in Richard Attenborough’s excellent biopic and Chaplin’s grand-daughter Oona acting in the recent updated television series Sherlock. You can find contemporary reviews of the play (which, according to the Manchester Guardian contained some ‘melancholy love-making between Holmes and the heroine’) in our newspaper archive (log in with your library card). There’s a lot more about Doyle and Gillette in our world-famous Sherlock Holmes Collection too.
Chaplin left the Sherlock Holmes company in 1906 and returned to music hall. Ten years later Gillette made a film of the play in Hollywood but by this time, Chaplin had become even more famous than the fictional detective, having already made 50 films. Having established himself with the famous Fred Karno troupe, he travelled to America in 1910 and in 1913 was hired by Mack Sennett to work at Keystone Studios for the not-inconsiderable sum of $150 per week. Incidentally Sennett himself played Sherlock Holmes in several short comic films, now sadly lost.
It was at Keystone Studios that Chaplin made his first film, Making a Living, which was released on 2 February 1914 – one hundred years ago this week. In this Chaplin played a smooth-talking con artist but a few days later, on 7 February, he made his first appearance as the character who would become world-famous – the Little Tramp in the short film Kid Auto Races at Venice.
In 1921, Chaplin returned to London and was mobbed by adoring crowds wherever he went, an experience he wrote about in his book My Wonderful Visit. The Illustrated London News on 8 September published a full-page spread of his homecoming headed ‘More welcome than many heroes’.
On a later visit in 1931 Chaplin met another hero – Gandhi – and British Pathe was there to record the meeting. He returned again to his theatrical roots when he made the film Limelight, set in a London music hall in 1917 (though it was filmed in Hollywood) and he returned to London to publicise it (never returning to live in the USA). On this and subsequent trips he stayed the Savoy Hotel, overlooking the Thames – you can stay in his very room if you have a few £100 to spare! What better way to celebrate the centenary of the great man’s first screen appearance?
For more about Chaplin’s lengthy film career, why not check out the library catalogue for books and films. You can find out more about Chaplin, Doyle, Karno, Irene Vanbrugh and their contemporaries by logging into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or for a rather more academic look at his screen career, check out the International Index to Performing Arts. Or better still, watch some of his films!