William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes

SFSFF 2015: Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Canon-era Adaptation

No matter how many adaptations have come and gone since, William Gillette’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes provides the inspiration, good or bad, for those that follow.

Sherlock Holmes fandom continues to embrace Victorian/Edwardian-era adaptations, even in light of such popular modernized versions as television series Sherlock and Elementary. The plethora of recent Victorian Sherlock Holmeses includes Ian McKellen as the aging Mr. Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch as an earlier incarnation of his modernized sleuth in Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, and the still-popular Robert Downey, Jr. action hero model in the Sherlock Holmes film franchise. Despite these actors’ brilliant, if widely varied, interpretations of Holmes, as well as the fantastic achievements in cinematic technologies in the past century, the recent attempts to capture canon-era Holmes on film cannot compare to the first actor to personify Holmes, William Gillette, and the recently restored first full-length feature about the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes (1916).

The saga of the missing film is a case worthy of Holmes. Among the DVD set’s many extras are a presentation by restorer Robert Byrne and the booklet May I Marry Holmes? Notes on the Discovery and Restoration of Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes 1916, which tell the tale in greater detail. The short version is that preeminent stage actor Gillette wrote and starred in a play about Sherlock Holmes. After its successful five-year tour of the United States and England, Gillette signed a contract with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company to expand the stage play into a nearly two-hour film, in which the actors from the play reprised their roles. Gillette, of course, played the starring role.

The film received good reviews when it made its way into theaters across America in 1916, but the Great War prevented the Great Detective from traveling to Europe until 1919. The film was serialized (like acts in a play), and French subtitles were added for the film’s Paris debut. After that, the film disappeared.

In 2014 it fortuitously was found and reassembled from the 45 rolls of a 35mm nitrate dupe negative. The Cinematique Française and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival collaborated to restore the film. Locating the film and painstakingly reassembling it required quite a bit of Holmes’ deductive ability. The result is Flicker Alley’s recently released Blu-ray/DVD collection containing the restored colorized film and DVD, print, and computer extras designed to thrill film historians and Sherlockians alike.

Gillette’s Portrayal of Holmes

To create the plot for Sherlock Holmes, Gillette pulled together elements from several of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous short stories. He lifted plot elements from “A Scandal in Bohemia” without once mentioning Irene Adler. For Adler fans, not only is this omission a tragedy, but the woman who replaces her suffers the fate of many a female character in Sherlock Holmes adaptations: becoming a damsel in distress and/or a love interest for Holmes.

In Gillette’s version, a young woman receives indiscreet letters from a European prince, but he breaks her heart, and she soon dies from that malady. Before her death, she gives the letters to her sister, Alice Faulkner (Marjorie Kay). She succumbs to the clutches of the opportunistic Larabees, who lure her into their home to be able to get the letters. Of course, this unscrupulous family is not the only ones who seek the letters. The prince’s emissaries hire Holmes to retrieve them.

The plot thickens melodramatically when Professor Moriarty (Ernest Maupain) is consulted by the Larabees who, like Moriarty, would like to dispose of the meddling Holmes. In a scene reminiscent of “The Final Problem”, Moriarty meets with Holmes at 221B Baker Street. Unlike canon, Moriarty attempts to assassinate Holmes, but the clever detective anticipates this move and thwarts his nemesis. Nevertheless, Moriarty attempts other dastardly ways to murder Holmes before the film ends.

Needless to say, Holmes saves not only the day but the damsel in distress. Faulkner has the bad fortune of escaping the Larabees only to be captured by Moriarty’s henchmen. Holmes manages to rescue her and persuade her to return the letters to the prince’s envoys. Along the way, he also falls in love with the lovely Alice.

Gillette’s portrayal makes Holmes a sexier love interest than he ever is in canon, an interpretation that has influenced many adaptations since. He also has a heart and does not mind expressing his emotions. As a result, Holmes today is portrayed as an attractive man, at any age, and frequently a magnet for potential love interests. Although he may initially seem as machine-like as in canon, Holmes of recent adaptations discovers that he also has a soft spot for his closest friends — thanks, in part, to Gillette.

Fans of buddy action films or bromance may wonder where John Watson is in Gillette’s adaptation. Although the film is a star vehicle for Holmes (and Gillette), in their few scenes together the legendary Watson and Holmes friendship is well depicted. The two shake hands and frequently clap each other’s shoulders. Their camaraderie is obvious from their familiarity with each other. Watson (Edward Fielding) deduces that Holmes has fallen in love before Holmes admits doing so. These close friends seem mutually supportive, but they are not a co-dependent crime-fighting duo. Holmes most often works alone, but he feels comfortable asking for Watson’s assistance when necessary.

The markers that have come to signify Victorian Holmes are all in the film: pipe, long coat, and, when Holmes stalks Moriarty, the deerstalker. Subtitles provide the description given to Mr. Larabee when his unwanted guest arrives: “A tall, thin man … about forty, with a smooth face … wearing a long coat and carrying an ebony cane.” These words cannot, however, indicate what a striking figure Holmes makes when he alights from a Hansom cab and confidently strides to the Larabees’ door.

As in canon or Sidney Paget’s illustrations, at various points in the film Holmes disguises himself as an old man (a la “The Empty House”), conducts chemical experiments in a lab or, after returning from a case, slips into his dressing gown for a comfortable evening before the fire. This Holmes is solicitous of women, comradely to Watson, and self-assured in his pursuit of the letters and Moriarty. Although this cinematic adaptation is nearly a century old, Holmes still should seem familiar to his fans.

The Significance of the Film

Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes is both Sherlock Holmes’ and Gillette’s first full-length feature. It’s also the actor’s only dramatic film, although the DVD extras include a short film from 1930 that lets viewers get to know Gillette a bit better. What is more important than being first, however, is the implication of that distinction. Sherlock Holmes was made while the Conan Doyle stories were still being written. “His Last Bow”, for example, was published in 1917. When viewers watch Gillette portray Holmes on film, they are seeing a then-contemporary adaptation that provides rich visual detail about the period. This film is as close as audiences will ever come to an authentic setting, because it has been reproduced not only from Conan Doyle’s details or Paget’s drawings but from the theatrical/cinematic vision of another contemporary.

Of course, because the film was made in 1916, it also has historic value as an early silent film. Its style reflects the technology of its day. The camera seldom moves; when it does, it pans left or right to follow a character. Nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes is more than a filmed play. Several scenes take place outdoors, in addition to the expected interior sets. Cuts within a scene allow the audience to get a close-up view of important clues, so that their attention is drawn to what Holmes notices.

When he visits the Larabees, for example, his eye is drawn to a safe that someone has attempted to force open. The camera cuts from Holmes to a close-up of the safe to indicate what has captured the detective’s attention. At the time, scene transitions such as irises (a circle that gradually gets smaller until the image no longer can be seen) were popular, but today they are seldom used. The film has been colorized, with some scenes tinted blue, others orange. Silent movie buffs in particular may enjoy this newly found and restored film as an excellent example of the type of full-length films made early in the 20th century.

For audiences used to rapid action and quick cuts, this Sherlock Holmes may be a shocking departure from its next-century counterparts. Although the film includes action sequences and provides dramatic tension with its kidnappings, threats, and attempts on Holmes’ life, only the villains commit violence. Most violent acts are threatened but never shown. Instead, Holmes calmly thinks his way out of danger, including, in one especially visually interesting scene, by turning out the lights on Moriarty’s gang and forcing them to track him by the light of his cigar embers. When the lights come on, Holmes has escaped, leaving the burning cigar behind.

Audiences who multitask while they “watch” television may be shocked at the amount of attention they must pay to the screen. Although the acting may often seem over the top to modern viewers, it’s typical of the theatrical style in vogue at the time, such as (to modern viewers) exaggerated gestures and expressions. (Gillette, in contrast, has a natural acting style that seems even more subtle when compared to the style of other cast members.) Even if their style is distracting to modern audiences, the actors must be watched, and subtitles read, in order for viewers to understand a story told without audible dialogue.

Neil Brand, Guenter Buchwald, and Frank Bockius’s original score does a good job of telegraphing the emotion in a scene, from dramatic and dangerous (in the Larabees’ home or Moriarty’s lair) to comforting and uplifting (when Holmes is introduced to the audience). Even with this accompaniment, audiences must focus on the screen to appreciate the details of setting, plot, and characterization. Sherlock Holmes is an entertaining example of some of the best elements of silent film, but it must be carefully watched to be appreciated.

The Extras

As might be expected of a highly anticipated release of this lost-then-found film, the extras accompanying Flicker Alley’s collection focus both on Sherlock Holmes and the restoration of a silent film. The DVD and Blu-ray discs provide the French version discovered in La Cinematheque Française and the English subtitled version. A variety of short films involving Sherlock Holmes helps place Holmes on film in historic context and illustrates the earliest adaptations of this ever-popular character.

Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) is the earliest film made about Holmes; its single scene lasts a mere 47 seconds. There’s even A Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912), a 15-minute adaptation starring Spot the Dog.

More seriously, the DVD set provides the only video interview of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Fox Movietone News’“Late Conan Doyle Talks to You About Beyond” (1930) shows the “world-famous author and scientist” discussing the two topics for which he is best known. In the first part of the interview, Conan Doyle explains how he came to write the Sherlock Holmes stories. The rest of the interview allows Conan Doyle to explain what was then popularly termed “spiritism”. These cinematic treasures on the collection’s discs offer a wealth of new insights for Sherlockians and film fans.

The set includes promotional photographs from Sherlock Holmes’s 1916 release, as well as images of lobby cards and flyers. In addition, when the DVD is played on either a PC or Mac, audiences can read the script of Sherlock Holmes — A Drama in Four Acts and a scan of Gillette’s contract with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.

Other extras emphasize the film’s restoration. A booklet details this process but also explains Gillette’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes and the history of the film. “From Lost to Found: Restoring Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes” includes film restorer Robert Byrne’s discussion of the restoration, first presented at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in May 2015. Together, these extras cover the technical aspects of restoration but also capture the restoration team’s enthusiasm for this project.

Rarely are a historically significant film and an original portrayal of a character celebrating more than a century of popular acclaim combined in one collection. Flicker Alley’s William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes is a must-have for fans of the silent film era or Sherlock Holmes.

RATING 9 / 10