Thanks to the popular BBC television series Sherlock, Elementary, and the Robert Downey Jr. films, Sherlock Holmes is more popular than ever. Yet they all follow it the footsteps of an actor who, over a century ago created the still-popular image of Holmes in the public eye.
In perhaps the biggest find in film history, William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes has recently been full restored and remastered in a stunning DVD/Blu-Ray combo. Author, historian, and special guest contributor Tom Elmore reviews this stunning find in great depth.
Five years after Holmes had seemingly died in 1893’s The Final Problem, famed American actor-playwright William Gillette (1853-1937) was asked by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to do a stage play about the detective. Gillette famously wired Doyle, “May I marry Holmes?” Doyle replied “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.”
After reading all the Sherlock Holmes stories, Gillette wrote a four act play combining elements from several stories, most notably A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem. However, with the exception of Holmes, Dr. John Watson and Professor James Moriarty, all the characters were original to the play.
Gillette’s play, Sherlock Holmes, debuted on October 23, 1899 in Buffalo, N.Y. It would be the first of an estimated 1300 performances of Gillette as Holmes in America and England. The next month it debuted on Broadway and was a smashing success. It would be revived on both sides of the Atlantic for almost four decades, with a young Charlie Chaplin, appearing in one English tour.
In interpreting the character, Gillette brought elements are so strongly associated with Holmes, he is considered the third most important person (after Doyle and original British illustrator, Sidney Paget) for creating the detective’s image. He wore a deerstalker cap, which only appeared in a few tales, and used a violin, a magnifying glass and syringe as props.
But Gillette’s biggest contribution was the introduction of the curved or “elbow” pipe which is never mentioned in the tales or shown in Paget’s illustrations. Ostensibly, Gillette chose this pipe because he could deliver his lines more easily. However, some say Gillette avoided a straight pipe because it would have obscured his face. Regardless, it is hard to image Holmes today without the bent pipe.
Gillette’s place in the public mind as the face of Holmes was further solidified when American illustrator Fredrick Dorr Steele used the actor as the model for his images of the detective in Collier’s Magazine, the American publisher of Doyle’s tales. At the first ever meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars in New York City, in 1934, Gillette appeared in costume and character as Holmes.
Even Doyle, who liked the play, was taken with Gillette. When the two men met in person for the first time, Gillette awaited the author at the train platform dressed as Holmes. Doyle was speechless, until Gillette took out a magnifying glass, examined Doyle’s face closely and said, “Unquestionably an author!” Doyle broke out laughing and the two became fast friends.
The 1915-1916 tour of the play took ended in Chicago, home of Essanany Film Company. They approached Gillette about making a film production of the play using actors from both the touring company and the studio’s own actors. Gillette agreed and the result is faithful adaptation of the stage play.
The plot involves a prince who was once the lover of the late sister of Alice Faulkner, who had written some potentially incriminating letters to his paramour. Now Miss Faulkner’s possess her dead sister’s letters. The prince, who is about to get married, wants the letters back and sends agents to negotiate the return of the letters, which she refuses for fear that they would damage her sister’s reputation.
The existence of the letters become known to the Larrabees, a husband and wife team of crooks and blackmailers who kidnap the young girl. Failing to get her to turn over the letters, they ask the aide of Professor Mortiarty at the same time the prince seeks the help of Sherlock Holmes. The rest of the film becomes a battle of wits between the two legendary antagonists.
The film suffers from an inherit problem in all silent Sherlock Holmes films, in that the main character is a very verbal one, which hurts the pacing and the tone. Interestingly, Dr. Watson is only a minor character in the play.
The film received good reviews and was a modest success. In 1919, with World War I ended and the French clamoring for American movies, the film was reedited into a four chapter serial (to reflect the French fondness for serials) with French title cards. In another concession to French tastes, the film was tinted, which it was not during its American run. Soon after its French run the film disappeared without a trace about the same time Essanany went out of business.
For decades Sherlockians and film historians mourned the disappearance of this film, the only known film performance of Gillette in his most famous role, although audio recordings and still photographs existed. A film adaptation of the play was made in 1922 starring John Barrymore as Holmes. The 1939 film, The Adventures of Sherlock with Rathbone as Holmes is credited as being based on Gillette’s play, but there is very little similarity between the two.
Then in 2014 while cataloguing its inventory of films on nitrate stock, the La Cinémathéque Française discovered the film, intact and in good shape in a mislabeled file. For the film preservation community it was arguably the biggest discovery since the finding of a near complete print of Metropolis in 2010. Sherlockians viewed it as the biggest find they are likely to ever see, short of the discovery of a lost story by Doyle.
The film answered a long simmering question about how Gillette played Holmes. His recordings of Holmes suggest a foppish dandy, some even going so far as to suggest effeminate. However the film footage clearly shows his Holmes to be a very strong, forceful and masculine character.
The film was restored with a collaboration of La Cinémathéque Française and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The restoration work was done by Italy’s L’immagine Ritrovato, who wisely decided to restore the film the way it was presented in France. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, the creators of BBC’s Sherlock provided some of the support for the restoration. It is without a doubt one of the best restoration of a silent film this reviewer has ever seen. The images are very sharp and clear and the print is remarkably clean.
The DVD Blu-Ray combo released by Flicker Alley contains three discs, one Blu-ray and two DVDs. Two restored prints, one with French and one with other, English title cards are presented. Bonus materials include silent parodies, 1903’s Sherlock Holmes Baffled the first Sherlock Holmes film ever, made by Thomas Edison and newsreel footage of Doyle and Gillette. A handsome booklet tells the background of Gillette, the play, the film and its restoration.
The Bottom Line:
Very simply put, for anyone who is a fan of Sherlock Holmes or of silent films/film history, this is must-have DVD/BluRay .
Sherlock Holmes the film: 8.0/10
Restoration and Historical Significance: 10./10
Bonus Features and Materials: 10.o/10
Author, Historian, and Guest Contributor: Nerd Nation Magazine
Editor’s Note: In addition to his incredible work as an author and historian, Tom Elmore is a great friend and big supporter of Nerd Nation. I know I speak for everyone in saying that we’re delighted to share his work with you here in this special Nerd Nation Exclusive. We’d like to thank Tom for his gracious contribution and look forward to working together more in the very near future.