Recently, a copy of William Gillette’s long-lost 1916 silent film, Sherlock Holmes, has been found in Paris. It is currently being restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Cinémathèque Française, so we can hope to see it somewhere online in the foreseeable future. Currently, the only clip I found was on a BBC news release (click here to see). Why is it so important, especially to Sherlockians?
Was it the first film portrayal? No. The 1900 short, “Sherlock Holmes Baffled” holds that honor. (Click here to view) However, the meager plot only seems to have been made to demonstrate the “special effects” of the era, with a burglar and his bag of loot disappearing and reappearing several times. Sherlock, wearing a dressing gown with a revolver in his pocket and smoking a cigar, walks in on the thief. Holmes solves nothing and, as the title says, is baffled. Not an auspicious beginning to his film career.
Was Gillette the actor to portray the Great Detective on film the most number of times? Again, no. He only played him one time on film. Basil Rathbone appeared on the silver screen 15 times as Sherlock Holmes (counting a cameo in “Crazy House”) and is, to many, the epitome of the man. No doubt, numerous repeat showings of those movies on television helped that standing. And, for many years, no actor came close to bringing that character to life to viewers and fans. Yet one of the worst travesties was when the producers and writers decided to make Holmes a modern character rather than a Victorian one. It started with “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror” and kept going. It was not even based on a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, but click here to watch.
The honor of being Sherlock the most number of times on screen goes to Jeremy Brett. From 1984 to 1994, Granada Television produced 41 episodes with him (one of which, “The Mazarin Stone,” combined two stories). His eccentric, anti-social, brilliant Holmes was right off Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s pages. And that’s what Jeremy wanted. He once said, “So, all these things you can get from Doyle, and when other actors who play Holmes and just pop on the deerstalker, and his cape and the pipe and walk straight through it, puff…puff…puff–and get on with the next thing–that’s probably the safer way to train — but it’s not exactly being true to Doyle. It’s just an image, like a cliché, which is not real.” Jeremy did not just read scripts given him, but read the original stories, looking for the real Sherlock Holmes. “Holmes could be rude, impatient, abrupt, and his intolerance of fools was legendary. I tried to show all this, all of the man’s incredible brilliance. But there are some cracks in Holmes’ marble, as in an almost-perfect Rodin statue. And I tried to show that, too.” But he also wanted Holmes to be more that words on a page, but a real person, not only to the audience, but to himself. He immersed himself in the character he portrayed.
Jeremy said, “I was talking about becoming. What I mean by that is an inner life. Watson describes you-know-who as a mind without a heart; that’s hard to play, hard to become. So what I did was to invent an inner life. I mean, I know what his nanny looked like, for example; she was covered in starch. She probably scrubbed him, but never kissed him. I don’t think he probably saw his mother until he was about eight. Maybe caught a touch of the fragrance of her scent and the rustle of her dress. I guess collage days were fairly complicated because he was quite isolated. He probably saw a girl across the quadrangle and fell in love, but she never looked at him….so he closed that door. And he became a brilliant fencer, of course, as we know, and a master at boxing…brilliant athlete…and many more little, tiny details which I have to kind of make up to fill this kind of well…that Doyle so brilliantly left out.” In fact, he became obsessed with the role. Some years ago, after Jeremy’s death, I spoke with a woman who had produced some of the Holmes series. Alas, I cannot contact her, so she will remain my “anonymous source.” She said he became so consumed with being Sherlock Holmes on screen that he became him. I do not know if that meant the cocaine injections, but he died tragically young. Sadly, he did not finish all the Sherlock Holmes stories. But he will be a hard act to follow. (click here to watch) Sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch, you’re not Jeremy.
Now that we’ve established that Gillette was neither the first nor the most prolific film portrayer of Holmes, why is this newly-discovered one so interesting? William Gillette was a stage actor who portrayed Holmes in the footlights intermittently from 1899 to 1915 in a play written by Doyle, whom he met and hit it off with. His stage presentation may well have inspired Doyle to bring Holmes back from his fatal tumble with Moriarty down the Reichenbach Falls. Since Gillette was an American and his accent was not English, it is interesting that Doyle liked his performance. Roger Johnson, editor of the Sherlock Holmes Journal, said, “You can hear the same sort of thing when Katharine Hepburn tries to speak in an English way in The African Queen.” (click here to hear Gillette as Holmes). Since his film wasn’t a talkie, it didn’t matter. Gillette’s was the first film that actually had Holmes solving a case. The earlier one only had Holmes as an observer of a phantom thief and nothing more. Gillette’s was the first one that developed the character that became the norm on film. As BBC noted, this one had him smoking the full-bent pipe that became synonymous with Holmes, even though it does not appear either in the text of the stories or the original illustrations. According to the BBC article, Gillette introduced that lower-bowled pipe so the audience could see his lips when he spoke. He wore the deerstalker cap that was in none of the stories, but did appear in one of the original Strand‘s illustrations. He wore the dressing gown that Doyle did write of. These are in the film (or so I understand). Since this was a silent film, he never says, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Neither did he in the stories. However, he did say, “Elementary, my dear fellow,” in the play and P. G. Wodehouse’s 1915 novel, Psmith, Journalist, is believed by most to be the first usage of that exact phrase. However, so much of how the general public sees Sherlock Homes is based on that silent rendition of the man. For that reason, many of us eagerly wait for it to appear on Youtube. I know Morg Mahoney is one. She used Sherlockian methods in her investigations in Christmas Cracker and It’s Bad Business. However, be warned: this film is a French version and all title cards are in French. Parlez-vous français?