By Glenn Andreiev
When we think of famous characters from fiction, we think of the performer who first put a face to that character. Boris Karloff put a face to the Frankenstein Monster, Judy Garland put a face to Dorothy from Kansas, and William Gillette put a face to Sherlock Holmes.
Connecticut born playwright/stage manager/actor William Gillette was an instant success as Sherlock Holmes on stage starting in 1899. His dazzling special effects and his characterizations of Holmes made his “Sherlock Holmes, or the Strange Case of Mrs. Faulkner” an instant hit. One of the actors Gillette hired for the supporting role of Billy, Holmes’ bellboy, was a promising youngster named Charlie Chaplin. In 1916, at Essanay Studios, the same studio Chaplin called home, SHERLOCK HOLMES became a film, with Gillette as Holmes, and as a screenwriter.
Gillette used on stage, for the first time, costumes and props we all now associate with the Baker Street detective. Gillette was the first stage actor to use the deerstalker cap, the magnifying-glass, violin and syringe. It was Gillette who first uttered the famous Holmes’ phrase: "Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow." Clive Brook, who played Holmes in the early talkies, turned this into the more famous "Elementary, my dear Watson".
Unfortunately, SHERLOCK HOLMES, like the vast majority of silent films, was considered lost. Only a few still photographs survived. In 2014, several small reels, making up a complete dupe negative of the film, was found in the vaults of the Cinémathèque Française. The Cinémathèque and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival joined forces to completely restore this important film.
At a highly anticipated screening of the restored SHERLOCK HOLMES at the 2015 Mostly Lost Workshop, San Francisco Silent Film Festival Board President Robert Byrne introduced the film, and described the restoration process.
Notes on color tinting were handwritten on certain sections of the negative. Since a French edition was found, the intertitles were in French. These titles were more than likely inaccurate translations from Essanay Studios’ original English language intertitles. Film decomposition didn’t take a severe toll here, but had the discovery been made years from now, the creeping decomposition would have rendered the negative useless.
SHERLOCK HOLMES consisted of four acts. Alice Faulkner is in possession of valuable, incriminating letters from a Prince. Alice is held captive for the letters by the wealthy, and fiendish Mr. and Mrs. Larrabee. Holmes makes his way to the Larrabee mansion. Gillette’s Holmes could almost be one of the GOODFELLAS as he calmly enters the Larrabee mansion and takes over, not taking crap from anybody, or thinking twice about ripping up furniture in search of the letters. The Larrabees then call on Professor Moriarty, described here as the Emperor of Crime! This Emperor’s office is in a rather slimy basement, but his furniture is amazing. It’s fitting for this Emperor to have a wooden desk with a built in eternal furnace! Imaginative physical and mental battles between Holmes and Moriarty complete the film. It is rumored that character actor Edward Arnold (YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU) played one of Moriarty’s gang members. Gillette gives us a quiet, always plotting Holmes- an always cool crime-fighter with a touch of dry sarcasm.
As SHERLOCK HOLMES plays more festivals, it will become more available for the general public. For the Holmes fan, and anybody who is chill with having their thrills come from a near 100 year old, beautifully restored package of fun, this is a film worth catching up to.
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