William Gillette’s Restored ‘Sherlock Holmes’ From 1916 is Quite a Cinematic Gem

“Mr. Holmes” is not the only film about the Great Detective that has been circulating through the film festival avenues this year.

“Sherlock Holmes” (1916) Closes Out “Mostly Lost 4” in Culpeper, Va. Photo: Pat Cuadros

If you’re in withdrawal over “Sherlock,” you’re probably looking forward to the upcoming wide release of “Mr. Holmes,” the film adaptation of Mitch Cullen’s “A Slight Trick of the Mind.” Believe me when I say that I share your anticipation and curiosity about how an older Holmes will hit the big screen, particularly under the hand of the masterful Sir Ian McKellen. However, “Mr. Holmes” is not the only film about the Great Detective that has been circulating through the film festival avenues this year.

“Sherlock Holmes,” the 1916 silent feature from celebrated American actor William Gillette, was thought to be forever lost until it was found at Cinémathèque Française last October. It was painstakingly restored in a joint effort by a team including Robert Byrne, president of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, his colleagues there, and historians at Cinémathèque Française. “Sherlock Holmes” made its East Coast premiere on Saturday night at “Mostly Lost 4,” a series of workshops and screenings on silent films. The series is presented by the Library of Congress, which handles initiatives on film preservation.


The version of “Sherlock Holmes” that comes to us today is not the original English one, but rather from reels sent to France in 1919 after World War I. Byrne delivered opening remarks at the State Theater in Culpeper, Va., to a packed house and detailed the level of disrepair on those negatives. Here’s his video comparing original footage to the new digital frames after the restoration process:

Even if you didn’t grow up watching classic film marathons (I did), you’ll be astonished by the high quality results of this restoration. The restored film even has the tints applied: orange for interior scenes and blue for outdoor and nighttime shots. The Stebney gas chamber sequence still comes across as very dark, but it’s amazing that the heavily damaged segment was able to be saved. I think the darker areas in that scene actually heightened the suspense.

William Gillette in 1918. Photo: Library of Congress
William Gillette in 1918. Photo: Library of Congress

Sorry, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss: The French Were First

We only have the original French titles and intertitles, which were themselves poor translations of the 1916 release by Essanay Films. Byrne and his associates were faced with the challenge of making new title cards, using the extant French ones. The film is based off of Gillette’s 1899 play, which meant that the team could utilize that text as a resource to preserve the tone that the actor and playwright had intended. The play is certainly worth a read, too.

Interestingly enough, Holmes is referred to as “Sherlock” by other characters in the 1919 French translation, thereby beating “Sherlock” co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss by nearly 100 years. Jokes aside for the moment, I think many Sherlockians will breathe a sigh of relief over Byrne’s ultimate decision to use “Holmes” instead of “Sherlock.” 1916 is a bit early to hit “Sherlock” mode, though you’ll find Gillette’s creation to be just as fresh and clever. I should mention that Moffat and Gatiss appear in the opening credits of the film, as contributors to the restoration project.

How Does Gillette’s Detective Fare?

“You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously replied when Gillette asked for permission to take liberties with the detective. Thankfully, Gillette does not resort to a Reichenbach Falls moment in both the 1899 play and the 1916 film. “Sherlock Holmes” draws some plot points from a few of the short stories, pulling a substantial amount from “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Holmes (Gillette) tries to retrieve compromising letters from Alice Faulkner (the delightful Marjorie Kay), whose deceased sister had a connection to a prince. The Larabees (Mario Majeroni and Grace Reals) are after the letters, too. They request assistance from the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty (Ernest Maupain).

Gillette was 63 years old when he portrayed Holmes in his first and only film role. As seen above, he was still in remarkable form as Holmes (who is supposed to be in his 40s). It must have been amazing to watch the great man himself onstage.

Advertisement for the Sherlock Holmes Play, Starring William Gillette. Photo: Library of Congress
Ad for the Sherlock Holmes Play, Starring William Gillette.   Photo: Library of Congress

Gillette commands the attention of the viewer with a powerful performance, sliding into the various mannerisms of Holmes with ease. He looks intently at his surroundings to exhibit Holmes’ keen methods of deduction, appears listless at times, and warmly carries on a conversation with Dr. Watson (Edward Fielding). Yet, none of these instances would strike viewers as overdone or cliche. Sherlockians may groan at one particular aspect: Gillette threw in a love interest for Holmes. Debates aside about Holmes’ love life or lack thereof, it works out fine (though perhaps comically to some).

The film is quite brilliant with its mix of both verbal and physical sparring. Gillette and director Arthur Berthelet really knew how to handle the pace of the two hour feature, moving effortlessly from serious to comedic moments within scenes. They even find a few ways to incorporate fire. The dialogue is handled wonderfully as well, further capturing both the witty and harder sides of Holmes that made the Canon so enjoyable to read.

Here are a couple of teasers:

– “I have a weakness for dawdling, the better to observe.”

– “Watson, would you kindly pull down the blind? I don’t care to be shot through the window.”

2015 is shaping up to be another great year for the legendary detective. If you don’t get an opportunity to catch a screening at a theater, “Sherlock Holmes” will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in October (a year after the discovery of the lost film reels). That’s a purchase that is worth every penny.

Author: Pat Cuadros

TV & Film Blogger @blogcritics

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