A Century of Movies at the Alamo: Sherlock Holmes (1916) March 20th at 6pm

Submitted by abertin

The curved pipe, the suave dressing gown, “Elementary, my dear Watson”: all quintessentially Sherlock Holmes and all derived from one man. No, not from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; but from a man named William Gillette. William Gillette was an American stage actor, playwright, and director most prolific around the turn of the 20th century. Gillette was extremely well-respected within the theater community for his numerous roles and the plays he authored; but his most famous and most popular role was as Sherlock Holmes in a play he wrote and performed in more than 1,300 times.

So how did Sherlock Holmes find William Gillette? The story goes that after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off the famous detective in 1893’s The Final Problem in search of other literary pursuits, he found himself in need of money to build a new home. He then decided to revive the character for a prequel stage play. After offering the role to a couple of people without luck and realizing the manuscript needed some work, it was suggested to Conan Doyle that he ask acclaimed actor and playwright, William Gillette, to create an adaptation. By all accounts, Conan Doyle and Gillette got along very well and became life-long friends after working with each other. Conan Doyle also seemed to have an implicit trust in Gillette’s handling of the beloved detective. One famous telegraph exchange between them goes as follows: Gillette: “May I marry Holmes?”; Conan Doyle: “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him”.

Gillette’s 1899 play and performance were a rousing success and reportedly, anytime he toured with any other production, Gillette was forced to schedule an extra performance of Sherlock Holmes at the end of the run because everyone wanted to see him in this iconic role. Before Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Brett, and Basil Rathbone, William Gillette was the definitive Sherlock Holmes. In fact, I would argue, he still is the definitive Sherlock Holmes, even above the other four more familiar names. He is still the definitive Sherlock Homes because everyone that has come after him is consciously or unconsciously influenced by his version of Holmes. Aside from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, Gillette probably had the most influence on our modern conception of the character of Sherlock Holmes, particularly the American perception of Holmes. He decided to give Sherlock Holmes a curved pipe instead of the straight pipe described in the books. He decided to give Sherlock Holmes an elegant dressing gown instead of the plain one described by Conan Doyle. He wrote the words, “Elementary, my dear fellow” into his script for the play. Conan Doyle used “elementary” and “dear fellow” in his stories, but never in the same phrase. Then this line, like many great quotable lines throughout history was misquoted and changed throughout history to become “Elementary, my dear Watson”. Gillette became the model for Sherlock Holmes illustrations printed in numerous publications throughout the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Some have even argued that Gillette’s performance and success as Holmes contributed to Conan Doyle’s decision to revive the character in 1903’s The Empty House. When William Gillette performed the role of Sherlock Holmes, he left an indelible mark on the character, one that has effected every other adaptation and performance of the character since.

Side note: Gillette also has the distinction of inventing a new method for simulating the sound of horses for the stage. According to the patent, Gillette’s method could re-produce the sound of a single horse or multiple horses arriving, departing, trotting, galloping, running, or any other gait and in any order. This method could also supposedly simulate the sound of horses trekking over many different types of surfaces such as stone, brick, clay, gravel, grass, or bridges. Even though this patent doesn’t have a direct connection to Sherlock Holmes, I found this little factoid fascinating and couldn’t leave it out. If anyone wants to help me research the specific equipment he used and test out his technique, I’m there.

In 1916, the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company decided to film an adaptation of William Gillette’s stage play Sherlock Holmes with Gillette reprising his starring role. This four-reel film is the only footage of Gillette’s iconic performance. Over time, as is the case with the vast majority of silent films from this era, this film became “lost”. Essentially, what this classification means to film archivists is that no copies of this film are known to exist. Sometimes we know what happened to the last known copies and sometimes we don’t. The one thing we do know is that we are pretty sure it is gone forever, but we don’t want to say that because we are still holding out hope that a miracle will happen and someone will find it – an archivist or just someone cleaning out her attic – and sometimes, when we are really lucky, that miracle does happen. So the films on this list are just “lost”, waiting to be found, not “gone” or “non-existent”. If you haven’t guessed already since we are showing this film on March 20th, in the case of the 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes, the miracle happened and it was found. In 2014, archivists at La Cinémathèque Française discovered a complete dupe negative in their vaults that had been previously mislabeled. They, along with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, immediately then set-out to painstakingly preserve and restore the title so that it could be made available to world.

This discovery was huge. Anytime a lost film is found, it is a big deal because it is such a rare event; however, finding this particular film is massive. This specific film is considered one of the “holy grails” of lost films, the ones archivists really, really, want to find. These are films that are significant artistically, historically, or culturally in their own right or are associated with some significant event or creator. In the case of Sherlock Holmes (1916), a film can’t get much more culturally significant that containing the only footage of one of the most iconic performances of one of the most iconic characters in the history of English Literature, a performance that has not only shaped all other performances of the character, but that literally shaped the way that the character is conceived within all of our imaginations. Sherlock Holmes scholars and aficionados have been waiting for this film. They can finally see the performance they have been reading about, writing about, and thinking about for almost a century. Speaking as a film archivist, this is the ultimate goal. This is exactly why we do what we do. Seeing a lost film come to light, particularly one that brings people as much knowledge and as much joy as this one does, is just wonderful. Finding a lost film is always one of the best days for us as archivists, whether it is found by ourselves, personally, or by one of our colleagues all over the world.

So, here’s your chance to see this lost film for the first time in almost a century. As you can tell, I’m really excited about it, as is everyone else here are NHF. Beyond having a really interesting backstory, this is just a really good film. I’ve seen it. I promise you will enjoy it. Plus, Jeff Rapsis, brilliant silent film accompanist, is going to be with us to provide live musical accompaniment along with the film. His accompaniment style is fun, accessible, and extremely well-done. I have personally heard him play a few times and it was incredible each and every time. You’ll love him.

Come out to the Alamo Theatre on Sunday, March 20th, at 6pm to watch Sherlock Holmes (1916), this lovely, miraculously, found film and hear Jeff Rapsis’s amazing accompaniment. Admission: $5, Free for Members and Century Donors.