Sherlock Found –
The Rediscovery and Restoration of a Piece of Film History
The year is 1916. The Chicago-based Essanay Film Manufacturing Company is, arguably, at the height of its powers. Just the year before, they had counted Charlie Chaplin among their stars, and now George K. Spoor is looking for his next “get” — he finds it in William Gillette. The 62-year-old veteran actor is well-known for his stage performances, but the role that he is best known for, by far, is his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. What better showcase for him than a silent screen adaptation of his most famous role, and what better way to mark his screen debut?
The film, made and released over the span of 3 months, receives some mixed reviews, but the consensus remains that Gillette is an incredible actor who seems just as much at home in front of the camera as he does on the stage. While it’s rumored that “Secret Service” another play written by Gillette, is in production and to be the follow up to “Sherlock Holmes,” the film doesn’t materialize (at least, not with Essanay, nor with Gillette in a starring role). Instead, Gillette’s career as a film actor seemingly disappears as quickly as it began. Although Gillette assumed the role of Sherlock Holmes on stage over 1,300 times over the course of 30 years, and his interpretation of the character becomes the standard, this 7-reel drama becomes the only record of Gillette portraying Holmes on film. Despite its cultural importance, the film was considered lost until a negative of George K. Spoor’s French export of the film was rediscovered by Cinematheque Francaise in 2014.
Upon that discovery, Cinematheque Francaise and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival partnered to restore and translate the film for re-release. The results were screened at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in May of this year, and now Flicker Alley has released a gorgeous Blu-ray/DVD combo set that allows silent film and Sherlock Holmes fans everywhere to experience this legendary performance.
Because the story is an adaptation of Gillette’s play, much of the film feels just like that — a filmed stage performance. The principal characters are from the original stage production, leading to some performances and acting choices that are far from subtle. Despite this, the performances are, for the most part, quite good, and director Arthur Berthelet found opportunities to make the most of the film medium. There are some beautiful dissolves used as transitions to and from close-ups and wide shots, and there is some beautiful double-exposure used to illustrate Holmes’s dream-like thoughts of Miss Faulkner, and vice versa.
Alice Faulkner dreams of Sherlock Holmes
The film itself has been beautifully restored, despite the many problems the teams encountered during the process, including dirty and scratched negatives, underexposed frames, and warped nitrate. The tinting reads as authentic to the time period, and the care taken into the restoration, particularly with the Blu-ray, results in the ability to even appreciate and notice the textures of the scenery. The restoration process itself is actually chronicled wonderfully in one of the bonus features — a presentation by Robert Byrne given during this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival — giving even the most casual silent film fan a deeper look into the work and care that goes into restoring these century-old artifacts.
There are also other fun bonus materials, including a variety of Sherlock-themed shorts — most notably one entitled “Sherlock Baffled” featuring trick photography and the very first on-screen portrayal of Sherlock Holmes — as well as production photos, lobby cards, and even a scan of Gillette’s original contract with Essanay.
As Photoplay magazine mentioned in its August 1916 issue, “William Gillette has now made an imperishable though silent record of his famous character.” Although it was assumed lost for nearly a century, Flicker Alley, Cinematheque Francaise and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival have done an incredible job breathing new life into this cultural touchstone.
–Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub
Janelle Vreeland is a Silent Film Fan and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Janelle’s articles about Silent Film and Chicago history-related topics at Chicago Nitrate or Curtains, or you can follow Janelle on Twitter at @SpookyJanelle .