About a week ago the Turner Classic Film network put on a silent movie (they reserve the midnight slot on Sunday into Monday for silent films) with a movie that was long considered lost, but was discovered in tatters in 2016 in a French film archive. It has been restored, and we can now see the entire movie as it appeared when shown like a serial in 1916. The film is "Sherlock Holmes". By itself, that is not really all that impressive, as movies about Sherlock Holmes are so numerous that a separate volume of "The Films of...." series put out by "Citadel" in the last century was done regarding "Sherlock Holmes" starring Rathbone, Barrymore, George C, Scott, Arthur Wontner, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Stewart Granger, and whoever else played the role through the 1980s. But sadly this film was not included as more than a passing mention in that book because it was considered a lost film at that point.
I say "sadly" because it was a key film in the subject matter of the book. It was (and is) the sole cinema performance of the famed Edwardian actor and playwrite, William Gillette, who is remembered to this day as the first actor (long before Basil Rathbone was a performer) who made that role his own. Gillette, a strikingly handsome man with a fine physical carriage, was a matinee idol of talent, writing successful melodramas that still can be staged (that is, they were not preposterous ones, like the anti-drinking play "The Drunkard" that was lampooned by W.C. Fields in his comedy film "The Old Fashioned Way"). Aside from his best known play (and role) Gillette wrote "Secret Service" regarding a spy for the Union on the Confederates, and "Clarice" about a shy man in love, and the comedy "Too Much Johnson" about a philanderer hiding from his host of enemies is a Cuban plantation (it was set about 1900)*.
[*Interestingly enough, "Too Much Johnson" has had a similar resurrection as a "Lost film" rediscovered like "Sherlock Holmes". Gillette never though of making the comedy into a movie, but someone else did. In 1938 Orson Welles was planning a revival of his "Mercury Players" on Broadway, in "Too Much Johnson". But the innovative Welles decided to make small movies to be shown on a screen between acts, that showed the passing of time, or showed what the characters supposedly were doing that was relevant to the activities on stage that were spoken. In the play, Joseph Cotton played the hero, Johnson, who is caught by the husband of the woman he is having an affair with (Edgar Barrier) and has to shake him off in New York City. This part of the story is mentioned in the play itself, but Welles thought it would be funny to show this chase in Manhattan in the 1890s. So he shot the sequence, involving many performers (including Welles himself as a cop - and acting like a "Keystone Kop", and a young female onlooker, who was thus making a film debut that a decade later led to her getting the "Oscar" for best actress in "Born Yesterday", Judy Holiday). The project to put the play on Broadway fizzled out during the out-of-town tryouts, and so the film was never cut and used by Welles. Subsequently it was believed to be lost in a fire at Welles home in Spain. Then around 2012 the film turned up, still uncut. One can see it on "You Tube" now, the sole example (oddly enough) of a comedy that was directed by Orson Welles.]
In 1899 Gillette was looking for new ideas for a play, and saw an item that Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle was working on a dramatic treatment regarding his creation Sherlock Holmes. At that time the character of Holmes was actually dead, killed off in an 1893 short story, "The Adventure of the Final Problem", that was set in April-May 1891, and dealt with Holmes historic confrontation with his greatest nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. Having written two novels and the collections for the short stories "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", and "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes", Conan Doyle was actually sick of his greatest fictional achievement. The doctor (not yet knighted for his history of the Boer War) hated that his best works of historical fiction ("The White Company" "Sir Nigel", Micah Clark") were ignored by most of the public who loved reading of how Holmes solved all kinds of criminal puzzles. So in "The Final Problem" Doyle solved (or, I should say, thought he solved) his own final problem by having Holmes and Moriarty wrestling on a ledge over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, and falling to their deaths. The public was outraged by this (Doyle got letters that began, "You Brute!"), but he held firm. Yet by 1899 he was starting to weaken. His reputation as a writer was okay, but he did note the public still wanted Holmes back. He was not ready for a resurrection yet (that would not occur until his "The Adventure of the Empty House" in 1905), but the willingness to do a "memorial work" was beginning to take seed, and would lead to his creation with a friend, Fletcher Robinson, of the background that led to the best of the Sherlock Holmes novels, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" in 1901. So he toyed with the play based on some of the short stories. Gillette asked to see it, as he might wish to act in it. Doyle sent him a copy of his play, and Gillette realized it had potential but needed real rewriting for successful staging. He sent the play back to Doyle, thanked him, and asked if he could write a play instead. In it (he asked) could he arrange for Holmes to fall in love, even marry. Doyle wrote back he could do so, and said "You could marry him or kill him or whatever!". As a result, Gillette would have sole writing credit for the finished play (frequently it is put down as a collaboration by Gillette and Doyle, but aside from the use of Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty, and borrowing some ideas from some of the stories, it is entirely by Gillette). **
[**Doyle had not been very successful in 1899 as a dramatist. In 1894, during a period when Gilbert and Sullivan had just had a relative failure with "Utopia Ltd.", the impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte agreed to put on a play at the Savoy co-written by Conan Doyle and James Barrie, "Annie Jane" about a girl in a spelling bee. it lasted about a month. Ironically the two writers (who were close friends) would later have far more success as dramatists, Barrie creating (from his novels) "Peter Pan", and "The Little Minister", "The Admirable Chrichten" and "Dear Brutus" (which, interestingly enough, had it's American production in 1919 starring William Gillette and Helen Hayes (in her first stage role)). Doyle created a one actor for Sir Henry Irving, "A Straggler from '15" (the year of Waterloo), which was quite successful, and in 1910 he finally created a successful stage play about Holmes, "The Speckled Band" based on the story from 1891, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band".]
Gillette took ideas from several Doyle stories about Holmes, most notably "The Final Problem" (regarding the Holmes-Moriarty rivalry) and "A Scandal in Bohemia" concerning papers damaging to a prominent Royal Family in Europe. The difference was that he did not keep the anti-heroine of "Bohemia", the actress Irene Adler, whom Holmes ends up really admiring when she beats him regarding the papers he seeks. Here the papers are a letter written by her dying sister, accusing a Royal Prince of being the cause of her unhappiness and physical collapse, and they are kept by Alice Faulkner (a creation of Gillette) who is protecting her sister's memory. There is also the additional villains, the Larrabees, who are after getting control of those valuable papers Ms Faulkner guards, because they could blackmale that royal family with them. That was not in "A Scandal in Bohemia".
Gillette actually showed better ideas of stagecraft (from his own experience) in the finished play than Doyle had. He has one of Holmes operatives, Foster, work as a butler in the Larrabees London villa to keep an eye on things, and try 1) to find where the papers are, and 2) protect Alice. This is the only time a character of such a name appears in a story about Holmes. The Larrabees call in Moriarty (who is a consulting criminal, like Holmes is a consulting Detective), and he is quick enough to know Foster is an operative of Holmes, and tells the Larrabees to get rid of him. They do try, but he escapes (albeit badly injured). In a neat build up, Moriarty arranges to isolate Holmes from any help before he shows up for a confrontation. Holmes quickly realizes this is going on, and prepares himself with a weapon. Watson is not shown to be a buffoon (like Nigel Bruce sometimes played him in the Universal films in the 1940s), but he is quite intent on his calling as a medical man and never second guesses what is going on about him. Some stage business is still effective (the use of the glow of a pipe on a darken stage to suggest Holmes is in a dubiously bad position vis-à-vis the villains against him, is a choice example). The finished melodrama is actually quite well done and tightly done, with not a piece of extra business to ruin it.
The play was a great success from the start, and Gillette portrayed Holmes thousands of times. He even did the play on radio on one occasion. This type of identification of a performer with one role was not unusual in the 19th Century or early 20th Century. Although Edwin Booth played many roles from Shakespeare, it was his performance as Hamlet that was the key to his fame to his contemporaries. Similarly Sir Henry Irving was identified by most theater goers with one role, that of "Matthias", the wealthy inn-keeper with a deadly secret, in Leopold Lewis' "The Bells". Eugene O'Neill's father James was known for his repeatedly performed "Edmond Dantes/ Count of Monte Cristo" in the play based on Dumas' novel ( a fact Eugene comments sourly on in "A Long Days Journey Into Night", regarding James Tyrone's similar success in a melodramatic part - the dramatist realizing that by concentrating on that one role it prevented his father from achieving true greatness as an actor). Frank Mayo, a star of the 1870s -1880s, constantly revived his role in a play as "Davy Crockett", and Joseph Jefferson was best recalled for playing "Rip Van Winkel".
The rediscovery of the Gillette film is that we now have an idea (and a good one) of how he worked the role, and we really don't have this for the others, except for James O'Neill (his performance as Dantes survives on film). We only have photo stills of the others, and little in the way of phonographic record. Booth took many stills as the Danish Prince, but they were for display outside the theaters he was performing in. Ironically his voice is still extant - a wax cylinder from Edison exists of his doing a role from Shakespeare. Unfortunately, it is Othello doing the "Most gracious signiors" speech. Yet one can see how a new and simpler realism was entertained in his recitation, so we can see what a giant he must have been on stage. Irving also recorded, but it is on Cardinal Wolsey from "Henry VIII", a late role of Shakespeare for Irving, and he tends to chew the scenery (or seems to). However, a series of photos exist of him as Matthias, and they show the collapse of the character at the bloody ghost of the man he killed in the play. So we do have a good idea regarding his ability on stage. No such luck with either Mayo or Jefferson, although written accounts suggest they were terrific.
What is also interesting is that the film was a pleasant surprise because the performing was good, even above average. When Gillette became a star fresh air was entering the way acting was done in the theatre. Instead of the over-emoting and hand gestures of say Edmund Kean (who in his day was the best actor), a more natural speech and motion was being used. Edwin Booth had pioneered it, and after his death his chief disciple was the afore-mentioned Joseph Jefferson. Gillette also joined this modernization movement, and as a result he is acting as a normal person. This is a plus because it would be easy to turn the mechanics of any melodrama into mush if you overact it. He does everything quietly, even looking around him. It's no wonder international audiences found him a perfect Holmes, because Sherlock would also have restrained his motions while studying crime sites and potentially important clues.
The film was made by the "Essanay" film production company, which may be known to you as fans as of Charlie Chaplin. "Essanay" was based in Chicago (prior to the late teens of the 20th Century, when most film companies settled in California, they were in Eastern and Southern cities - New York had a big film production center that attracted the attention of D.W. Griffith and Edward Porter). Essanay was reeling from the loss of it's biggest star in 1916, the British comedian Charlie Chaplin, and needed to replace him as soon as possible. They found that Gillette was playing Holmes in Chicago with a hand-picked cast, and were able to get him to agree to make the film version of the play. However, the film was to be shown like a serial, in four large parts over a month. This was probably done so that the stage version would not suffer any long term drop in box office. As for Chaplin, he had signed with the rival "Mutual Productions", and that contract (which was only for one year, resulted in 12 classic early Chaplin films he acted, produced, and directed, abetted by Eric Campbell and Edna Purviance (films like "Easy Street", "One A.M.", "The Floorwalker", "The Adventurer", "The Cure", "Behind the Screen"). He would have an enhanced movie career at the end of the year, and head for California.***
[***The exchange of Gillette for Chaplin is somewhat interesting and suggestive. One of the roles in "Sherlock Holmes" is "Billy the Page", and the character also appears in a comic one act play he wrote called "The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes", where Billy shows a chatterbox young woman into Holmes' rooms at 221 B Baker Street, and Holmes cannot get in a word edgewise in the torrent of gushing words from the young lady. That play did not appear until 1905, and in casting Billy, Gillette settled on a young actor named Charles Chaplin. Chaplin would also play Billy in a production of "Sherlock Holmes". It strikes me as very likely Chaplin saw Gillette was in town in his well known play, and may have brokered or aided "Essanay" in making their contract with Gillette, so as to sweeten their loss of Chaplin's services.]
Gillette also lucked out in the performances of the rest of his cast, including his nemesis Moriarty and Ms Faulkner. Moriarty may show a strong desire to rid himself of his brainy rival, but he acts normally in the scenes between them. Only when he thinks he has the upper hand does he act with more force (as when he thinks his pistol was forgotten by Holmes, only to find the Detective tampered with it). The film also had a smart director, one of the first to know the camera had to move naturally, and that filming what was a well-made play did not mean filming it as a record of how in appeared on stage. Scenes are shot in the 1916 film that were not stiff but flowing. That's a big plus actually. Although it is a silent movie, it's cinematography is quite modern looking.
The result is that the complete film is actually really very good. It is entertaining, and it shows one of the biggest stars of it's era in his peak role. It's too bad it did not have the advantage of sound, but that we have the finished film at all is a huge blessing to film fans, and fans of Sherlock Holmes and of Gillette. For those interested in what Gillette did sound like, "You Tube" has a recording of a lecture he delivered in 1935, two years before his death, recounting his memory of his neighbor in Connecticut, Samuel Clemens ("Mark Twain") and how that famed author spoke. Although many little motion pictures were taken of Twain in his country home and in Manhattan, for some reason he did not leave a wax cylinder of his voice for posterity. Therefore, in a final irony, Gillette's voice does his imitation of how Twain spoke. Given the full background of the finding of his film record at last, it certainly a fine final twist that the man who played the role of the best known fictional detective in history tries to fill in the vocal record of America's greatest author.