Monday, October 19, 2015

William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes Film

Last night I watched the world television premiere of Sherlock Holmes, the 1916 film of the William Gillette play. I first read the original play, upon which the film was based, way back in 1980, when I was fifteen years old. It was included in Sherlock Holmes: The Published Apocrypha, edited by Jack Tracy. In that book’s introduction to the play, Tracy explains how Doyle had himself written a Holmes play during the period in the late 1890’s when readers still presumed that Holmes was dead, since the last they’d heard about him was that he had perished at the Reichenbach Falls, following a battle there with Professor Moriarty in “The Final Problem”.

Doyle’s play needed serious work, and it was recommended that William Gillette, a famous American actor-manager and playwright, take on the task. Gillette proceeded to heavily rewrite Doyle’s initial effort, and in The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Dickson Carr states that Doyle’s play was “so thoroughly re-written into another play that nobody knows what the original play was about.” (A search for Doyle’s lost play might be a worthy quest, to see how much it adds to the Canon, or how much it confuses things, as he did with another one of his other plays, Angels of Darkness.)

Gillette’s first version of the play was destroyed in a fire. He re-wrote it, and included a curious new ending, where Holmes places a bust of himself in the window of the Baker Street sitting room, tempts Professor Moriarty into firing an air gun at it, whereupon he is captured. Note that this ending was written in the late 1890’s, several years before Doyle recorded a similar stratagem in “The Empty House”. A version of the play with this ending was performed in France, but otherwise the original ending was restored, taking place in Watson’s office.

Gillette finally met Doyle face-to-face in 1899. Jack Tracy relates the story of how Gillette traveled to England and disembarked from the train in full deerstalker and associated regalia. He walked up to Doyle, pulled out a magnifying glass, examined Doyle, and pronounced his conclusion, “Unquestionably an author.” Doyle loved it, and after that, the Englishman and the American were instant friends.

The play itself debuted in Buffalo, New York on October 23, 1899, almost exactly 116 years from its first appearance on American television. It went on to become Gillette’s signature masterpiece, performed by him over 1,300 times during the next several decades, and also by several other touring companies in the United States and Europe. At different times, the play was revised, and there are several published versions floating around out there, each with small variations from the others. (I have a few in my collection, and it's interesting to read and see the differences.)

In 1916, Gillette’s tour stopped in Chicago, where he filmed a very long (for that time) version of the play, his only appearance on screen. (He also made a later performance of the play on American radio, but only a fragment of this broadcast survives.) According to Jack Tracy, the 1916 film was not considered a success. After watching it on television, I can somewhat understand. I’ve read several versions of the play on multiple occasions over the years. I have a bootleg copy of the Frank Langella HBO revival, have seen a DVD of a portion of yet another revival, and have listened to several different radio versions of the play, one famously starring Orson Welles. Additionally, I’ve seen (and read and own the script of) another play, Sherlock Holmes and the Jersey Lily, which lifts a major portion of Gillette’s work (without credit, as far as I can tell.) Each version of the original reflects the clever and fast-paced dialogue written by Gillette.

Unfortunately, in the film version there is very little dialogue that is transcribed. We see a great deal of speaking done by the actors on the screen, but hardly any of what they say is actually related to us. Fortunately, most of the actors do behave naturally, with very little exaggerated movement, especially during conversations, as so often seen in silent films. I believe this is a credit to Gillette, who was an early proponent of natural and realistic acting. Many members of his touring company recreated their roles in the 1916 film, and no doubt they were encouraged by Gillette to act naturally as well.

Gillette’s influence on Holmes cannot be underrated. Paget first showed Holmes in the deerstalker, but Gillette popularized that look in front of thousands of theatre-goers over the decades. Gillette gave him a trademark pipe that didn’t appear in the original stories, and he put some famous words in Holmes’s mouth that weren't there before. He also put a lot of money in Doyle’s pocket. He helped keep interest in Holmes alive, and these efforts no doubt helped encourage Doyle to begin relating new Holmes adventures in 1903, just a few years after the Gillette play began. And finally, while England saw Holmes as portrayed by Sidney Paget, the U.S. saw him as Gillette, thanks to the art of Frederic Dorr Steele, who based his Holmes directly on Gillette’s unmistakable visage.

If one watches the film closely, one might see what I called “The Curious Case of G. Watson”, wherein the nameplate on Watson’s doorway in the final quarter of the film is strangely marked with the name G. Watson. This is a curious mistake to make in 1916, when the film was made – Watson’s name, John H. Watson, was surely much more well-known by then. A similar but less serious error was in Gillette’s original play, when he referred to Professor James Moriarty as Robert, but that was perhaps forgivable, since at the time Gillette wrote the play in the late 1890’s, Moriarty had only even been mentioned in one Canonical story, “The Final Problem”. In this case, the G. Watson should have been caught.

I also noticed another interesting thing about the film. I've long heard that, until the Rathbone Hound in 1939, every Holmes film to that time had been filmed in its present day, showing automobiles, etc. (This was certainly true for later films featuring Clive Brook, Reginald Owen, Arthur Wontner, and so on.) However, this film from 1916 appeared to use only horse-drawn vehicles and mostly-period costumes. (I did see Miss Faulkner's ankles once or twice, which – it’s true – might have been a little more 1916-ish, rather than 1890-ish.) But one could make the case that this was actually the first to be filmed in period, pre-dating the “first time” from the first Rathbone film.

I've pre-ordered the DVD of this film, to be released in November 2015, and look forward to watching it again. I enjoyed this a lot better than most of the silent Holmes films in my collection, and I think part of the credit goes to the music. I’ll need to find out some more about that . . . .

I should mention that Gillette has appeared in a number of Holmes pastiches. These include:

The Adventure of the Eminent Thespian by Val Andrews. Holmes encounters Gillette while he is investigating a theft of the Crown Jewels.

“The Old Senator” by Steven Hockensmith, contained in Sherlock Holmes: The American Years. In this story, Holmes is on tour with the Sassanoff Shakespearian Company in the United States, as theorized in Baring-Gould’s chronology. The story is in the form of a letter by Gillette to his brother, dated September 27, 1879, relating how he helps Holmes solve a mystery, and how his father becomes convinced that acting can be an acceptable profession. (Of course, this is set just a few days before the old senator’s death, and doesn’t fit exactly with Baring-Gould’s chronology.)'

Gillette is a peripheral character assisting Holmes in both “The Adventure of the Agitated Actress” Daniel Stashower in Murder, My Dear Watson . . .

. . . and The Adventure of the Pandora Plague by Lee A. Matthias.

Additionally, the story has been adapted by Roger Johnson, BSI, (from Edith Meiser’s 1935 radio script) as “The Strange Case of Miss Alice Faulkner”. One can listen to it at the Sherlock Holmes Society of London website, where further information may be found, including mention of additional radio performances of the play by Carlton Hobbes and Norman Shelley in 1953, and more recently a California production with D. Martin Jarvis in the role of Holmes.

As mentioned earlier, the gas chamber scene is shamelessly lifted from Gillette’s play and used as a substantial portion of the second act of Sherlock Holmes and the Jersey Lily by Katie Forgette. I got to watch this play on stage a few years ago, and was thrilled to see how effective it worked live. I had always read about the gas chamber scene, and about Holmes’s trick of leaving the cigar burning as a decoy in the dark, and it really worked!

Several years ago, a graphic novel appeared, retelling Gillette’s play, Sherlock Holmes: The Painful Predicament of Alice Faulkner by Bret M. Herholtz. He used Gillette’s play, with minor changes, and brought it to a whole new audience.

Many people know what Orson Welles adapted Gillette’s play as part of his Mercury Theatre on the Air (September 25, 1938), and it’s not too difficult to find copies of the broadcast. The script itself is available online at:

More recently, the California Artists Radio Theatre recorded one of the alternate versions of Gillette’s play, with David Warner as Holmes. It’s available on CD at:

And in “The Adventure of the Tired Captain” by Bob Byrne, contained in Curious Incidents, Doyle meets Gillette in autumn 1901, and they solve a mystery, allowing the police inspector to believe that Gillette is actually Holmes.

Last but not least, even more about this has been written by my friend Bob Byrne in several entries of his blog, “The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes” – Go check them out:

1 comment:

  1. What, what, what? This premiered on television? Where? When? I wish I'd known! When I did my short Gillette film over on Youtube I never imagined that the 1916 film would ever be found. I too have pre-ordered the DVD, and cannot wait to see it.