The earth moved a year ago when film curator Céline Ruivo broke the news that William Gillette’s “Sherlock Holmes” had been discovered in the vaults of the Cinémathèque française. The 1916 film, starring Gillette and based on his play, had long been considered the great missing link in the history of Holmes on the screen, the one opportunity to witness the archetypal Holmes, the actor who defined for generations what the detective looked like, how he moved, and what he wore. Gillette’s play survives, of course, and has been given several major revivals as a Victorian period piece. But without Gillette, it has always lacked its legendary center. Now, for the first time, we can judge for ourselves the actor Vincent Starrett called the magical personality blessed with the unique talent to play Holmes.
What survives is the duplicate negative sent over to France after the First World War. The original film was a nine-reel feature and, when it came to Europe, it was reissued as a four-part serial, each chapter given its own slightly lurid title. The episode having Holmes lured into the Stepney Gas Chamber is now called, ominously and with appropriate misdirection, “Une nuit tragique”; and in the best serial tradition every chapter is introduced with a recap of last week’s action. Happily, the only other alterations are in the intertitles. Some have been moved around or deleted, all of them hastily translated. But the picture itself is intact. As best as we can tell, not a frame of the original is missing.
Almost as compelling as the film itself is the story of how it came into being. By the time Gillette started shooting, his original play, like Gillette himself, was considered an institution from another age. The film was released in 1916, and by then Gillette’s play was almost seventeen years old and had made a fortune for its Broadway producer, Charles Frohman, the leading stage impresario of his day. But a new era had opened up, triggered by the Great War. And our story starts when Frohman decided to risk the U-boats and make his annual crossing to oversee his extensive London and Paris theatrical holdings. He never made it. On May 1, 1915, he boarded the doomed RMS Lusitania in New York and died off the Irish coast.
With Frohman dead, his company went into a tailspin, having no major production ready for its 1915–1916 season. In a pinch, the new director of the company, Frohman’s younger brother Daniel, persuaded Gillette to revive his perennial smash hit, and Gillette quickly assembled a cast to open on Broadway, alternating “Sherlock Holmes” with “Secret Service”, another Gillette blockbuster, and then put the two plays on tour.
The limited tour ended in Chicago where the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company agreed to convert his war horse into a feature film, combining members of Gillette’s touring company with the studio’s regulars. The actors playing Watson, the evil Madge Larrabee, the safecracker Sid Prince, Billy the page, and Forman (Holmes’s spy), all come from the Broadway company. And if you’re a lip reader and have memorized the play, you can see that Gillette and his stage actors swap dialogue from the stage production regardless of what the intertitles say. Then there’s Moriarty—the French actor Ernest Maupain whom the credits claim comes from the Sarah Bernhardt company. Doubtless this is true, but he was also one of Essanay’s regulars, specializing in comic roles and, in the film, heads a virtually all-Essanay gang. This Moriarty and his henchmen are all veterans of Essanay’s comic and dramatic shorts, now reassembled to pounce together.
So, with this blended cast, and with the screenplay adapted and the movie directed by two more Essanay regulars, Gillette made his one and only feature film. The good news—the great news!—is it turned out much better than it had any right to be. If you’re expecting one of those wooden stage adaptations with leaden camerawork and stiff, artificial performances, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. True, the film is a far more faithful adaptation of the play than the John Barrymore film made six years later, and it does have trouble with some of the famous Great Moments. However, the director Arthur Berthelet lets the plot breathe and the film has a wonderful sense of pace. Most of all, however, it has Gillette as Sherlock Holmes. Audiences were delighted.
The bad news is that it was produced by a company on its last legs, gasping for breath. By 1916, Essanay was a dinosaur, a relic from the prewar era when movies still ran ten and twenty minutes long in small nickelodeons. Significantly, the company’s one great movie star, Charlie Chaplin, who had appeared entirely in short films, had just jumped ship just as Gillette arrived, which meant that our Sherlock never met his most famous Billy on the Essanay lot. And it also meant that Gillette’s production was one of the few feature-length films Essanay ever tried, the only one to make any money, and came too late. It opened just before the studio shut down.
That the film survives at all is because George Spoor, head of Essanay, reissued it in Europe, not out of any affection for either Gillette or the film. In fact, the French advertising makes no mention of Gillette, nor for that matter Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, this is Spoor’s last-ditch effort to capitalize on the Holmes craze and the enduring popularity of the great French silent serials – “Fantômas” (1913), “Les Vampires” (1915), and “Judex” (1917) – not to mention the American Pearl White serials that had taken postwar France by storm. Now, there was a Sherlock Holmes serial. It opened with some fanfare at Le Palais de la Mutualité starting December 10, 1919, and then, with no fanfare at all, disappeared without a trace.
Now that it has been found, what can we look forward to? The film is not only a powerful reminder of how Gillette the actor helped shape our image of Holmes, but also how Gillette the playwright shaped our impression of Moriarty. By the time Gillette’s original stage play opened, Conan Doyle had left them both to die at Reichenbach Falls, with no plans to bring either of them back. Gillette had to revive Moriarty on his own, and he made fascinating changes.
The Moriarty Gillette found in the 1893 story “The Final Problem” was a first-class weirdo, a loner, Conan Doyle’s spider who sits motionless in his study, as insulated from his gang as he is from us. Gillette reconfigures Moriarty as a hands-on kind of mastermind who works not from a study, but from an underground office. All sorts of people run in and out, giving him a chance to bark out orders, curse Holmes, and direct tune-ups for wayward members of the gang. Although he is still called Professor, he’s lost all connections with academia. He’s no longer the skinny chrome dome in a long overcoat, nor is he much of a thinker. Instead, he’s a hyper-excitable monomaniacal wizard.
The office Gillette gives Moriarty is worth particular attention. In a set piece for a new kind of Napoleon of Crime, the master rules through diabolical machines, state-of-the-art technology, and an infinitude of maps that make literal the idea that the world is at his command. In the Essanay film, “state-of-the-art” still means multiple telephones, an intercom, buzzers, an automatic door opener, and a small flamethrower that keeps visitors from getting too close to Moriarty’s private papers. But to see where this is going, compare this with the Goldwyn adaptation of Gillette’s play, made six years later. Now Moriarty’s dungeon is fitted out with cryptic lights that blink, a Dictaphone, and an electronic torture chamber. Can the command centers of “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” be far behind?
This Moriarty not only escapes Reichenbach but escapes Holmes as well. He becomes, as Holmes never does, a gateway to broader, seminal currents in international cinema. If Holmes, like the detective genre he dominates, never quite escapes the confines of the silent B-picture, Gillette’s Moriarty soars, becoming the archetype of the evil genius and capturing the imaginations of directors and screenwriters worldwide. Great silent filmmakers ranging from Fritz Lang to Sergei Eisenstein pattern their criminal masterminds and their underground headquarters after Moriarty.
That said, no one went to see Gillette’s play or his movie to see Moriarty, but to see Gillette himself. So, how does he measure up to the legend? How does he compare with all the Sherlocks we know, from Wontner and Rathbone to Wilmer, Cushing, Brett, Cumberbatch, and the rest?
In some ways, all the famous Sherlocks come out from under Gillette's top coat. But what the film reveals is a Holmes also cut off from his successors. If Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, and Jeremy Brett are high strung—the high E-notes on the Sherlockian violin—Gillette is the low G, graceful and imperturbable. He is the patrician Holmes par excellence, with his spats, cutaway, his waistcoat, smoking jacket, and dressing gown. From the start, he was famous for his imperturbability. Just as impressive, though, is his delicacy of touch: there’s no one like him, feeling surfaces or working his test tubes, cigars, or revolver. When he works over the Larrabees’ safe and piano for telltale clues, it’s as though he’s reading Braille.
The larger point is that Gillette’s Holmes lives in a world of his own, complete and hermetically sealed. Later dramatizations discover the friendship between Holmes and Watson as the mainspring of the adventures. Here, Watson, like Billy the page, Moriarty, and the others, are mere satellites circling the sun.
If the Sherlockians of the 1940s and 1950s were the last generation to see Gillette on the stage, we are the last generation to have known him only by reputation. With the film’s rediscovery, Gillette gets promoted from legend to celluloid presence. Doubtless, audiences will differ about the quality of one or another aspect of the film. But anybody who sees the performance will, I suspect, experience something like the adrenaline rush felt by Gillette’s earliest admirers.