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Sherlock Holmes (1916)
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by Jay Seaver

"A holy grail for Sherlockians; a pretty good movie for everybody."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL: Last October's announcement that a complete nitrate negative of a Sherlock Holmes film starring William Gillette made in 1916 had been found in the Cinemathèque Française may not have had quite the same impact on the film world as, say, a similar announcement about Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" a few years prior, but it's still a big deal to film-lovers in general. For fans of the character, it's mind-blowing; many pieces of imagery associated with Holmes have always been said to come as much from Gillette's much-revived 1899 play as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories, but for many decades, we've had to take the scholars' word for it. Now it can be up on the screen in tinted black-and-white for the first time in nearly a century, and generations of fans should be pleased.

It follows the stage production closely, introducing Alice Faulkner (Marjorie Kay), whose sister has recently died leaving her in possession of correspondence that could undermine the Grand Duke of a small European country, and when she refuses to hand it over, a pair of nearby grifters (Mario Majeroni & Grace Reals) see an opportunity. Once they hear that the government has hired Sherlock Holmes (Gillette) to retrieve the letters, they join forces with James Moriarty (Ernest Maupain), a master criminal intent on both blackmailing the Duke and having his revenge on Holmes.

Though one of America's most celebrated actors at the turn of the Twentieth Century, Gillette only made this one film (he was also meant to adapt his other hit play, Secret Service, but that did not happen); he was sixty-two in 1916, wasn't likely to be a leading man in productions other than this one, and by many accounts ignored director Arthur Berthelet in favor of longtime compatriots from his touring company. It's not surprising, then, that the film's Holmes looks a bit weary, but in certain ways that makes the story work even better than it might have: Moriarty needs no introduction to those who don't know the name, as it is clear just by looking at the pair that Holmes and Moriarty have been battling for some time, and though Gillette was initially nervous about giving Holmes a love interest, he does have the air of someone ready to have more to his life than crime-solving.

That trait is not the dominant one, though, and one can immediately see why Gillette was said to embody Sherlock Holmes from the moment he took the stage in 1899. His Holmes is stern, sometimes bordering on cold, but unlike Benedict Cumberbatch's high-functioning psychopath, possesses the sort of empathy that would see him dismiss crimes the police couldn't ignore. While it's a bit jarring to see his heart skip a beat upon meeting Alice, it is something Gillette quickly integrates into his character. The overall impression is of a man who is capable enough to be in control of most situations and can assert his intellect while only seeming a little boastful. His active mind, probing senses, and general curiosity are on display from the start, making his methods clear enough that this silent version of the play need not stop for long, multiple-title-card explanations.

He's got a fine rapport with his castmates as well, many of whom toured with him before making this film for Essanay. That's the case with Marjorie Kay in particular; she brings a fire to Alice that combines well with Holmes's intellect, allowing both to throw out hints of attraction without making the story overly romantic, which Homes would occasionally fault Watson for in the original canon. The good Doctor is not much in evidence here, reducing Edward Fielding to what almost feels like an obligatory appearance, though Fielding does a quite passable job of portraying how Watson's friendship with Holmes is a combination of frustration and loyalty.

On the villains' side, the cast tends to be more people associated with the studio than the stage production. Ernest Maupin plays Moriarty as more of a crude gangster than the reptilian intellectual of "The Final Problem", and while it's not my favorite sort of way to interpret the character, it makes him an enthusiastic antagonist, and Maupain gives the Professor enough ruthless confidence that it works. Mario Majeroni and Grace Reals play the villainous Larrabees as more entertaining antagonists, con artists that probably should stay small-time but are willing to do anything it takes to make a score. The rest of the cast does good work as well.

What's nearly as impressive is that while the film is fairly faithful to the play and has a cast of roughly half actors whose entire career otherwise was in "legitimate" theater, it seldom feels particularly stage-bound; Berthelet and company stage some fine action and cut between multiple locations, making it feel like a surprisingly modern film at times. The scripting can be a little choppy - one or two fairly big events happen off-screen, and there's a stretch when it's not quite clear whether whether Alice is still being held captive by the Larrabees or not. Some of those issues may be due to the manner of the film's re-emergence, though, and it's strong otherwise.

The restoration is nicely done - the negative found was complete and in good condition, even including a frame from an orange-tinted scene that could be used for reference (roughly half is tinted orange and half blue). One interesting thing to note is that while this was released as a nine-reel feature in the United States, it was a four-part serial in France, and that is the version that was restored, including title cards promising a new chapter "next week" and recapping previous episodes. The intertitles have also been translated back to English from what was apparently a sloppy French translation to begin with, but they read well enough. The festival screening had an excellent score from the Donald Sosin Ensemble, although the home video release will apparently have a different soundtrack.

Maybe that star ranking up top is partially a product of my enthusiasm; understand that I basically bought a pass for the entire festival and flew across the country in large part to see this movie after having read about how folks from Arthur Conan Doyle to Orson Welles said that Gillette didn't just play Sherlock Holmes but became him, ever since first reading the stories thirty years ago. I'm still somewhat amazed that we're about six months away from people taking the ability to see this important stage in the evolution of Holmes for granted. For some, this will just be a pretty good silent adventure film discovered after being missing for ninety-five years; for others, it's something we never dreamed we'd see, and it doesn't disappoint.

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originally posted: 06/13/15 12:46:08
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User Comments

8/14/17 Terry Short A true classic silent film re-discovered! This is a great find. 4 stars
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