William Gillette’s Long-Lost Sherlock Holmes Film Discovered


William Gillette's Long-Lost Sherlock Holmes Film Discovered

Before Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Brett, or Basil Rathbone donned the deerstalker, the world’s first film version of Sherlock Holmes was performed by an actor named William Gillette. Never heard of him? That is hardly surprising, as Gillette was primarily a stage actor and made only one film: Sherlock Holmes, from 1916. Long thought lost, Sherlock Holmes was recently discovered by the Cinematheque Francaise, and is currently in the process of a digital restoration with the help of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Directed by Arthur Berthelet and produced by Essanay Studios in Chicago, the 1916 film version of Sherlock Holmes features Gillette in the titular role as he comes into conflict with his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. The film contains a number of set pieces that were part of Gillette’s original play, and apparently illustrates how Gillette brought a number of elements from various Sherlock Holmes stories into the plot.

The importance of this discovery cannot be over-emphasized, both in terms of film history and in terms of the cultural evolution of a beloved character. Gillette is typically credited with popularizing the famous phrase “Oh, this is elementary, my dear Watson.” His performance is part and parcel of our current understanding of the character of Sherlock Holmes. As Russell Merritt, the supervising editor of the restoration process, confirmed: “there’s not an actor dead or alive who hasn’t consciously or intuitively played off Gillette.”

The restoration process is being overseen by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Cinematheque Francaise. It will be based on a nitrate dupe negative with French intertitles that was discovered in the vaults of the Cinematheque Francaise.

Sherlock Holmes will have its American premiere at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival next May, presumably with a DVD or Blu-ray release shortly to follow. An elementary undertaking? Hardly, but exciting nonetheless.

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