William Gillette's filmed version of his Sherlock Holmes stage play was shot in the United States and played theatrically in 1916. After it ran its course, it was then shipped off to France where it was recut to cash in on the serials that were popular in Parisian theaters at that time. It played French theaters in 1919 and was never seen again. For the better part of the last century, the film was believed to be lost. There were no known elements to be found and for that reason the movie never received a revival screening, let alone a home video release. Considering that in his day, Gillette was considered the definitive Holmes (having played the character on stage more than thirteen hundred times!) this was very much a missing link in the cinematic history of the world's greatest detective.
In 2014, film cans containing the dupe negative that was shipped off to France was found. A complex and time consuming restoration process was soon underway and while the intertitles were in French, English intertitles were recreated. Instructions were included with the elements as to how they were to be assembled and to the tinting colors that should be used for each scene (orange for day and blue for night). The film played at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and now receives, thanks to Flicker Alley, it's home video debut courtesy of this lavish Blu-ray/DVD Combo set.
The story, which is split here into four parts (The Prince's Letters, Moriarty Vs. Sherlock Holmes, A Tragic Night and The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes), pulls from a few different Holmes stories, all written by creator Arthur Conan Doyle, but it begins when The Larabees hold a young woman named Alice Faulkner (Marjorie Kay) hostage in order to force her to reveal the locations of some letters in her possession that would cause a scandal. It seems her sister had relations of some sort with a member of the Royal Family and the Larabees aim to destroy any and all evidence that would come to light. Sherlock Holmes (Gillette), with some help from his friend Doctor Watson (Edward Fielding), jumps in to try and save the day. As he sets out to rescue Alice, Professor Moriarty (Ernest Maupain) arrives on the scene…
So how does it all play out? Well, as stated, this is basically a filmed version of the stage play that made Gillette famous in the role. The first half or so of the movie is, for lack of a better term, rather stagey in how it is shot, meaning a lot of scenes simply feature two people sitting or standing across from one another discussing details of the different cases Holmes undertakes here. Having said that, as things progress there are also some interesting action scenes that take place and if the movie isn't the most dynamic or fluid example of filmmaking, silent or otherwise, it does feature some interesting scenes shot outside on some pretty effective locations and it does offer up some solid scenes of suspense. Things definitely pick up in this regard towards the end of the movie where the feud between Holmes and Moriarty is in full swing and when Holmes must escape from a gas chamber or surely perish!
The production values here are also quite good. Yes, there are definitely moments where backgrounds look to have been recycled from a play rather than created for the movie (a fireplace, for example, is clearly a painted piece and not an actual fireplace) but that's never really a detriment, in fact it somehow manages to add to the film's charm. The costuming is quite good here and if there is the occasional moment of jerky camera movement most of the time the cinematography is pretty strong. The film relies more frequently on intertitles than a lot of other silent films tend to, again, likely stemming back to the stage version, with Gillette needing to translate more dialogue for his version than he might need to had this originated as a piece intended for film. Again though, this isn't a problem, just something that makes the movie a little different. There are some pacing problems here and the story does take a little while to hit a proper stride and some may take issue with the way that Holmes' relationship with Faulkner evolves but despite some inconsistencies for the most part this does work quite well.
The real draw, for most viewers at least, is the cast. Marjorie Kay is beautiful as Alice Faulker. She looks ‘right' for the part and plays the role nicely. Edward Fielding looks exactly like you'd expect Doctor Watson to look, he's got a sort of regal charm to him and is, of course, more restrained than his better regarded partner. Ernest Maupain looks and acts absolutely diabolical as the sinister Moriarty, he's got an amazing screen presence and he uses it well. And then, of course, there's Gillette in the lead. The guy looks like he walked out of an old Holmes illustration, the resemblance is uncanny, and you can clearly tell by the way he uses his build and his body language that he's very comfortable in the part. He handles the humor, the drama, the action and the intensity that the part requires and he makes it look easy and natural. It's hard to say if he's as good as Rathbone or Brett in the part, but then, they had the advantage of sound in their portrayals, so it's not really a fair comparison to make. Let it suffice to say that Gillette is excellent and that this ‘first' Sherlock Holmes is indeed a very good one.The Blu-ray:
The AVC encoded 1080p fullframe transfer of the (tinted) black and white image is impressive when you consider the fact that this film was lost for so long and that it's only a few months away from celebrating its one hundredth birthday. There is some print damage (and some dirt that was captured in camera and which therefore can't really be eliminated) and there are scratches evident throughout but the detail is definitely there and it's generally a really nice looking picture. Depth and detail and texture don't compete with more modern fare but those accustomed to older pictures should be very pleased with just how good this really looks. There are no problems to note with any compression artifacts nor is there any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement.Sound:
Well, it's a silent film, so obviously there are no sound effects and there's no dialogue but there is a new score here composed by an original score composed and performed by Neil Brand, Guenter Buchwald, and Frank Bockius and it's presented in a pretty lush sounding DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. The track is very heavy on piano and on strings and you can make out the different sounds of the specific instruments employed here quite clearly. Balance and range is nice and there's good depth as well. Flicker Alley provides viewers with the option of watching the movie with French or English intertitles.Extras:
The main extra on the disc is a featurette called From Lost To Found: Restoring William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes, which runs twenty-four minutes and is hosted by film restoration expert Robert Byrne and which was conducted at the 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Here Byrne goes into quite a bit of detail about how this particular film was found and then the details that were involved in getting it to the right location for the extensive restoration that it had to undergo to get to the condition that we see it in on this Blu-ray. This is pretty interesting stuff as he gives us a quick history of the film and then talks about how it was found, what condition the elements were in, how the team went about reconstructing the film based on what directions were left with those elements, and then how the tinting was applied based on those same directions.
The next selection of the extras are more Holmes related, started with the quick forty-five second short Sherlock Holmes Baffled from 1900. By all accounts, this is the earliest piece of footage to contain an appearance from the world's most famous detective, the footage is provided from the collection of the Library Of Congress. A Canine Sherlock is a fifteen minute short film from 1912, an amusing silent piece in which a dog named Spot plays the titular detective while Piu Forte Che Sherlock Holmes, a six and a half minute Italian short film made in 1913 offers an alternate version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous creation. Flicker Alley also included some appropriate and interesting Fox Movietone archival pieces made up of an interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (he talks about how he created Sherlock Holmes and his interests in spiritualism) and with some interesting outtakes from an interview shot in 1930 with William Gillette in which he gives us a guided tour of his own personal railroad (he's even decked out in an engineer's outfit)!
Rounding out the extras on the disc is a still gallery of Promotional Photographs, a second still gallery of Lobby Cards And Promotional Flyers and, for those who can open Blu-ray discs on their computers, a PDF version of the 1899 Sherlock Holmes play by William Gillette and another separate PDF containing the original contract that William Gillette held with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. Accompanying the Blu-ray in this set are two separate DVD discs, the first containing the feature and the second containing the supplements. Packaged with the three discs in the set is a nice twenty-page booklet comprised of various images from the film and some welcome, and quite interesting, details about the discovery and restoration of this particular film, Gillette's history and take on the character and quite a bit more.Final Thoughts:
Flicker Alley has really rolled out the red carpet for this culturally significant and historically important silent film, and rightly so! The William Gillette version of Sherlock Holmes is not just a fascinating cinematic artifact but it's a legitimately good take on the character made with the right mix of style and suspense. The presentation is impressive given the age and origin of the picture and the elements available to work with and the supplements are impressive as well. Highly recommended.