This Movie Comes to DVD and It’s Like Watching History
The 1916 film Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette was thought lost forever, but it was recently found and restored to a masterpiece. I’ve finally got my own copy on DVD. The restored movie premiered this summer in San Francisco and I can’t help but feel this is like watching history, albeit literature and film history, caught on DVD. This movie was found deep in the French film archives and the whole Sherlockian world celebrated, mostly because William Gillette was the definitive Sherlock Holmes of the early 1900s and created some of the Holmes tropes we now take for granted. The deerstalker cap, the pipe, and the smoking jacket were all made famous on stage and the big screen by Gillette. Nobody even comes close to the historical significance Gillette brings to Sherlock Holmes. To say this was an important release would be an understatement.
This is a silent film. The copy shown in San Francisco around 1920 has been lost forever, so it’s really a French version that was found and restored. They had to take a black and white copy of the film and “tint” it like it might have been seen during that era. They had to change all the titles from French to English, of course. Not to mention, the film rolls were damaged and degraded due to age, so they had to be repaired and digitally scanned. They had to make sure everything was perfect. I’m a little biased because I love Sherlock Holmes, but it’s perfect. It’s a great film.
Holmes is hired by a woman to help her against some unscrupulous criminals, who want to steal some valuable papers from her in order to blackmail a rich Prince. “The Prince’s Papers” is a great work, selectively cut up into episodes like a serial. Many of the titles invite the audience back next week to see more of the adventure. It’s perfectly preserved this way. None of the presentation in the film feels off at all. Not Holmes. Not the dialogue titles. Even the music is amazing. As a serial, it feels like something that was really shown in the 20s. It all works.
William Gillette himself exceeded my expectations in his performance as Sherlock Holmes, which is quite a feat considering I’m a big fan of Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, and others. His mannerisms and performance felt authentic. His movie is as close as it gets to an authentic period piece Sherlock Holmes without having to go back in time. Since the last Holmes stories were published around 1927, this movie is contemporary and brings the stories to life. Conan Doyle must have seen the movie, because he later used a character named Billy in his stories that was first in the movie and play.
The movie has a similar plot to “A Scandal in Bohemia”, and some of the plot points are pulled directly from the original story. Holmes tricks the lady into revealing where she is hiding the papers, just like in the original story. He becomes infatuated with the lady, just like in the original story. This is not unusual, as the movie is based on a play written by Gillette, which was itself inspired by “A Scandal in Bohemia”. They throw in Moriarty as the villain, so that’s one big difference, at least.
Lastly, I have to say more about the presentation. I didn’t think I would like a silent film like this one, but it’s fine and the fact that it has no spoken dialogue doesn’t detract from anything. If anything, it has great atmosphere thanks to the moody violins and background music. The film has been tinted blue in some scenes to represent the outdoors and that works very well. Indoor scenes are tinted orange. You might wonder how they could have known what shade of color to use for the tint, and there is a very interesting documentary on the DVD revealing all the secrets of the restoration like this one. There was ONE slide in the film negative tinted orange, which gave them a reference color. ONE. Amazing luck, right? For the blue, they picked out a period blue color and it works. It’s a great restoration.
In all, this is a great piece of history which is a welcome addition to my Sherlock Holmes collection. The state of the movie on DVD is just incredible. I can’t get over it. All the skips, tears, and damage talked about in the documentary is gone. I couldn’t even tell where the damage had been It’s an amazing restoration. The only negative is that it feels like “A Scandal in Bohemia” all over again, but even that complaint is minor, because the characters are different, the scenes are different and the plot follows a different line, overall.
William Gillette played Sherlock Holmes over 200 times on stage and this is the ONLY movie capturing his performance, so finding it is historical. The DVD presentation captures some of that history. I would recommend it to anyone interested in history, literature, Sherlock Holmes, or film in general. It’s something special.