The Case of the Missing Detective: William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes Rediscovered and Restored

January 4, 2016   •   By Christopher Grobe

WHEN AN ACTOR plays Hamlet, who directs him to strike The Pose? (You know: elbow bent, face in profile, eye to eye-socket with a skull.) Who teaches each Lady Macbeth to scrub imaginary blood from her hands at the top of Act Five? And who reminds the latest Sherlock Holmes to wear a deerstalker cap, to smoke a curved pipe, and to crow, “Elementary, my dear fellow”?

Trick question! No one tells them — no one has to. While we’re at it, should we remind them to breathe? Return to the original texts, though — Hamlet, Macbeth, the Holmes tales — and it’s hard to see why we feel so sure. None of these details are there in black and white. There was a time — almost two centuries, in the case of Hamlet and Macbeth — when these things weren’t yet obvious at all. Instead, these gestures and trappings were made obvious by three iconic performers — belated co-authors of the parts they played. Echoing down through the centuries, it is their voices telling actors to pose, to scrub, and to exclaim.

When a man playing Hamlet treats a skull like a fleshless reflection of his own face, he’s just heeding Edmund Kean, the Romantic era’s favorite Hamlet. When a woman playing Lady Macbeth starts to scrub, she’s just following the 18th-century icon Sarah Siddons. And when an actor playing Sherlock Holmes dons the hat, smokes the pipe, and spouts the tagline, he may believe he’s being faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle, but he’s actually paying homage to William Gillette, the American actor who wrote, produced, and starred in the first dramatization of Doyle’s tales.

It is common to calculate Gillette’s contribution in this way — one deerstalker hat plus a meerschaum pipe times a half-dozen Elementaries! — but this hardly does justice to his impact. Doyle may have invented the character, but it was Gillette who created the man. He gave a body to that infamous mind, a voice to those words, and a style to Holmes’s very being. As one critic observed in 1929, while announcing Gillette’s return to the stage, Gillette’s “face and figure,” his “voice and manner, gave the entire English-speaking world their mental image of Sherlock Holmes.”

And yet with each generation Gillette’s image has grown fainter, until it has all but faded away. Of his Holmes, only a script survives, plus a few photos and lithographs. These are proof of Gillette’s work as a writer-producer — as an author, that is, of a hat, pipe, and tagline — but they tell us little about Gillette the performer. Where’s his acting? What ever happened to his living, breathing Holmes?

It turns out he was only hiding — in a fort outside Paris, now the main archive of the Cinémathèque Française. An archivist there, cataloging some old nitrate film, found a bunch of reels under a mysterious heading: Sherlock Holmes, no additional information provided. Jumbled up there, she found a German film from 1937, an episode of French TV for American syndication from 1954, and a silent film from 1916 starring William Gillette.

That such a film had been made, film historians knew, but they assumed it had been lost or destroyed. Now, here it was: “a holy grail of lost film,” cried a hundred journalists. With an urgency befitting this status, it was quickly restored, then screened across Europe, then America. Now, a century after its official premiere, you can own it on Blu-ray and DVD.

The film itself is beautifully restored, but, for my money, it would be well worth watching in any case. Not only does it capture Sherlock Holmes’s first characterization in the flesh, but it also showcases some exquisite, proto-realist acting by William Gillette, a star at the height of his career.

Gillette was known in his day for a peculiar performance style: intense, and yet strangely muted. “From the actor’s point of view, Gillette’s acting is no acting,” one turn-of-the-century critic observed. Gillette liked it this way. Legend has it that he surrounded himself with demonstrative actors in order to emphasize his own understatement. He would “[stroll] into their midst and [underplay] them,” writes Walter Kerr, “a coil of quietness in the melodramatic maelstrom.”

The key word here is coil. By all accounts, Gillette’s stillness was tensile — a preying snake, a loaded spring. In the words of a contemporary critic, his stillness was the “stillness … of [a] spinning top.” Such dynamic stasis, complicated to perform, is even harder for a critic to capture in words. Until this film was rediscovered, all we could do was feebly imagine it. Now we see it directly.

From the very first scene of Sherlock Holmes, Gillette lives up to the hype. With great concentration, Holmes measures chemicals, then mixes them together. Right on cue, they explode into flame. Just so, he nods, then tests the reaction once more, lights a pipe, and sinks into contemplation. The scene, plot-wise, is insignificant, but it shows precisely what kind of pleasure we’re meant to take in watching Gillette perform. He makes high drama (flash! bang!) out of scientific observation, then makes a spectacle out of his subsequent thinking.

In Secret Service, one of his most famous plays, Gillette wrote a 10-minute scene for his own character of silent, solo action, punctuated by precisely this thoughtful stillness. Sherlock Holmes taps into this rich vein once more, exploiting the power of silent film’s — well, silence. Wordless action, keyed up high, was already Gillette’s specialty. Now his fans could see it up close, larger than life.

Gillette is joined by other actors on the screen, of course, who, next to him, look like wide-eyed over-actors. (Walter Kerr must have gotten it right.) Mario Majeroni and Grace Reals as two villainous swindlers, Ernest Maupain as Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty, Marjorie Kay as a young damsel in distress — all are gripping, but their chief function is to play the “maelstrom” to Gillette’s “coil of quietness.” Their emotional turmoil is plainly visible, so Gillette’s opacity seems, by contrast, all the more intriguing. They snarl, wilt, and wheedle, and so they highlight Gillette’s composure as he examines, then ponders, then acts.

Watching this film will retrain your eyes. Amid the “maelstrom” you’ll learn to look for the twitch, the tic, or the slump. Oh, sure: there are gas-chamber escapes and standoffs at gunpoint, imposters unmasked and enemies foiled, but the true set-pieces, the highest attractions that this film has to offer, are the moments when Gillette does something subtle: when, for instance, lost in thought, he tries and fails to put some papers in his pocket; or when he strikes a match, then, for a second, forgets to use it, having been struck (we must presume) by a realization.

Every time this Holmes has a plan, his body freezes and just one finger dances out his commands. And when this Holmes falls in love — which, to the purist’s chagrin, he does — his limbs grow wooden and, for what feels like a minute, his face goes blank as he awkwardly grips Dr. Watson’s lapel with one finger. Throughout this film’s two hours, you’ll scarcely glimpse Gillette’s eyes. They’ll always be looking at the floor or off to the side. But you will nonetheless feel that you can see into his mind.

Today’s film Sherlocks have the help of fancy camera technology and post-production techniques. A haptic camera zooms through frozen space as Robert Downey Jr.’s mind sizes up a situation. Words and diagrams float through the air as Benedict Cumberbatch observes the world around him. By contrast, consider this: after an intertitle declaring “A Scrupulous Examination,” Gillette is left to his own devices. He moves through an empty room, glancing, touching. A world of thinking comes alive — just as visible as if Guy Ritchie or Steven Moffat were literally sketching it out on the screen.

You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about the film that doesn’t pertain directly to Gillette’s performance. This is by design. Even Gillette knew that his play-turned-screenplay of Sherlock Holmes was nothing but a creaky old thriller. He was content with that; I don’t expect you to be.

But this film also offers a rare glimpse back through performance history, often the domain of reconstruction and conjecture. Imagine being able to disentangle from the mythic snarl of Lady Macbeth the single strand that is Sarah Siddons’s acclaimed performance. Imagine isolating pure Edmund Kean from the dirty ore of today’s Hamlet. Well, this film gives you something like that: true Gillette. The day before, Sherlock Holmes was carved in stone. Now you can watch him flake apart like mica. Each layer becomes more beautiful, it seems to me, in the process.


Christopher Grobe is Assistant Professor of English at Amherst College.