William Gillette as “Sherlock Holmes” (1916) – reviewed by George

This film is historically important for two reasons: as the first Holmes feature-length movie, and as the film version of the play “Sherlock Holmes” by Gillette himself, which played for years and years all over America. The play was in four acts, and the movie is in “chapters” which correspond to the acts. It was shown as a feature here, and as an adult serial in France (for a discussion of adult serials see my review of “The House of Mystery”, posted 9-22-2016). This becomes important because the film that was restored was located in France and was in the serial format. So the DVD offers the choice of watching the film in individual chapters, or as one film which happens to be divided into chapters, with cards marking the divisions.
Gillette makes a fine Sherlock. Looking forty to forty-five, but actually born in July of 1853, so he was 63 when the film was made in Chicago by Essanay, he was square-jawed good-looking and sturdily built, and his performance is believable (not actorish) and quite good. First we see Sherlock in his laboratory working, then cut to James and Madge Larrabee (Mario Majeroni and Grace Reals) at home having a musical evening, where she plays the piano and he paces. The Larrabees are unscrupulous adventurers and control a large gang of various crooks, including Sid Prince (William Postance), a safecracker, and Forman (Stewart Robbins), their butler, who is actually an agent of Holmes’s. Next we see Alice Faulkner (Marjorie Kay) and a title card says that the Crown Prince, heir apparent to the throne of a large empire, wrote indiscreet letters to a young woman who later died of a broken heart. On her deathbed the wronged girl gave the letters to her sister Alice for safekeeping.
Now Count von Stalburg (Ludwig Kreiss), the Prince’s private secretary, and Sir Edward Palmer (Hugh Thompson), a high-ranking British official, have been charged with retrieving the letters. And while the Larrabees make plans to befriend Alice and take her to their out-of-the-way estate in the country in order to steal the letters, Sir Edward tells the Count that the only man who can help them is Sherlock Holmes.
Dr. Watson (Edward Fielding) arrives at Sherlock’s digs, and Holmes’s man Billy (Burford Hampden) takes his coat. Holmes shows Watson a sketch of the layout of a building. He says that this is where two swindlers are holding a young woman against her will. Soon Professor Moriarty (Ernest Maupain) will join the Larrabees in their scheme. And Moriarty has a “man” too: Bassick (Jack Milton).
The film is easy to follow, even though the plot is very complicated, and the photography is clear and well done. The restoration by the San Francisco Silent Film Society and Cinematheque Francaise is excellent. The scenario is by H.S. Sheldon, of course based on Gillette’s play, and the direction is by Arthur Berthelet. The score is contemporary to the film, and was composed and performed by Neil Brand, Guenter Buchwald, and Frank Backus.
A bit long, even at only 1:57, but still involving and actually great fun.

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