Sherlock Holmes Serial, Blu-ray (1916/2015)

Sherlock Holmes Serial, Blu-ray (1916/2015)

Newly restored by the SF Silent Film Festival and La Cinematheque francaise
Cast: William Gillette
Director: Arthur Berthelet
Studio: Essanay Co./ Flicker Alley FA0042 (11/10/15) (3 disc Blu-ray & DVD versions)
Video: 4:3 b&w, tinted 1080p HD
Audio: New orig. soundtrack for violin & piano by Cliff Retallick – PCM stereo
Subtitles: English translations of French intertitles
Two complete versions: The original English 1916 one in plain B&W and the 1922 French tinted version with English translations of the intertitles
Extras: Restorer Robert Byrne at the 2015 SF Silent Film Festival, Sherlock Homes Baffled (1900), A Canine Sherlock (1912), Piu forte che Sherlock Holmes (1913), Interview with Arthur Conan Doyle, Gillette Showing His Model Railroad, Typescript of Glillette’s play Sherlock Holmes and orig. contract for Gilllette to play Holmes in film (DVD only), Rare photos from original 1899 Broadway production, Rare lobby cards and flyer from first run of film in 1916, Illustrated booklet with essays from Robert Byrne/Celine Ruivo/Russell Merritt/S.E.Dahlinger/Neil Brand/Greg Wilsbacher
Length: 116 min.
Rating: ****

William Gillette was the first interpreter of Sherlock Homes on the stage and played him over 1300 times, beginning in 1899. It was the only feature-length film from Essanay, which NY studio went out of business shortly afterwards. The French had long been nuts about silent serials – which were designed for adults and not necessarily children – so after WWI, in 1920, a new French version was created and widely distributed in Europe, with rather poor translations into French of some of the intertitles plus tinting of each scene. In the U.S., it was originally released as a serial in four separate episodes.

The original film had been thought entirely lost for 98 years but then all the nitrate reels turned up at the Paris Cinematheque and this lovely restoration was made. it is the sole surviving appearance of Gillette’s Holmes on film, and were it not for the French we wouldn’t have it at all. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the co-writer of the original play on which the film is based. Gillette is credited with three trademarks of the Holmes character (not author Doyle): His curved meershaum pipe, his page Billy (once played in the stage version by Charlie Chaplin, who had been Essanay’s one big star but who left just before this film), and finally the line “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette was the popular vision of what Sherlock Holmes looked like.

He incorporated into the film script some striking bits from other Holmes adventures. Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia was the main source. There are some rather strange dissolves from a long shot into a closer one of characters and then back to the long shot, and the character of Moriarty could be a bit more scary and less lack-luster, but in general the production is most interesting and worth viewing. The restorers decided to include a few sync sound effects in the film, such as bells and whistles, and Moriarty’s feet creaking on the steps as he walks up a stairway. The many extras are just the thing for the true aficiando of Holmes and/or silent films. There are couple of rather surreal Holmes shorts and a cute one in which a little dog is the canine Holmes. The long early sound film of Doyle himself (1927) is most interesting, as he talks first about his Holmes books and then about his interests and belief in spirtualism.

—John Sunier

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