Sherlock Holmes (1916)
This is my contribution to the “Beyond the Cover” blogathon, hosted by my friends at Speakeasy and Now Voyaging. Don’t forget to check out all the other entries in this very literary classic movie event!
Long believed lost, this early adaptation of the great detective was produced while Arthur Conan Doyle was still alive and writing. There’s no denying that William Gillette, the star of the film, had a lasting impact on the way Holmes would be performed for the next century, but the film was lost for much of that time, until rediscovered and released to new audiences about a year ago. Now it’s our chance to take a look at this seminal re-imagining of a literary figure for the silver screen. (Fair warning for those new to my blog: there will be spoilers. This is the price of reading about 100 year old films – they’ve been spoiled like crazy by now).
The movie begins by showing us a few of the actors in character – a fairly standard way of giving “credits” in those days (most movies didn’t start or end with a screen full of names). Gillette is shown in a lab coat, tossing chemicals into a bowl and producing flames as an effect. We also meet the Larrabees, a middle class English couple who will be the foils of the first part of the story, played by Mario Majeroni and Grace Reals, and Alice Faulkner, who is “the woman” for Holmes fans, played by Marjorie Kay. The story begins with the familiar opening to “A Scandal in Bohemia” with potentially damaging letters in the hands of Faulkner, and representatives of foreign nobility hiring Holmes to retrieve them, but with the added complication that the Larrabees decide to kidnap Miss Faulkner when she turns down an offer from the Count to buy them. This leads to a major adjustment in her character, and thereby Holmes’s, which I’ll discuss in more detail at the end. Before getting to Holmes, we also meet the Larrabees’s sidekick Sidney Prince, who is played by the outrageously mugging William Postance, who there to remind us that these are criminals. I can almost hear his Brooklyn accent through the Intertitles.
Holmes is brought in by the Count and his lackey, but quickly becomes more interested in preserving the name of Alice Faulkner than in achieving his goal. He manages to have his agent Forman infiltrate the Larrabee home as a butler, and even locates the letters with relative ease on his first visit, but he refuses to take them from Miss Faulkner by force, which prevents a quick resolution to the story. The Larrabees bring in Professor Moriarty, “the emperor of crime,” who works from a rat-infested basement and looks rather like Dr. Caligari will in a few years’ time. Moriarty makes a rather lame attempt to assassinate Holmes in his office, but is held at bay by a pistol-wielding Holmes who manages to get more out of him than he gives away, and then disarmed by Holmes’s boy-servant Billy in his ripped bell boy uniform after Billy dispatches one of Moriarty’s henchmen in a fight sequence almost as long and brutal as the one in “They Live.”
Since confronting Holmes on his own turf has failed pathetically, the Larrabees now try luring him to a prepared trap. The abandoned Stepney Gasworks has a chamber which has been converted so that it can be filled with deadly gas, which will serve the purpose. Alice Faulkner now escapes and follows Larrabee in the hope of warning Holmes. She is, of course, captured and stuck in a closet in the chamber. When Holmes arrives to speak with Larrabee, he insists on making a thorough “observation” of the premises, finding the locks on the outside of the chamber door and figuring out the gas arrangement. Shutting off the light and distracting the bad guys with the glow of a cigar-tip, he traps Larrabee and his men inside, freeing Miss Faulkner along the way. Holmes summons the police and sends Faulkner home in a cab. The police raid the gas chamber and apprehend Mr. Larrabee and his cohorts, although Moriarty is not present.
I won’t give away the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty, but I will comment that it is the only scene in the movie in which Watson manages to be more than an extra, and it displays the power of disguise of both Holmes and Moriarty. For once, the movie manages not to telegraph everything to the audience, and Holmes’s disguise may take unwary viewers by surprise, although I spotted him without really trying. Billy also shows up again, but the possibility of a gay relationship between him and Holmes is muddied when Holmes and Faulkner profess love for one another. The movie ends with them holding one another before a fireplace.
First, for the good news: William Gillette does make an excellent Sherlock Holmes. He’s a bit beefier than I think Holmes ought to be, but it’s easy to see why he was the popular pick to play the part. Apparently, he was the one who introduced the calabash pipe as a standard Holmes accoutrement, and he also contributed a number of facial expressions and larger-scale body language elements that later actors either adapted or intuited even if they’d never seen him. Some of the best moments of this film are his intense expressions as he prepares to divulge a key piece of information, or disparage his foes for their clumsiness. No matter who your favorite Holmes is, you’ll get a kick out of this early version.
In light of this blogathon’s theme, I need to spend some time talking about the adaptation of the literary material. I mentioned “A Scandal in Bohemia” as the basic premise for the start of the movie, but it doesn’t follow that story closely, in fact it abandons it for the most part and includes pieces from “The Final Problem” and “A Study in Scarlet” as well as some material that Gillette made up for himself. The big change is in “the woman,” whose name in the original was Irene Adler. Here is how Doyle introduces her (and, by way of her, Holmes himself):
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position…Grit in a sensitive instrument or a crack in one of his own high-powered lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such a his. And yet, there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.
Pardon me while I swoon.
Anyway, without spoiling any more of that story, which you should immediately download and read if you haven’t already, the point is that “the woman” for Holmes is just about everything Alice Faulkner is not. First and foremost, she has a mind capable of matching his, and is never in need of “rescuing.” She is also not concerned about defending her name, nor does she moon around thinking about her benefactor’s face while imprisoned. By turning her into a standard damsel in distress, Gillette has done violence to the subtlety of the story, but by making Holmes capable of falling in love with such a creature, he has done worse violence to the character of Holmes himself. From being a “perfect reasoning and observing machine” he has been reduced to a human being, indeed to the type of weak man who wants an even weaker woman.
According to the notes with the DVD release, Gillette, having gotten the rights to make a stage version of Sherlock Holmes, wrote to Doyle and asked “May I marry Holmes?” Doyle, who later admitted that he should have said no firmly, instead told him to do whatever he wanted. It was all part of his disappointment (or, in my view, his pretentious act of disappointment) that Holmes was so much more popular than his “serious” writing. Maybe by letting Gillette add a romance, Doyle hoped to make the play fail, or just to distance it more obviously from his work, or something. Whatever the case, by the time it got from stage to screen, some changes had taken place, but the romance was a fixture of Gillette’s version of Sherlock Holmes. I would have less problem with this had Faulkner been restored to Adler, and been truly Holmes’s equal, but, alas, this was not to be.
Another major difference between this and the written stories is the down-grading of Watson to a minor character. He served Doyle as narrator, of course, and so traditionally everything is seen through his eyes. What Watson has not seen, the reader has not seen, so we slog along with him in the tracks of Holmes’s great deductions, with the sense that, after all, we should have seen it all along, just as Watson should have. This is a great literary device, but doesn’t often make it to stage or screen adaptations, where Watson serves more as comedy relief, or as the necessary character who says, “What? I don’t understand” when Holmes is getting too technical. For me, the very best screen adaptations keep Watson at the center of the narrative, giving us a chance to see Holmes in action only when Watson is in the room, but I’ll grant that some quite good versions move to a Holmes-eye-view, allowing us to see what Watson missed, or set the stage by showing, rather than telling, what Holmes’s client knows.
This version, unfortunately, uses none of those techniques, choosing instead a kind of omniscient third-person wherein we see the criminals making their plans before carrying them out, as in 70s detective shows like “Barnaby Jones” or “Mannix.” This leaves us with no mystery, and relatively little suspense, as we wait for Holmes to figure out what we already know and watch mainly to see how he does it, rather than Whodunit. Better foregrounding of Watson, and the elimination of the unnecessary Forman character, could have helped prevent this.
Moriarty is also rather less exciting in this version, once he gets out of the basement and into action. He doesn’t really seem to have any clever ideas, whereas in the stories he is shown to be Holmes’s equal or near-equal. His plan of clearing out Holmes’s servants and confronting him alone at 221B Baker Street seems particularly dumb: by marching into Holmes’s territory like that he immediately raises suspicions, and Holmes has no reason to trust him in any event. Once Holmes pulls his gun on Moriarty, the whole plan is ruined. “Oh, I’ll just stop by his house and see if he obligingly lets me shoot him in the back.” This is a master of crime?
To shift gears for a moment, I’d also like to consider the movie in cinematic terms. Here, my feelings are also mixed. I loved the lighting, and the color-tinting on the DVD release accents it marvelously. As unlikely as Moriarty’s subterranean lair appears, it is marvelously atmospheric, reminding me of a Feuillade set. But, this is undermined by a problem with framing. Too much of the movie is shot as if showing a filmed version of a stage play with the frame opened up to give a long shot that includes every character on the stage at once. The result is that, for the duration of the scene at Moriarty’s, nearly a third of the screen is taken up with the floor, and we can’t really make out anyone’s faces. Fritzi, over at Movies Silently, pointed out this problem in her review as well, commenting that the director seems to have felt that “audiences are paying to see whole actors, darn it, so show their feet!” Although these scenes often do have some cuts to medium shots cut from the thighs- or waist- up, entirely too much of the movie is held at a distance from the audience. Both Wikipedia and imdb list William Postance as “assistant director” and, given how terrible his silent movie acting is in this movie, it’s possible he can be blamed for the flaws in directing as well.
For me Jeremy Brett remains the definitive Sherlock Holmes, followed by Peter Cushing. Basil Rathbone always allowed too much of his own ego to get into the role for my taste, but Brett nailed the part in a way that will probably never be seen again. He had probably never seen Gillette, although I do think echoes of his performance still informed Brett’s. This version has undeniable merits, including an excellent score on the DVD release and it is a great historical find. I did enjoy watching it and probably will come back to it in years to come, but it is an example of the fact that the “first” version of a movie or movie character isn’t always the “best” of them.
Director: Arthur Berthelet
Run Time: 1 hour, 55 Mins
I have not found this available for free on the Internet, and it’s unlikely to turn up for a while, given its recent rediscovery. Click here for the DVD at Flicker Alley.