Long-Lost Silent 'Sherlock Holmes' Movie Is Found

Courtesy of Larsen Associates

The film captures a performance by the actor William Gillette, who helped popularize the famed detective

A 1916 silent movie about Sherlock Holmes, long thought to be lost, has been discovered by the Cinematheque Francaise, which has joined with the San Francisco Film Festival to create a digital restoration. The restored film will be unveiled in Europe at the Cinematheque Francais' festival of film restoration in Paris in January, and its American premiere will take place at the San Francisco Silent Film festival in May, the SFSFF announced Wednesday.

Sherlock Holmes, directed by Arthur Berthelet and produced by the Essanay Studios in Chicago, starred William Gillette, an American actor and playwright popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who frequently portrayed Holmes onstage, right down to the detective's famous deerstalker cap. He's credited with helping to popularize one of Holmes' signature lines by saying to Holmes' sidekick Dr. Watson, "Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow." By the time the film was shot, Gillette was considered the leading interpreter of Holmes on stage.

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The newly discovered Essanay production is the only surviving example of Gillette's performance as Holmes and is also the only film Gillette ever made. It retains the famous set pieces in Gillette's play about Holmes — the detective's encounter with Professor Moriarty, his escape from the Stepney Gas Chamber and his tour-de-force deductions — and it illustrates how Gillette wove bits from Arthur Conan Doyle's stories ranging from "A Scandal in Bohemia" to "The Final Problem," into the play.

"At last we get to see for ourselves the actor who kept the first generation of Sherlockians spellbound. We can also see where the future Holmeses—Rathbone, Brett, Cumberbatch and the rest—come from. As far as Holmes is concerned, there's not an actor dead or alive who hasn't consciously or intuitively played off Gillette," Russell Merritt, the supervising editor of the restoration project and a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, said.

The version of the film that was discovered in the vaults of the Cinematheque Francais is a nitrate dupe negative, originally assembled for French distribution, that contains French titles and color annotations. Since Essanay's domestic releases were usually in black-and-white, the colors in this case were probably intended for French distribution.

The digital restoration that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Cinematheque Francaise have begun, is the third partnership between the two organizations and has been made possible with the support of private individuals from the United States and the U.K.

Film restorer and SFSFF board president Robert Byrne said, "It's an amazing privilege to work with these reels that have been lost for generations. William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes has ranked among the holy grails of lost film, and my first glimpse of the footage confirms Gillette's magnetism. Audiences are going to be blown away when they see the real Sherlock Holmes onscreen for the first time."

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