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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Return of William Gillette

Today I’m turning over the blog to a guest columnist, Janis Wilson, for an extensive – and somewhat irreverent – review of a Sherlockian classic.  
Sherlock Holmes is in his laboratory pouring liquid from a beaker into a bowl, from which bursts a column of flame.  The dramatic experiment takes place in a 1916 film of William Gillette’s play, Sherlock Holmes. The film, made on silver nitrate, was long thought to have been lost.  Fortunately for Sherlockians, it was found in a French cinema house cellar and carefully restored by the Cinematheque Francaise.  The saved version was screened for delighted Sherlockians in Bethesda, MD. 

In France, the film was released as a four-part serial and was, of course, in black and white. Gillette, a playwright, actor and stage manager, transformed several Doyle stories into a play, and the play then became this film.  Gillette was known for two key accomplishments.  He performed the role of the world’s greatest detective 1,300 times, into 1932, according to his biographers.  In addition, he developed theatrical lighting and sound techniques, which he employed to advantage in the film.
Gillette borrowed from Sidney Paget’s Strand illustration by wearing a deerstalker hat.  His own contribution was a curved pipe, adding to the silhouette universally recognized today. 

Gillette recognized the theatricality of Holmes and wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle, reporting his intention to write the play.  He asked Conan Doyle if he could have permission to create a love interest for Holmes.  The letter arrived just as Doyle, the only person known to have grown tired of Holmes, had written “The Final Problem.”  Doyle, in granting staging rights to the Holmes stories, had but one caveat – Holmes could not marry.  Oddly sick of the Holmes character, when asked to reconsider that requirement, Doyle wrote back that the producers could “marry him, murder him, do anything you like with him.” 
And so it came to pass that Holmes – in the play and the movie of the play – fell in love with Alice Faulkner, played by Marjorie Kay.  Alice’s sister had received compromising letters from a prince and subsequently died “in misery and despair,” apparently of a broken heart.  The prince has asked Count von Stalberg to retrieve the documents.  Alice held onto the letters, believing in some way that they would protect her sister’s reputation.  The count’s thugs want to take the letters from her, but Holmes wanted to help Alice.

The slimy, scheming Larrabee gang contrives to win Alice’s confidence and persuades her to move into a rented house, where she is kept secret.  Watson, played by Edward Fielding, was as insignificant to the story as poor Nigel Bruce was to the Basil Rathbone-helmed films.  Holmes showed a diagram of the outlaws’ house to Dr. Watson and informed him Miss Faulkner was being held against her will.  How he received this information, or how he knew the location and plans of the house, were not shared with the audience.  Another of Holmes’ unexplained foresights was to place one of his minions in the hideout house, posing as a butler.
Far from needing Watson’s assistance, Holmes asked him to just sit and “read some books” in his absence.  If he expected Watson to read multiple books, Holmes cannot have expected to complete his work with dispatch.

The gang called in a safecracker, thinking Alice had hidden the letters there. She had not.  In retaliation, Alice was locked in her room but a kind-hearted maid freed her.  Alice thought nothing of walking into the parlor where the gang was gathered.  Her punishment was to have her arm pulled behind her body and rude words spoken to her, demanding she turn over the letters.
In a great flourish of drama, a hansom cab arrived at the house and a stranger rang the bell.  Madge Larrabee turned her eyes from the extreme left to the extreme right, resulting in audience chuckles.  Then Larrabee told someone to peak out the window.  The man at the door was described as slender and wearing a long coat. “Damnation!” Larrabee said.  “Sherlock Holmes!”  How he concluded the man’s identity from so spare a description was not made clear, but it was good for a hearty laugh from the crowd, and was not the last one.

Holmes examined the safe and pronounced, not that it had been forced open, but that it had been “forced open five minutes ago.”  Facing Alice, Holmes said he believes she is being held against her will, adding that “the marks on your neck show the clutch of a man’s fingers.”  It was a good deduction, especially in light of the fact that the audience did not witness her being strangled. 
“What is the meaning of your behavior toward this young girl?” Holmes said to the thugs.  Alice said she needed to keep the letters to safeguard her sister’s reputation.  Holmes slipped a note to the fake butler, who produced some oil that was set alight.  Alice ran to a chair and the letters emerged from the back.  Homes said he had the fire set so that she would “betray your hiding place.”  Alice began to weep, prompting the genius Holmes to remark, “I see you are in great distress.”  Unmoved, Larrabee pulled a gun and demanded Holmes hand over the letters.  With what appeared to be the gentlest possible touch, Homes pushed the gun barrel upward and Larrabee made no effort to thwart the gesture.  Ever the gentleman, Holmes told Larrabee he would “persecute” Alice “at your peril.”  Meanwhile, Watson was still waiting for Holmes.

The safecracker skulked about and Holmes inexplicably but obligingly returned one of his tools to the cracksman.
Thwarted now, the gang knows that regaining control of these letters is beyond their capability.  “We must see Professor Moriarty,” one said and they penned a letter to the man referred to in the film as the “emperor of Crime” to enlist his aid.  Moriarty, enacted by Ernest Maupain, brought another round of laughs when the group saw his menace established by black eye shadow above and, especially, below his eyes.

The cheesiest moments occurred when Gillette employed modern film techniques to depict that couple in love.  Alice was thinking of Holmes, whose image suddenly appeared beside her and Holmes then turned his thoughts to Alice whose image, likewise, arose beside Holmes’ head.
The safecracker went to Moriarty’s lair, where the desk had a compartment from which flames emerged so that documents could be immediately destroyed.  Moriarty recommends the mob make a packet of letters that resembles those from the prince.

For some reason, Gillette chose not to show the interior of the famed 221B Baker Street, explaining that it had been burned.  Consequently, Holmes must use Watson’s office for a meeting with Alice.  Moriarty pays a call on Holmes, gun in hand.  Holmes also had a gun but put it down.  Someone arrived to beg Dr. Watson to come and help a man who suffered a seizure.  Watson obliged, but found nothing wrong with the man.  Holmes’ young assistant, Billy, removed Moriarty’s gun.  “Will it be peace or war?” Holmes inquired.  “You die, Holmes,” was Moriarty’s inhospitable reply as he pulled the trigger of a gun that failed to fire.  Holmes, ever the gentleman, said, “Allow me to return your cartridges.” “We will meet again, Mr. Holmes,” Moriarty warned.
For reasons not made clear, Holmes tracked the gang in a hansom cab.  Alighting, he declared, “I know this place.  It is the Stepney Gas Chamber.”  The crowd gave the biggest laugh of the morning and several couples were heard laughing about it after the movie ended.  Holmes entered the chamber and, as it was locked, asked that his compliments be paid to the professor.  The gang appeared to gag Alice, who begged that Holmes not be injured.

When the phony packet was produced, Holmes declared it to be a forgery.  After lighting a cigar, Holmes left and the gang was told to follow the glow of his cigar.  But, unsurprisingly, Holmes was too clever for the gang.  He called for the police, but the three gangsters got in a circle and made fists.  Inexplicably, none of them managed – or really even tried – to land a punch on Holmes. 
In the final episode, Moriarty made one new attempt at Holmes.  Watson was in his office and the safecracker entered posing as a patient.  When Watson looked away, he raised the blind.  Watson threw him out, but Madge Larrabee entered.  Only then did Watson notice the blind had been raised.  The window signal was not overlooked by Holmes, however.  He noticed a cab outside and had Billy invite the driver to come in and take away a valise.  As the driver bent to lift the case, the wily Holmes slapped handcuffs on him, called him by his proper name – Moriarty – and turned him over to the just-summoned police.  On two occasions in the film – at the arrest of Moriarty and at the entry of the Stepney Gas Chamber – police saluted Holmes, who returned their salute.

Holmes was still under a commission to obtain the prince’s letters.  Downcast, Holmes said he could not take the letters by force from Alice.  “Holmes, my good man,” said the affable Watson, “you are in love.”  Holmes gave the prince’s men the phony letters, saying he had been duped, but we all knew better.  Alice, filled with love, turned over the letters.  Watson made an excuse to leave the couple alone and closed the door of his office.  They did not kiss.
After the film, Peter Blau of Washington, D.C.’s Red Circle, addressed the crowd and said Doyle had learned that Gillette was coming to London with the Holmes play.  He knew the play would be a hit and that the demand for the return of Holmes would again be heard.  Doyle, Blau said, thinking he had buried Holmes forever, had begun a story involving a “ghostly dog.”  With the coalition of these two facts, Doyle amended the story, inserted Holmes, and what resulted was the House of the Baskervilles.

Though the movie was served up with a hefty slice of cheese, there was no doubt the Sherlockians assembled felt they were watching the true embodiment of the great consulting detective.  Gillette demonstrated great stage presence and seemed to have the intellect Holmes enjoyed.
Janis Wilson is a retired trial lawyer who has just finished a novel, Goulston Street, which is expected to be published in 2016.  The novel concerns efforts to solve the Jack the Ripper crimes in London 1888.  Ms. Wilson is a frequent lecturer on the Ripper and is organizing an international Ripper Conference in Baltimore April 8 – 10.

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