The actor, playwright, and stage manager William Gillette is remembered primarily for his legendary performances as Sherlock Holmes, which so impressed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—who had retired the character and allowed Gillette to revise his script for the play—that the author commented dryly, “It’s good to see the old chap again.” And it was Gillette, not Doyle, who deserves credit for the famous use of the word “elementary.” But for years, the 1916 silent adaptation—one of Gillette’s few screen appearances and by far the most significant—was considered lost to history, an especially difficult loss considering his artistic significance and the continuity of the Sherlock Holmes character in general.
Now comes the exciting news that this “holy grail” of lost film, as San Francisco Silent Film Festival president Robert Byrne calls it, has been discovered deep within the immense vaults at the Cinémathèque Française, where it was found during an ongoing effort to catalog the nitrate films in its collection. Sherlock Holmes was shot in Essanay Studios in Chicago, best known for hosting some of Charlie Chaplin’s shorts (and less well-known for being two blocks from my old apartment), and the 90-minute film is said to combine several different Holmes stories into one narrative. The print reportedly has some added color tinting, which was common for films imported overseas, and the Cinémathèque Française, in collaboration with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, is working to restore it for a premiere at the Cinémathèque in January 2015. After that, it will ship back to the U.S. for a debut at the San Francisco festival in May.
Interesting coincidence: The Sherlock Holmes discovery comes fast on the heels of the similarly long-lost Orson Welles project Too Much Johnson. Who wrote the play on which Too Much Johnson is based? A man by the name of William Gillette.