Thursday, October 08, 2015

Sherlock Holmes (1916, William Gillette) (2015 restoration La Cinémathèque française, San Francisco Silent Film Festival)

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes (not from the film).
William Gillette (Sherlock Holmes) in the opening credit portrait shot. Photos: La Cinémathèque française, Paris. Click to enlarge
Essanay – US 1916. D: Arthur Berthelet; ass D: William Postance; SC: H. S. Sheldon, based on the play (1899) by William Gillette + characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; cast: William Gillette (Sherlock Holmes), Marjorie Kay (Alice Faulkner), Ernest Maupain (Professor Moriarty), Edward Fielding (Doctor Watson), Mario Majeroni (James Larrabee), Grace Reals (Madge Larrabee), William Postance (Sidney Prince), Stewart Robbins (Benjamin Forman), Burford Hampden (Billy), Chester Beery (Craigin), Frank Hamilton (Tim Leary), Fred Malatesta (“Lightfoot” McTague), Leona Ball (Thérèse), Hugh Thompson (Sir Edward Leighton), Ludwig Kreiss (Baron von Stalburg), Jack Milton (Alfred Bassick); DCP (from 35 mm, 2088 m), 117' (transferred at 16 fps); titles: FRE, subt. ENG; print source: La Cinémathèque française, Paris.
    Restoration and reconstruction: 2015, Céline Ruivo, La Cinémathèque française, Robert Byrne, San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
    Gillette's play was based on the stories "A Scandal in Bohemia", "The Final Problem", and "A Study in Scarlet" by Arthur Conan Doyle.
    Studio: Essanay Studios (Chicago).
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, with e-subtitles in Italian, live music: Neil Brand, Günter Buchwald, Frank Bockius, 8 Oct 2015

Robert Byrne (GCM catalog and website): "On 7 February 1916, actor and playwright William Gillette signed a contract with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company granting the studio rights to bring his play Sherlock Holmes to the screen, and to “secure the services of the Actor to play the leading role.” Production commenced right away, given that Gillette required no preparation to play the part that he had written and the role he had embodied since 1899. Indeed, it is Gillette’s characterization as much as Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary description that shaped the persona we ascribe today to the great detective. Doyle gave birth to the character, imagined his adventures, and furnished him with the most worthy of nemeses; but it was Gillette who brought him to life, developed his stature and mannerisms, stuck a curved briar pipe in his mouth, and placed a deerstalker hat upon his crown. Thankfully, Essanay’s production of Sherlock Holmes is considerably more cinematic than what might be expected from a filmed stage play, especially for an interpretation that hews so closely to the theatrical staging. The settings are identical to Gillette’s stage specifications, the only variation being the addition of exterior shots, which director Arthur Berthelet used to depict on screen what had been necessarily related on stage via dialogue."

"Conversely, there are points in the film where an additional title or two would be most welcome, particularly at times when the action on screen faithfully reproduces odd bits of stage business that are not explained through text. One of the many examples occurs at the end of the third reel, after Holmes leaves the Larrabees’ lodge. There is a knock at the door, but the criminal Larrabees and their safe-cracking associate, Sidney Prince, are shocked when the butler reports there is nobody at the door. In the play, dialogue reveals that the phantom knock is part of a ruse perpetrated by Holmes to make the criminals believe they are under surveillance. On the screen this is simply a confusing bit of business lacking any logical explanation."

"Actually, there is one very likely reason for the unexplained stage business, and that is because the titles in the film are not the originals. The only version of Sherlock Holmes that we have today is a serialized French version of the feature, which premiered in Paris in December 1919. In fact, until early last year not a single frame of any incarnation of the feature was known to survive. That situation changed in March 2014, when a dupe negative of the French version was identified in the collection of the Cinémathèque française. As research by Russell Merritt and Céline Ruivo has revealed, the Great War delayed the entry of Sherlock Holmes to Europe until March 1919, when a dupe negative was finally shipped to Paris. This was not the same version as released in the U.S. in 1916, but a new version featuring (poorly) translated French titles and divided into four weekly chapters, aimed at capitalizing on the French passion for installment-plan adventure."

"As evidenced by the 1919 KODAK edge code printed in the film margins, the well-used negative that surfaced in the vaults of the Cinémathèque française is undoubtedly the very same that was dispatched by George Spoor from Essanay’s Chicago office. Formatted in preparation for printing and tinting, the film negative is physically subdivided into 45 small rolls, but there is every indication that the film is whole and complete. There are no gaps in the sequentially numbered shots and rolls, and the film length is consistent with what was released in 1916 as a 7-reel feature. Based on the evidence, it is clear that with the exception of the translated titles and newly inserted chapter introductory text, the pictorial elements of the 1919 serial completely represent the 1916 original."

"In the summer of 2014, the Cinémathèque française and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival undertook a collaborative project to restore the film. In addition to image restoration, the single-frame French flash-titles present in the negative were restored to an approximation of their original lengths, and the orange and blue tinting re-applied according to the notations in the film leaders. In order to make the film more widely accessible, a translated English-language version of the restoration was prepared in consultation with Gillette’s original manuscripts. The titles of this English version retain the style, design, and typeface of the original French language titles.
" – Robert Byrne

AA: In 2009 in Pordenone we saw a series called "Sherlock and Beyond: The British Detective in Silent Cinema" curated by Jay Weissberg based on Laraine Porter and Bryony Dixon's crime series at the British Silent Cinema Festival. Today a key missing link was added to that story. The film adaptation of William Gillette's legendary Sherlock Holmes interpretation has been restored this year by La Cinémathèque française and San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

William Gillette's stage performance as Sherlock Holmes became definitive. Gillette fixed the bent pipe and the deerstalker cap as key accessories to the detective. Gillette established Alice Faulkner as the Sherlock Holmes Woman and finally even elicited from Conan Doyle a permission to have Sherlock fall in love. Gillette was the one who called Sherlock's pageboy Billy for the first time. Gillette also was the one who edited the phrase "Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow" (later edited by others into "elementary, my dear Watson"), but this is not used in this film adaptation, a precious record of a legendary performer in a legendary performance.

This is a royal blackmail story. The love letters of a future emperor are now in the possession of Alice Faulkner (her sister, the prince's lover, having died), and criminals are after them sensing a possibility to make a fortune. When the criminal Larrabees fail, they engage nobody less than Professor Moriarty, "the emperor of crime".

We do witness Sherlock examining evidence and drawing ingenious conclusions (his "gray brain cells at work"), but mostly this is an action film.

"A Scandal in Bohemia" is a story of Sherlock Holmes meeting an opera singer, Irene Adler. She keeps the future king's souvenirs but not for blackmail, and in the finale both Sherlock and the future king are impressed by the brilliant Irene Adler who has outwitted them both. William Gillette's Sherlockian woman is much more conventional and traditional, a damsel in distress.

Thinking about Fregoli, the wizard of transformations, whose films we saw yesterday in Pordenone, it was interesting to observe many Fregolinades in Sherlock Holmes: first Sherlock is made to meet a fake Alice Faulkner, later, Billy gets to perform as a newspaper boy, and finally both Moriarty and Holmes impress us by their unrecognizable impersonations. (Sherlockian masquerades also impressed a young Víctor Erice when he saw The Scarlet Claw as a child).

In the finale Sherlock gets to display tact and diplomacy in his gentle ruse to have Alice Faulkner hand over the real letters to the representatives of the empire in danger. He confesses his trickery to Alice immediately and is absolved.

I know nothing of the director Arthur Berthelet. This is a story-driven film, and his approach is plain, matter-of-fact, and fast - sometimes very fast. Intertitles still predict the action. Much of the film is in long shot, but medium shot is also used, and there are occasional close-ups.

The simulation of toning is beautiful, including successful blues for night scenes, difficult in contemporary restorations.

Neil Brand, Günter Buchwald, and Frank Bockius provided a brisk and enthusiastic live music performance, without neglecting the Sherlockian violin.

The reconstruction feels complete. A quite gratifying experience.

No comments: