Sherlock Holmes mystery solved
Call it The Adventure of the Misplaced Celluloid. For almost a
century, one of the earliest and most influential on-screen portrayals
of Sherlock Holmes was thought to have been lost to history.
Now the missing silent movie, made in 1916, has been discovered in
the vaults of the Cinémathèque Française film archive in Paris.
The find is significant because it features the only surviving
performance by the American actor and playwright William Gillette as the
Baker Street sleuth.
During his lifetime Gillette, who died in 1937, was considered the
pre-eminent Holmes. His own play featuring the famous detective, which
he performed 1,300 times, was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was Gillette who introduced many of Holmes’s most familiar
character traits, including the deerstalker hat, curved or “bent briar”
pipe; his use of a magnifying glass and syringe; and his amateur violin
playing. Most have survived even into contemporary interpretations by
Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr.
Gillette is also credited with inventing the detective’s catchphrase,
telling his sidekick Dr Watson: “Oh, this is elementary, my dear
The 1916 film, simply entitled Sherlock Holmes, was directed by US
film-maker Arthur Berthelet for Essanay Studios, which also produced
Charlie Chaplin movies. Based on Gillette’s own play, it included
elements from a handful of mysteries by Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle, including A Scandal in Bohemia, The Final Problem and A Study in
The first actor to play Holmes on film remains anonymous: he was the
star of a 30-second Nickelodeon picture produced in 1900. But it was
Gillette’s performance that would become the template for all Holmeses.
Russell Merritt, the supervising editor for the restoration of the
newly discovered film said: “At last we get to see for ourselves the
actor who kept the first generation of Sherlockians spellbound.
“As far as Holmes is concerned, there’s not an actor dead or alive
who hasn’t consciously or intuitively played off Gillette.”
Conan Doyle himself considered Gillette the best actor to take on the
role. The author had killed off Holmes in his 1893 story The Final
Problem, but after seeing Gillette’s play debut in 1899, he reportedly
said, “It’s good to see the old chap back.”
The film is now undergoing a digital restoration in time to be
screened at the Cinémathèque’s Toute la Mémoire du Monde festival in
Paris in January.
- The Independent