14 February 2015

Cinematic Delights: A Century's old film, finally found. Silent Sherlock Holmes captivates.

As far as we know, time travel is not possible.  How many of would like to go back in time and experience the past, witness a historical event, meet, experience, or see a well-known person?
The Louvre on a wet day in 2015. My previous visit was on a
slightly warmer day in 1991.
Honestly, I would.

The time is 2015, and the place was Paris, France--a city I had not visited to any great length in over 20 years, the last time as a 16 year old. While the city itself didn't feel much different, some of its inhabitants did. I actually found myself understanding the trepidation of tourists visiting the capital.  Even with my knowledge of the language there were times I felt slighted in someway; that I perhaps had used the wrong definite article, failed to make an adjective agree, or that even translating to my friend in explaining what was happening was putting upon the local Parisian.  After one particular incident, as the string of curses that would have rivaled Malcolm Tucker, flowed out of my mouth I think I finally understood what many had been telling me for quite a while.  Now, this thirty-something can see the slight ridiculousness of my 16 year old self as a  tourist with my friends constantly looking for a McDs so that there would be ice in their soda, yet I also think there needs to be a positive response given to a genuine attempt at not being a tourist. And, in the end, despite the attitudinal glitches and walking roughly seven miles around Paris in one day (and realising how close much of the major bits of the city actually were) the raison d'etre of the whole trip made all the frustrations worth it--the viewing of Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette.

Sherlock Holmes and film enthusiast gather outside the cinema
waiting to see the great William Gillette.
I think I may have gotten as close as I ever will get to a world premiere a couple of weeks ago when I was lucky enough to attend the first-ever showing of this film in almost 100 years in Paris. There were no celebrities, no flashing bulbs, but for those in attendance, such as myself, there may as well have been for it was the first time that we, 21st Century Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, would see one of the first visual adaptations of the consulting detective by the original and, in my humble opinion, one of the greats.

The cinema was modern.  The seats were comfortable.  There was even a number of attendees in deerstalkers.  Signs and gadgets of 2015 were all around, but as soon as the lights dimmed, the picture appeared, and the music began it was 1916.  Sherlock Holmes, starring William Gillette, was on the screen.

The story, written by Gillette and originally shown on stage from 1899, was as captivating and engaging as anything that has come after it (and certainly better than some currently in production on US television). As many who have come after him continue to do, Gillette went back to the source material for his story. Original in the whole concept, he infuses his piece with elements of the original Conan Doyle stories that made me smile and even inwardly cheer to myself when I identified them.  Elements of Charles Augustus Milverton, The Final Problem, A Scandal in Bohemia can all be observed by the movie detective with a Holmesian eye.  With as many nods and references he made to the original stories, Gillette also devised a unique adventure with mystery, villains, damsels in distress, Billy the pageboy, a smidgen of Dr. Watson, a lack of Mrs. Hudson and even a love story; yes, Sherlock Holmes fell in love and I believed it!
A ticket of a lifetime. 

It is clear that by this time William Gillette knows his character like he might know himself. Sherlock Holmes is the type of character that takes a great amount of gravitas and presence; Gillette delivers. Although decidedly not a complete image of Paget's illustrated Holmes, Gillette still carries the physical stature of the great detective with his demeanor, grace, stance, intellect and even the slight playfulness that Holmes possesses.  His Sherlock is undoubtedly different than today's portrayals, but it is this that makes it so refreshing, so unique.  Instead of being the animated and agitated oddity or eccentricity that many of his successors portray, Gillette brings a calm, graceful and quiet humourous force to Holmes in the centre of the unsavory mysteries and adventures he encounters; it reminded me of the wonderful performances of Basil Rathbone.  Just listening to his voice left no doubt in my mind as to why he was acclaimed and applauded in the role.

Though we only see him in small doses, Dr. John H. Watson packs a punch--a more emotional one--in Gillette's Sherlock Holmes.  He does not as much assist Holmes with his adventures than he does with his life; the role of Dr. Watson of the friend and confidante, and yes doctor, is where he stays. Quietly sitting and waiting in 221B or getting on with the practice being a doctor, Watson waits for Holmes to return.  Much of the work of 'sidekick' is handed over to a supplemental character who pretends to be the servant in the grand home of the evil-doers.  William Gillette's Watson is played by Edward Fielding, an American actor who began his career on the London stage and joined the cast of Gillette's Sherlock Holmes in 1915 before playing the good doctor in the 1916 film*.  One noticeable difference in the actors is their physicality: Watson is taller than Holmes!  It was as slight shock as there are few adaptations today (save for the Guy Ritchie movies) that have the detective be shorter than his Boswell.  Nonetheless, it is said that one reason Gillette chose Fielding was because of his height and it works.  I don't think I could have ever accepted a love-struck Holmes had it not been due to the revelation by Watson; he must directly tell Holmes that he is in love as the detective is unable to deduce this himself.  That, for me, is what Watson is for Holmes.  Watson may have been left to one side in the adventure, but he still provided Holmes an important service in the end.
Photo of film poster of Sherlock Holmes

What Sherlock Holmes adaptation would be complete without his most infamous enemy, Professor Moriarty?  Certainly not this one.  The Professor appears later in the story as a resource for the flailing efforts of wrong-doing from the Larabees, the original instigators. French actor Ernest Maupain was charged with the task of bringing the world a first-look at the nemesis of Sherlock Holmes to the big screen.  As with Gillette's Holmes, Maupain's Moriarty is not exactly an image conjured up by the Canon, however, his successor's also don't always fit that bill (many would probably agree that honour goes to Granada's Moriarty), however, much like today much relies on the performance and interpretation of the character and Maupain impressed me.  With the inter-titles acting as his voice, his Moriarty was illustrated through the way he looked.  Noted as a "wizard of make-up", Maupain gives the lanky, frail image of the Canon Professor an overhaul being larger in size and movie-life with the aid of early make-up artistry and a glass-eye effect that was meant to surprise the viewer when he was angry or menacing*.  I have not seen many silent films (the few that I have seen are all Holmes-related), but the language and story told from all silent film actors' face and body language is a skill that only a highest caliber of today's actors' possess.  Maupain's Moriarty is equal parts evil and intellect; a perfect match for Holmes.

The supporting cast, all original characters created by Gillette, each play their roles as enticingly as the stars.  The damsel in distress and Holmes's future love interest, Alice Faulkner, is played exquisitely by Marjorie Kay.  Kay, much like Gillette and Maupin,  said all that she needed to say with her gestures and facial features.  It was never over done; I never once thought to myself that one expression or another was too much.  She brings a simple beauty and grace to the screen as a character and actress.  In an era of films littered with the likes of 50 Shades of Grey,  it was certainly something to behold a woman who was smart, independent and not be overpowered by those deemed to be stronger than her.  James and Madge Larabee (portrayed by Mario Majeroni and Grace Reals, respectively) brought an air of fun and humour as the pair of slightly bumbling baddies holding Faulkner and who, despite Moriarty's aid, are foiled by Holmes.

Last, certainly not least for a film of 100 years, its restoration.  In a few words: beautiful, amazing, unbelievable, art. All film can be viewed as art.  Sherlock Holmes certainly fits and its restoration confirms it.  In a joint, collaborative team effort between La Cinematheque Francaise and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the result of a lost film restored to its original grandeur is an accomplishment.  One aspect that sets it apart from other films of its era, which gives it an artistic quality, is the use of colour--yes, colour!  Single monotone hues of yellow and blue were in the film at particular points in the story.  The restoration team decided to leave this as it helped tell the story--blue hues during the nighttime atmosphere and yellow hues during a daytime setting. Giving it that final early twentieth century feeling, the film came complete with its own original soundtrack using only a piano, violin and percussions as well as sound effects, similar to what Gillette may have used based off of archives of the play, with door bells, slams and rats in a basement.  With that, my trip to 1920 was complete.  Might had it been better with a time machine?  Who knows, but I am thrilled the opportunity I had for this particular trip back.
A rainy day at the Louvre

Upon my return to 21st Century Paris, the pleasure of meeting and talking with people who enjoy the same interests continued through the evening as I joined the Sherlock Holmes Society of France for after movie drinks.  As much as I was frustrated with those who seemed to mock and be plain rude to me, there were those who I felt a certain kinship with, those who didn't hear my accent or bad grammar and only the language of Sherlock Holmes.  To them a heartfelt--Merci. And, to William Gillette for being the first of over 150 actors to portray the great detective on stage, then screen. The game will always be afoot!

*Information from Le Guide du film Sherlock Holmes (1916) by the Sherlock Holmes Society of France