The 1916 Sherlock Holmes was not the first film based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective but it is by all accounts the first Holmes feature and in many ways it remains the most important Holmes film ever made. It’s an adaptation of the popular stage play written and produced by William Gillette, who drew his script from a collection of Holmes tales with the blessing of Doyle. Gillette toured England and the U.S. in the title role for years before hanging it up but revived the play one final time 1915. It was a smash on Broadway and Gillette took it on tour, ending up in Chicago where the Essanay Film Company struck a deal to bring the stage play to the big screen and bring Gillette’s signature performance before the cameras in a cast featuring both his roadshow actors and members of the Essanay stock company.
We’re not talking resurrected masterpiece here, mind you, but it is a fine piece of filmmaking and an entertaining feature from an era when features were still finding their form. More importantly, it is the sole film performance of William Gillette, a stage legend in his own right and the first definitive Sherlock Holmes, as conferred upon him by both audiences and the author Doyle himself. His interpretation informed the performances that followed, not just in terms of performance but in the screen mythology itself. Gillette elevated Moriarty (played in the film by French actor and Essanay company regular Ernest Maupain) from minor Doyle character to defining nemesis (and in some ways anticipated Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), gave Holmes his signature curved pipe, and added the term “elementary” to his repertoire. In other ways his version is unlike the Holmes of the page or later screen versions. He’s a cultivated patrician in elegant evening clothes and dressing robes before donning the signature deerstalker cap and familiar tools of the trade, he falls in love, and he even marries (with Doyle’s blessing).
Above all, Gillette’s Holmes is dignified, observant, committed, and courageous as he outsmarts kidnappers and stalks Moriarty to his underground liar, and Gillette’s screen presence is defining and commanding. He dominates the film, which is directed by Arthur Berthelet with rudimentary but effective staging and pacing. There’s something of a factory quality to the production but the performances enliven the film. Not just Gillette but the entire supporting cast, from his touring company players taking the roles of his support team to Essanay’s actors as Moriarty and his henchmen. Compared to John Barrymore’s 1922 Sherlock Holmes, also based on Gillette’s play, Gillette’s portrait of the detective is, well, more Holmesian in both temperament and action. Barrymore plays it big and broad. Gillette lets his stern gaze and stony face suggest the genius at work.
The film was long assumed lost until original materials of the 1920 French release, which was divided into four serialized chapters but otherwise apparently uncut, were discovered in the collection of the Cinemateque Française. The restoration premiered in early 2015, nearly 100 years after its debut.