William Gillette and the Art of Sherlock Holmes

This ad was shared in the Facebook group The ART of Sherlock Holmes recently:

The quote in the middle of the ad from Booth Tarkington makes me hunger for more than just only 9 minutes of William Gillette’s voice speaking lines from his play “Sherlock Holmes.” The recording was made when Mr Gillette was 82 years old, and he passed on the next year.The voice when spliced with some of the scenes from the 1916 silent film are awesome to hear and behold.

I have never posted my 5 top actors who played Sherlock Holmes. Here is the passage on why William Gillette is number 3 on my list:

3. William Gillette. I have only seen him in the recently discovered print of his classic 1916 Sherlock Holmes silent film. I have only heard him speak his role in the 9 minutes of the recording that survived and is floating around the internet. The sound recording I heard makes me desperately wish I could have heard more. It was revealed that William Gillette was 82 at the time he made the recording. His voice was so fine and modulated that he mirrored the emotions I imagined each of his actions called for. Had I heard the whole play I am almost convinced that he would be number one. I love the line that William Gillette does not look like Sherlock Holmes but that Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.

Take Good Care of yourselves during this hectic Holiday Season. -Chips

On July 24th…

“It is too little to say William Gillette resembled Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.” (Orson Welles, Mercury Theatre on the Air, 25 September 1938)

William Hooker Gillette was born on July 24, 1853, in Hartford, Connecticut. He played Sherlock Holmes on stage for the first time in 1899, and is inextricably linked to the role in the minds of many fans, having performed it more than 1300 times. He appeared in a 1916 film based on the play he wrote – a film thought long-lost until a copy was discovered in the Cinémathèque Française archive in 2014. The restored film was featured at film festivals and released on DVD in 2015.

(Ariana Maher (JHWS “Carla”) recounts her trip to see it at the Seattle International Film Festival in “A Day at the Movies“.)

The four-act play took elements from “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem”, as well as A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”, and “The Greek Interpreter”. Other than Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty, the characters were Gillette’s inventions. Those include Alice Faulkner – Holmes’s client and eventual romantic interest – and Billy the Pageboy, before his appearance in “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone”.

Cover illustration by Frederic Dorr Steele for Collier’s (1904)

Gillette’s portrayal of Holmes shaped the American image of the Great Detective. The curved pipe (which was better for being understood on stage) and the deerstalker cap (taken from Paget’s illustrations) became permanent accessories. Frederic Dorr Steele’s illustrations of Holmes for Collier’s Weekly seem to take Gillette as a model.

Between 1914 and 1919, Gillette designed and had constructed an elaborate home in East Haddam, CT. Upon his death in 1937, his will instructed that his home should not be allowed to go to  “some blithering saphead who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The property was purchased by the State of Connecticut in 1943 and is now known as Gillette Castle State Park.


Sources: A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes, by Leah Guinn (JHWS “Amber”) and Jaime N Mahoney (JHWS “Tressa”); The Sherlock Holmes Miscellany, by Roger Johnson (JHWS “Count”) and Jean Upton (JHWS “Countess”); Kevin Noonan, “Lost ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Film Discovered After Almost a Century” (Variety.com); and IMDb.

On February 15th… An Early Screen Holmes is Born

“Even a master detective may lose his heart.” [Lobby card for Sherlock Holmes (1922)]
Future famous screen Holmes John Barrymore was born John Sydney Blyth (or possibly Blythe, spellings vary) in Philadelphia, PA, on February 15, 1882. His parents, Maurice and Georgiana Blyth(e), were well-known actors under the stage name of Maurice and Georgiana Barrymore. John and his two older siblings, Lionel and Ethel, also took their parents’ stage name as they began their own theater careers. Generations of Barrymores have been famous actors, including John’s son, John Drew Barrymore, and grandaughter, Drew Barrymore.

The senior John Barrymore became famous for us in 1922, when he starred in the silent movie SHERLOCK HOLMES. (The film was released in the UK under the title MORIARTY.) John Barrymore said that his film, based on the William Gillette play would bring out the more romantic side of Holmes. (Alice Faulkner, the love interest introduced in Gillette’s play, was portrayed by silent film star Carol Dempster.) Any of our readers out there feel that is so?

In 1920, Barrymore starred in DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE. Reportedly, in comparing his roles in the two films, he said:

“Holmes is a purely static person: by that I mean a character with practically no emotions. It is naturally more difficult to play a man with no emotions than to play a man with emotions, and one must continually vary the character to make it interesting.”

[I can’t find any source for this other than a list of Barrymore quotations on IMDB; if you know where it’s from, please let me know in the comments! –Selena Buttons]

What do you think?

My source for this information comes from A Curious Collection of Dates by Leah Guinn (“Amber”) and Jaime N. Mahoney (“Tressa”). [Additional biographical and film history information from IMDB –Selena Buttons]

Original William Gillette Silent Film Discovered

Article From our Member, Kumar Bhatia “Bobbie”

William Gillette’s original performance on film as Sherlock Holmes has been found. Kumar Bhatia “Bobbie” sends us this article from India.  Follow the link to the fascinating description of the film, the restoration, screenshots and the planned premier.

Copy and paste in your browser: