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Arts & Culture

Audrey Kupferberg: William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes And Avant-Garde Films

One-hundred years ago, renowned American actor William Gillette stood before the cameras at the Essanay Studios in Chicago to make a celluloid record of his celebrated stage performance as Sherlock Holmes. The play was based on four of the popular Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and was adapted by Gillette with the author’s blessing.  Gillette played the legendary fictional detective on stage 1300 times from 1899 to 1932. He acted the character wearing the deerstalker cap and smoking the large, curved pipe, according to 19th century illustrations by Sidney Paget in the Strand Magazine.

Audiences in the United States and even in England and Scotland applauded Gillette’s Holmes.  So it is no wonder that, by 1915, a film studio would make a deal to manufacture a feature-length photoplay based on the stage production.  So they did!       

This film version of SHERLOCK HOLMES was released within the United States in 1916, but the European market was fairly frozen by World War I.  In 1920, a French film company released the film as a serial.  Then the film was laid away, forgotten, and virtually lost until a recent restoration undertaken by Flicker Alley, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and La CinemathequeFrancaise. 

For Sherlock Holmes fans, seeing William Gillette’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes after so many years of believing it was impossible to see, is a revelation.  For years, I talked myself into believing that Gillette’s performance would be creaky and overblown.  Boy, was I mistaken!  Gillette plays Holmes in a solid and subtle manner.  He stands among the most impressive actors to ever play Holmes in the movies or on television.  His creation stands tall among Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, John Barrymore, Douglas Wilmer, Ronald Howard, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The newly released DVD/BluRay package of the 1916 SHERLOCK HOLMES is a treat for all serious fans of one of the worlds’ most brilliant and entertaining fictional detectives.

Also from Flicker Alley this month is a DVD/BluRay package called MASTERWORKS OF AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE EXPERIMENTAL FILM: 1920-1970. At first glance, this collection appears to be a ho-hum, repetitious selection of classic experimental films—a collection which overlaps what already fills the shelves of those who relish seeing abstract experimental cinema.  But there are a good number of films that have not yet been available on video formats in this collection. 

One of the most significant of those is Francis Thompson’s colorful abstraction, N.Y., N.Y., which he created with cameras and prisms and other accoutrements over an eight year period in the late 1940s and late 1950s. Several years ago, I was able to go through parts of the Thompson estate and handled some of the tools this creative filmmaker used to make N.Y., N.Y.  The tools were so flimsy, so mundane.  Only an artist with a singular vision could have taken those pitifully poor tools and put together such a visual masterpiece.  N.Y., N.Y. looks like a computer-generated, high-tech work, but it isn’t that at all.  Neglected for many years because it was unavailable on video, perhaps now this film will regain its status as a noteworthy work of visual artistry.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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