Unraveling a mystery: Lost 1916 ‘Sherlock’ film found

Here is the story of how a 1916 silent film made in Chicago starring William Gillette, the most reno
William Gillette in the long-lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes film.
William Gillette in the long-lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes film.

MONTIGNY-LE-BRETONNEUX, France — Here is the story of how a 1916 silent film made in Chicago starring William Gillette, the most renowned Sherlock Holmes interpreter of his day, came to be lost for nearly a century. And then, miraculously, found.

But we’ll get to that.

Meantime: If anyone ever writes a mystery about a detective searching for a long-lost artifact, in the shadowy corridors of a film archive so atmospheric it could’ve been designed for the movies, then there is only one possible archive for the job. Call off the location scouts. We have a winner.

The archives of the Cinematheque Francaise are housed in a sprawling 19th century military compound crouching against a hillside among trees, chirping birds and a panorama of greenery. Fort de Saint-Cyr was built in response to the 1870 Prussian invasion of France. Stroll through its tunnel-like entryway today, and you find yourself in the courtyard of a building completed in 1879, long before the movies changed our way of seeing, and seven years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced his sleuth revered around the world.

One day in February 2014, a staff member of the Cinematheque archive, 15 miles southwest of Paris, sat down at her table to catalogue another day’s worth of fragile nitrate films. Alphabetically this was an “S” day. Archivist Emmanuelle Berthault cracked open the first of several moldering film cans shipped over from the nearby Centre National du Cinema.

“Most of the films,” she later wrote to a fellow film historian, “are pretty well identified and we know what we are going to discover in the cans. But one of the titles was mysterious, it was only under the title ‘Sherlock Holmes.’”

The cans contained three different films: a German film produced by UFA in 1937; an episode of a 1954 TV series (“The Case of the Texas Cow Girl”); and a “very puzzling” third, made up of five cans of reels of a duplicate negative, or “dupe neg” in archival parlance.

“It was very easy to identify the film,” Berthault recalled. “There were flash-titles, with the title, the director’s name, the production company and … the name ‘William Gillette.’

“But frankly I didn’t realize, at this moment, the importance of the discovery.”

Every so often, something wonderful happens in the world of film restoration. A lost film is found. Perhaps it’s in a collector’s attic, or hiding in plain sight, on a museum storage facility’s shelf. Sometimes the old dupe neg, or 16 or 35 millimeter print, is salvageable; it has avoided the dreaded “vinegar syndrome,” the decaying process that can distort and eventually destroy the nitrate relic in question.

Occasionally a print in weirdly good condition emerges out of the blue. A work print of a masterpiece can turn up in a janitor’s closet in a Norwegian mental institution: It happened in 1981 with Carl Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc.”

Meanwhile, the majority of all silent films have been lost or destroyed. F.W. Murnau’s circus melodrama “4 Devils,” Lon Chaney in “London After Midnight” and so many more remain tantalizing buried treasures. And there’s no treasure map.

But here it was, on a table at the Cinematheque archive: the lost “Sherlock Holmes” from 1916.

“It was fantastic,” says Celine Ruivo, director of the Cinematheque film collection. Growing up in Paris she spent many nights as a teenager attending the latest Cinematheque retrospective. Now she works at the national citadel of cinema, founded in 1936 by Henri Langlois. It is, she says, without irony, “a mythical place that happens also to be real.”

With “Sherlock Holmes,” Ruivo says, “we knew the importance of what we had. Nobody had it. It was in excellent condition, complete.”

The American premiere takes place Sunday at the Silent Film Society’s annual festival in San Francisco.

By the time Gillette starred in his first and only film, he was known throughout America and England as the go-to Sherlock. In 1899 Gillette adapted several Holmes stories, with Conan Doyle’s blessing, for a stage vehicle. He amalgamated bits from the stories “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Copper Beeches,” “The Final Problem” and “A Study in Scarlet.”

Gillette wanted Holmes to fall in love. Conan Doyle said, why not? As he wrote to Gillette: “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.”

The actor, 6 foot, 3 inches tall and built like a Victorian-era Gary Cooper, toured far and widely as Holmes, popularizing the deerstalker cap; the curved pipe; and the extraordinarily felicitious catch-phrase “Elementary, my dear fellow,” not found in any of the stories.

The stage star was 63 when he shot the movie at Essanay Studios in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, in the spring of 1916. A handful of scenes in “Sherlock Holmes” bring Gillette and company outdoors for exterior shots. These are fascinating slivers of history. Chicagoans will relish glimpses of Holmes stepping out of a horse-drawn carriage, in a cobblestone alley meant to be London but in reality somewhere in Chicago.

Seen today, Gillette’s screen charisma seems positively modern in its restraint.

“It breaks the stereotype we have of silent film acting being overly broad, overly gestured,” says San Francisco Silent Film Society board president Robert Byrne, who has overseen the film’s restoration in collaboration with the Cinematheque Francaise. The Cinematheque presented the world premiere of the restored “Sherlock Holmes” in January.

“Film acting,” Byrne says, “got pretty subtle pretty quickly. Nonetheless, this was Gillette’s first and only screen appearance. And he figured it out right away. His is the first major Sherlock on film. And in its way this wasn’t just a lost film; it was a lost play. The restoration brings Holmes’ first appearance on the stage back to life.”

The process of restoring even a first-rate copy of an ancient duplicate negative involves many steps and many months.

Ruivo notified Byrne about the rediscovery of “Sherlock Holmes” in April last year. Ruivo then shipped the seven reels (roughly two hours’ worth) to Italy’s Cineteca di Bologna, one of the world’s premier restoration facilities. Bologna’s restoration team made physical repairs to the footage and scanned the film digitally at a high 4k resolution.

From there, Byrne in San Francisco received 114,000 separate, sequentially numbered files for each frame. At home, using sophisticated computer software, Byrne then undertook the job of removing dust and scratches and finessing instances of visible nitrate deterioration. Then Byrne and Ruivo traveled to Bologna to oversee the restoration of the color tint.

No one knows how the “Sherlock Holmes” with the French-language inter-titles, the version shown to the French public in 1920, ended up at the Cinematheque. No one has yet determined if Cinematheque founder Langlois ever screened it publicity, decades after its initial release.

Today, “the very first question should be: Is it any good?” Byrne says. “It’s not a great film. But it’s a good film.” Visually, he says, “you get some pans, you get dollies, you get some interesting double exposure effects in some shots.”

Byrne and Ruivo also learned, after last year’s announcement of the rediscovery, that a newfound “Sherlock Holmes” gets you a ton of interest for Sherlockians everywhere. Various private parties, Holmes freaks all, contributed funds toward the restoration. Among the donors: two producers of the Benedict Cumberbatch “Sherlock” TV series, begun in 2010 and still going strong on PBS.

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