Elementary, My Dear . . . Well, You Know the Rest

gilletteopenLast week, the Cinematheque Francaise announced that it had uncovered a copy of Sherlock Holmes, which was ranked “among the Holy Grails of lost films,” according to restoration expert Robert Byrne, who is also on the board of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Essanay Studios released Sherlock Holmes in 1916. In their soon-to-be-published Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, Michael Smith and Adam Selzer noted that the seven-reel film was the first feature-length version of Holmes’s exploits. It was also one of the last significant productions of Essanay’s Chicago-based studio before it closed its doors. But, the film’s real importance is its star, William Gillette, a prominent actor and playwright who was renowned on two continents during the first decades of the 20th century.

I have always been fascinated by forgotten stars—actors and entertainers who were beloved back in their day but who are now completely unknown. Sometimes, their careers lasted for decades; often they counted kings, queens, and presidents among their admirers. Yet, their talents go unsung to today’s audiences; their influences unrecognized. William Gillette was not only an acclaimed actor but also a playwright and stage manager whose fame rested on his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes on the stage.



Gillette was one of those larger-than-life historical figures who make you realize just how banal life in the computer age has become. He was born in Nook Farm, Hartford, Connecticut, a sort of writers’ colony frequented by Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Dudley. His father was a US senator who was an abolitionist, a teetotaler, and a supporter of women’s suffrage—a trifecta of unpopular positions that garnered a lot of attention. Gillette’s oldest brother struck out for California during the last days of the Gold Rush, while another fought in the Civil War, serving first in the Antietam campaign then later participating in the assaults on Fort Fisher. Both died while William was still at home. Decades later, during the peak of his career, Gillette continued to hobnob with high-profile artists and celebrities, including political cartoonist Thomas Nast and culture critic Alexander Woollcott. Professionally, he performed alongside young actresses Ethel Barrymore and Helen Hayes, who always spoke in reverent tones about his stage presence. He became close friends with actress Gertrude Berkeley, who named her son after him, Busby Berkeley William Eno, aka Busby Berkeley.



Mark Twain actually helped Gillette jump-start his career in 1875 when he recommended him for a role in Twain’s play The Gilded Age. As he toured the country in stock, Gillette saw the advantage of expanding his career to become a playwright and stage manager. As the latter, he gained a reputation for adding realism and complexity to stage productions. Instead of reverting to the two-dimensional, hand-painted backdrops that were a convention of 19th century American theater, he used realistically rendered sets with actual furniture and props. He applied for four patents, including one involving sound effects—a more believable re-creation of the pounding of horses’ hooves than two cocoanuts on a board. Gillette teamed up with legendary Broadway producer Charles Frohman, who staged the actor’s plays on the London stage. Gillette was the first U.S. playwright to garner enormous success in London with an American-style play, and he became the toast of London society. Frohman was savvy at promoting Gillette to his best advantage. The two remained associates and friends until the producer’s death in 1915 aboard the RMS Lusitania after it was torpedoed by the Germans during the early days of WWI. Frohman had facilitated the deal between Gillette and Arthur Conan Doyle that gave his client leave to rewrite Doyle’s stage play featuring his beloved detective. Gillette combined elements of four of Doyle’s stories with new material to construct his own version of the play titled Sherlock Holmes, with him in the leading role. The play debuted on October 23, 1899 in Buffalo, New York—of all places. Two years later, it premiered in London at the Lyceum.



Arthur-Wontner-as-Sherlock-HolmesThe character of Sherlock Holmes has been played by more actors than any other detective. The first screen version of Holmes was in a silent short released in 1903, and I do mean short, because apparently it was only a minute long. An actor named Ellie Norwood was the most prolific Holmes during the silent era, starring in seven movies. Colin Brook gets a nod for introducing the character to talkies in The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1929. During the 1930s, Arthur Wontner, Raymond Massey, Robert Rendel, and Reginald Owen starred in various films featuring Holmes, with Wontner receiving the most critical acclaim—at least at the time. The actor was in his 50s when he appeared in five Holmes movies, giving the character a different spin. Wontner was completely overshadowed when Basil Rathbone was cast as Holmes for the first time in 1939 in the lavish, atmospheric Hound of the Baskervilles. Not only did the younger Rathbone make Holmes more physically attractive he infused the character with energy and vitality. His persona was complemented by the endearing, slightly bumbling Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. For classic movie lovers, Rathbone’s interpretation defines the character because he appeared in 12 more Sherlock Holmes movies from 1942 to 1946. In later eras, other actors and directors tweaked and updated the character—from Hammer Films’ colorful, horror-based Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cushing to Guy Ritchie’s hyper-edited assaults on the senses starring Robert Downey Jr. as a flippant, irreverent Holmes.



So what did William Gillette bring to the table as Sherlock Holmes? He adopted some of the props and mannerisms that became trademarks for the character. He added the deekstalker cap to the costume, which he borrowed from the illustrations for the Holmes stories by Sidney Paget. He also gave Holmes the bent briar pipe, a magnifying glass, and a violin, which are now the accepted conventions for portraying the character. Gillette’s Holmes also used a syringe filled with cocaine—a prop and image not used again until contemporary interpretations of the character. He was the first to use the phrase, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” That was later reworked by Clive Brook as “Elementary, my dear Watson.”



Sherlock Holmes proved to be a popular hit in America and England. The role became Gillette’s signature part, and he would perform it 1,300 times. He graced the cover of magazines and programs in Holmes’s deerstalker cap. According to some sources, the critics were slow to warm up to his interpretation of the role. I found a 1901 review from a British paper that lamented the play’s improbable plot and thin dialogue but lauded its “elaborate business,” referring to Gillette’s staging. The review mentions the third act in which Holmes is trapped in Professor Moriarty’s gas chamber. Sherlock picks up a chair and smashes a lamp, which signals the stage to go into complete blackness except for the red glowing end of his cigar. As the fight ensues in total darkness, the audience hears a variety of thumps, scrapes, and punches but sees only the red glow darting around the stage. After the lights come up, the henchmen are trapped, the cigar is impaled on the wall, and Sherlock is gone.

As a prominent star who hobnobbed with celebrities and in certain social circles, Gillette fostered an image as a charismatic sophisticate, a raconteur and larger-than-life celebrity. Like the movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, he fostered an image that informed his characters. However, out of the limelight, he stayed to himself; he was aloof, mysterious, unknowable, and a bit eccentric. He rarely gave interviews, kept no journal, and burned his correspondence before his death.



The 1916 film version of Sherlock Holmes was Gillette’s only movie role and thus the only existing record of his work as an actor. Ads and reviews of the time were effusive in describing Gillette in the screen version of his hit play: An ad in The Daily Herald declared, “The character which Mr. Gillette’s genius has molded into a virile human being lives and breathes in screen action.” A review in the same paper boasted, “. . . he stands as a type of genius with no equal on the American stage today.”

A restored Sherlock Holmes will be screened at the 2015 San Francisco Film Festival in May. Perhaps the renewed attention will restore some of the fame that Gillette thrived on in another time and place.

18 Responses Elementary, My Dear . . . Well, You Know the Rest
Posted By Marjorie Birch : October 6, 2014 2:41 pm

I believe Mark Twain borrowed some elements of the Sherlock Holmes persona for “Tom Sawyer, Detective” an “Puddenheaded Wilson.”

Posted By robbushblog : October 6, 2014 3:09 pm

I just found out that Gillette also had a home in Tryon, NC, very close to where my mother grew up. I will have to track it down the next time I go to visit my aunt in Forest City.

Posted By LD : October 6, 2014 4:35 pm

Susan, when I first started reading your post William Gillette’s name sounded familiar. Then it dawned on me-pipe and deerstalker cap! Years ago I read all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and was also a big fan of the PBS series with Jeremy Brett. Rathbone and Brett remain my two favorite actors in the role. For several years in autumn I would read “The Hound of the Baskervilles. At some point I read about Gillette and his contributions to Holmes’ image on stage. It’s been a while since I have revisited Holmes and Watson and I hope that the 1916 restored version will be accessible to all of us before too long.

Posted By Jack Favell : October 6, 2014 4:37 pm

This is fantastic news! Gillette castle here in Connecticut is open to visitors during the summer and is filled to the brim with memorabilia and contraptions that he invented. It’s a remarkable place, part intimate lodge, part grandiose castle, and well worth the visit if you are in the area. I’ve spent many a pleasurable day inside it’s magical walls. There are trails leading to and from the castle, and boat rides on the CT. river that bring you right to the shore of the estate. The view of the CT. river is unbelievable!

Posted By Susan Doll : October 6, 2014 5:39 pm

Rob: From what I understand, the home in NC was his home prior to building the one in Connecticut. According to Internet sources, it is now a private residence on private property.

Posted By robbushblog : October 6, 2014 6:02 pm

Yep. That’s what I read too, but I’m still going to track it down and get a look at it.

Posted By tdraicer : October 6, 2014 7:40 pm

Thanks for noting this find. I saw the play (done by the RSC with John Wood as Holmes) on Broadway in the 1970s. It was great fun.

Posted By george : October 6, 2014 8:22 pm

Are you sure that’s a picture of Wontner as Holmes? Looks like Douglas Wilmer, who played Holmes on British TV in the ’60s and in THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 6, 2014 8:25 pm

George, you could be correct. I am not familiar with Wontner by sight, so I am at the mercy of other people’s captions.

Posted By swac44 : October 6, 2014 9:37 pm

I’d say definitely Wilmer in that photo, but that photo does come up for some reason when you Google “Arthur Wontner” and “Sherlock Holmes”. Then again, so does a publicity still from the rediscovered Gillette film. There is some resemblance, which explains why they were both cast as the character.

Posted By george : October 6, 2014 10:14 pm


Here’s a pic of Wontner in his Wickipedia entry.

When I was a young Sherlockian in the ’70s, I read that many fans regarded Wontner as the perfect Holmes. But his films were almost impossible to see in the U.S. then. (They never turned up on TV in my region.) I would have given anything to see them.

Cut to 20 years later, and Wontner’s Holmes movies were public-domain DVDs in the bargain bins. Except for the one that is now a lost film (THE MISSING REMBRANDT).

Posted By Doug : October 7, 2014 12:10 am

Sidenote-about ten years ago my sister gave me an old book by Mark Twain,which I put on my shelf and forgot. Last year I opened it and found that it is a first edition, so mighty cool!
“The Stolen White Elephant”, a collection of short stories from 1882.
You can have your Robert Downey Jr.-Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine are the most fun Holmes and Watson in “Without A Clue”.
Hopefully, Cinematheque Francaise will make the Essanay “Sherlock Holmes” available for viewing/purchase.

Posted By DBenson : October 7, 2014 6:45 am

Another long-lost film, John Barrymore’s “Sherlock Holmes”, cropped up a few years back and is available on DVD. As fate would have it, this lavish 1920s feature was also based on Gillette’s play. Sadly, for all its star power (including a very young William Powell) and location work, it’s much more a historical curio than an entertainment.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 7, 2014 8:26 pm

I replaced the suspicious Wontner photo with one that is truly a photo of the actor. Thanks everyone for pointing out the error.

Posted By Richard Brandt : October 7, 2014 9:58 pm

Years (well, decades) ago, Showtime aired a production of Gillette’s play starring Frank Langella, from which I quote endlessly, to this very day. It co-starred Susan Clark and, uh, Stephen Collins.

Posted By george : October 7, 2014 11:58 pm

Thanks, Susan. I’m not sure that Wontner is the definitive Sherlock Holmes, but he looks uncannily like the Sidney Paget illustrations in the Strand magazine.

Posted By rosebette : October 8, 2014 2:31 am

I grew up in Western Massachusetts and I actually saw Frank Langella in an adaptation of the Gillette play in Williamstown, MA. Langella was quite a handsome young guy at the time, I recall. I also saw the Gillette castle in CT, which was rather a disappointment, kind of a seedy place. This may have been in the late 70s.

Posted By heidi : October 8, 2014 4:29 pm

How exciting that this was found! I add my hope with others that it will be made available to the masses at some point!

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