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Searching for Sherlock in a 100-Year-Old Holmes

By on March 11, 2015

Actor William Gillette playing the detective Sherlock Holmes, 1899

By Wendy C. Fries

Twitchy.

Childish.

Straight-backed.

Sly.

DNA’s a tricky thing. You won’t always find a family resemblance in even the closely-related; a child might be brown-eyed and tall to her parents’ blue-eyed and small. Yet, if you’ve a mind to see (and observe), you might notice a familial refinement of posture, a wily tilt of the head—similarities hidden deep in the double helix of DNA.

This by way of explaining why, when I watched the 1916 silent movie Sherlock Holmes in Paris’ Cinémathèque Française this January, I was eager to see if today’s small screen Holmeses shared any genes with renowned actor William Gillette, in this, his only recorded performance as the great detective.

To my delight, they do, and the family resemblance goes beyond pipes and posh dressing gowns.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s dramatic flourishes and straight-backed arrogance in Sherlock, the twitchy quickness of Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary, the exuberant physicality of Igor Petrenko in Russia’s Sherlock Holmes…many of the characteristics displayed by Gillette in his screen interpretation of Holmes are easy to see in the TV performances of these modern men.

Yet Cumberbatch, Miller, and Petrenko couldn’t have started their Holmesian journeys with William Gillette’s interpretation in mind.

Though Gillette portrayed Holmes over a thousand times on stage, though he wrote and starred in Sherlock Holmes while Arthur Conan Doyle was still writing stories about his legendary detective, Gillette did these long before today’s Sherlocks were born. Then the only celluloid proof of his performance was lost for decades, rediscovered only late last year in the archives of the Cinémathèque Française.

Still, every actor who’s played the role of this most famous Englishman has had the bones of Conan Doyle’s words to help flesh out his detective.

When Conan Doyle talks about Holmes’ hawk-like mien it’s no wonder Gillette and Miller give the detective alert, bird-like tilts of the head and the flutter of quick movement.

Likewise, if a writer says a man’s not immune to flattery, that he can be a touch vain and egotistical, why wouldn’t Cumberbatch and Gillette show this with chin-lifted posturing and theatrical gestures?

And though the consulting detective relies most often on his brain, Conan Doyle affords him a brawny proficiency in boxing and fencing, so Gillette’s Holmes has the easy physicality of an athletic man and Petrenko’s paces and dashes and ducks.

Perhaps the most intriguing gene these modern Holmeses share with their century-old progenitor is a certain childishness. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock literally looks to John for guidance on proper behaviour; Miller’s Sherlock does the opposite, his gaze darting from Joan when her opinion matters most; and sitting on an exam bench, Petrenko’s Holmes swings his feet like a little boy as the good doctor patches him up.

Gillette expresses this endearing tendency in gentle touches, draping an arm around his friend’s shoulder or tugging at his lapel and looking on with a puppyish gaze as Watson explains to Holmes that he’s in love.

Having read Conan Doyle’s stories since I was a kid, seen dozens of iterations of Sherlock on screens big and small, and after writing fact and fiction about the famous detective, I’m probably over-keen to find a pedigree connecting one Holmes to another, but isn’t a viewer’s interpretation at the heart of understanding art?

Okay, maybe you won’t detect the manners of a 100-year-old Holmes in contemporary interpretations. Perhaps you’ll see the influence of Benedict Cumberbatch’s actor-mother Wanda Ventham in his gestures, or you get a distinct Robert Downey Jr. vibe from Igor Petrenko.

You can search for Sherlock yourself. If you missed the debut of Gillette’s gorgeously-restored Sherlock Holmes in Paris this January, you’ll have another chance when it’s presented at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in May 2015. If you can’t make it to California there’s talk that the Barbican in London may show the movie, and that the British Film Institute may issue it on DVD.

Yes, DNA is a tricky thing, yet I think if you’ve a mind to search for your small screen Sherlock in a 100-year-old Holmes, well, you might find that some things do, indeed, run in the family.

One Comment

  1. Elizabeth Varadan

    March 19, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    A witty, enjoyable post. I live in California, so maybe I can catch this film in San Francisco.

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