Sunday 5 October 2014

Sherlock Holmes silent classic uncovered in Paris vault

Sherlock Holmes silent classic uncovered in Paris vault

A couple of months ago the British Film Institute issued one of its occasional calls for us all to be on the look-out for its top 75 "Most Wanted" lost films - titles from the dawn of moving pictures right up to the 1970s that have seemingly vanished from archives, film libraries and national collections around the world.  In this particular instance it was a request for everyone to turn "Great Detective" and keep their eyes peeled for a copy - or a clue to a copy - of the first ever film adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes story.

A Study in Scarlet, the initial Holmes story that introduces us to "the world's only consulting detective" and his trusty friend Dr Watson, was adapted into a film in 1914 by a British concern called the Samuelson Film Manufacturing Company - a name long since forgotten among the many businesses that attempted to get involved in the new and lucrative moving picture business at the turn of the last century.  James Bragington, who worked at Samuelson's (but not actually as an actor!), was chosen for his resemblance to Holmes (as described in the books) and by all accounts made a remarkably good fist of it - aided by some on-the-job training and the slightly florid acting style demanded by silent movies of that era.  Filming took place at locations including Cheddar Gorge.  The director, George Pearson, would go on to make 1923's Love, Life and Laughter, another previously lost film whose rediscovery earlier this year was also featured on this blog.

James Bragington as Sherlock Holmes
Despite positive reviews and showings at picture houses around the country, the first film version of A Study in Scarlet has since slipped into obscurity and been considered lost for decades.  Sadly a separate American production of the same story made and released almost concurrently with the British version, plus Samuelson's own 1916 follow-up The Valley of Fear, are also considered lost.  A fourth 1910s Sherlock Holmes film, simply called Sherlock Holmes, also made in 1916 by the American Essanay Film Manufacturing Company (best known for producing Charlie Chaplin films during 1915) and starring William Gillette - who had become the quintessential stage Holmes following the successful tours of his theatrical amalgamation of various stories and upon which the film was based - similarly was long thought lost by film and Holmes experts.

A Study in Scarlet (1914)

Cinémathèque Française discovers 1916 Sherlock Holmes film

Until now, that is, with the wonderful news of the discovery of a French-subtitled copy of the Gillette film in the archives of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris.  Once more giving hope in the search for the other 75 most wanted lost films, Sherlock Holmes had been mislabelled before it was consigned to Cinémathèque Française's shelves decades ago - a mistake that has only now come to light.  With luck many more previously lost films may be rediscovered in like manner - incorrect labelling and private collections still being the most promising sources.

This find is doubly important not only for adding to and increasing our knowledge of the early years of Sherlock Holmes on film (prior to the great Basil Rathbone) but also because it is the only moving picture William Gillette ever did.  We will now, therefore, be able to see for the first time in one hundred years his performance - widely lauded at the time, even by Conan Doyle himself - as the Great Detective and one generally considered to be generation-defining.  It will be interesting to finally be able to compare him to Rathbone, Peter Cushing and Jeremy Brett.

Cinémathèque Française, in collaboration with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, are currently undertaking what sounds like a thorough restoration of the fragile negatives - hopefully in time for a premiere at the former's own film festival in Paris during January 2015.  Then, who knows, perhaps the BFI will get involved and oblige us with a limited release in the UK - perhaps even a DVD.  I'm really hoping we get to see it somehow!


  1. I thought the rediscovered film was an American one and the British one was still missing? I'm probably mistaken...

    1. Sorry Mim, guess I wasn't clear enough! Yes, it's the American film that has been found in Paris; the BFI are still looking for the British ones.


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