Theatre / Sherlock Holmes
Gillette as Holmes, with pipe.

May I marry Holmes?
William Gillette, in a telegram to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle concerning this play.

You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's reply to the above

Sherlock Holmes, A Play, wherein is set forth The Strange Case of Miss Alice Faulkner was the popular dramatization of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, by William Gillette, the Holmes for the generation before Basil Rathbone. Rather than being an adaption of any of Conan Doyle's stories it takes elements from "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Final Problem," and "A Study in Scarlet" to weave a completely original though very Holmesian tale.

The Miss Faulkner whose strange case is the story of this play was the sister of an unnamed girl whose heart was broken by a disastrous liaison with an unnamed foreign gentleman. The affair ruined that girl's brief life, and Alice has the evidence to prove it. She was taken in by a couple of confidence artists named James and Madge Larrabee (calling themselves Chetwood for the purposes of the scheme), who bought an Old, Dark House in London to keep her and her poor old mother in and a desk safe to lock the documents in. But they couldn't twist the documents out of her before Sherlock Holmes got on the case.

With the timely cooperation of Forman, the butler, Holmes rescues Miss Faulkner and the package from the house, but yields the package to her on account of her possessive attachment to them. Larrabee's old friend, the Cockney crook Sid Prince, places him in contact with Professor Moriarty, king of all criminal enterprise, who agrees to arrange Holmes's downfall for no fee at all. Holmes, knowing that Larrabee intends to trade him a counterfeit version of the package, hatches a plan of his own, risking his life to obtain the counterfeit package and swindle Alice into willingly giving him the genuine one. It's a dirty trick to play on such a nice girl, he knows.

The play was hugely successful. It debuted in 1899 and ran for over thirty years, with Gillette giving his final Holmes performance in 1932. A young Charlie Chaplin, then a teenager trying to escape the poverty of the London slums, played Billy regularly for 2 1/2 years, including in one production opposite Gillette.

This play is responsible for several Holmes tropes that are not found in Conan Doyle. The deerstalker cap, the calabash pipe and the name "Billy" for the previously nameless pageboy all originated in Gillette's play.

Film adaptations

Sherlock Holmes was twice adapted for silent film. A 1916 feature film starred William Gillette. This version was believed lost for nearly a century, until a copy was found in France in 2014. It was made again in 1922 with John Barrymore in the title role. The 1922 version is probably most notable for its remarkable cast. Roland Young, who made his film debut as Watson, would have a very successful career as a character actor in films like Topper and The Philadelphia Story. William Powell, who became a huge star in The Great Depression, also made his film debut here as Forman the butler. Hedda Hopper, who would later leave acting to become a very famous newspaper gossip columnist, plays one of Moriarty's employees. Louis Wolheim, who became a pretty big star later in the silent era, plays a Mook. And Carol Dempster, who spent most of The Twenties as the girlfriend, protege, and leading lady of D. W. Griffith, appears in the film as the Love Interest, in one of only two films she ever made that weren't directed by Griffith.

The credits for the 1939 Basil Rathbone film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes say that the movie is based off the play, but apart from having Moriarty as the villain it has nothing in common with the play.


  • Baker Street Regular: Billy, the page boy.
  • Batman Gambit: Holmes risks his life to negotiate the purchase of a MacGuffin from the villains, not letting Alice know he knows it's a fake in order to manipulate her into surrendering the real MacGuffin to the Count and Sir Edward, who congratulate Holmes for pulling off this ingenious scheme.
  • Canon Foreigner: Alice Faulkner.
  • Canon Immigrant: Billy, who makes his first appearance as a page in this play, was later used by Conan Doyle in some of his own Holmes plays and eventually in a few of the actual canonical stories.
  • Damsel in Distress: Alice Faulkner needs Sherlock's help.
  • Death Trap: The Gas Chamber at Stepney, personally inspected by Moriarty. Holmes finds it easily escapable.
  • Diabolical Mastermind: Professor Moriarty.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Holmes really outdoes himself in this regard.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: While Moriarty's back is turned, Holmes unloads his revolver so he won't have to worry if Moriarty should suddenly try to use it on him, which he does. Hilarity Ensues.
  • MacGuffin: A packet containing letters, photographs, jewelry etc. that were sent to Alice Faulkner's late sister by a foreign gentleman who seduced and ruined her, and the villains want it out of the picture now that he wants to marry. The name of the gentleman is merely whispered inaudibly, and the sister's name is not revealed either.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Conan Doyle's anonymous pageboy becomes "Billy".
  • Sherlock Scan: Performed by Holmes on Watson, as usual, and before that on "Mr Chetwood."

Tropes particular to the 1922 film adaptation:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Almost the whole first half of the film is set in Holmes's and Watson's youth, before the play.
  • Animal Motif: Moriarty is associated with a spider spinning a web. In his first scene the film actually shows an image of Moriarty at the center of a literal spider web.
  • Driven to Suicide: Rose jumps off a mountain in Switzerland after Prince Alexis rejects her. (In the play this happened in the backstory).
  • Dull Surprise: This film is good evidence of why D.W. Griffith's efforts to make Carol Dempster a star failed.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Moriarty is flabbergasted when he finds out that Holmes gave the incriminating letters back to Alice.
  • Heel–Face Turn: After confessing to the theft that opens the film, Forman Wells, who was a protege of Moriarty, goes to work for Holmes. In the play he is already Holmes' valet at the beginning.
  • Meet Cute: Holmes first meets Alice when he's in university. He's examining some wildlife with his magnifying glass when he slips and falls in the road, whereupon Alice nearly hits him with her cart.
  • Mythology Gag: Nothing of the plot is taken from Conan Doyle's writing, but the scene in which Holmes is jotting down a self-assesment of his knowledge of various fields ("Literature: nil...Chemistry: profound") is lifted directly from Watson's assesment of Holmes in A Study in Scarlet.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Again! In the play Alice's sister killed herself in the backstory, and is not named. Here she is named Rose, and her suicide is shown.
  • Origins Episode: The film includes a long introductory sequence showing Holmes and Watson as university students together. It also shows Holmes meeting Alice, Prince Alexis, and Moriarty, well before all of them come back into his life. It joins the plot of the play nearly halfway through, when Alice is being held captive by the Larrabees.
  • Re-Cut: This film was believed for decades to be lost. When it was finally discovered in the 1970s, it existed not as a regular theatrical cut, but a jumbled mass of all the footage shot for the movie, including alternate takes and deleted scenes. Film historian Kevin Brownlow, working with the film's director, Albert Parker (then in his late 80s), stitched together what is believed to be a relatively close approximation of the film as it ran in theaters.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Played completely straight. After getting a look at Moriarty's elaborate gas chamber trap, Louis Wolheim's Mook asks "Why all the fuss, gov'ner, why not knock 'im on the 'ead?".
  • Worst News Judgement Ever: "SHERLOCK HOLMES HOUSE BURNED" isn't just a headline, it takes up a whole broadsheet.