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Theatre / Sherlock Holmes

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"[William Gillette] leant his considerable gifts as a playwright to the indestructible legend of the Conan Doyle detective and produced the play which is as much a part of the Holmes literature as any of Sir Arthur's own romances. And, as nobody will ever forget, he gave his face to him. For William Gillette was the aquiline and actual embodiment of Holmes himself. It is too little to say that William Gillette resembled Sherlock Holmes; Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette."
Orson Welles, introducing his own adaptation of Gillette's melodrama for The Mercury Theatre on the Air

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 note , who also starred as Holmes in the original Broadway production and many subsequent ones. 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 in question was the sister of an unnamed girl whose heart was broken by an ill-fated romance with an unnamed foreign gentleman who is heir to a considerable title; the romance being broken off at the insistence of his family. The love 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.

Having his agent Forman (an Inspector on loan from Scotland Yard) in the house posing as 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 in England. With Holmes slowly working on a chain of evidence that will send Moriarty straight to the gallows, the criminal genius gleefully decides 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 on both sides of the Atlantic with Gillette regularly performing the role on and off for decades. His final stage performance as Holmes was in 1932 at the age of 79, his final performance as Holmes in any medium was in 1935 at the age of 82 for a now lost radio dramatization. Gillette's numerous performances on stage, film, and radio note  made him the Holmes of his generation long before Basil Rathbone. As Orson Welles once said: "It is too little to say that William Gillette resembled Sherlock Holmes; Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette". Illustrator Frederic Dorr Steele used Gillette as his model for Holmes for the accompanying illustrations in the American publications of Conan Doyle's stories. A young Charlie Chaplin, then a teenager trying to escape the poverty of the London slums, played Billy regularly for 2½ 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, note  the calabash pipe, the name "Billy" for the previously nameless pageboy, and finally the now famous phrase: "Elementary, my dear Watson" all originated in Gillette's play.

Film and TV Adaptations:

  • A 1916 feature film starred William Gillette note  himself and other members of a then recent production. This version was believed lost for nearly a century, until a copy was found in France in 2014, and after a year long restoration premiered a year later. In France the film had been edited into four episodes as a serial, and the English translation reflects that.
  • 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 Roaring '20s 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.
  • A filmed stage performance starring Frank Langella as Holmes broadcast on HBO in 1981.

Radio and Audio Adaptations:


  • 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.
  • Elaborate Underground Base: Moriarty's lair is a more realistic version of this trope, being based in the cellar of an old abandoned warehouse. Modern trappings include a private telephone / speaking tube and secret door.
  • 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:
    • 221B Baker Street's anonymous pageboy becomes "Billy". Doyle himself would use the name in his later stories.
    • Gillette gives Professor Moriarty, the first name of Robert. Conan Doyle wouldn't give Moriarty the name James until 1915 in his final Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear.
  • Proof Dare: After Holmes triumphantly declares to Larrabee that he can now have him arrested for robbery once he makes his escape, Larrabee scoffs: "My arrest! Ha, ha! Robbery eh— Why even if you got away from here, you haven't got a witness! Not a witness to your name." Holmes answers: "I'm not so sure of that, Mr. Larrabee! Do you usually fasten that door with a knife?" He points to the cupboard door, from behind which a very faint feminine moan is soon heard. Holmes then moves quickly to remove the knife, open the door and liberate the Bound and Gagged Alice Faulkner.
  • 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.
  • Stating the Simple Solution: 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.