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William Gillette: Five ways he transformed how Sherlock Holmes looks and talks

  • 26 January 2015
  • From the section Magazine
Media captionClip from William Gillette's 1916 film adaptation of Sherlock Holmes - previously thought lost

A 1916 silent movie featuring Sherlock Holmes - long presumed lost - is due to have its premiere in Paris. It stars a man who changed the way we see Conan Doyle's famous sleuth forever.

He was the first great Sherlock Holmes. But few will have heard of US actor William Gillette.

He is thought to be a distant relation of the family behind Gillette razors, wrote plays about the American civil war, patented a noise to imitate the sound of a galloping horse and built an enormous castle in Connecticut. But it is his Holmes that fascinates people today.

And until three months ago, it seemed that no-one would ever see it.

Gillette adapted Sherlock Holmes for the stage in 1899 and played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective more than 1,000 times.

He made only one film, the 1916 silent movie version of Sherlock Holmes. For decades the movie was presumed lost, one of the great missing links of Sherlockiana. Then in October 2014 it was discovered at the Cinematheque Francaise, a film archive in Paris.

"At last we get to see for ourselves the actor who kept the first generation of Sherlockians spellbound," says Professor Russell Merritt, who has been researching the film's origins. "As far as Holmes is concerned, there's not an actor dead or alive who hasn't consciously or intuitively played off Gillette."

Image caption A publicity photo of Gillette as Holmes

Not only was Gillette the Benedict Cumberbatch of his day. He was the actor who decided - perhaps more than any other - how Holmes looks and talks, and whose relationship with Conan Doyle may have breathed new life into the Sherlock Holmes franchise.

Here are five ways Gillette created the Holmes we know today.

Curved pipe

Two props evoke Sherlock Holmes above all others.

The first is the deerstalker. Conan Doyle's stories never mentioned his distinctive headgear - it was given to Holmes by the illustrator Sidney Paget when the stories were published in the Strand Magazine in 1891.

The other crucial object is his pipe. It's not an ornament but a part of Holmes's deductive ritual. "It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won't speak to me for fifty minutes," he says to Watson in the Red-Headed League.

The books describe a "black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird". Paget gave Holmes a straight pipe.

Image caption Holmes illustrated with straight pipe in The Strand magazine

But William Gillette's 1899 play made a crucial change. The shaft of the pipe was no longer straight but curved.

"The story goes that he's able to deliver his lines while still smoking. A more traditional pipe and his hand would have been in front of his mouth," says Alex Werner, curator of the Museum of London's ongoing exhibition, "Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die."

The curved pipe stuck in the popular imagination and became "iconic", Werner says.

Image caption Basil Rathbone adopted the William Gillette pipe

There have been occasional amendments though. In the 1988 film Without a Clue, Michael Caine puffs on a more ostentatiously curvy pipe. And in the recent BBC TV series, Benedict Cumberbatch has a nicotine patch instead.

'Elementary, my dear fellow'

The most Holmesian phrase - "Elementary my dear Watson" - is never uttered in the books. Gillette is perhaps the man who did most to bring it in, although he never used the exact phrase.

In the play he wrote the line: "Elementary my dear fellow." Others subsequently swapped "fellow" with "Watson".

PG Wodehouse is often credited with this swap in his spoof novel Psmith. But the Oxford English Dictionary queries this.

It seems that the term was already being used in newspapers before Wodehouse's 1915 novel. So some uncertainty remains as to who coined it.

Conan Doyle included the term "elementary" in Holmes's deductive vernacular. He also included "my dear Watson". But never in the same sentence.

It seems that Gillette almost put the two together. And others later finished the job. The line, "Elementary my dear Watson" probably became famous when the talkies came in - it was used in The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1929, which starred Clive Brook.

The other great 'Sherlock Holmes' actors

  • Basil Rathbone (1892-1967): English actor who played Holmes in 14 films between 1939 and 1946, still probably the most well-known screen incarnation of the role; Rathbone's films were the first to update Holmes and portray him pitting his wits against the Nazis
  • Jeremy Brett (1933-95): Starred in four series of Granada TV's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, an attempt to adapt Conan Doyle's stories faithfully for television
  • Benedict Cumberbatch (1976-): Star of BBC's Sherlock (pictured), which re-imagines Holmes and Dr Watson in 21st Century London

BBC Sherlock page

Suave dressing gown

Conan Doyle describes Holmes' dressing gown as variously blue, purple or mouse-coloured, according to Roger Johnson, editor of the Sherlock Holmes Journal. However, that's all the reader is told.

Johnson says Gillette's dressing gown moved Holmes slightly up-market: "Gillette had a really rather plush, splendid dressing gown and some of the subsequent actors adopted similar ones."

Image caption William Gillette portrayed with dressing gown (and curved pipe)

Before Gillette, Holmes inhabited, if not a seedy world, then a dangerous one. He employed a reformed crook as one of his assistants. The luxuriant dressing gown is part of a more louche, languid Holmes who may inject cocaine on stage but mixes with a more high society crowd.

Paget had drawn the dressing gown as "slightly ragged", says Werner. "When Gillette took on the role the dressing gown was very glamorous, he is quite the suave bachelor. It's the key costume," says Werner.

Years later, Conan Doyle gave Eille Norword, another actor to play Holmes, a vividly patterned dressing gown, perhaps inspired by Gillette's version.

Cumberbatch has made the dark grey, double-breasted Belstaff Milford part of his look. But he continues the tradition of lounging around in a dressing gown. His most commonly used robe is pure silk, navy-coloured with a satin stripe.

He shaped America's view of Holmes

Gillette was the first American stage actor to take on this most English of roles. His delivery mixed an upper crust English accent with North American twang.

"You can hear the same sort of thing when Katharine Hepburn tries to speak in an English way in The African Queen," says Johnson.

Gillette's 1916 silent film, though set in London, was shot in the US. He also brought an American influence to Holmes's appearance.

In a previous play, Secret Service, there was something of the matinee idol about him. His Holmes contrasted with the prominent nose and cheekbones of a Basil Rathbone, Douglas Wilmur or Benedict Cumberbatch.

Media captionRecording of William Gillette in his dramatic adaptation "Sherlock Holmes"

Compared to the Holmes of the time, his was "less gaunt and beaky, with more hair," says Johnson. "And more handsome."

At the start of the 20th Century, the American illustrator Frederic Dorr Steele drew Holmes for various US publications. His model was Gillette.

"That's what most Americans saw Holmes as. Whereas in Britain it was the illustrations of [Sidney] Paget in the Strand magazine," Johnson says.

And his reputation continued to grow. Calm and charismatic, is how silent film buffs describe him. Few have seen the 1916 film but even the photos show how naturally he took to the role, says Johnson. "He's marvellous. People say he is Sherlock Holmes."

Gillette was king of the silent movie age but when the talkies arrived, it was time for another kind of Holmes to emerge. For many fans today, it is Rathbone who became and remains the archetype.

He helped inspire Conan Doyle to 'reboot' Holmes

Conan Doyle killed off Holmes in print in 1893. A stage adaptation he wrote failed to get off the ground, which might explain his willingness to allow Gillette to write his own.

When the American asked whether the script could see Holmes married, Conan Doyle replied: "You may marry him, murder him, or do what you like to him."

He seemed to trust Gillette implicitly, says Werner. They'd hit it off as soon as they met. According to Charles Higham's biography, Gillette alighted from a train dressed as Holmes before approaching Conan Doyle's carriage and examining him through a magnifying glass.

Image caption A New York theatre programme advertising Gillette

"Unquestionably an author," he announced, to Conan Doyle's amusement.

But there was another factor beside friendship - money.

"I believe however that there is a fortune in the other - Sherlock Holmes," Conan Doyle writes in a letter dated 18 June 1899. "Gillette has made a great play out of it, and he is a great actor."

He believed it was destined to be a hit. Royalties would have been the primary motivation but there was also a sense that it might create a new interest in reading the books. "It has such an enormous initial advertisement," the letter continued. "I am not usually over sanguine but I do have great hopes for this. It is our trump card."

Conan Doyle began writing The Hound of the Baskervilles while the play was on. Did the drama subtly influence the way Conan Doyle wrote the later stories? Johnson thinks not: "Some people say the character in the later stories is not the same but I can't detect any change."

Whatever the aesthetic impact, Gillette's success - this "trump card" - would have reassured Conan Doyle that there was still a public appetite for Holmes.

As he wrote when he first read Gillette's stage adaptation: "It's good to see the old chap back."

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