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San Francisco Silent Film Festival: Sherlock Holmes Revisited

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Sherlock Holmes William Gillette San Francisco Silent Film FestivalSherlock Holmes (1916) with William Gillette: One of the topics discussed at the “Amazing Tales from the Archives” presentation at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
  • San Francisco Silent Film Festival: “Amazing Tales from the Archives” featured an eclectic series of topics, ranging from a two-color tour of Hearst Castle to the unearthing of the long-thought-lost 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes.

Among the topics at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s ‘Amazing Tales from the Archives’ was the recently rediscovered Sherlock Holmes

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

This year’s edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival program “Amazing Tales from the Archives” began with a stroll along the gardens of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, shot in early two-strip Technicolor.

This limited system for using color in film was the beginning of a process which would be perfected in time. Still, it was beautiful to see William Randolph Hearst’s La Cuesta Encantada as it was in 1915.

Next up was a program about the 2014 discovery and restoration of Sherlock Holmes (1916), directed by Arthur Berthelet, and starring William Gillette in the role he had played – literally – hundreds of times on stage, and that decades later would be made world-famous by Basil Rathbone and, more recently, Robert Downey Jr.

The Sherlock Holmes backstory traced the restoration all the way to boxes of old nitrate film containers stored for 100 years at the Cinémathèque Française. The complete process from lost to found was explained in detail by preservationist Robert Byrne.

The sinking of the Lusitania + early Maurice Tourneur short

From the British Film Institute came Lusitania, which documented the sinking of the British passenger liner by a German U-boat in 1915. Taken from contemporary accounts, the tragic story was told by narrator Paul McGann.

Lastly, we were treated to a 1914 short film directed by Maurice Tourneur (father of Cat People and Out of the Past director Jacques Tourneur), The Man with Wax Faces / Figures de cire (lit., “Wax Figures” or “Waxworks”).

With variations here and there, the story’s motif would become a much copied cliché of horror house features to come (e.g., The Cat and the Canary, House on Haunted Hill, etc.): A gambler bets he could stay all night in the house of wax figures without being frightened, with predictable results.

The Man with Wax Faces / Figures de cire (1914)

Director: Maurice Tourneur.

Cast: Henry Roussel. Emile Tramont (as M. Tramont). Henri Gouget (as M. Gouget).

The Deadlier Sex Blanche SweetThe Deadlier Sex with Blanche Sweet, D.W. Griffith’s leading lady in several of his early shorts and in his first feature, Judith of Bethulia, and later a star in her own right in vehicles like Anna Christie, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and The Sporting Venus.

More San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentations

Besides the movies discussed in this and other recent posts – the African-American focused Lime Kiln Club Field Day, Dan Duyu’s Chinese fantasy The Cave of the Silken Web, Frank Capra’s “accidental silent” The Donovan Affair, the Avant-Garde Paris” shorts Ménilmontant and Emak-Bakia – among the screenings at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival were the following:

Actor-turned-director Harald Schwenzen’s Norwegian romantic drama Pan (1922), with Hjalmar Fries and Gerd Grieg (a.k.a. Gerd Egede-Nissen); Ted Wilde’s Harold Lloyd comedy Speedy (1928), which received an Academy Award nomination in the one-year-only Best Comedy Direction category; and Robert Thornby’s The Deadlier Sex (1920), with former D.W. Griffith star Blanche Sweet (in addition to future horror movie star Boris Karloff in a small role).

Also: F.W. Murnau’s intertitle-free classic The Last Laugh / Der letzte Mann (1924), with future Best Actor Academy Award winner Emil Jannings (The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command, 1927–28) as a proud hotel doorman whose life gets badly derailed; and Clarence Brown’s hugely successful romantic melodrama Flesh and the Devil (1926), with John Gilbert, star-in-the-making Greta Garbo, Lars Hanson, and Barbara Kent.

Plus: Fred Niblo’s mammoth blockbuster Ben-Hur (1925), with Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman, and May McAvoy; and William A. Seiter’s recently restored romantic comedy Why Be Good? (1929), with superstar Colleen Moore and TV’s future Commissioner Gordon Neil Hamilton (in addition to future MGM star Jean Harlow in a blink-and-you-miss-her bit).

Cinema’s ‘spiritual component’

Wrapping up, kudos to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for starting their programming on time. They seem to have the crowds under control and the events I attended all ran smoothly.

One suggestion is that they provide more small musical combos as accompaniment. The piano is appropriate at times, but there is nothing as good as a live orchestra to get the full silent film experience.

Lastly, I must say that for me, motion pictures have some kind of spiritual component to them. They resurrect the dead; people who have long ago passed away become vital once again, appearing at their most youthful and attractive best.

With film – even in unedited, truncated form like Lime Kiln Club Field Day – there really is life after death.

“San Francisco Silent Film Festival” endnotes

San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

Blanche Sweet The Deadlier Sex movie image: Courtesy of the Academy Film Archive.

Sherlock Holmes movie image: Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

“San Francisco Silent Film Festival: Sherlock Holmes Revisited” last updated in November 2021.

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