Friday, May 24, 2013

Gillette out of here!

Here's someone I don't think about much: William Gillette.

Dick Sveum brought him up yesterday in the comments section caused me to step back and consider the actor/playwright for the first time in decades.

Sherlockians have  traditionally held William Gillette in high esteem, and I do mean traditionally. Their respect for him has been handed down generation to generation for the simple reason that no one living has seen him perform the role on stage. All that exists of his work is a scratchy recording he made at the age of 82, and that really doesn't scream "this guy is an amazing Sherlock."

So unlike Basil Rathbone, Eille Norwood, and the rest, generations past his own could not re-evaluate his work. All we have are the writings of his fans and some ancient critics . . . and you know how that goes. As a result, William Gillette gets a free pass that no other actor playing Sherlock Holmes is privvy to. He even gets a luncheon named after him every January.

Gillette was the first big Sherlock, you have to give him that. But what were his contributions to Sherlock Holmes lore, really? That cartoony calabash pipe that no Sherlock will probably ever use again in seriousness? That unnecessary quote from Doyle, "You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him." (Except use him without paying fees to the Doyle estate, of course. It would have been nice if Doyle had added "for free" to that line, since he was being so grumpily generous anyway.)

And Gillette Castle has given American Sherlockians a place to go without crossing the ocean, which makes me also wonder . . . would anyone have cared so much about Gillette's Holmes all these years if we were all British and had all of England to pay our Sherlockian homages to? Any European who winds up there, of course, probably goes, "So this is what you call a castle here . . . hmmm." In those early days of American Sherlockianism, of course American Sherlockians latched on to an American actor. In those days, we didn't have Brits on the internet going "OMG, did you hear that accent!?!?"

Dick Sveum said he could imagine me in 1899 talking about how bad Gillette was, and I can't disagree with him on that. I bet I would have hated his cheesey play were I alive and Sherlockian way back then. (If I wasn't too busy farming just to stay alive, of course. Life didn't allow most of us to be quite so active in our hobbies back then.) When the Gillette play came to Peoria back in the 1970s, I wasn't totally enamored with it, but hey, it was something with the name "Sherlock Holmes" on it that was actually in Peoria. Beggars can't be choosers.

These days, however, we aren't begging for Sherlock Holmeses. Would any of us still be choosing William Gillette? I wonder.


10 comments:

  1. David R. McCallisterMay 24, 2013 at 9:08 AM

    Last week I saw a play at the Asolo theatre in Sarasota Florida- "The Game's Afoot". It's really a bed-room farce/murder mystery set at Gillette Castle, and featuring Gillette, his family and friends - and enemies. The set, costumes, and acting were fine. The script- not so much. The set was not really a copy of the Castle, but was an elaborate drawing room with a balcony familiar to every dinner-theatre production of Sleuth with a revolving bar (to hide bodies). It did have very well-done life-size pictures of familiar Gillette-posed-as-SH photos up on the walls, apparently to show his egotism. It wasn't a great play or even great Sherlockiana- especially at Asolo prices, but then, as Brad says, beggars can't be choosers.
    The play "SH and the Suicide Club", which was in Orlando earlier this year, was a better pastiche mashup of ACD and RLS.

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  2. So now you have turned into an elite devotee who disrespects Gillette. What happened to the young Brad who in 1970 was so excited and inclusive and took in the play? In the history of SH the transmedia appearance on stage allowed a generation to find its way back to the canon and become Sherlockians. When I started in the Norwegian Explorers we had an English professor who as a child had seen Gillette in his Farewell Tour in Minneapolis.
    In the same spirit I hope that the CBS Elementary reaches a wide audience and some find there way back to the canon and become Sherlockians. Us old farts should be open to new interpretations and not be snobby to network television or Baker Street Babes.
    By the way you posted it at 4:51 AM, you need to get more sleep. On Memorial weekend remember to Keep the Memory of the Master Green, and keep on posting.

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    1. If you're wondering what happened to young Brad, I would direct your attention to a certain software you might recall that I have been working with for the past year. I think the fact that it has a "Sherlock" portion might be adversely affecting my views.

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    2. That, and it's keeping me out of Minneapolis this August, which is also aging me prematurely!

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    3. Computer software that doesn't work right despite a good name. Sound like Moriarty's work. We will miss you at the conference! Since you brought it up, shameless plug.
      August 9-11, 2013 Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Place, sponsored by Norwegian Explorers of Minnesota, University of MN and the Friends of the Sherlock Holmes Collections.
      http://www.norwegianexplorers.org/2013_conference.html

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    4. And unsolicited testimonial: If you can go to the Norwegian Explorer's conference at all, do. It's one of the greatest shows in Sherlock! (And it doesn't happen every year, so you don't want to miss it when it does.)

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  3. I understand your scepticism, Brad. I personally cannot even watch most old movies and so sincerely doubt I would have found anything special in Mr Gilette's acting. The acting styles of former decades were much different from today's I find and often seem just ridiculous to me. I even don't understand all the fuss about Jeremy Brett who I always find faintly repulsive.

    But of course today we have the advantage of having a lot of Sherlocks to choose from which former generations didn't have. So, whoever took the greatcoat and wasn't totally inept probably was held in high regard, I imagine.

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    1. I'm right with you on the old movies. My secret Sherlockian shame is that black and white Sherlock Holmes movies have always made me start drifting off to sleep, and I don't usually have that problem with movies.

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  4. Ok, I'm winging it here just a bit, so correct me if I'm off, but...
    While I am not (for some reason) a fan of live theatre, and Gillette's eye makeup and stiff brocade dressing gowns are a bit off-putting, I think he and the play "Sherlock Holmes" were actually quite valuable for the survival of the character, and therefore the fandom. No matter how great a character is, people can fall away if they don't have new material every once in awhile to keep them interested. Perhaps they are not, then, "true believers," but few people are. Gillette's play reminded people how much they loved the character of Sherlock Holmes. And while I am sure that there were grumbles about how Holmes wasn't supposed to trust women, or people grousing that this Alice character was messing with their OTP, I'm sure that others became new fans because of it. Particularly, it seems, in the US. And new fans buy books. In the UK, that meant that, at least for awhile, they bought books printed by Newnes...also publisher of the Strand....who, as he saw Holmes remaining popular and, most importantly, lucrative past his sell-by date...was much more likely (ok, Greenhough Smith was much more likely) to accede to Doyle's high asking price JUST to have another Holmes book..and then a series...another series, even just a single story. And of course, as Doyle saw Holmes' popularity take off in the states due to Gillette's play, he also saw the benefit in using his old character, rather than creating a new one for HOUN...etc. etc. Also, that whole "marry him, murder him" has given a slew of pastiche/fanfic/what-have-you writers at least a certain level of "permission." Not that they needed it, perhaps, but that kind of flexibility--the kind that allowed Gillette to portray a Holmes that perhaps wasn't precisely in character, while his creator was watching--is something that, I think, allows the fandom to flourish and grow. I consider the Rathbone/Bruce films a bit like comfort food, I adore Jeremy Brett, and I have an altar to BBC....er, nevermind. Not a fan of Elementary, the 2nd Ritchie film, or some of the goofier Howard/Crawfords. I am not sure I would have gone for Gillette's play. However, I think we all owe it a certain amount of gratitude. And if nothing else..it did teach us that one must always have a backup copy ;)

    (Leah Guinn)

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    1. Thanks, Leah. Many good thoughts. And backup copies! Yes!

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