by Kathleen Costa
Sherlock Holmes. He has been portrayed by many capable and varied actors: classic Basil Rathbone, iconic Jeremy Brent, steampunk-style Robert Downey Jr., and contemporary Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. However, a case can be made for another incarnation worthy of discussion. In 1981, HBO presented the 2-hour play Sherlock Holmes and the Strange Case of Alice Faulkner starring in the detective role…Frank Langella. Better known for his expert and haunting portrayal of another iconic literary character, Count Dracula, he does well bringing Holmes to the stage with the right amount of arrogance, sex appeal and humor.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had always been keen on the idea of writing a play, but with no success. He was convinced by an American theatrical producer, Charles Frohman, to pen a play using Holmes and Moriarty, but the result was not fit for production. Doyle was convinced to partner with actor and successful playwright William Gillette. The result used material from three of Doyle’s published stories “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Final Problem,” and “A Study in Scarlet.” Although the play was written entirely by Gillette, the use of Doyle’s stories and direct dialogue gave Doyle literary co-writing credit. It is, however, Gillette that coined the famous “Elementary, my dear Watson” (specifically “Oh, this is elementary, my dear Watson.”) and the curved pipe as iconic components of the Sherlock Holmes personae.
The play was first staged in New York in 1899 with 260 performances and revivals in 1905, 1906, 1910, and 1915. During the 200 performances on the London tour in 1901, a 13-year old Charlie Chaplin played the pageboy. The play hit the silent screen in 1916 with Gillette playing Holmes and later with sound in 1922 with John Barrymore. A 1939 adaptation of the play hit the theaters with Basil Rathbone in the lead role, although it doesn’t really resemble Gillette’s play. In 1973, the Royal Shakespeare Company reinvigorated the play with John Woods, John Neville, Robert Stephens, and in 1975, Leonard Nimoy…yes, and the parallels between Holmes and Spock are worth discussion.
In 1977, Frank Langella brought Holmes to the Williamstown Theater Festival, and in 1981 to HBO. Opening scene in this play has Dr. Watson (Richard Woods, best known for his stage work) sitting at his desk penning a Sherlock Holmes adventure taking the time to preface the story. A young woman had an affair with a royal prince, but her status does not afford her the opportunity to marry him. She passes away from a broken heart, but not before she puts into her sister’s hands a series of incriminating letters.
A couple (Stephen Collins of 7th Heaven fame; Susan Clark of Webster fame) has befriended and subsequently, are holding captive the sister with the ulterior motive of gaining access to the letters for their own blackmail scheme. Her refusal to provide the letters has come to the attention of our detective and his archenemy Moriarty. The chase is on to save Alice, stop the nefarious couple and retrieve the letters before damage can be done to the upcoming royal wedding.
I saw this performance when in 1981 it was first broadcast on HBO and renewed my delight when I was recently exploring other detectives on YouTube videos. Although I may be biased, since I was enthralled with his Count Dracula personae, Frank Langella’s performance as Holmes is brilliant. He offers the arrogant personality fans recognize, but adds soft attention to his endearing infatuation with Alice Faulkner. His mesmerizing deep voice, dark handsome good looks and imposing physical stature make this Sherlock Holmes one to be worthy of inclusion into the Holmes fraternity.
It is worth your time to check out the play. Do you recognize the pageboy as a young Christian Slater? I suggest you steep your best British tea blend, add a favorite scone and relax…Sherlock is in the house!
For more information on the play
HBO Frank Langella as Sherlock Holmes on YouTube
There are nine individual parts for the complete play. This will get you started with Part 1: youtu.be/-w-r-pWGCeo
The Film Collectors Society of America
DVD copies may be available.
The Sherlock Holmes Society of London
This site also includes an MP3 download by the Old Court Radio Theatre Company.
William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
The film version of the 1916 play with William Gillette was thought to be lost forever until a nitrate dupe negative was found in the archives of the Cinémathèque Française in 2014.
In 1936, William Gillette made a glass disk recording of two scenes from the play Sherlock Holmes, in which he had famously played the title role. That audio is here combined with short clips from the recently rediscovered 1916 film version featuring the original cast.
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