Thursday, January 29, 2015

William Gillette by Henry Zecher

Henry Zecher. William Gillette, American’s Sherlock Holmes. xlibris Corporation, 2011.

William Gillette was a famous stage actor in his day,who, according to the author, was the third best known celebrity behind Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Gillette was best known for his stage portrayals of Sherlock Holmes.

Gillette, as were Samuel Clemens and Theodore Dresser, were part of the movement for artistic realism over melodrama. In acting, melodrama, which was a leading characteristic of 19th and early 20th century actors, displayed unrealistic  behavior. Melodramatic acting would over-emphasize movements and speech that actors believed would make certain the audience recognized and heard what the actor was conveying. Instead, the realistic actor behaved on stage as a person would appear in real life.

Gillette was a strong leading actor, This led to more plays and movies focusing on a strong leading, realistic hero, The set the stage for actors such as John Wayne.

Gillette introduced “Psychological acting”. This emphasized realism in the emotions and reactions in a performance, The New York Times considered Gillette’s Psychological acting as “the first modern acting technique.”

Gillette’s life was free of scandal. He married once and never remarried after his wife’s death. He was seldom involved in politics except in 1912 when he spoke in favor of Theodore Roosevelt. He drank moderately and seldom smoked. He did enjoy cigars and incorporates cigars or pipe smoking into most of his characters,

Gillette first portrayed Sherlock Holmes in 1899 at age 46 and last portrayed Holmes in 1932 at age 78. He presented Holmes with a “quiet, confident voice” with “suave but nervous movements.” He was known for his “riveting scenes” while performing.

Gillette performed with Edwin Booth, one of the most famous 19th century actors. On stage, he helped boost the careers of Charlie Chaplin, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, and Maude Adams.

Gillette was also a playwright. In the 1880s, he, Bronson Howard, and Steve MacKaye were among the better known playwrights who wrote in the realism style. Gillette noted “realism should be inferred not actual-sm, but the artistic presentation of reality...Art must have recourse to the principal of suggestiveness.”

Realism became a major part of 1890s American theater. A number of playwrights arose who had acting and / or business experience in theater. Prior, most playwrights had academic backgrounds in writing. These new playwrights knew the theater and the degree of realism and of literature that audiences liked. These playwrights, including Gillette, were consider “theatre craftsmen.”

Gillette’s father was a U.S. Senator. His brother was a member of Congress. Thomas Kuhn labeled it a “paradigm shift” that a member of the governing class would go into theater. As the New York Herald Tribune noted, “Nobody has conceived what is a commonplace today: that a person of gentle culture could make a successful trooper and retain his integrity.”

Gillette was among the leading practitioners of natural, reserved, understated acting, speech, and movements as people actually do. On the contrary, many actors spoke their lines as if they had been spoken many times before, When realism actors such as Gillette spoke, it was as if the lines had been spoken for the first time. Realistic actors moved on stage as people do and did so as if this was the first time they had done their roles.

Gillette wrote about his acting technique in his 1915 monograph “The Illusion of the First Time Acting.”

Gillette declined interviews in a deliberate attempt to create an “air of mystery” about himself Friends found him modest so he did not appear to like to boast about himself. He gave only a few in his lifetime.

Gillette believed actors should be mysterious and rarely seen by the public. He also did not believe in promoting himself, which was against the New England aristocratic ideals. He commented in1896 about his work that “the public has ample opportunity to see will speak for itself.” he gave out preprinted cards explaning he “does not feel his views can be of any value to the public at large.” When asked questions, Gillette often responded with a line in his plays, simply “Quite so!”

Gillette was not known as a “party animal”. His wife’s death was a severe emotional setback.

Gillette’s father Francis served in the U.S. Senate when Sen. Daniel Webster gave his famous speech on slavery. William Gillette, as a school boy, presented his father with a sample of his elocution. His father wanted him to change his presentation. William responded that his presentation was “right.” His father replied “Right! Of course you did it right! Do you suppose if Webster had doe it “right” anyone in the Senate would have listened to his for two minutes?” Francis explained that Webster was summoned to speak with no preparation and that his great speech was spontaneous and real. William learned that “I never forgot that a word was a fine thing that must be search for, and that the way to make a speech was no in the way that was “correct” as elocution, but the way that the man actually made it in the first place.”

Gillette was a honor roll student who participated in theater and in elocution. He knew then he wanted to be an actor.

The movement toward realism in theater resulted in fewer plays regarding “lofty patriotism and idealism” and more plays on “basic pragmatism and a desire to simply survive.” As he overdramatic style of melodrama gave way to more subtle styles of realistic theater with more subtle reactions, theaters became smaller so audience could better see the actors. This, in turn, called for new lighting techniques and more detailed scenery and props.

Gillette observed that “the purpose of the theater is to afford relief from stress and strain in actual life. And the play people love best ,because it does most for them, is the play that gives them a new angle on life, a practical presentation for happy living.”

Gillette wrote the play “Esmeralda”. It had 350 performances in New York. It was made into a movie in 1915 starring Mary Pickford and was directed by James Kirkwood..

Gillette risked opening social wounds when he wrote the play “Belle Lamar.” It was the second stage presentation of the Civil War, a subject experienced by many in the audience. His play was the first which was not a historical presentation of the war. His play showed the interactions of people during the war. It is a story of three suitors for a woman. One is a Union officer, one is a captured Confederate officer accused of being a spy, and the third a Union soldier who tries to help the Confederate escape.

Gillette was among the playwrights known for the emerging style of “more unified and tightly constructed drama.” Melodramatic plays had a hero and a villain. In the realism of Gillette’s plays and others like him, characters had both heroic and villainous characteristics.

Gillette was among those who writings presumed there is a “fourth wall”. This was a concept first noted in 1758 by Denis Diderst that the play with a fourth wall is performed as if there is no audience.

Gillette was among those who had female characters that were “independent, selfless heroines.” Numerous plays had strong, independent female characters in the 1920s yet such characteristics declined in afterwards. Female characters generally were presented according to the life events of male characters.

Gillette improved some theater sound effects. Instead of the then traditional method of replicating horses moving by slapping half coconut shells on top of marble, Gillette used clappers on different materials to simulate different types of roads and paths. Gillette unsuccessfully tried to patent his techniques.

Charles Frohman and his Frohmannational Theatricallities consisted of over 200 theaters in the U.S. and London (including six in New York City) where 700 plays were produced, managing 28 star actors, and employing around 10,000 people with an annual payroll of $35 million (or an equivalent circa 2010 of $700 million). He had no written contracts with his star actors, His word was considered valid. Gillette often worked in theaters owned by Charles Frohman.

David Belasco was among the leading theater producers. He wore black with clerical collars He would eventually be called “the Bishop of Broadway.” He was known for popularizing the concept of the  “casting couch” where actresses were hired in return for sexual favors. Belasco produced, directed, or wrote over 100 plays. Over 40 of these plays were made into movies.. Belasco helped developed an actress Gladys Louise Smith who he had her change her name to Mary Pickford. Gillette worked with Belasco on some plays.

Gillete wrote a play that had a character with one arm. Stanley McKenna sued, stating he had a play eight years earlier with a one armed character. Gillette argued that one armed characters were not legally protected “novelties” over which one could hold a “monopoly”.” Further, there had been a one armed character in a David Belasco produced play prior to McKenna’s play. The court sided with Gillette.

Gillette observed there are two kinds of director, One kind allows actors great leeway in presenting their characters The other kind dictates the details of how roles should be portrayed. Gillette believed the true system lies between the two.”

The Copyright Act became law in 1891. It required producers to pay royalties to authors and playwrights including paying for foreign works. Thus foreign authors received payments and their works could not be used  as lesser expensive alternatives to domestic writings.

Sherlock Holmes is the more prolific movie character, appearing in 211 movies, according to the Guiness World Records. The Sherlock Holmes Society of London lists 260 films with Sherlock Holmes as a character.

Gillete wrote a play regarding Sherlock Holmes based upon originating author Arthur Conan Doyle’s writings of Holmes. It took about a month to write the first script. It was destroyed in a hotel fire. Gillette wrote another script in a week. Doyle and Gillette worked on the script. Gillette’s final script differs greatly from Doyle’s original contributions. Both as listed as the script’s authors.

Doyle wrote another Holmes play. Harry Arthur Saintsbury portrayed Holmes i “The Soeckled Band” for 168 performances. Saintsbury was the “only one who rivaled Gillete” at that time in appearing as Holmes. Saintsbury was cast in a play with 14 year old Charlie Chaplin. Saintsbury coached Chaplin on performing and on comedic timing and touches.

Gillette first appeared as Sherlock Holmes in the play “Sherlock Holmes” in 1899. Max Goldberg appeared in another play about Holmes entitled “The Bank of England, An Adventure in the Life of Sherlock Holmes.” The Max Goldberg play existed because there is no copyright on titles.

Gillette’s “Sherlock Holmes” play was successful. It became well known and was parodied in music halls. One parody play was “Sheerluck Jones, or Why D’Gillete Him Off?” which played in London. Other Holmes presentations appeared in burlesque presentations.

Frederick Dorr Steele illustrated Holmes. A fellow illustrator’s brother Walter Paget was the initial model used for the illustration. Yet Gillette’s “expression and posture” were integrated into the drawings. In 1929, Gillette would be the model for Steele’s illustration. There drawings would help convince actor Basil Rathbone in 1939 to appear in movies playing the role of Holmes as Rathbone believed he looked similar to the Holmes in Steele’s illustrations.

John Barrymore was Holmes in a 1922 move “Sherlock Holmes”. Barrymore stated they used Steele’s illustrations in creating the Holmes character for the movie.

Gillette, when appearing as Holmes, introduced the deer-started cap, rococo gown, and a smoking pipe.

Gillette, in believing actors should be mysterious to the public, also believed they should not state their views publicly. He also believe political candidates should not campaign publicly. He contributed money to anti-Tammany Hall advocates in 1903. Gillette spoke publicly about politics only during the 1912 Presidential campaign which was a race which many thought might change the nation’s course. Gillette spoke in favor of the losing Progressive Party candidate, former President Theodore Roosevelt. A number of other actors also made statements on this race, something the Washington Post noted as a “surprising” development.

Gillette began construction on his Hadlyme home in 1914. He picked a site he saw from his year a year prior. Gillette designed the house. Construction was mostly finished in 1919. Gillette never called it a castle although it would come to be called Gillette’s Castle. It is now a state owned park open to the public. It cost $1,100,000 to build (or about $14 million in circa 2010 costs). Gillette named his home the Seventh Sister as it was on the end of seven hills.

Gillette was signed to film movies for the Essanay Film Manufacturing company. He appeared in “Sherlock Holmes”. His image was used in much Essanay advertising. Gillette told Lowell Thomas “there is too much mosaic in the cinema industry to suit me.” Gillette did not want to appear in another movie. Gillette, though, became one of the “actors of the transition” of theater stars who appeared in movies. Some actors found the art of pantomiming in silent films required a different skills set from their skills for stage performing.

Some claim Gillette belonged to the “impersonator” acting style where actors take on the characteristics of the role. This was different from the “interpreters” style where an actor’s own personality is brought into the role. Gillette objected to being labeled as an “impersonator” insisting his personality strongly influences the roles he played.

Gillette belonged to the “heroic school”. This was a style of a “quiet he-men” type that would later be portrayed by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Gary Coopeer. They were heroes who stayed calm in crises.

Gillette refused to permit babies in the audience as they could become distractions If there was too much audience noise, he would have long pauses of instrumental music playing to drown out the noise,

Gillette failed to show strong emotions during love scenes. This have been resulted from his proper New England upbringing. This became part of his characters’ natures.

The first Sherlock Holmes movie was “Holmes Baffled”, filmed by Thomas Edison in 1900. The actor , which was a common trait then, is not identified and remains unknown. Many believe Gillette inspired the Holmes look in the movie. More Holmes movies appeared starring Viggis Larson in Denmark, Alvin Neus in Germany, and G.B. Samuelson in Englad, as well as England’s H.A. Saintsbury filming one Holmes movie.

Gillette’s Holmes movie was co-directed by Gillette and Arthur Brethelet. W.G. Postarie assisted directed. H.S. Stevens was the screenwriter. The movie ran for two hours. It was produced by the V-L-S-E Film Company. The movie followed the stage play yet focused more on romantic scenes than had the play. it was a “major hit.”

The film showed more details in the office than did the stage production. Kitty Kelly’s review in the Chicago Daily Tribune declared “Gillette completed dominated the visualization of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and his wonderful facial expression and pantomime acting rang true to the camera.”

Gillette believed there were no rules or regulations for playwriting. He recommended finding an interesting theme, create a series of “ingenious traps” that carry from the play or theme, have the traps spring at right manners and moments, and then create a way out from the troubles.

Gillette rode a motorcycle. Its’ brakes once gave out and he plunged off the ferry entrance into the river. Guy Hedlund, a movie producer, quipped “There goes Mr. Gillette, wastes $10,000 of movie thrills on an audience of five people.”

Gillette advised Helen Hayes to “never read your reviews. If they praise your work, they will serve to make you self-conscious. If they criticize you, which most of them usually do, they can cause you great harm. Let your director read reviews. If he thinks something should be changed, he will tell you.” Helen Hayes followed this until she did films, at which point reviews could not affect her performance.

Films were made of stories Gillee wrote, he were “The Border Wireless” released in 1918 which starred William B. Hart and “Coincidence “ released in 1921 which starred  Bradley Parker.

After spending over $1 million building his home, the Lyme Board of Relief listed it as having a taxable figure of $58.300. Gillette claimed the figure should be $22,380. An Assessor valued it at $71,000. Gillette told the Superior Court the taxable value was $21,040. The Board of Relief reduced ths to $69,999. (Editor’s Note: The property is in Lyme and East Haddam with the house in East Haddam.)

Gillette and Charles Frohman held the dramatic license for the play “Sherlock Holmes” in 1898. These rights were transferred to Essanay whe they filmed the movie version. When Essanay folded in 1921, these rights were transferred to the Goldwyn Company for $18m0000 with payments of $6,000 each going to Gillette, the Frohman Company, and Arthus Conan Doyle. In 1920, the Educational Film Exchanges Incorporated announced play to make movies of 12 short features of Doyle’s about Holmes that woudl star Eille Norwood. Gillette, Frohman, and Frank Godsol, Presiden of Goldwyn, sued. The court distinguished between Gillette’s play and the different original stories. Norwood would go on to be in the most Holmes films at 49 silent films.

Gillette portrayed Holmes in the 35 program series on NBC’s Red Network station WEAF in 1930. Others had performed Holmes on the radio before Gillette. The first Holmes on radio was Edward H. Smith in 1922 over WGT in Schnectady, N.Y.

Clive Bark appeared as Holmes in the first talking Holmes movie “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.”

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