The Sunday Intertitle: The English Coast


The English coast? Well, that narrows it down a bit. (Since Britain is an island, saying someone is on the coast doesn’t really help locate them.) The film is SHERLOCK HOLMES (1916) and it’s an American film restored from a French print, titles translated, so maybe that explains the oddness. To the French, “the English coast” would mean the bit facing France.

Miraculously rediscovered, and restored with funding from the team behind the BBC’s Sherlock, this is initially stagey and stodgy, with a great deal of longshot lipflapping in drawing rooms, but it’s fascinating and fun nonetheless. William Gillette as adaptor and star does a good job as the world’s first consulting detective, looking a bit like Clive Brook or Jeremy Brett. As the story unfolds, the camera actually starts to move — rather than simply following people about, it will often set off on its own and let them join it at their own speed. This is quite enjoyable.

The intertitles do exhibit that regrettable trait of early silent films, spoiling the action by telling you what’s about to occur. I would have thought this approach, visible in the famous Edison FRANKENSTEIN, would have gone out of fashion pretty quickly, but here it is in full suspense-killing force.

But the acting is interestingly low-key, and since this is a fairly faithful reconstruction of a play, using the original cast, it probably gives us a clearer picture of early twentieth-century theatre acting than most movies of the time.


Don’t smoke while doing chemistry, Sherlock!

10 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The English Coast”

  1. Haven’t had the nerve to watch this one yet, after the disappointment of the John Barrymore version of the same play. Besides adding pastoral romantic scenes from his Oxford days, the film pointlessly preserved one of the play’s most bizarre plot bits: Holmes leaving the heroine in the care of villains after giving them a stern warning.

    Recall reading a piece on Gillette, which said he surrounded himself onstage with broader actors (or actors directed to play thusly) so his quieter style stood out in contrast.

    Gillette himself wrote a one-act parody and performed it as a curtain-raiser to another play. , As Holmes, he sits silently while a manic young lady presents her increasingly nonsensical case. He slips a note to the page boy, who eventually returns with orderlies in white coats to take her away. Impressed, the page boy tells Holmes “It was the RIGHT asylum, sir!”

  2. revelator60 Says:

    Rest assured Benson, the Gillette film is definitely not as disappointing as the Barrymore farrago. It might not hold up as an effective mystery or thriller, but Gillette’s performance renders the play’s problems irrelevant. Even by 21st century standards he gives a coolly understated and subtle performance. One often hears about legendary stage performances either lost to time or disappointedly transferred to film. This is a great exception: the legend has been transferred intact, with nothing to apologize for a century later. Time has done nothing to diminish Gillette’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

  3. That sounds like a terrific sketch!

    Agree with revelator, and I think you can see Gillette’s casting approach at work (the film’s cast is the same as the play’s). Not that anyone else is naturally flamboyant, but they are given moments of melodrama where everyone freezes, for instance. (I love how the crooks are terrified by Sherlock’s ringing of the doorbell: the idea of simply not answering does not occur to these kidnapping blackmailers. That would be rude.)

  4. I did a bit of a double-take when I saw this: do you know if the team replaced the intertitles when restoring the film? I ask because at this resolution, the letters look typeset (in a display v. of Baskerville, I think) rather than lettered and I don’t think I’ve seen a historic example of a typeset intertitle ever before.

    Would be fascinating and unusual if it was original.

  5. Since the only surviving copy was a French print, the intertitles had to be translated (with reference to Gillette’s papers for added accuracy) and recreated, apparently using an authentic font. But the effect doesn’t look too convincing to my eye, and I’d probably have rather seen the French originals with subtitles.

  6. What a terrific find. Seeing stills are one thing, but to see the actual movements of the performers is so much better. While watching it, I thought that Gillette’s presence was a lot like that of Matthew McConaughey.
    And this is definitely, of the pre Nigel Bruce era, where Holmes is the center of the picture, and the actor playing Watson is billed way down the card. You can find this on youtube.

  7. Herewith the script to Gillette’s self-parody.

  8. Thanks!

    Before Barrymore, most stills were taken in photographers’ studios, so they’re not such an accurate guide to the theatre of the day. Barrymore refused to go to the studio: his scheduled photographer, James Abbe, could have dismissed this as the actor being hung-over, but he thought about it and realized that trading the specific sets and lighting of the stage for the generalities of the photographer’s studio was a bad deal.

    So his work shows what the plays would have looked like, and then he got into behind-the-scenes stuff too…

  9. ‘Since the only surviving copy was a French print, the intertitles had to be translated (with reference to Gillette’s papers for added accuracy) and recreated, apparently using an authentic font.’

    Oh, damn! I’ve just seen you’ve said some of that in your original post. My apologies, I should have been more attentive.

    Although I’ve seen a few intertitles stomped over by subs, I also would have preferred seeing the original intertitles. I think the idea of using a modern digitisation of a font for authenticity is — even if the font was released in the period and distributed in the area — undercut a bit if fonts weren’t used in intertitles and weren’t seen in credits for another few decades. (I want to suppose it was Letraset that changed things, but honestly I’ve not looked into the history and googling brings up no handy-dandy single article.)

    I’m always surprised that people, like the Coen Brothers with the inset movie titles in Hail, Caesar!, don’t give intertitles that extra wee bit of love and have them lettered. Like a lot of the other details that ensure a film feels authentic, they aren’t huge, but where the right lightbulbs and telephones are picked so that the audience don’t notice them, the intertitles are something you want the audience to see.

    Disclosure: I’m someone who draws letters, and therefore have a financial interest in convincing the movie world that my pedantic opinion on this is The Right Way To Go.

  10. Oh, pleased to meet you in that case — maybe sometime I’ll be in a position to commission intertitles from you!

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