Basil Rathbone: The cinematic virtuoso

“Never regret anything you have done with a sincere affection; nothing is lost that is born of the heart” Sir Basil Rathbone (June 13th, 1892-July 21st, 1967)brathbone114

Most would agree that the definitive screen interpretation of Sherlock Holmes was English actor Jeremy Brett- others feel that it was Basil Rathbone that was the absolute characterization behind Holmes’ intellectual presence and impeccable induction, but to be honest I don’t have an answer to that because both give equally impressive performances. What I do know is that he was remembered on a far more deeper level than Sherlock Holmes or a villainous role like Tybalt: He was born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone on June 13th, 1892 in Johannesburg South African Republic- the oldest of 3 children to Edgar Philip Rathbone, a mining engineer and Anna Barbara Rathbone, a violinist. Basil’s two siblings included a younger brother John and a younger sister Beatrice. In 1895 at the age of 3, his family had to flee to escape the Boers because Rathbone’s father was accused of being a British spy. In his 1962 autobiography In and Out of Character that would be published later on in his life, Basil admitted that he didn’t know whether or not his father really was a spy- he never asked him!

 

Rathbone grew up in England and attended the Repton School from 1906-1910, where he earned the nickname “Ratters” by his friends. While at school he developed a love of the theatre; when he left school, Basil told his father he wanted to make the theatre his profession. His father persuaded him to work for one year at an insurance company and hoped that Rathbone would forget about the theatre- he never did and it became an even greater inspiration and appreciation for Basil. After the obligatory year, Rathbone visited his cousin Sir Frank Benson, an accomplished actor and manager of his own company. Ever the persistent but fervent individual with a new, fresh and incredibly ardent passion for his profound love of the theatre, Basil Rathbone had to learn acting and earn the good parts. Basil started acting in Benson’s No. 2 company on April 22nd, 1911 with his first appearance on stage at The Theatre Royal, Ipswich, as Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew under the direction of the English stage actor and producer Henry Herbert. In Oct 1912, he went to America with Benson’s company again, playing such parts as Paris in Romeo and Juliet, Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Silvius in As You Like It. Returning to England, Rathbone made his first appearance in London at the Savoy Theatre on July 19th, 1914 as Finch in The Sin of David. During his acting in various Shakespeare plays with his cousin Frank’s company, Basil met and fell in love with a fellow performer Marion Freeman. They tied the knot in Oct of 1914 and the following year their only son Rodion Rathbone (1915-1996) was born, who also had a brief career in Hollywood under the name John Rodion- he most notably appeared alongside his father in 1938s The Dawn Patrol with Donald Crisp, Errol Flynn, and David Niven.

 

That Dec in 1914, he appeared at the Shaftesbury Theatre as the Daupin in Henry V. During 1915, he toured with Benson and appeared with his cousin at London’s Court Theatre in Dec as Lysander in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Early in 1916, Basil left the stage to join WWI, enlisting for the remainder duration of the war and joining the London Scottish Regiment as a private. Basil served alongside his future successful acting contemporaries Ronald Colman, Claude Rains and Herbert Marshall. Rathbone was later transferred with a commission as a lieutenant to the Liverpool Scottish 2nd Battalion, where he served as an intelligence officer and eventually attained the rank of captain. During WWI, Rathbone displayed an impeccable penchant for disguise- a masterful skill which he coincidentally shared with what would perhaps become his most memorable and ardently appreciative character: the fictional sleuth and transcendent master of “deductive reasoning” Sherlock Holmes. On one occasion in order to have better visibility, Basil convinced his superiors to allow him to scout enemy positions during daylight hours instead of during the night, as was the usual practice in order to minimize the chance of detection by the enemy. He completed the mission successfully through his skillful use of camouflage, which allowed him to escape detection by the enemy. But Rathbone would experience great sorrow that came with the great joy of accomplishing his task: his mother passed away in 1917, seeing her son for the last time as he said goodbye to her at Victoria Station. John, his younger brother, was killed in action during WWI while also serving Britain. Despite the indefinite losses to Rathbone, in Sept 1918 he was awarded the British Military Cross for Outstanding Bravery. Basil’s diligent service to Britain and his brother’s ultimate sacrifice contributed to his decision later on in his life to remain a loyal British subject even though he had been living in the United States for many years. Basil appeared in countless other stage productions in his theatre career.

During the Summer Festival of 1919, he appeared at Stratford-upon-Avon with the New Shakespeare Company playing Romeo, Cassius, Ferdinand in The Tempest, and Florizel in The Winter’s Tale; in October he was at London’s Queen’s Theatre as the aide-de-camp in Napoleon, and in February 1920 he was at the Savoy Theatre in the title role in Peter Ibbetson with huge success.

During the 1920s, Rathbone appeared regularly in Shakespearean and other roles on the English stage. He began to travel and appeared at the Cort Theatre, New York, NewYork, in October 1923 and toured in the United States in 1925, appearing in San Francisco in May and the Lyceum Theatre, New York, in October. He was in the U.S. again in 1927 and 1930 and again in 1931, when he appeared on stage with Ethel Barrymore. He continued his stage career in England, returning late in 1934 to the U.S., where he appeared with Katharine Cornell in several plays.

Rathbone was once arrested in 1926 along with every other member of the cast of The Captive, a play in which his character’s wife left him for another woman. Though the charges were eventually dropped, Rathbone was very angry about the censorship because he believed that homosexuality needed to be brought into the open.

He commenced his film career in 1925 in The Masked Bride, appeared in a few silent movies, and played the detective Philo Vance in the 1930 movie The Bishop Murder Case, based on the best-selling novel. Like George Sanders and Vincent Price after him, Rathbone made a name for himself in the 1930s by playing suave villains in costume dramas and swashbucklers, including David Coppperfield (1935) as the abusive stepfather Mr. Murdstone; Anna Karenina (1935) as her distant husband, Karenin; The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) portraying Pontius Pilate; Captain Blood (1935); A Tale of Two Cities (1935), as the Marquis St. Evremonde; The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) playing his best-remembered villain, Sir Guy of Gisbourne; The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938); and The Mark of Zorro (1940) as Captain Esteban Pasquale. He also appeared in several early horror films: Tower of London (1939), as Richard III, and Son of Frankenstein (1939), portraying the dedicated surgeon Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, son of the monster’s creator, and, in 1949, was also the narrator for the segment “The Wind in the Willows” in the animated feature, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.

He was admired for his athletic cinema swordsmanship (he listed fencing among his favorite recreations). He fought and lost to Errol Flynn in a duel on the beach in Captain Blood and in an elaborate fight sequence in The Adventures of Robin Hood . He was involved in noteworthy sword fights in Tower of London,The Mark of Zorro, and The Court Jester (1956). Despite his real-life skill, Rathbone only won once onscreen, Romeo and Juliet (1936). Rathbone earned Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performances as Tybalt in Romoe and Juliet (1936) and as King Louis XI in If I were King(1938). In The Dawn Patrol (1938), he played one of his few heroic roles in the 1930s, as a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) squadron commander brought to the brink of a nervous breakdown by the strain and guilt of sending his battle-weary pilots off to near-certain death in the skies of 1915 France. Errol Flynn, Rathbone’s perennial foe, starred in the film as his successor when Rathbone’s character is promoted.

According to Hollywood legend, Rathbone was Margaret Mitchells first choice to play Rhett Butler in the film version of her novel Gone With The Wind. The reliability of this story may be suspect, however, as on another occasion Mitchell chose Groucho Marx for the role, apparently in jest. Rathbone actively campaigned for the role, however, to no avail and the part eventually went to Ohioan Clark Gable.

Despite his film success, Rathbone always insisted that he wished to be remembered for his stage career. He said that his favorite role was that of Romeo. In Nov 1923, Basil met screenwriter Ouida Bergere; Rathbone’s father passed away less than a year later on June 13th, 1924- Basil’s 32nd birthday. Basil and Ouida were officially married on April 18th, 1926 in New York after the divorce of his first wife. They later adopted a daughter Cynthia Rathbone (1939-1969) and their marriage was by all accounts a happy one, lasting until Rathbone’s death. The Rathbones also shared a love for dogs with Rathbone’s favorite being a black German Shepherd named Moritz. In 1939 Rathbone would achieve a definitive milestone in his career by starring in the film that would seal his immortality and ultimately proved to become his pivotal career altering role:

The Hound of the Baskervilles, directed by Sidney Lansfield, was based on the beloved novel of the same name by Sir Authur Conan Doyle and starred Richard Greene, Wendy Barrie, Lionel Atwill, John Carradine and Basil’s very close friend Nigel Bruce with whom would go on to star with Rathbone in 14 Sherlock Holmes films and countless radio/television appearances. Rathbone grew depressed however when in the wake of Bruce’s absence, he learned that Nigel Bruce passed away on Oct 8th, 1953 while his wife’s play on Sherlock Holmes was in rehearsal. Bruce’s role was replaced by actor Jack Raine- even though in actuality Rathbone was 3 years older than Bruce but Bruce’s Dr. Watson was made to appear older. The play only ran for 3 performances. On top of that, the many sequels typecast Rathbone and he was unable to remove himself completely from the shadow of Holmes. Despite this, Rathbone succeeded in starring in a number of films that did not include his candid portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, including 1956s The Court Jester with Danny Kaye, 1955s We’re No Angels with Humphrey Bogart and the 1958 John Ford directed The Last Hurrah. He was also known for his spoken word recordings, including his interpretation of Clement C. Moore’s ” The Night Before Christmas”. Later on in his career, Rathbone became a universal American International Pictures staple- his other good friend Vincent Price appeared together with Boris Karloff in 1939s Tower of London and Price and Rathbone appeared in the final segment of Roger Corman’s 1962 anthology film Tales of Terror, a loose dramatization of Poe’s The Facts in the case of M. Valdermar. Peter Lorre also appeared in the film and he joined them in 1964s The Comedy of Terrors which proved to be an immense and ardously appreciated film because of the featuring of ” The Big Four” of American International Pictures’ horror films: Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. Rathbone last feature film was 1967s Hillbillys in a Haunted House starring Lon Chaney, Jr- on July 21st, 1967 at the age of 75, the world lost a beloved icon of the stage and silver screen when Philip St. John Basil Rathbone passed away from a heart attack in New York City NY

 

Basil Rathbone is interred in a crypt in the Shrine of Memories Mausoleum at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale NY. In a career that spanned nearly 6 decades, Basil Rathbone has achieved insurmountable success not only as Sherlock Holmes, but in his other roles that characterized suave villains or morally ambiguous individuals. He has 3 stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: One for motion pictures at 6549 Hollywood Blvd, one for radio at 6300 Hollywood Blvd and one for television at 6915 Hollywood Blvd. Whether playing charmingly cultivated villians or uprightly dubious personalities, Basil Rathbone remains eternally beloved and revered. His prominence in the English theatre gained a vast venerated appreciation from classic movie lovers who have ardently watched his films on TCM. When I think of the immensely talented South African actor Basil Rathbone, I try to steer clear of Sherlock Holmes, for whom his name is quite familiar with. Rather I think of him with just one word:prolific. Because to me his actions spoke louder than his words, despite his impeccable diction and his immensely captivating accent. He had a long and illustrious career- through stage, screen and radio and he captured the minds and hearts of millions with his portrayals of such characters, ranging from suave villains to likely heroes and he did it all with class, depth and clarity. He was a Shakespearean actor and enjoyed the stage and performed in numerous plays that received acclaim and respect from its critics. His range of films included Confession with Kay Francis, Captain Blood with Errol Flynn and Tales of Terror with the horror legends of the era- Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone himself. He made equally impressive films throughout his career, but he achieved his greatest success when he was cast to play his most pivotal and crucial role of his career-Sherlock Holmes. Teamed with Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson, the duo would go on to make 14 classic black and white films, radio programs and stage plays and would mark a lasting friendship as well as a working relationship between the two esteemed colleagues.

 

Basil Rathbone highly admired and respected Bruce’s portrayal of his assistant, though many Holmes enthusiasts thought that he was too absentminded to play Dr Watson, compared with the image that suggested to them that he was smart and informative but not bumbling. Rathbone was depressed when Nigel Bruce passed away in 1953 but despite his friend’s passing, he continued to make other films. Eventually he moved on from Sherlock Holmes and pursued other interests in the movie industry. He continued to work on stage as well and starred in television programs as well. Basil and his wife became the parents of a son Rodion Rathbone and lived peacefully in their surroundings. He was a devoted father to his children and a loving husband to his wife. He achieved his greatest role in his career and was proud of his accomplishments. Behind those distinguished good looks was a man highly valued and respected for his ability to inspire us and to leave us in wonder with Sherlock Holmes. To me he was just an amazing actor and I loved all of the movies that he did. He remained loved, admired and respected by those who knew him best after his passing in 1967. I have always wondered what it would have been like if no one knew about him. Well let’s just say that I don’t even like the idea for without Basil Rathbone, the Sherlock Holmes that we have known and loved today would not be the same: It would be a lot different but not the same. I hope that when you read this, you the reader would understand how I feel about this actor and how his character of Sherlock Holmes captured the hearts of millions who have watched him and heard him on the radio as well. To me, Basil Rathbone was not the epitome of the famed detective Sherlock Holmes, but something much greater: he was a warm, consummate and impassioned human being; someone whose poignant, eloquent and inspiring performances gave a newfound cinematic glory to classic movie lovers everywhere. To Sir Basil Rathbone- the profound thinker!4102a32c5b7078b1278722c3f24dccaa

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