Sherlock Holmes And Beyond: A Profile Of Basil Rathbone

Basil Rathbone was one of the finest actors working during the classic film era. During the 1930’s and 1940’s he gained worldwide fame and appreciation, not only for his superb portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, but also for all of those memorable screen villains that he played so often. There are not enough words for me to be able to use to tell you how much I love and admire this man. He was such a brilliant actor and I’ve always been in awe at how he made everything he did on screen appear completely effortless.

Not only do I love him as an actor, but I admire him so much for what he went through during the First World War and how he somehow managed to continue on in life after suffering such immense loss and tragedy. I also like that he appeared to be a humble, down to earth and sensitive man in real life. 

My introduction to Basil Rathbone came about in the early 2000’s when I first watched The Adventures Of Robin Hood(1938), in which Basil plays the dastardly and extremely dashing, Sir Guy Of Gisbourne. What presence he has in that film! I was left both impressed and intrigued by Basil after seeing this film, and I set about checking out as many of his other films as I could find from then on. I’ve been a fan of his ever since. 

Sir Guy and Robin fight a duel in The Adventures Of Robin Hood.

As much as I love The Adventures Of Robin Hood for the exciting story and Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland as Robin and Marion, what I love most about it is how Basil, along with co-star Claude Rains, effortlessly steals the film from everyone else in the cast.

Whether he’s duelling with Errol Fynn’s heroic Robin, or shooting a withering glance at someone, Basil has your attention throughout that film and commands your attention even when he’s actually doing very little. The nail-biting and thrilling duel at the end between Robin and Sir Guy is a moment that you don’t forget in a hurry.

 If you are left with the impression that Basil handles a sword pretty well in that sequence, then you’d be right. Basil was twice the British Army fencing champion and was a natural at swordfighting. While Sir Guy loses his duel with Robin, I would put good money on Basil having been the winner if that had been an off-screen duel being fought for real. 

Basil Rathbone was born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone, in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the 13th of June, 1892. His parents, Edgar and Anna Barbara, were British. Anna Barbara was a violinist. Edgar was a mining engineer and a member of the Liverpool Rathbone family, who were merchants and shipowners famous for their philanthropic work. Basil was the third of five children. He had two older half-brothers, Harold and Horace, and two younger siblings, Beatrice and John.Basil was very close with his younger brother and sister. The Rathbone’s fled South Africa when Basil was three years old after Edgar was accused by the Boers of being a British spy. Back in England, Basil attended the Repton School in Derbyshire from 1906 to 1910. After leaving school he briefly worked as an insurance clerk. Basil first trod the boards in April, 1911, at the Theatre Royal in Ipswitch. The play was The Taming Of The Shrew and Basil played the role of Hortensio. Between 1912 and 1915, Basil played various Shakespearean characters on stage.

When the First World War broke out Basil didn’t join up until 1916, when he joined the British army London Scottish Regiment, a regiment which also included amongst its ranks three fellow future acting legends – Claude Rains, Ronald Colman and Herbert Marshall. Basil was awarded a commission as a Second Lieutenant. Basil’s younger brother John was also caught up in the war, serving in the 3rd Battalion, the Dorset Regiment. John had left school in 1915 and volunteered to join up that same year. In February, 1917, the Rathbone brothers were reunited in London where they convalesced together. Basil was recovering from the measles and John was recovering from chest wounds sustained in the Battle Of The Somme. 

As soon as Basil was well enough he rejoined his unit and was sent out to the trenches. John would not be well enough to return to the front until 1918. That year John’s regiment ended up being stationed close to Basil’s out in France, and the two brothers were once again reunited. Basil remembered their reunion in his memoir. “John and I spent a glorious day together. He had an infectious sense of humor and a personality that made friends for him wherever he went. In our mess on that night he made himself as well-liked as in his own regiment. We retired late, full of good food and Scotch whiskey. We shared my bed and were soon sound asleep. It was still dark when I awakened from a nightmare. I had just seen John killed. I lit the candle beside my bed and held it to my brother’s face—for some moments I could not persuade myself that he was not indeed dead. At last I heard his regular gentle breathing. I kissed him and blew out the candle and lay back on my pillow again. But further sleep was impossible. A tremulous premonition haunted me – a premonition which even the dawn failed to dispel.” 

A few weeks later Basil had another premonition, one which came to pass with eerie accuracy. “At one o’clock on June 4, 1918, I was sitting in my dugout in the front line. Suddenly I thought of John, and for some inexplicable reason I wanted to cry, and did. In due course I received the news of his death in action at exactly one o’clock on June the fourth.” Basil was absolutely distraught by his brother’s death, and in addition to dealing with that huge loss, he was also mourning his mum, who had died the previous year.

In this extract from a letter that Basil wrote to his dad, it’s very clear not only how broken he was by John’s death, but also that he may have become convinced that he himself might die soon. 

I have all of Johnny’s letters parcelled up together and I will either bring them home on my next leave or arrange for someone to deliver them in person. I would send them as you asked but I would be afraid of them being lost. The communication trenches can take a beating and nothing can be relied on. If I can’t bring them myself for any reason there is a good sort here, another Lieutenant in our company who is under oath to deliver them, and who I have never known to shirk or break his word. So, you will get them, come what may. I’m sorry not to have written much the past weeks. It was unfair and you are very kind not to be angry. You ask how I have been since we heard, well, if I am honest with you, and I may as well be, I have been seething. I was so certain it would be me first of either of us. I’m even sure it was supposed to be me and he somehow contrived in his wretched Johnny-fashion to get in my way just as he always would when he was small. I want to tell him to mind his place. I think of his ridiculous belief that everything would always be well, his ever-hopeful smile, and I want to cuff him for a little fool. He had no business to let it happen and it maddens me that I shall never be able to tell him so, or change it or bring him back. I can’t think of him without being consumed with anger at him for being dead and beyond anything I can do to him.

Basil was the intelligence officer for his battalion and had been leading night patrols into No Man’s Land for some time in order to gather info on the German’s. Basil persuaded his commanding officer to allow day patrols too, as it would be easier to gather vital information in the day than at night. These missions were extremely dangerous, and from how I see it, it’s really not hard to view Basil’s actions as possibly being some sort of death wish in response to John’s death. One of these daytime patrols saw Basil and his men disguise themselves as trees!

Although he makes light of what he did and acts like it was no biggie, the reality was that it was extremely dangerous work for him to undertake. In recognition of the daylight patrols he undertook, Basil was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. After the war ended, Basil returned to acting on the stage in the UK. His marriage to his wife Marion sadly broke down and the pair separated in 1919, although they didn’t divorce and Basil still financially supported both his wife and his young son, Rodion. 

In 1923 Basil travelled to America to star in the play The Swan at the Cort Theatre in New York. That same year he met scriptwriter Ouida Bergere and the pair fell in love. Basil obtained a divorce from Marion and he and Ouida married on the 18th of April,1926. Ouida and Basil sadly suffered the loss of their baby in 1928, and in 1939 the pair adopted a baby girl, who they named Cynthia. Cynthia sadly died in 1969 aged just 30.  Unfortunately Ouida had a weak spot for throwing lavish Hollywood parties and she spent Basil’s money like it was going out of style. Sadly this led to Basil taking on screen work far beneath his talents in later years in order to pay off the huge bills piling up.  Despite her issues with money, it seems that Basil never stopped loving his wife and was utterly devoted to her.

In 1926, Basil and the rest of the cast of the play The Captive, were famously arrested in the middle of a performance for offending public morals – although these charges were later dropped and the play was permanently closed down. The play sees the wife of Basil’s character fall in love with another woman. Feathers were ruffled and many pearls clutched due to the subject matter. Basil was furious at this censorship, as he and the rest of the cast felt the subject matter was something which was important to talk about in the open. He described the night of the raid in his autobiography “As we walked out onto the stage to await our first entrances we were stopped by a plainclothes policeman who showed his badge and said, ‘Please don’t let it disturb your performance tonight but consider yourself under arrest!’ At the close of the play the cast were all ordered to dress and stand by to be escorted in police cars to a night court.”

Basil as Philo Vance.

Basil had transitioned into film work in the Silent era, appearing in his first film in 1921. I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t until the 1930’s rolled around that he really hit his stride on screen. In 1929 he played Detective Philo Vance in The Bishop Murder Case(released in 1930).

While the acting in this one isn’t all that great, it’s nice to see Basil in the lead role. The film amusingly contains a scene where a character refers to Basil’s Philo Vance and his companion as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Ten years later of course Basil would famously don that deerstalker hat and play Conan Doyle’s master detective. 

During the 1930’s Basil impressed in a wide variety of films including Anna Karenina(1935), David Copperfield(1935), Romeo & Juliet(1936), Make A Wish(1937), A Tale Of Two Cities( in which he plays a real swine, 1935), The Adventures Of Robin Hood(1938), If I Were King(1938), Son Of Frankenstein(1939).

One of my favourite performances from him during the 30’s is as the dashing pirate, Levasseur, in Captain Blood(1935), a film which saw him co-star with Errol Flynn for the first time. I love Basil’s performance in this film. He’s full of so much energy and plays a great rogue with a deadly edge to him. The gritty beach fight between Basil and Errol is edge of your seat stuff.

Basil with Errol Flynn in The Dawn Patrol.

In 1938 Basil starred in The Dawn Patrol, a film which I think features one of his best performances. Basil plays Major Brand, a Royal Flying Corps squadron commander during WW1, who is edging ever closer to a nervous breakdown following the loss of so many of his men.

You can see the heartache and weariness of this character written all over Basil’s face. It’s a very poignant performance and I think there’s a good possibility that Basil reached deep into his own traumatic memories of WW1 to help capture Brand’s emotional state. The film saw him work with Errol Flynn for the third and final time and I think Errol also does some of his best work here. 

The year 1939 was an important one for Basil. WW2 began and Basil wanted to serve, but he was turned down from active service due to his age. He helped the war effort as best he could though through fundraising, entertaining troops and volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen. Apparently author Margaret Mitchell’s preferred choice to play Captain Rhett Butler in the 1939 film adaptation of her novel Gone With The Wind was Basil Rathbone. I like Clark Gable as Rhett, but I have to admit to wondering many a time how Basil would have played that character. I for one think he would have been brilliant as Rhett.

1939 was to become the key year in Basil’s film career. It was the year in which he first played the character with whom he has become forever linked, a chap by the name of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Basil dons the deerstalker and enjoys a pipe as Sherlock Holmes.

With his thin facial features and uncanny resemblance to the Sidney Paget illustrations of Holmes in the Strand Magazine, it’s little wonder that Basil was cast in the role of Sherlock Holmes.

For many he has become the ultimate screen Holmes and it’s really not hard to see why so many feel that way. He perfectly captured the intellect and many facets of Sherlock Holmes. Personally I think that Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke are the greatest screen Holmes and Watson, but coming in a close second for me is Basil Rathbone’s superb portrayal.  

If the Rathbone Holmes films had been more authentic adaptations of the stories, and if his Watson had been more like the character in the stories, then I think his 14 film run would be able to be called the best with no contest. As much as I love his performances and the films themselves, what stops them from being truly great adaptations in my opinion, is that most of the plots bear such little resemblance to any of Doyle’s stories.

The other issue for me is Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson. I want to preface this next bit by saying this is not meant as a slight to Mr.Bruce, who after all was only playing the character as directed. Basil and Nigel had been close friends for many years and Basil sent the following message to Nigel when he was offered the role of Holmes, “Willie dear, do play Dr. Watson to my Sherlock Holmes, we’ll have such fun.” Nigel accepted the role and thus a beloved screen team was born.

On screen Basil and Nigel’s real life affection for one another is evident and this helps us buy into the friendship and bond between Holmes and Watson. Unfortunately the way in which Watson is portrayed in these films is appalling. While Nigel’s Watson is certainly lovable and tries hard, he is also extremely slow minded and bumbling. He is more of a source of comedy than anything else. This portrayal is at odds with the intelligent and capable medical man and army veteran we know from the books. Frankly this screen portrayal of Watson grates on me, even though I do adore the old man for his loyalty to Holmes and his desperate desire to do all he can to help out wherever he can. 

Holmes and Watson are on the case.

Basil and Nigel first took up residence at 221B Baker Street in an adaptation of the most famous Holmes story of them all – The Hound Of The Baskervilles which is one of the best screen adaptations of the story and has a brilliant gothic atmosphere. Weirdly though Basil is listed second on the cast list beneath Richard Greene as Sir Henry Baskerville. The success of this film quickly led Twentieth Century Fox studios to make a second film entitled The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, which was released later the same year. In the sequel the great Ida Lupino joins the lads as Ann Brandon, a young woman who finds herself in desperate need of Holmes’s help.

These two films would be the only ones of the Rathbone/Bruce films to be set in the Victorian era and they would also be the last films of the series to be made at Fox. Alongside the films, Basil and Nigel also played Holmes and Watson in the radio series The New Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, which began airing in 1939. Basil remained on the radio series until 1946 when he was replaced by Tom Conway. Nigel continued to play Watson until 1947.

In their second big screen outing Basil and Nigel were joined by actress and director Ida Lupino.

The other 12 films in the Rathbone/Bruce series would be made at Universal Studios between 1941 and 1944. These later films were interestingly set in the modern day(1940’s), and this of course all long before the Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller modern day set Holmes series came along with their supposedly new spin on the stories and characters. The remaining 12 films also have a lot of WW2 propaganda in them. My favourites of the 14 films are The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, Terror By Night, The Hound Of The Baskervilles, The Scarlet Claw, The Pearl Of DeathSherlock Holmes Faces Death, The House Of Fear. 

While Basil was at first very enthusiastic about playing Holmes, the enthusiasm quickly wore off and he gave up the role. Playing Holmes was something of a double edged sword for Basil. On the one hand he gained worldwide fame and popularity, but on the other it led to him becoming typecast and forever after associated with Holmes. It’s easy to understand his frustration at the situation he found himself in. 

Basil refused to renew his film and radio contracts in 1946 and returned instead to the theatre. I get the impression that the theatre was always his first love and that it was on the stage where he felt most comfortable and fulfilled. In 1947 he played the odious Dr. Sloper in the stage production of The Heiress(a performance which saw him rewarded with a Tony Award). When the play was adapted for the screen in 1949, Ralph Richardson was cast as Dr. Sloper. As much as I enjoy Ralph Richardson’s performance, I do find myself imagining what Basil would have been like instead.

Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, Basil was sadly appearing in some real rubbish on screen, and he appeared on screen less and less. I think his last great film role was as Sir Ravenhurst in The Court Jester(1955).In the 1960’s he went on tour with his one man show entitled In And Out Of Character(also the name of his memoir). In these shows he spoke about his life and career, as well as reciting Shakespeare and poetry. 

Basil died suddenly after suffering a heart attack on the 21st July,1967. He was 75 years old. His death was such a huge loss for the theatre and film industry. I’d like to think that he would be touched by how much love and respect there is for him today, both as an actor, and also for the real man behind the screen image. 

As he lived and died long before I was even born, it is a great regret of mine that I never had the chance to see him act on stage. Basil Rathbone truly was one of the best. Here’s a few of my favourite films of his the Sherlock Holmes series, Captain Blood, The Dawn Patrol, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Make A Wish, Sin Takes A Holiday. 

Here’s some interesting trivia to end with. Basil’s distant cousin was Henry Rathbone, who was sitting next to President and Mrs. Lincoln the night that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s theatre in Washington. Rathbone tried to stop the assassin John Wilkes Booth and was stabbed by him. He would never get over not being able to prevent Lincoln’s murder and tragically went insane.  

How did you become a fan of Basil Rathbone? What are your favourite films and performances of his?

As a special bonus, please enjoy this beautiful photograph of Basil. Photographed by the Vandamm Studio for the 1933-1934 stage production of The Barretts Of Wimpole Street, in which he played poet Robert Browning.

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