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Basil Rathbone, Big Screen Villain and Sherlock Holmes - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

November 2010

Films starring Basil Rathbone on (re)Search my Trash


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Basil Rathbone's film career resembles that of many a fine Hollywood actor who eventually got caught up in genre filmmaking in Hollywood from the 1930's to the 1950's, just think Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre bio - click here], Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] or John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here] - all of whom Rathbone has worked with one time or another by the way.

What they all have in common is the fact that they started out as very fine stage actors whose careers migrated from theatre to film rather seemlessly, but eventually they all found their niche in genre cinema and/or a role they would become forever identified with (Sherlock Holmes in the case of Basil Rathbone of course), and as a result they would be typecast and eventually, with changing audience tastes, their careers would hit rough spot after rough spot until late in their lives, they would see themselves forced to acting in films far below their abilities.


With Basil Rathbone it seems especially interesting to notice that his curse seemed to be his very talent: He was an extremely gifted stage actor, and handsome enough to make a fine leading man, but his precise diction and his somewhat theatrical acting style coupled with the depth (and thus ambivalence) he brought to his roles made him a much finer villain than a hero - and it is interesting to note in this respect that though he was probably the best fencer of all Hollywood actors (he was not only trained in stage fencing but also in actual fencing) he was allowed to win no more than one on-screen fencing duel in all of his career - in Romeo and Juliet (1936, George Cukor).

Now it's true that early in his film career, Rathbone did turn in performances as both hero and villain, but as it happened, it was his bad guy performances that really stuck with audiences. Only when he picked up the role of Sherlock Holmes would that change, but then he was quickly typecast as the British super-sleuth, something he only eventually embraced.

But as usual, I'm getting way ahead of myself, and thus let's all go back in time and start at the very beginning ...



Early Life, Early Career


Basil Rathbone was born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1892 to father Edgar Philip Rathbone, a mining engineer, and Anna Barbara Rathbone, a violinist. In 1895 though, the Rathbones had to flee South Africa because young Basil's father was accused of being a British spy during the Dutch-British conflicts that eventually led to the Boer War (1899 - 1902). If Edgar Philip Rathbone actually was a spy as accused or only a pawn in some political game has never become absolutely clear, and Basil Rathbone was unwilling or unable to shed light on that matter, claiming he simply never asked his father about the whole affair.


Basil Rathbone grew up in England and attended the Repton School in Derbyshire, England from 1906 to 1910, where he especially excelled in sports. However, it was the stage that caught his particular interest, and after he graduated from school he expressed his wish to become an actor.

Rumor has it that his father wasn't happy about his son's choice of career and thus suggested young Basil should work at a regular job (at an insurance company) for a year, after which he was free to become an actor with his father's blessings, should he still desire to. Obviously, dad Rathbone figured the year at the insurance company would sort out his son's wild ideas.

Dad Rathbone was wrong of course, young Basil quit his job after exactly one year and hooked up with his cousin Frank Benson, who ran his own theatre company. Benson gave Basil a job with the company, and he debuted at the Theatre Royal in Ipswitch in 1911 with Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. However, initially cousin Frank only gave young Basil a job in his B-company, and (quite rightly) insisted that Rathbone should work his way up the career ladder himself and learn on the job while doing so. Basil Rathbone did not disappoint his cousin and by 1913, at age 21, he would already play all the juvenile leads in his cousin's company's plays, and he toured the country with the company and even was included in the company's US-tour.

In Benson's theatre company, Basil Rathbone would also meet Marion Foreman, a fellow performer he would marry in 1914, and with whom he would have a son, Ronion, in 1915.


In 1916, he was drafted to join the army and fight in World War I, and he soon became an intelligence officer - and he actually earned a British Military Cross for outstanding bravery. His younger brother John on the other hand was less lucky and lost his life in battle.


After the war he joined the famous New Shakespeare Company of Stratford-Upon-Avon, playing lead after lead in many a Shakespeare play during the company's summer festival, and by fall of the same year he had made it to the best theatres of London, where he was quick to make a name of himself. Frequent trips to the USA, especially to New York, saw to it that his popularity soon transcended British borders.

It was only a matter of time now until the movie-industry came a-knocking ...


(It should maybe be noted here that on one of his trips to New York, Rathbone and fell in love with scriptwriter Ouida Bergère, whom he married in 1926 after getting a divorce from his first wife Marion Foreman in 1924.)



Silent Cinema and Early Talkies


Basil Rathbone made his big screen debut in Maurice Elvey's Innocent, a British production from 1921, a rather routine romance with Rothbone giving no more than a routine performance, but it appears that Elvey - a name-director back then - was impressed enough be the young man (aged 29 back then) that he invited him back for another movie, The Fruitful Vine (1921).


In 1924, Rathbone made his first film in the USA, Trouping with Ellen (T.Hayes Hunter), a romantic comedy based on a story by Earl Derr Biggers, otherwise better known for having created Charlie Chan.

Trouping with Ellen was followed by two more US-American silents, The Masked Bride (1925, Christy Cabanne) and The Great Deception (1926, Howard Higgin). However, before the arrival of talking pictures, Rathbone did not take his film career too seriously and preferred the stage to the screen. This is also mirrored in his performances which always seem to lack the decisive spark - but that might only be the opinion of someone with hindsight who invariably links Basil Rathbone to his distinctive voice and fine diction.


Anyways, in the 1920's (circa 1926), Basil Rathbone earned himself a certain notoriety when he acted in a play on Broadway called The Captive - and got arrested for it with the rest of the cast because the play dared to touch the then taboo subject of (female) homosexuality.


As mentioned above, Rathbone's performances in silent films seemed to lack something, and subsequently his rise to fame began with the advent of sound in the late 1920's, which was a time when many stars popular in silent films could not overcome the obstacle of doing dialogue for various reasons, and thus stage actors, preferably with a bit of screen experience, were in constant demand.

Rathbone's first talking role was in the comedy The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929, Sidney Franklin), which saw him opposite Norma Shearer. Sure, the film might look dated by today's standards, but it was made at a time when filmmakers were still experimenting with the sound format while already trying to make movies, and Shearer and Rathbone do their jobs well nevertheless, engaging in some quite lively stretches of dialogue.


The Bishop Murder Case (1930, David Burton, Nick Grinde) can be seen as almost a bit prophetic in hindsight as it sees Basil Rathbone in the role of supersleuth Philo Vance, a character not at all dissimilar to Sherlock Holmes - and there is actually a scene in The Bishop Murder Case in which someone calls Philo Vance/Basil Rathbone "Sherlock Holmes", even if it's meant as an insult.

But while the Sherlock Holmes-allusion is at least interesting and the mere fact that Rathbone plays another supersleuth sounds promising, the film is actually incredibly talky, comes across as stagey and is above all a bit boring, and even though he gives a fine performance, Basil Rathbone just doesn't seem right as Philo Vance, a role William Powell had by then already made his own over at Paramount (The Bishop Murder Case was produced by MGM).

(It's interesting to note in that respect that William Powell was in the 1937 remake of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, directed by Richard Boleslawski, but played a different character.)


1930 was a busy year for Basil Rathbone, filmwise, as he made no less than 7 movies years that year alone, pretty much as many as he made in his movie career all through the 1920's. Besides The Bishop Murder Case, these films were the espionage drama This Mad World (William Mille), the romances A Notorious Affair (Lloyd Bacon) and A Lady Surrenders (John M.Stahl), and the romantic comedies The Flirting Widow (William A.Seiter) starring popular chanteuse Dorothy Mackaill, The Lady of Scandal (Sidney Franklin) and Sin Takes a Holiday (Paul L.Stein). None of this films are particularly remarkable, but Basil Rathbone is pretty good in all of them, with his characters ranging from romantic hero to unscrupulous seducer to outright baddie - which also means he hadn't found his niche in the film industry yet.


After the very industrious year 1930, Rathbone took a break from the film industry in 1931 to do mostly stagework to return in 1932 with A Woman Commands (Paul L.Stein), a costume drama mainly memorable for being silent star Pola Negri's first talkie - but it turned out to be not too big a success.

For his next three films, After the Ball (1932, Milton Rosmer), One Precious Year (1933, Henry Edwards), and Loyalties (1933, Basil Dean, Thorold Dickinson), Rathbone returned to England. After these movies, Rathbone once again returned to the theatre, as he had always found acting on stage more rewarding than acting in films.


As for the evolution of Rathbone's roles: It became more and more obvious that Rathbone's a bit too lean stature coupled with his precise diction, his full voice and his old world mannerisms did not make him a first choice leading man let alone romantic hero (at least not in American productions), but he seemed to fit the villain-bill quite perfectly, especially in period dramas ...



Hollywood Villain


Even though Rathbone's first passion as an actor was the stage, he ditched stagework for a time altogether in 1935 to concentrate on his movie career, which he had so far only treated as something on the side. To that end, he and his family moved to Hollywood in 1935 for good. It's not exactly clear why Rathbone decided to make that movie (both geographically and professionally), but money might have had to do something with it. Rathbone and wife were quick to blend right in with Hollywood society, and it soon became a well-known and well-publicized fact that the Rathbones threw some of the best parties in town and hosted top Hollywood celebrity.


Rathbone's first film after he had "arrived" in Hollywood was George Cukor's Charles Dickens adaptation David Copperfield (1935), in which he gave a fine and menacing performance as young Copperfield's evil stepdad, but he unfortnuately had only limited screentime and is eventually written out of the movie pretty unceremonuously. On top of that, Rathbone was pretty much overshadowed by a rare serious performance by comedy star W.C. Fields [W.C. Fields bio - click here], whose American accent might sound a bit out of place, but who manages to convince otherwise.

Still, Rathbone's performance must have struck a chord with contemporary audiences, because before the year was over, he could be seen in another Charles Dickens-adaptation, A Tale of Two Cities (1935, Jack Conway).


Basil Rathbone starred in several more high profile pictures in 1935, like as Greta Garbo's distant husband in the Tolstoy-adaptation Anna Karenina (Clarence Brown), as Pontius Pilate in The Last Days of Pompeii (Ernest B.Schoedsack), and in A Feather in her Hat (Alfred Santell) and Kind Lady (George B.Seitz).


All of these films were indeed proof that Rathbone had arrived in Hollywood not only geographically, but the one career-making film he made in his first actual Hollywood year was Captain Blood (1935, Michael Curtiz), in which he plays an evil pirate opposite Errol Flynn, and in his all-too-brief appearance, he proves to be not only a great villain-actor, he also gives Flynn a run for his money in their climactic sword duel - in fact, Rathbone, a trained fencer, felt himself (and probably was) far superior in fencing to Errol Flynn, but he still gets killed by him in the end. He also claimed that he was afraid he would hurt Flynn during their fencing scene, because Flynn did not put up any defenses, but that's probably exaggeration on Rathbone's part, because after all, there is a big difference between actual fencing and fencing on film, especially if you fence portraying a certain character.

Fencing aside, Captain Blood was exactly the kind of escapist fare that needed someone like Basil Rathbone, someone who could portray an easily recognizable bad guy without being a mere caricature, and who could actually engage in physical combat with the resident hero as well.

The film was a huge success and not only typecast Basil Rathbone for the next few years but also made the latest swashbuckling sensation, the ultimate swashbuckling hero out of Errol Flynn.


Sure, Captain Blood was not exactly Shakespeare, but that was in the cards for Basil Rathbone the following year, with Romeo and Juliet (1936, George Cukor), in which the title roles are played by Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, respectively, and Basil Rathbone, as Tybalt, is actually allowed to carry away the only victory in an on-screen fencing duel in his whole film career (against John Barrymore) - before being defeated and killed by Leslie Howard of course.

The role of Tybalt ba the way actually earned Basil Rathbone his first (of two) Oscar nominatins as best supporting actor.


Apart from Romeo and Juliet, 1936 saw Basil Rathbone playing a crooked butler in the rather little-known drama Private Number (1936, Roy del Ruth) and doing a rare good guy performance the escapist Technicolor extravaganza The Garden of Allah (Richard Boleslawski) starring Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer. The film though is unfortunately little more than boring kitsch.


In 1937, Basil Rathbone returned to Great Britain for Love from a Stranger/A Night of Terror (Rowland V.Lee), an Agatha Christie adaptation in which he plays some kind of modern day Bluebeard. The film as a whole, one can't help but notice, is a bit of a letdown due to its stagey and bland direction, but at least the cast, first and foremost Rathbone and Ann Harding as his supposed victim who in the end turns the tables on him, is excellent.


Back in the USA, Rathbone made a handful of so-so costume dramas, Confession (1937, Joe May), Tovarich (1937, Anatole Litvak), and The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938, Archie Mayo), invariably cast in bad guy-roles, but he also played another good guy in the overly cheesy Bobby Breen-vehicle Make a Wish (1937, Kurt Neumann).


Rathbone's next career highlight though was The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Michael Curtiz, William Keighley), his second team-up with Errol Flynn (who plays Robin Hood of course), but this time he gets more screentime than in Captain Blood as evil Guy of Gisbourne - and of course is allowed to fence (and be defeated by) Flynn again.

Of course, The Adventures of Robin Hood is purest Hollywood kitsch of the swashbuckling variety, and the glaring colours courtesy of Technicolor only emphasize on this, but let's face it, when watching a Errol Flynn-flick from the 1930's, you know what you're in for, and might as well enjoy it. And Basil Rathbone's terrific performance certainly gives you no reason to complain.


Rathbone and Flynn met again later in 1938 for The Dawn Patrol (Edmund Goulding), a quite imrpessive anti-war movie about ace pilots from World War I. Rathbone and Flynn are fighting on the same side in this one for once, yet not a lot of love is lost between them as Flynn (giving one of his best performances) considers Rathbone, his superior, a butcher, for sending young and inexperienced recruits out into the battlefield. Rathbone gives a quite compelling performance as the man who does just that without the blink of an eye, while it breaks his heart at the same time.

The Dawn Patrol is certainly a long way from escapist swashbucklers like Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood.


Sandwiched in between the two Errol Flynn vehicles was If I Were King (1938, Frank Lloyd), in which Rathbone played the 15th century King Louis XI of France, a role that saw him at his scheming best opposite Ronald Colman - and a role that earned him his second Oscar nomination, again as best supporting actor.


With as many bad guy rolws under his belt as Basil Rathbone had, it was only a question of time until he attracted the attention of the horror genre as such, and thus in 1939, Universal, then the first address for horror movies, offered him a role in a film that was supposed to be a high profile relaunch of their horror line, which initially was even to be shot in colour (the plans were scrapped later on for reasons unknown, but money might have had something to do with it).

The film in question is of course Son of Frankenstein (1939, Rowland V.Lee), and it starred not only Rathbone as the titular character but saw Boris Karloff return as the monster [Boris Karloff bio - click here] and featured performances by Bela Lugosi as a hunchbacked villain [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] and Lionel Atwill as an eccentric one-armed police officer [Lionel Atwill bio - click here]. With a cast like this, it's no surprise that Son of Frankenstein is wonderfully acted, and it's also very moodily directed and features some great sets - and yet, the film as a whole is pretty much a disappointment, mainly due to its incoherent plot that doesn't seem to have been thought through, that's riddled with plotholes and that takes itself way too seriously for its own good - and goes on doing so for about 100 minutes.

Basil Rathbone was not too happy with Son of Frankenstein, and in later times did not hesitate to show his disdain towards the film and the genre as such - but ironically, horror isn't a genre to easily forget its own, and Basil Rathbone would find himself drawn back to the genre time and again in later years.


In 1939 though, Basil Rathbone's big time involvement with the horror genre was still years away, and he got to play the role of his life, Sherlock Holmes, for the first time in the movie The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sidney Lanfield), and his portrayal of the super sleuth would not only become iconic before long, but it also spawned a sequel almost immediately, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939, Alfred L.Werker) - more information about these two movies and the Sherlock Holmes series as a whole below though ...


While both Sherlock Holmes-movies did well at the box office, nobody at the films' production company 20th Century Fox planned to make an ongoing series out of the property, and thus it wasn't long before Rathbone worked on numerous other projects (Rathbone did play the character in an ongoing radioseries between 1939 and 1946 though) ...


In between the two Sherlock Holmes-movies, Rathbone reteamed with Son of Frankenstein's director Rowland V.Lee to make The Sun Never Sets (1939), an adventure/drama set in the colonial services that sees Rathbone as Douglas Fairbanks jr's elder brother.

Rowland V.Lee also directed Tower of London (1939), a film that nowadays is often cited as part of Universal's horror cycle, most probably because of the involvement of both Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here] and Vincent Price, but theilm actually plays more like a historical drama, a genre Rathbone is intimately familiar with - and the role of a villainous schemer is also not something entirely new to him. This all leads to a film that's ok as a whole, but that simply could have been better ...


1940 brought a change of pace with the Bing Crosby musical Rhythm on the River (Victor Schertzinger), before Rathbone returned to the swashbuckler to make maybe the best films he ever made in the genre, The Mark of Zorro (1940, Rouben Mamoulian), a very slick take on the Zorro myth in which Basil Rathbone plays the villain to Tyrone Power's hero. There is a rumour that Rathbone actually proved so good a fencer that Power, skilled fencer himself, had to be doubled in a handful of scenes ... and yet, this might be nothing than a rumour fabricated by some publicist, as fencing duels in films are staged fights that don't necessarily have much to do with actual fencing (apart from the looks). It still might be true though that Power (and probably even Rathbone himself) was doubled in a couple of scenes, simply because fight scenes are best left to the experts aka stuntmen - after all, that's what they're here for.


While The Mark of Zorro might be among the best swashbucklers of its time, it also marked the end of an era, as with the advent of World War II (USA entered in 1941, Rathbone's native Great Britain in 1939), swashbucklers quickly fell out of favour with the audiences. 

It is said that Rathbone actually volunteered for service in the British army but was turned down due to his age (he was 47 by the time Great Britain entered the war after all). As a result, Rathbone joined many a homefront but war-related charity instead.


Anyways, with the appeal of swashbucklers and costume romps quickly diminishing, Rathbone looked for other options, like crime thrillers - The Mad Doctor (1941, Tim Whelan), Fingers at the Window (1942, Charles Lederer), and Crossroads (1942, Jack Conway), which saw Rathbone co-starring with William Powell -, horror - the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Black Cat (1941, Albert S.Rogell) also starring Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] -, and war-themed espionage thrillers - International Lady (1941, Tim Whelan) and Paris Calling (1941, Edwin L.Marin). None of these films was particularly successful or significant, and it almost seemed that Rathbone would take a nosedive with the genre he became famous with, when ...



Sherlock Holmes


As mentioned above, Basil Rathbone made his debut as Sherlock Holmes in 1939 with The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sidney Lanfield). By that time, he was hardly the first Sherlock Holmes, not even the first Sherlock Holmes of the sound era, other actors who tried their hands on the iconic character in the sound era included Clive Brook in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929, Basil Dean) and Sherlock Holmes (1932, William K.Howard), Reginald Owen (who actually plays Watson in Sherlock Holmes) in A Study in Scarlet (1933, Edwin L.Marin), Arthur Wontner in a whole series of films (click here), Raymond Massey in The Speckled Band (1931, Jack Raymond), and Robert Rendel in the little-seen The Hound of the Baskervilles (1932, Gareth Gundrey), to name just a few. But still, none of these actors and none of these films got the character quite right, a character that had already taken on a life of his own not only due to the novels and stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and the illustrations accompanying them, but also due to merchandise, comics and pulp literature that helped immortalize the image of Sherlock Holmes. Also, in the silent era, actor Eille Norwood put his stamp on the character in a long series of short films (click here) that remained fairly close to the source material, while early talkies often took considerable liberties with Doyle's creation, which at times only led to rather futile attempts to modernize the character.


Basil Rathbone seemed to be perfect for the role from square one though: Not only did he resemble the Sherlock Holmes known from the illustrations, he was also unmistakably British and had a very precise but also sharp diction. Plus, the mere fact that Rathbone has so far made his name primarily by playing villains added the proper dark note to his interpretation of the role.

Having found the right man for the part, 20th Century Fox was also eager to give him the right vehicle, and thus for their rendition of The Hound of the Baskervilles, they didn't try to modernize the well-known source material or add too many unnecessary twists to it. Sure, Doyle's novel was altered here and there to make it fit for the big screen, but by and large, one could call The Hound of the Baskervilles a typical Sherlock Holmes-movie. One of the changes 20th Century Fox made was making Holmes's sidekick Watson - as played by Nigel Bruce - into pretty much an absent-minded idiot, something every serious Sherlock Holmes-fan thought unforgiveable ... but then again, Bruce's rather comic rendition of the good Doctor Watson added some extra seriousness to Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, and the general audience really took to him as well - which meant he would remain at Rathbone's side for the remainder of the series.

Everything seemed to be perfect so far, and yet, the heads of 20th Century Fox did not completely trust either their material or their lead Basil Rathbone, as at least according to credits he plays second fiddle to another British actor, Richard Greene, playing the romantic lead of Sir Henry Baskerville, whose role was somewhat extended compared to other adaptations and even the novel itself. This is also the main problem of the movie inasmuch as it turns a murder mystery with horror overtones into a lovestory with mystery overtones. That Richard Greene didn't have one of his better days when acting in this one doesn't help much either.


The audience however did not take to Richard Greene but to Basil Rathbone's very sharp and precise rendition of Sherlock Holmes, because he would be back in the theatres repeating the role a few months later with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939, Alfred L.Werker) - with no Richard Greene in sight. This film however proves to be a disappointment, at least on a quality level: Basically, the story is riddled with way too many plotholes and at the same time badly over-constructed, and the direction does little to hide the film's stage origins (the play Sherlock Holmes by William Gillette rather than any of Doyle's stories). Sure, Basil Rathbone gives another fine performance, perfectly supported by Nigel Bruce as Watson, and George Zucco makes a good Moriarty [George Zucco bio - click here], but the film has little to offer beyond that.


After The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 20th Century Fox did not show any intentions to turn Sherlock Holmes into a film-series, and thus it would take quite a few years for Rathbone and Bruce to return to the big screen as the supersleuth and his sidekick, but in 1939, they established themselves as Holmes and Watson on the radio in a series that would run - in weekly instalments, until 1946, when the (resurrected) film series (then produced by Universal) ended as well.


Fast forward to 1942: World War II was going strong, and when the nation's armed forces had to serve, so did Hollywood, although in a slightly different way - while the army fought on the front, naturally, the film industry was responsible for keeping the morale up on the homefront, and thus many a popular film character suddenly popped up in one or more war-themed propaganda films, from Roy Rogers in quite a number of films [Roy Rogers bio - click here] to Tarzan in Tarzan Triumphs (1943, William Dieterle) to even the Canterville Ghost in Jules Dassin's 1944 Canterville Ghost. And if all those characters could serve their country, so could Sherlock Holmes, right?

Sure, Holmes was British, but after all it's the message that counts, and while the character seems to be tied to the Victorian age, a foreword was dreamt up to explain this discrepancy away as well. By 1942 though, 20th Century Fox, producer of both The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, had no longer an option on the character, so smaller Universal stepped in and resurrected the character for the big screen, to be once again be played by Basil Rathbone of course, and to be sidekicked by Nigel Bruce and supported by Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson, just like in the 20th Century Fox-days.


Sure, Universal did not spend the same kind of money on their Sherlock Holmes-movies as 20th Century Fox did and released them as programmers (B-pictures), and the studio's attempts to move the character to modern times seem at times a little forced, but at the same time the films hit a chord with the audiences and served their purpose as propaganda films - at least the initial ones (click here).


The first film of the new Universal Sherlock Holmes-series, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942, John Rawlins) sees Rathbone as Holmes caught up in a case of espionage and conspiracy in which he seems like a bit of an anachronism, and the whole thing is as over-convoluted as it is silly - but at least from today's point of view, there is also a nostalgic charm to it. The audience however loved the character's return to the big screen, and thus it didn't take long until the film got a sequel, again produced by Universal.


Other than Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943, Roy William Neill) is a actually based on a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle (however loosely), The Dancing Men. This though makes the propaganda footage of bomber jets and the like seem all the more at odds with the actual story - a murder mystery with all sorts of spies and intrigue - at hand. Well, at least this movie had Hollywood badman Lionel Atwill as Moriarty [Lionel Atwill bio - click here], and that's never a bad thing.


It seems that Universal was quick to learn its lesson from both Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, because for its third Holmes propaganda movie, Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943, Roy William Neill) the menace Holmes was fighting was made much less obvious. Sure, everyone with half a braincell who watched the film during wartime must have been able to guess that the foreign power Holmes and everyone else is repeatedly talking about are the Germans, and the fact that the villain of the piece, portrayed by George Zucco [George Zucco bio - click here], is of German descent should have left little doubt, but the more subtle approach does help the mystery to flourish more freely - too bad then that it actually isn't too good a mystery. Well, at least Rathbone feels more at home when portraying Holmes merely as a supersleuth rather than a superspy as well, and when he has a war of words with George Zucco, it almost seems as if he remeets his old enemy Moriarty from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, helped also by the fact that Zucco plays his villain without any German accent or mannerisms.


Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943, Roy William Neill) is still rooted in the World War II era thematically (Watson takes care of reconvalescent World War II soldiers in an old manor), but drops the propaganda-angle in favour of an old dark house style murder mystery. Unfortunately, the mystery-part of the plot is so over-complicated though it fails to fully convince.

Apart from the presence of the World War II veterans though, there is little mention made about the time this story takes place, and rather than being a modern-day adventure as such, the story seems to be set in some limbo, history-wise, that might be the 1940's as well as the Victorian age, and only the occasional appearance of a car reminds you that it's not meant to be a period picture. This is even more true for most of the Sherlock Holmes-movies that would follow, in which no more mention of the war whatsoever is made and that often have an (even from the 1940's point of view) old-fashioned atmosphere to them one has come to expect from films about the (Victorian) supersleuth.


The Spider Woman (1944, Roy William Neill), the immediate follow-up to Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, is probably one of the best of Universal's Sherlock Holmes-movies, basically because the old-fashioned carneval backdrop of the film's final act, a pretty exciting finale in which Holmes himself is made the target of a shooting gallery, and because of the titular spider woman, who is not only cruel but also (almost) Holmes's equal - and she's wonderfully portrayed by Gale Sondergaard as well.


Sondergaard's character was so popular in fact that eventually, The Spider Woman would get a (Sherlock Holmes-free) sequel-in-name-only, The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946, Arthur Lubin), which would not only star Gale Sondergaard in the titular role (but playing a whole other character than in The Spider Woman) but also acromegalic monster actor Rondo Hatton, from a later Sherlock Holmes-movie, The Pearl of Death (1944, Roy William Neill), though also not repeating his role as the Creeper from that movie.


The Scarlet Claw (1944, Roy William Neill), the next film in the series, is supposed to be set in Canada - but for no apparent reason, it's actually set in the same historic and apparently also geographic neverworld as all the other Sherlock Holmes-flicks after the World War II angle was ditched. That doesn't hurt the film much though, as it is actually a quite entertaining old dark house mystery with horror elements (which are in the end revealed to be fake of course) - and need I mention that Rathbone in the lead puts in another fine performance?


Above-mentioned The Pearl of Death (1944, Roy William Neill) is a fun if not exactly special entry into the series basically for its competent cast: Apart from Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, there's Miles Manders, who makes an interesting and slightly unusual villain, and Evelyn Ankers, who as his disguise-happy partner-in-crime adds colour to the proceedings ... but the most impressive supporting actor/character was possibly Rondo Hatton as the Creeper, a man who could scare the living daylights out of you and who was so popular with the audience that Universal tried to turn him into a series character - and yet, Rondo Hatton's story is a rather tragic one: Originally quite a handsome man embarking on a career in journalism, he developed symptoms of acromegaly while covering World War I, a disease that causes unproportional growth of extremeties that leaves those suffering from it with grotesque bodies and features. Allegedly he was discovered for the movies by Henry King in 1930, but it took Hatton years before giving in to the requests of the filmworld and capitalizing on his handicap, playing the monsterman in quite a few features, mostly wearing next to no makeup. When he appeared in The Pearl of Death, he already had quite a list of (often uncredited) film appearances under his belt, but it was the Sherlock Holmes-movie that made his image iconic and gave his career the decisive boost, a career that would come to an untimely end in 1946 when Hatton, aged 51, suffered a heart attack, a direct result from his condition.

However tragic his story may be though, and however politically incorrect I may sound, I have to admit that Hatton is genuinely creepy in The Pearl of Death.


House of Fear (1945, Roy William Neill) sees Rathbone's Holmes in another old dark house-style murder mystery, and while the film in itself is atmospheric and well-played, and not necessarily sillier written than other episodes of the series, it somehow feels like little more than a rehash from earlier films, not only in terms of setting.


Worse yet is The Woman in Green (1945, Roy William Neill), a rather tired entry into the series about an absurd blackmail scheme that saw the return of one of Sherlock Holmes's favourite villains, Moriarty, but after Hollywood badmen George Zucco [George Zucco bio - click here] and Lionel Atwill [Lionel Atwill bio - click here] already had a go at the role, Henry Daniell was almost doomed to disappoint - and unfortunately, he seems to not even try terribly hard to convince, either.


In Pursuit to Algiers (1945, Roy William Neill), Rathbone's Holmes has to solve a murder on an Ocean liner bound to Algiers, on which he has to guard a heir to an European throne from a shipload of would-be assassins. In all, the film is charmingly naive in a B-movie sort of way, but also rather pointless, even within the confines of the Sherlock Holmes-series.


While in Pursuit to Algiers, the action is confined to an Ocean liner, in Terror by Night (1946, Roy William Neill) is entirely set on a train, which at least adds a special twist to an otherwise pedestrian mystery - which though is about the best one can say about this rather tired flick.


With Dressed to Kill (1946, Roy William Neill), Universal's Sherlock Holmes-series came to a close, and probably it was for the best of it, because this film is a pretty dull affair in which the resolution of the mystery is presented to the audience in pretty much the first five minutes while Holmes keeps guessing all through the film - which kind of lacks suspense and excitement. The film also suffers from a plot that lacks plausibility and Holmes' deductive reasoning that is even wilder and less reasonable than usual.


By 1946, both Basil Rathbone's film and radio contracts to play Sherlock Holmes had expired - and that couldn't have come a moment too soon, as Rathbone had by then grown tired of the role, and ever deteriorating scripts couldn't have helped either. Furthermore, he, who once was typecast as a Hollywood period drama villain, found himself typecast again, as Sherlock Holmes.


This is of course only proven by the fact that the roles he played besides Holmes over the year grew ever fewer and farther between, roles in films like the espionage thriller Above Suspicion (1943, Richard Thorpe), the Esther Williams/Red Skelton vehicle Bathing Beauty (1944, George Sidney), the pirate movie Frenchman's Creek (1944, Mitchell Leisen) starring Joan Fontaine which also featured Nigel Bruce, and the Ginger Rogers comedy Heartbeat (1946, Sam Wood). Now some of these movies were at least pretty entertaining but none of them was a masterpiece or at least a prestige film of some sorts.


With the role of Sherlock Holmes off his shoulders, Basil Rathbone turned his back on Hollywood to return to New York and the Broadway, and his first love, the stage, and within a year, he had won a Tony Award for his role in the play The Heiress, written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz based on a story by Henry James, and directed by Jed Harris.


It would take a few years for Rathbone to reconcile with the character of Sherlock Holmes, but in 1953 he played him in an episode of the series Suspense, The Adventure of the Black Baronet (Robert Mulligan), and also in 1953 he would resurrect the character on Broadway in the play Sherlock Holmes, written by his own second wife Ouida, but that play closed after a mere three performances.

In later years, Rathbone would now and again don the Sherlock Holmes-costume for TV variety shows, commercials and stageplays, as it was a heritage he was unable to escape no matter what, but he would never again embrace the role as whole-heartedly as he did before.


For Sherlock Holmes-fans though, his performance as the supersleuth would remain the definite one, and nobody dared to challenge his interpretation on the big screen for years until Peter Cushing tried himself in the role in Hammer's 1959 effort Hound of the Baskervilles (Terence Fisher [Terence Fisher bio - click here]) - and gave an admirable performance, one has to admit -, 13 years after Rathbone quit the role.

Still, it should not come as much of a surprise that the lead character in the Walt Disney-production The Great Mouse Detective (1986, Roy Clements, Burny Mattinson, David Michener, John Musker), a mousification of the Sherlock Holmes-formula, was called Basil of all names ...


After the expiration of his Sherlock Holmes-contracts, Basil Rathbone did no more work for the big screen for the rest of the 1940's apart from posing as narrator on the Wind in the Willows-episode of Disney's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949, James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney). As mentioned above, Rathbone concentrated on theatre work during that time, which climaxed not only in receiving a Tony Award but also being knighted by King George VI for his services for theatre.

And yet, by the late 1940's, he found stagework increasingly unsatisfying and returned to Hollywood - where the world had turned quite a bit since he left as Sherlock Holmes, but there also was a new kid on the block ...



Television and Fade-out


When Basil Rathbone returned to Hollywood at the turn of the decade, he found it to be a whole new ballgame: The B-picture of old was dying, cosutme dramas were on the decline, and the traditional swashbuckler had died out to soon be resurrected in Europe - so pretty much all the types of film Rathbone had his biggest successes in were extinct or on the verge of extinction. But there was a new player in the ballpark, a new medium that shuffled the cards anew: Television.

Back in the late 1940's/early 50's, television was basically scoffed at and/or avoided like the plague by actors of at least some repute, but for actors who were not exactly A-listers or in constant employ in feature films or had their career gouverned by their pride, TV could also be something of an emergency parachute, a way to not only work and make a big buck but also to not fade from the audience's collective memory.


Basil Rathbone pretty much belonged to that kind of actors, a man whose time on the A-list had long gone but who still wanted to, needed to work - and thus, during the 1950's, he worked on literally dozens of shows, mostly anthology shows (a format much more popular in the 1950's than it is now) that needed strong character actors, shows like The Ford Theatre Hour (1949), The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre (1949, 1950), The Colgate Comedy Hour (1951), on which he co-starred with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Lights Out (1951), Lux Video Theatre (1951, 1952, 1953), Broadway Television Threatre (1953), Suspense (not only above-mentioned Sherlock Holmes-episode The Adventure of the Black Baronet, but also an appearance as Jekyll & Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde in 1951), Love Story (1954), Studio One (1954), Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (1954), The Eddie Cantor Comedy Theater (1955), Science Fiction Theatre (1955), Screen Directors Playhouse (1956), the Mark Twain-adaptation The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1957) on The United States Steel Hour, Kraft Television Theatre (1956, 1957), Cole Porter's musical rendition of Aladdin (1958, Ralph Nelson) on The DuPont Show of the Month, The Red Skelton Show (1956, 1960), and Hallmark Hall of Fame (1957, 1958, 1961, 1967), to name but a few. 

On top of that, he played Ebenezer Scrooge in two adaptations of Dickens' Christmas Carol, The Alcoa Hour's The Stingiest Man in Town (1956, Daniel Petrie) and the British series Tales from Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1958, Neil McGuire), hosted by Frederic March and produced by later schlock legend Harry Alan Towers. (Interestingly, Rathbone also played the role of Marley's ghost in an earlier version of the story, Shower of Stars' 1954 episode A Christmas Carol [Ralph Levy], with of all people Frederic March playing Scrooge.)


Besides all those TV appearances, Rathbone was only called back to the big screen on a very irregular basis ...

  • In the Bob Hope comedy Casanova's Big Night (1954, Norman Z.McLeod) he plays the real Casanova's (Vincent Price) butler trying to make a double of his master out of Hope
  • In the rather pointless comedy We're No Angels (1955, Michael Curtiz) starring Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov, he plays the baddie who opposes the film's three stars
  • In the Danny Kaye vehicle The Court Jester (1955, Melvin Frank, Norman Panama) Rathbone had his very last on-screen fencing duel, and a very impressive one at that. And because the film has undeniable (and possibly intentional) parallels to The Adventures of Robin Hood, it's only fitting that Rathbone appears in it.

  • The Black Sleep (1956, Reginald Le Borg) is pretty much a trainwreck of a film: With Basil Rathbone in the role of a mad scientist and plenty of horror stars in its cast - Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here], John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here], Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here] and Tor Johnson [Tor Johnson bio - click here], it tries to recreate the mood and feel of the Universal horror classics, but only succeeds in boring its audience to death and beyond. Well, they at least got the "sleep"-portion of the title right ...
  • The Last Hurrah (1958, John Ford), which interestingly enough also features John Carradine, is on the other hand a very ambitious political drama starring Spencer Tracy as a mayor running for re-election.

Roughly with the advent of the 1960's, the world had turned still more, as reruns of Rathbone's old films on television as well as numerous TV appearances had sparked new interest in the actor. So Rathbone could afford to limit his television appearances - series he did during the 1960's include guest spots on Burke's Law (1965) and Dr. Kildare (1965) - and concentrate on work for the big screen.


That said though, the films Rathbone appeared in in the 1960's were hardly A pictures or prestige films but rather low budget genre fare, movies that were below his talent - but to be quite honest, in the 1960's, Rathbone was definitely past his prime and couldn't be too choosy anymore:

  • Tales of Terror (1962, Roger Corman [Roger Corman bio - click here]) was probably the best of the bunch, an anthology movie that was part of Roger Corman's cycle of Edgar Allan Poe-adaptations, and actually one of the best films in the series. Rathbone appears as an hypnotist opposite Vincent Price, who plays a dying man, in the segment The Facts in the Case of M.Valdemar. As good as this segment was though, it was completely overshadowed by The Black Cat/A Cask of Amontillado, which has some priceless exchange between Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre bio - click here] and Vincent Price [Vincent Price bio - click here], and it is also far better written.
  • While Tales of Terror was a refreshing film within a series that had grown a bit stale, the Italian-French production Ponzio Pilato/Pontius Pilate (1962, Gian Paolo Callegari, Irving Rapper), a movie that tells the Jesus story from Pilate's perspective, is rather of obscurity value. Rathbone, who had played Pilate in 1935's The Last Days of Pompeii, plays High Priest Caiaphas here, while Jean Marais can be seen as Pilate and John Drew Barrymore as both Jesus and Judas.

  • The Magic Sword (1962) is a fantasy flick loosely based on George and the Dragon that is mainly fun because its director Bert I.Gordon loves to have giant creatures in his films and loves to play with special effects - but at the same time, the film was made on a budget and thus lacks the scale a film of its ilk almost demands and on top of that, it's rather dull as well. At least though Rathbone, the one shining star in a disappointing cast, hams up his role gloriously.
  • Two Before Zero (1962, William D.Faralla) is pretty much a child of its time and fun today for all the wrong reasons: It's basically crude anti-communist propaganda in which Basil Rathbone as one of the few survivors of commie-caused doomsday lectures young Mary Murphy on the evils of communism (which is accompanied by much stock footage).
  • The Comedy of Terrors (1963) was legendary director Jacques Tourneur's shot at comedy and also production company AIP's attempt to repeat the success of Roger Corman's The Raven (1963) by reuniting that movies three leads Vincent Price [Vincent Price bio - click here], Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre bio - click here] and Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here]. Rathbone in this movie plays the trio's boss whom they want to kill but who just won't stay dead. Unfortunately though, The Comedy of Terrors lacks the ingenuity and light-footedness of The Raven.

  • Both Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965, Curtis Harrington) and Queen of Blood (1966, Curtis Harrington) are science fiction flicks by AIP for which scenes with Western actors were shot to be placed around effects scenes ripped from (vastly superior) Russian science fiction movies. And while Queen of Blood, which has John Saxon [John Saxon bio - click here] in the lead, shows at least some creativity of its own, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet reuses almost all of its Russian source movie (Planeta Bur [1962, Pavel Klushantsev]), even acting scenes, without allowing itself any variations. Rathbones performances in both of these films are purely functional, but it's fair to say he is not given much to go on.

  • As many genre stars past their prime, Basil Rathbone also did his turn in one of AIP's beach party-movies (though technically this one was not set on the beach but in a spooky castle), Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966, Don Weis). This one stars Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley in the leads and also features Nancy Sinatra singing a song, Harvey Lembeck as klutzy mean biker Eric von Zipper, and Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here]. As a whole, the film is brainless of course, but it's fun at least if you're in the right mindset.
  • Same unfortunately cannot be said about Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967, Jean Yarbrough [Jean Yarbrough bio - click here], a sad blend of underdeveloped horror motives and hillbilly-comedy in the vein of the then popular Beverly Hillbillies. Sadly, not only Basil Rathbone's talent was completely wasted in this one, it also found no good use for fellow genre veterans John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here] and Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here].

With Hillbillys in a Haunted House, Basil Rathbone's career had hit its absolute low, and frankly, there was no light at the end of the tunnle, at least not in Hollywood, where the filmbusiness once again underwent significant changes, changes that pretty much made veteran genre actors (once again) obsolete.

Rathbone did the only sensible thing to do: He went to Mexico to shoot a film (a road many veteran horror stars took in the late 1960's).

The resulting movie, Autopsia de un Fantasma/Autopsy of a Ghost (1968, Ismael Rodríguez) isn't half bad even, an over-the-top campy comedy that has Basil Rathbone playing a mad scientist and John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here] as the devil. Sure, some of the humour is pretty childish, but there are portions that are genuinely funny, too.


Basil Rathbone didn't see the film's premiere anymore, he died in 1967 in New York City, NY from a heart attack. He was 75 years old - and while his career might have hit a low point late in life, it's also hard to ever forget his many performances as a great screen villain he gave primarily in the 1930's, the many breathtaking fencing duels he graced the screen with over the years, and of course his almost definite performance as Sherlock Holmes ...


© by Mike Haberfelner

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