Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Basil Rathbone (1892-1967)

"Never regret anything you have done with a sincere affection; nothing is lost that is born of the heart."

- Basil Rathbone

I will find myself in a quarantine for the next week or so (don't ask me why, I'm just shabby). That time I will try to make move faster by the inspiration of Raquelle from Out of The Past's Norma Shearer week, which was wonderfully entertaining to read.
I will watch a great deal of films with one of my absolute favourite actors, which I think have been really underestimated.
I present to you the first post of my Basil Rathbone week, lasting from Wednesday 8th to Wednesday 15th!

Basil Rathbone was born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone to English parents in Johannesburg, South Africa, June 13th 1892. His father, Edgar Philip Rathbone, was a mining engineer and
descendant of the Liverpool Rathbone Family, which traces back to the 17th century. His mother, Anna Barbara née George was a violinist. Basil was the eldest of three children.

The Rathbone family had to escape South Africa for England shen Edgar Philip Rathbone was accused by the Boers of being a British spy, near the onset of The Second Boer War at the end of the 1890's. In his autobiography Rathbone admits that he never knew if his father was guilty of the accusations or not, he never asked.

Little Basil and his sister Beatrice.

The three young Rathbones: Basil, John and Beatrice.

Rathbone grew up in England and attended the Repton School, located in the village of Repton in the county of Derbyshire, in 1906-1910. He wasn't much interested in school, but instead made progress in sports, and after some time found his love for acting. He was called "Ratters" by his school mates.

Repton School, Derbyshire, England.

When he left school he expressed his devotion for the theatre to his father, who tried to persuade him to choose another profession. They agreed that Rathbone first should work for a year in an insurance company to try to forget his acting dreams, but after the agreed year Rathbone got some help from his cousin Frank Benson (an accomplished actor) to get in to the theatre world. He had, however, to earn his own parts. He was an obvious talent, because soon he was playing all the juvenile leading characters in the number one company.

In October 1914 he married fellow actress Marion Forman. They met while playing in several Shakespeare plays and fell in love with each other. Next July, 1915, their son Rodion was born.

Early in the year of 1916, Rathbone left the stage to attend World War I. When he waved goodbye to his mother at the Victoria Station, that would be the last time she saw her. She died in 1917. His brother John would later die in the war, also serving Britain.
Rathbone joined the London Scottish Regiment alongside some of his future acting colleagues Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall and Ronald Colman. He later transferred with a commission as a Lieutenant the Liverpool Scottis, 2nd Battalion, where he eventually attained the rank of Captain. In a 1957 interview Rathbone recalled the story of how he disguised as a tree to gather information from the enemy.

"I went to my commanding officer and I said that I thought we'd get a great deal more information from the enemy if we didn't fool around in the dark so much, and I asked him whether I could go out in daylight. I think he thought we were a little crazy. I said we'd go out camouflaged - made up as trees - with branches sticking out of our heads and arms . We brought back an awful lot of information, and a few prisoners, too."

Read about Lt. Philip St. John Rathbone in the London Gazette, 1918.
(Click on it for higher resolution.)

After the war and the loss of two close family members, Rathbone picked up his acting career and performed on Stratford-upon-Avon and in London, getting the enviable Shakespeare parts of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Cassius is Julius Caesar, Ferdinand in The Tempest and Florizel in The Winter's Tale. During the 1920's Rathbone toured with many parts like these on the British stage, and in 1923 he came to New York City to appear in The Swan.

When in New York, Rathbone met and fell in love with the scriptwriter Ouida Bergère. His marriage with Marion Forman was in pieces, but he needed a divorce to be able to re-marry. For that he went back to England, where he also saw his father for the last time. His father died in 1924. Rathbone and Ouida married in 1926, a marriage that would end with his death in 1967.
In 1939 they adopted a child they named Cynthia.

Basil Rathbone and the love of his life, Ouida Bergère.

On their wedding day, April 18th 1926. Ouida looks like a real flapper!

Even though the theatre was his main pastime during the 1920'a, Rathbone appeared in several films, although his parts usually were very small. His first notable role was as Lord Arthur Dilling opposite Norma Shearer in The Last of Mrs. Cheney (1929) (post on it here). The film was a success and made the film producers interested in the slender, articulate British man by the name of Rathbone.
In the year of 1930 Rathbone made no less than seven films, including the leading role in The Bishop Murder Case, playing a detective wuite similiar to his future Sherlock Holmes films. (Post about them here - Elementary, my dear Watson)

Basil Rathbone and Norma Shearer in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929).

The Rathbone couple was soon known in Hollywood for throwing big, lavish parties with many Hollywood celebrities invited.
One incident I actually read about in Errol Flynn's autobiography was quite amusing. Flynn had gotten extremely drunk at a Rathbone party, followed a girl home and passed out on her sofa. When the girl's father had found him in the morning he had picked up the unconcious Flynn, drove him away and dumped him on the Rathbone lawn. When Basil and Ouida later had breakfast on the patio, their gardener (unaware of their guest) had put on the sprinklers. Who did jump up from the grass, but a hung-over Errol Flynn! He confusingly wished the Rathbones a "good morning" and then headed home.

Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in Captain Blood (1935).

Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Rathbone made a name for himself in Hollywood by playing sofisticated, suave villains in costume dramas and swashbucklers such as the abusive stepfather Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield (1935), the distant husband of Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina (1935), Pontius Pilate in The Last Days of Pompeii (1935), Errol Flynn's enemy Levasseur in Captain Blood (1935), Marquis St. Evremonde in Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities (1935), once again Errol Flynn's enemy Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Captain Esteban Pasquale in The Mark of Zorro (1940) (see film clip below).

"I enjoyed swordsmanship more than anything because it was beautiful. I thought it was a wonderful exercise, a great sport. But I would not put it under the category of sport; I would put it under the category of the arts. I think it's tremendously skillful and very beautiful. . . . The only actor I actually fought with on the screen was Flynn, and that's the only time I was really scared. I wasn't scared because he was careless but because he didn't know how to protect himself."

Rathbone as Karenin in Anna Karenina (1935).

Rathbone in a top hat in David Copperfield (1935).

The famous swords fight with Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone in a coloroized version of The Mark of Zorro (1940). A good example of what a terrific swordsman Rathbone was. The dialogue is superb!

To most people, Rathbone is remembered for his portrayal of the famous crime solving Sherlock Holmes. His first Sherlock Holmes film was The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), in which Holmes and his partner in crime Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) do not enter the screen until the second part. When the film was a success, thirteen more of them were made, often with evil nazis as the villains (very common in films made during the Second World War to encourage the Allies). The last Sherlock Holmes film with Rathbone as the genius was Dressed to Kill (1946).

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson.

In 1946 Rathbone's film and radio contracts expired, and even though he was very successful and wanted by several producers, he refused to sign any new contract. He longed for the theatre, and went back to New York with Ouida to continue his career on stage.

At first Rathbone had a hard time to get any good parts, since everyone now connected him with Sherlock Holmes. In 1947 he finally was offered a good part, the role of Dr. Sloper in "The Heiress". He found the character fascinating and was delighted. The play was a Broadway succes, and in 1949 the play was made into a film with Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift. He applied for the same role he had been playing on stage, and was crushed when the part instead went to Ralph Richardson.

In 1951 Rathbone felt ready to play Sherlock Holmes once again, now in a play written by his wife Ouida. Unfortunately the play got mediocre reviews and closed after only three performances.

"The Heiress" was Rathbone's last major success. He was however never really down on his luck during this time. He made a lot of television plays, sound recordings and appeared in a commercial here and there after taste.
He also toured the country with a one man show called "An Evening with Basil Rathbone", in which he spoke to the audience about his experiences and gave dramatic readings.

Basil Rathbone presenting the Leisy Beer Theatre, enjoying a Leisy Beer!

In the 1950's he went back to Hollywood for a few horror films, for example The Black Sleep (1956) and Tales of Terror (1962). Some of these roles were he not very proud of, but his wife Ouida spent money faster than he could earn them, so he made a lot of films only for the money.

In 1967 Basil Rathbone suffered a heart attack and passed away. He was 75 years old and was buried in Ferncliff Cemetary in Hartsdale, New York.

An extract from a 1959 interview with Rathbone.

"When you become the character you portray, it's the end of your career as an actor."


Christopher said...

o God I just love Basil..Ol' Ratters!..I love everyone of those Sherlock Holmes films he did..Can't believe work for him was difficult to find in films later after those,he was well known at playing all types of roles as well as Holmes..I like those Beer tv Ads..If I had a movie series tv ahow I'd use them! :o))....A beer and a Movie with Ratters!

Lolita said...

How nice with another Basil Rathbone devotee! Well, many actors end up type casted, unfortunately... That was what happened with for example Anthony Perkins after Psycho.
I found a lot of funny alcohol and cigarette ads with Basil, I thought I would do a post about them later on ;)

Christopher said...

I wonder if they ever showed any Sherlock holmes films on Leisy Theatre?..:o))...or how about Son of Frankenstein! =:oO.AH..I'm gonna need a case of beer for this one!

Kate Gabrielle said...

Oh, I do love Basil Rathbone! I'm really looking forward to a whole week of posts about him on your blog!

One of my favorite bits of movie trivia is that Basil Rathbone was a really nice guy, who was easy going and could laugh at jokes, and get along with everyone on the set. Unfortunately his costar in many Sherlock Holmes movies, William Daniel, was not. So whenever Rathbone and another costar would get the giggles on the set, Daniel would be furious and walk away! I know I probably didn't relay that as well as it was told to me, but it was such a funny story!

Keith said...

While I'm a big fan of so much of his work, I'll always remember him as Mr. Holmes.

Lolita said...

Kate Gabrielle:
Oh, I love little remarks like that! I'll remember that when I watch the Sherlock Holmes films next time!
And I want to believe it's a true story, I won't look up the real facts! ;)

Who won't? I guess it depends a lot on that he looks just like the old drawings of Sherlock Holmes, the same features exactly!

Christopher said...

You can get an idea of what a charming likable fellow he is in that little video clip interview there!..(ha..he talks about the hollywood Cricket club..something I'd heard about in past but forgotten,Karloff was,of course in that)I'd only seen one or two other candid interview films of Basil like that..and he was the same in those...just delightful and friendly..

Lolita said...

I never had a doubt that he was a likable man! But of course, I am in love with him. But I always thought that if you could play your characters in that way you have to have self perspective and humour.

Kate Gabrielle said...

I think the trivia came from Robert Osborne, so it's definitely true, it's just a matter of me messing it up by fumbling with the right words!

Lolita said...

Kate Gabrielle:
Oh, Robert Osbourne! I like! :)