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The Life and Work of the Man Who Made Olivier — and Audiences — Swoon
"That God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success in — a great money success — it ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune. I didn't want to do anything else, and by the time I woke up to the fact I'd become a slave to the damned thing and did try other plays, it was too late. They had identified me with that one part, and didn't want me in anything else. They were right, too. I'd lost the great talent I once had through years of easy repetition, never learning a new part, never really working hard. Thirty-five to forty thousand dollars net profit a season like snapping your fingers! It was too great a temptation."
— James Tyrone, Long Day's Journey into Night
In 1921, when he was still in his teens, Laurence Olivier went on a school outing to see Henry IV Part 2. Later, he wrote this: "Prince Hal. Oh, that magical Prince Hal, the most beautiful male I have ever laid eyes upon. His profile was that of a god, his figure pure Olympiad, his voice the most beautiful instrument I had yet heard, and even his name suggested the utmost in glamorous masculinity — Basil Rathbone." All too little of that Basil Rathbone survives in films: his resplendent Guy of Gisbourne in the best American film of the 1930s, The Adventures of Robin Hood, might come the closest to suggesting what made Olivier swoon. Not that Rathbone's film career was negligable; he was an undisputed star, and he achieved lasting fame and a measure of greatness in three distinct movie genres: swashbucklers, mysteries, and horror. As a Shakespearean actor, he disliked being identified with these genres, particularly the second two. And yet his own life and career really are something of a mystery — and, when you dig deeper, something of a horror story as well.
After commanding the London and Broadway stages in the 1920s, Rathbone, born June 13, 1892, in Johannesburg, South Africa, did his best and most memorable movie work during the five years that constitute a golden age of Hollywood filmmaking. He was the first actor to be Oscar-nominated for playing Shakespeare, he was Errol Flynn's most dangerous dueling partner, and he created a gallery of scoundrels and villains, each one a distinct and vivid creation. It all climaxed in 1939 with a role everyone agreed he was born to play: Arthur Conan Doyle's famous and popular detective Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone was such an immediate success as Holmes that a second film was rushed out in a matter of months, and he contracted for a weekly radio series that would eventually run seven years. And yet this moment of seeming triumph was the virtual end of his career — not as an actor but as a creative artist and a box-office star. Over the course of the following three decades, his fortunes fell steadily, precipitously, and to an almost black-comic degree. Just the titles of his last films are enough to tell the story: Queen of Blood, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, and Hillbillys in a Haunted House.
The common wisdom, one Rathbone himself subscribed to, was that over-identification with Sherlock Holmes had ruined him. "I was . . . deeply concerned with the problem of being 'typed,' more completely 'typed' than any other classic actor has ever been or ever will be again," he wrote in his autobiography. He goes on to note that Doyle had felt equally trapped by his creation: "He had created a sort of Frankenstein that he could not escape from. And so he decided to kill Mr. Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls and be done with him. I frankly admit that in 1946 I was placed in a somewhat similar predicament — but I could not kill Mr. Holmes. So I decided to run away from him." Rathbone ran away as far as New York, back to the stage, and promptly won a Tony award for Best Actor. A Pyrrhic victory, for after that there was nothing left but to keep up an increasingly fraying sense of dignity in unsuitable TV shows (including a mercifully brief stint as a game-show host), out-of-town summer stock and vaudeville, flop plays (a Holmes play was the worst flop of all), and low-budget horror and sci-fi movies.
The seeds of this destruction, which was essentially self-destruction played out in terms of a career, would seem to have been planted much earlier, during the First World War, and were unwittingly brought to bloom by Rathbone's own Lady Macbeth — his second wife, Ouida. Bad timing, bad business decisions, and bad luck all contributed. But there's a greater mystery, and that's the man himself. Tall, handsome, and athletic, Rathbone cut a beautiful, unforgettable figure with a sword in his hand, and a commanding one as one of literature's great intellects. But in life, despite a British reserve that makes deducing his real state of mind difficult, he seems to have been haunted, dissatisfied, and much too willing to give away his power.
Which was considerable, at first. Fresh out of school at the age of 18, he had distinguished himself more in athletics than academically, and had no other ambition than to become an actor. His father insisted on his spending a couple of years in business, but by age 20 Rathbone had successfully auditioned for his cousin Sir Frank Benson, who ran a successful Shakespearean company that toured the provinces of Great Britain. The company was professional and distinguished, and the provinces were a great place to learn the basics far away from London critics and audiences. It was there Rathbone learned to act — not just mastering Shakespeare but receiving daily instruction in related skills like diction, deportment, dancing, and fencing.
The war interrupted his fledgling career. He put off joining up as long as he could, but in 1916, perhaps partly shamed that his younger brother John had done so the year before, he enlisted. His letters home to his parents and sister from the early part of the war sound chipper and devil-may-care, but then tragedy struck. "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." Rathbone concludes tersely: "We had always been very close to one another." Back in England, their mother had died not long before; Rathbone's sister essentially went mad with grief. Over 20 years later, in a letter to a close friend, Rathbone described feeling suicidal during the war, and in fact he began to take on dangerous missions crossing enemy lines solely in the hope of being killed. What he got instead were decorations for bravery. "And everything for so long afterwards," he continued in the same deeply personal and harrowing letter, "was about dragging this living corpse of myself around, giving it things to do, because here it was, alive. I followed paths that were there to be followed, I did what others said to do. I didn't care."
Rathbone had married just before the war, and fathered a child. After the war, the marriage was over, and he abandoned both wife and son. With no other options and no sense of direction, he returned to the stage. A leading actress of the time, Constance Collier, saw Rathbone playing Romeo at Stratford-on-Avon, and in 1920 hired him as her leading man in Peter Ibbetson, a highly romantic play about a couple who can only meet in dreams. It made Rathbone a star overnight. More stage successes followed, including the Prince Hal witnessed by Olivier and the part of Iago (his first great villain) in Othello at the Royal Court Theater in London. Then to Broadway, where he became an American star in more dreamy romances and high comedies like The Czarina, The Command to Love, and The Swan. His partner in the latter was Eva Le Gallienne, a young stage star on her way to becoming a legend. Though she only slept with women, she made an exception for Rathbone; they became lovers and she still referred to him years later as "my Basil." According to her biographer, Helen Sheehy, La Gallienne "was attracted to Rathbone on every level — sexually, artistically, and spiritually." The Swan was a huge commercial hit, and the two did a second, more artsy production together and made plans to co-star in Ibsen. Around this time, Rathbone also appeared in The Captive, a groundbreaking play about a man hopelessly in love with a lesbian (the entire company was arrested and thrown in jail) and wrote and starred in a play called Judas, a searching examination of guilt. Rathbone was at heart an artist, and during this time he had little interest in money. What brought his artistic explorations, and his affair with Le Gallienne, to a complete halt was Ouida Bergère.
Short, red-haired, and somewhere on the scale between vivacious and batshit crazy, Ouida Bergère was a failed actress and silent-movie screenwriter of questionable talent but enormous energy, much of it devoted to serial self-reinvention. She claimed to have been born on a railroad train en route to Spain, of expatriate parents named Stephen and Marion Manners DuGaze, and to have been raised in Madrid and Paris. She spoke, it was said, nothing but Spanish until the age of four. In fact, she was born Eunie Branch in Little Rock, Arkansas — her father, Stephen Branch, was a railroad timekeeper. She had had several names and been married once officially and once not, by the time she attended The Czarina and announced to her startled escort that Rathbone was the man she intended to marry. Through the actor Clifton Webb, she arranged a meeting, and Rathbone fell hard. Being so well brought up and all, Ouida was too proper for sex before marriage, but of course marriage could take care of that. And it did, in 1926. Around this time, Ouida declared bankruptcy, but there is no evidence that Rathbone knew about this very bad omen. By his own account and those of others, he was personally still lost at the time — drinking heavily, having numerous affairs, and disinterested in his own professional success. Ouida Bergère, on the other hand, had a plan.
The plan, as it evolved, was to make him a movie star. He'd made a few negligible silent pictures during the '20s to absolutely no effect, but the coming of sound represented a real opportunity. Hollywood careers were being lost and made at an alarming rate, as the public discovered that some of the biggest stars had incongruous voices, and suddenly the ability to speak clearly and well was in high demand. Rathbone's speaking debut was in a prestige production at MGM, with a lot riding on it: it was the second talkie made by Norma Shearer, who was married to the head of production, Irving Thalberg. The Last of Mrs. Cheyney was similar to Rathbone's stage successes, a polished drawing-room comedy with a mildly risqué situation. Fay Cheyney is a "widow" who makes her way through high-society house parties as a jewel thief. The son of her latest host, Arthur Dilling, catches her in the act and tries to blackmail her into bed. It's a creaky antique now, and you could drive a truck through the pauses between every arch and pseudo-hip line. Shearer and Rathbone are fairly stiff in it, but they benefit from the fact that their characters shift back and forth from "good" to "bad" — the movie is a romance between a criminal and her would-be rapist. The nasty side of Dilling sits well on him, and of course he looks good and speaks crisply. It was a huge hit, and it made Rathbone a movie name.
He was now in a great position: a freelancer, not tied to any studio, and in demand. Had he been patient and only taken the best of what was offered, he might have built a career as a leading man. Instead, he cashed in. During the next year, 1930, he made seven movies. Most of his parts are variations on Dilling, though in the first, The Bishop Murder Case, he actually plays a detective. Those hoping for a preview of his Sherlock Holmes are in for a disappointment, however, as is anybody else who happens on this ponderous little movie. He got to have A Notorious Affair with Kay Francis in her slinky vamp period, but he plays a temperamental violinist of seemingly endless self-pity, and worse, plays him with an Italian accent that wobbles into French and back, sometimes within the same scene. The pre-Code naughtiness of titles like The Lady of Scandal, A Lady Surrenders, and Sin Takes a Holiday promise a lot more than they deliver, which is usually groups of overdressed actors standing very still near early-sound microphones, lobbing "sophisticated" remarks at each other. Rathbone, immaculate in his double-breasted suits but with his heels and elbows held rigidly in, illustrates why Mrs. Patrick Campbell once called him "a folded umbrella taking elocution lessons." The nail in the coffin was A Woman Commands, RKO's attempt to make silent star Pola Negri into a rival attraction to Garbo and Dietrich. Speaking with an impenetrable Polish accent and looking like a Newark truck driver in drag, Negri bombed. Rathbone, as the captain of the guard who adores her, went down with the ship.
He was dead in Hollywood. Rescue came from Britain, where he was offered the lead in Loyalties (1933), John Galsworthy's drama of anti-Semitism. Rathbone plays Ferdinand de Levis, a young Jew who aspires to the upper classes, where he is only tolerated because of his wealth. At a house party, his room is burgled and his money stolen; the perpetrator can barely conceal his guilt or his contempt. Playing a character role of some depth, Rathbone suddenly unfurls onscreen and becomes an actor for the first time. His de Levis is no hero — he's a touchy, unlikeable man. Rathbone makes you feel how being subtly slighted and humiliated have given de Levis a chip on his shoulder and a helpless petulance that in turn only provoke more opposition and dislike. He shows you not just the abrasive surface but the baffled and hurt little boy underneath. The moral complexity of the movie itself is leagues ahead of something like Gentleman's Agreement, Hollywood's "daring" treatment of the same topic 15 years later.
After a year touring with the first lady of the theater, Katharine Cornell, including playing Romeo to her Juliet, Rathbone tried again in Hollywood. Whether it was his failure as a leading man or the freeing up of his talent in Loyalties, he came back to films as a character actor. He was luckier this time. With the enforcement of the Code, sex and naughtiness were out. Adaptations of classic novels and period pieces were in. The best of them might have been David Copperfield (1935), David O. Selznick's version of his own favorite novel. Beautifully directed by George Cukor, it featured a huge, and uniformly outstanding, cast of eccentrics: W. C. Fields, Lionel Barrymore, Roland Young, Edna May Oliver, Madge Evans, Maureen O'Sullivan, Una O'Connor, Elsa Lanchester, etc. Rathbone, in fact, was billed eleventh, and his name wasn't even featured on the poster. But as David's sadistic stepfather Mr. Murdstone, he stole the movie. He comes on a little like Romeo at first as he romances poor Mrs. Copperfield, but even his early solicitousness has an overbearing edge to it. Once ensconced in the house with his awful sister, he takes over. His face a mask of arrogant cruelty, his voice like the crack of a whip, he systematically bullies Freddie Bartholomew's David until the boy is whimpering like a dog and chomps Murdstone's hand in terror. "Ah, he bites, does he!" Rathbone cries exultantly, before proceeding to administer a caning that has clear, and horrifying, sexual overtones. This is the blackest villain Rathbone ever played, and he practically leaps off the screen in a way he never had before. It's a performance so intense that it demands some relief, which comes later in the movie when the Murdstones attempt to take David back for more mistreatment. Rathbone gets a glorious extended tongue lashing from Edna May Oliver that provokes applause even if you're just watching at home.
As the fan mail poured in ("all of it abusive," he recalled), Rathbone posed for a lot of publicity shots romping by his pool with Freddie Bartholomew, but the die was cast. In his next movie, Anna Karenina (1935), he was mean to the kid all over again, playing his real father this time. Rathbone sent Selznick dozens of letters with suggestions for the character of Karenin, all based on a close and intelligent reading of the novel. But as written, he's just there to provide a hissable antagonist to Greta Garbo's Anna, and a justification for her adultery. But as with his de Levis, Rathbone twists our sympathy and shows the pain under the bad behavior. As he plays Karenin, he's a man who wants to be warm but doesn't know how. He plays against his villainous lines, speaking them hesitantly; the more officious Karenin becomes, the more desperate he seems. Rathbone and Fredric March (as Vronsky) are the first two actors to suggest what a drag it would be to actually live with Greta Garbo's chilly self-absorption. Rathbone himself felt it was one of his best performances, and with amused irony he gave Garbo all the credit.
He and Ouida had cashed in on success before in 1930, and now in 1935 he repeated the pattern: he again made seven movies in one year. The difference this time was that either the parts or the films, and sometimes both, were excellent. The Last Days of Pompeii was a dreary historical charade that hoped to be spectacular but looked like something put on at the end of summer Bible camp. However, as Pontius Pilate, Rathbone got to wash his hands desperately and play deep moral pain and guilt — his post-Crucifixion cry "what have I done?" is hair-raising. He unsuccessfully attempted to play a gentle alcoholic in A Feather in Her Hat, but came back in style in another Selznick Dickens piece, A Tale of Two Cities, in which his arrogant French aristocrat single-handedly precipitates the Revolution. And in Kind Lady, he played the first of a type he was to make his own: a handsome, poetic fellow who preys on vulnerable women. Kind Lady is no more than a genteel semi-thriller designed to make blue-haired matinee ladies squirm, but thanks to Rathbone and co-star Aline MacMahon, it's deeply unsettling and creepy.
Rathbone's best movie of 1935 was Captain Blood, the first starring film of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. No matter that they're both raw and uneasy, no matter that Rathbone's French accent is way over zee top. There would be better-made pirate movies, but never a better one. As the hotheaded, debauched pirate Levasseur, Rathbone looks fantastic, and he plays in just the right spirit. He's a cutthroat, an egomaniac, and a bit of a stupe, but he's also a lot of fun, and he has fantastic chemistry with Flynn. They play together beautifully — it's an elevated form of playacting, serious and silly at the same time. Despite the difference in their backgrounds and ages, they were good friends offscreen, which must have helped. Their duel to the death on a rocky beach is the movie's highlight, though unfortunately it comes at the halfway point. Rathbone laughs at the beginning of it, and he never looked as dangerous or as attractive. He was an expert fencer, and in his highly choreographed duels with Flynn he made the latter look good, just like Astaire did Rogers (something Rathbone bitched about good-naturedly in later life). The movie, while still enchanting, never quite recovers from his death.
These were his peak years — one great part followed another, though Rathbone was unhappy being typecast as a heavy. He campaigned to play Romeo in Irving Thalberg's big-budget Shakespeare film, but of course that was never going to happen. He played Tybalt, and was the only actor in the cast able to suggest the youthful passion the play is supposed to be about, or to make the poetry sound like simple dialogue. He was nominated for an Oscar, but then so (unbelievably) was Norma Shearer. He also won an onscreen swordfight for the first and only time, against John Barrymore's gasbag Mercutio. In acting terms, he made mincemeat of Barrymore just as he had of Garbo, but his reward was only The Garden of Allah, in which he played an Arab sheik. He looks great in his turban in gorgeous Technicolor, but the movie marked a turning point. He had hoped to play the lead, a monk with a guilty secret, but Selznick placated him with a sympathetic supporting part. On the set, he ostentatiously held up filming in the desert heat, partying with the stars Dietrich and Charles Boyer and ignoring work calls. Selznick retaliated by rewriting his part as a villain, and the two fought. "You'll never work for me again!" he quoted the producer as yelling, and he added: "And I haven't!"
For the moment, he didn't need Selznick or Thalberg. He was freelancing, with two goals. One was to once again play leads with top billing. The other, nearer to Ouida's heart, was to gradually raise his salary to $10,000 per week. He went back to Britain during this time, over her objections, to play a wife-killer in Love from a Stranger (1937). It's a stage-bound little version of an Agatha Christie short story, and it suffers from the tentative, rudimentary nature of British filmmaking at the time. That said, Rathbone is extraordinary in it. He starts out quietly enough, as yet another smooth-talking ladies' man. Ann Harding is a poor working girl who wins the lottery and goes on a cruise, where she finds Rathbone — the man who let out her flat — pursuing her. They get married, and he whisks her away to a quiet country cottage where they can continue their honeymoon . . . alone. Gradually she begins to realize that his headaches and heart condition are just the beginning of his problems. He tells her about the war — how the death and the nonstop shrieking of shells overhead turned his terror "into ecstasy." He's planning a similar sort of ecstasy for her, it seems, and her struggle to stay a step ahead of him makes for a hair-raising ending. The two stars build and build the tension until it's unbearable — Rathbone doesn't just go over the top, but right to the moon.
The director, Rowland V. Lee, seemed to know how to bring out a latent strain of madness in Rathbone, and he did it three more times, though to less spectacular effect. Everyone has seen Son of Frankenstein, in which the actor builds a similar escalating tension with Lionel Atwill. Rathbone was a bit ashamed of the movie, even while making it, but with Boris Karloff's monster relegated to a lumbering brute, he's the one who supplies the movie's drive. His young Baron Frankenstein starts out hearty and friendly, but he grows more entertaining as he gradually goes to pieces under stress. The iconic presences of Rathbone, Karloff, Atwill, and Bela Lugosi, plus a tight script and imaginative art direction, combine to make one of the great classic horror movies, whatever its star thought of it. Lee's Tower of London is a quasi follow-up, and quite dull, but Rathbone's Richard III is a formidable menace, his malevolence only flaring up in his eyes from time to time. Like Son of Frankenstein, it was a big hit. Lee also directed The Sun Never Sets, a silly tribute to British colonialism that's only watchable for the actor's beautifully done nervous breakdown.
In the meantime, Rathbone and Errol Flynn made two more films together, both outstanding. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is hands-down the best movie either actor ever made, a storybook come to life and a landmark adventure film. Rathbone's Sir Guy of Gisbourne isn't a complex villain — he's not that bright, and he's out-thought and out-fought by Flynn's Robin over and over. Claude Rains as Prince John supplies the brains. It's Sir Guy's relentlessness and his sheer bigness that make him formidable. In his boots and his scarlet capes, rings and beard and long hair, with all of his costumes ever so slightly too much, he's the picture of arrogant entitlement. Rains has a line suggesting that Sir Guy is in love with de Havilland's Maid Marian, but we see little of that in Rathbone's performance. He's fixated on Flynn. This time, their duel is placed at the end of the movie where it belongs, and it's one of the great sequences of movie history. The clang of the broadswords, the stirring music, the beautiful use of light, shadow, and color all serve to raise the excitement level as Flynn and Rathbone go at it, their faces increasingly pained and sweaty. It's a great release of tension the movie has been building to all along, and when it's over there's only the briefest of happily-ever-after wrap-ups.
Later the same year, they appeared together in The Dawn Patrol, a remake of Howard Hawks' early talkie. As directed by the sensitive Edmund Goulding, it's less astringent and more emotional under its stiff-upper-lip boys' adventure surface. Flynn is very fine as Courtney, the young daredevil pilot in the 59th Squadron somewhere in France during World War I. Rathbone is his commanding officer, Major Brand. They're at odds, of course. Courtney thinks Brand is heartless for sending inexperienced young pilots up to die, and Brand is driven crazy by Courtney's insubordination and recklessness. Brand is one of Rathbone's best parts — he's a good man pushed to extremes by the indifference of headquarters, the ongoing carnage, and his own role in it all. "Do you know what this is?" he snaps at his aide. "It's a slaughterhouse — and I'm the butcher!" Donald Crisp, as the aide, has a nice rapport with him during a scene late at night, as the former is composing an umpteenth letter of condolence and wondering how to spell a word. "However you spell it, it will break her heart just the same," Rathbone says quietly as the firelight flickers on his face. Eventually, Flynn's heroics get Rathbone promoted, and in revenge he promotes Flynn to commander, whereupon he comes to understand what the older man was going through. They become friends, finally, which is a nice ending to all that onscreen antagonism.
That same year, Rathbone gave a second Oscar-nominated performance: a sly, irascible Louis XI in If I Were King. This wasa middle-of-the-road vehicle for Ronald Colman, dully directed by Frank Lloyd but helped enormously by a witty Preston Sturges script. Rathbone plays the king with no glamour whatsoever: hunched over, long-haired, and muttering in a tetchy old man's voice. He's sharp and in complete control, but he affects senility and eccentricity in order to put his enemies off guard. At the time it was a wholly unexpected change of direction for Rathbone — a revelation, even. Unfortunately, to modern audiences who have seen his better-known films, it's too much like one of his Sherlock Holmes disguises, and in fact he later borrowed bits of it for The Hound of the Baskervilles and Sherlock Holmes in Washington. An Oscar would have been nice, particularly in view of what followed, but he lost for a second time to the unendurable Walter Brennan.
Still, his prestige was at its height in the late '30s. All during this period, he attempted to press this advantage by pestering the studios for roles as a romantic leading man. He insisted on auditioning for Bette Davis' love interest in Dark Victory, a test that turned out so badly he begged Jack Warner to destroy it. Ignoring their earlier conflict, he lobbied Selznick for the part of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, which seems like the height of misplaced optimism on every level, even allowing for Margaret Mitchell's saying she had envisioned him when she wrote the book (?!). Rathbone could be sexy onscreen when he was harboring unspeakable desires for dainty Olivia de Havilland or sweet Loretta Young, but he lacked some crucial aspect of romantic sex appeal: the ability to relax, to smile warmly, to create a sense of intimacy. He was like an overbred show dog — alert and energetic, but with little warmth or spontaneity. He never did get a traditional leading man part; what he did get was yet another swashbuckling villain, Captain Esteban Pasquale in Fox's paint-by-numbers remake of The Mark of Zorro. In collusion with Gale Sondergaard, as his superior's wife, Rathbone managed to suggest all sorts of nasty hate-sex going on behind the scenes, and get one last beautiful swordfight in as well. The movie sets up Tyrone Power as a devil with a sword, flicking it toward a candle and magically slicing it in two, but he can't hold a candle to Rathbone.
Fox also produced The Hound of the Baskervilles, most likely as a one-off vehicle for Richard Greene, a bland pretty-boy kept around as a rival and threat to Power. Greene got top billing in Hound, but he was soon forgotten. In fact, it's possible to forget him while you're watching him. Playing Sherlock Holmes for the first time, Rathbone owns the movie. There's a misconception that he played Holmes the same way in all of his films; he even contributed to this idea when he wrote in his autobiography that "my first [Holmes] picture was, as it were, a negative from which I merely continued to produce endless positives of the same photograph." In reality, the performance underwent several changes and adjustments over time, changes that had less to do with exploring the character than with the actor's own reaction to it. In The Hound, Rathbone is heartier and more cheerful than he would ever be again, presumably at having finally found a leading role as an unabashed hero. His voice rising exultantly, he seems to spend much of the movie slapping the other characters on the back. He's the most jovial Holmes imaginable, and the most energetic — scampering over the studio's artfully tumbled Dartmoor set in pursuit of clues, he's like an overeager hound himself.
It may have been in response to this exuberance that Nigel Bruce conceived his Dr. Watson. Always a step behind and struggling to catch up, Bruce doesn't so much bumble as grumble. He's querulous and huffy, and he even gets to half shriek "Huff? I'm in no huff!" when Rathbone's Holmes calls him on it. Over the years, Bruce has been thoroughly trashed for his Watson — especially for his exaggerated stupidity, shading into pure oafishness in the later series. It's true that he's nothing like the athletic and upright military man of the books, and if you take Doyle as gospel, Bruce's Watson is an affront. But it should be remembered that before Nigel Bruce, the character of Dr. Watson hardly existed in show business terms. In the first successful theatrical version of Holmes, William Gillette made Watson a virtual nonentity, and he had been presented that way onstage and in films for 40 years. Starting with The Hound, it was Nigel Bruce who made Watson a real character, and Rathbone and Bruce who first made Holmes and Watson a team. Using the contrast of their bodies, faces, voices, and acting styles to rich comic effect, they painted a picture of a great and steadfast friendship, no doubt helped by their close offscreen rapport. Rathbone's sparring with Bruce is comedy acting of a high order, and a neverending source of delight no matter what the context.
As directed by the musical-comedy specialist Sidney Lanfield, The Hound had exuberant performances but zero suspense or fright value, despite its expensive mounting and beautiful look. But Fox knew what they had in Rathbone's Holmes, and they immediately produced a much superior sequel, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Unlike the first film, this one is built around Rathbone, and no actor ever had a better-tailored vehicle. The mystery is clever and genuinely puzzling, despite the script's witty tipping of its own hand early on (tribute was paid recently by the BBC series Sherlock, which lovingly used incidents and tropes from it in The Reichenbach Fall). The dialogue and situations were sharpened by studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck's solid storytelling instincts, and each scene is startlingly alive and brisk. The lady in distress is played by Ida Lupino, an actress whose nervous intensity matches up perfectly with Rathbone's, and he rises to the occasion with the best performance of his career — something easy to overlook since it's a genre role he played literally hundreds of times afterwards, not just in film but on radio, TV, stage, and records. But never again with such zest.
The Adventures is also the closest any film has ever come to capturing the spirit of Doyle's writing — the playfulness and humor, the clever and dramatic unfolding of a plot, the vividness of character and incident. Remarkable, considering how little of Doyle is in it. Fox had already purchased the rights to Gillette's 1899 play, and had first turned it into the 1932 production Sherlock Holmes, a vehicle for Clive Brook, a ludicrously stiff-backed and stuffy British actor who had a slight vogue in the early talkie era. That film dispensed entirely with Gillette's plot, and in turn The Adventures bears only the slightest echoes of its predecessor. The Doyle estate, at the time under the control of the author's sons Denis and Adrian, was quite alarmed at this — they had made a nice profit selling The Hound to Hollywood, and here was Fox producing a sequel they didn't need to pay for. The Doyle brothers, who by all accounts were feckless and free-spending playboys, decided to play hardball. Their terms for future Sherlock Holmes projects became steep and strict, and after some testy negotiation, Fox declined to meet them. Based on the quality of the first two films, the Fox Sherlock Holmes Series That Never Was is one of the tantalizing minor tragedies of movie history. Its being hobbled right out of the gate was the first of a chain of misfortunes and misjudgments that ultimately had tragic results.
It didn't look that way at first. In the fall of 1939, Rathbone began playing Holmes on the radio, a weekly program that paid $1,500 an episode. It was so popular that it ran for nine years and ultimately 220 episodes. With war clouds gathering and the world situation growing more uncertain, this must have seemed like great good fortune to a British actor approaching his fifties: steady and lucrative employment as one of the most famous heroes of English fiction. "Lucrative" being the operative word, as he was now playing host to his wife's frequent and outlandishly extravagant parties. Often these lavish affairs cost as much as Rathbone's salary for an entire film, with the walls of their Los Feliz, California, home covered in live gardenias or a blanket of snow trucked in to cover the lawn at Christmastime. And while all Hollywood attended them, some of Hollywood snickered afterwards. With her endless pretensions and control issues (Vincent Price recalled that she "carried on like a mad duchess"), Ouida was inadvertently becoming something of a laughingstock. With money becoming more important than appearing in quality movies, her spending issues would soon lead to her husband becoming one as well.
Bond sales and other war work began to occupy Rathbone during this time, and in the excitement of the moment he relaxed the reins on his movie career. He allowed his agent to talk him into signing with MGM for the duration of the war for further economic security — a terrible decision, in retrospect. With Thalberg dead, MGM was now making family-friendly fluff, and there was little place for an elegant menace like Rathbone, even if Louis B. Meyer had liked him, which he apparently didn't. The result was a sudden and almost shocking decline in quality — from peaks like Robin Hood and The Dawn Patrol, he was suddenly only to be seen in rubbish like Fingers at the Window, Above Suspicion, and Bathing Beauty. The crappy movies Rathbone made in the early '40s might be more bearable now if he'd had interesting parts in them, but instead he plays one cardboard role after another, his personal discomfort and distaste almost palpable.
MGM didn't really want him for its own movies anyway — it wanted to lend him to Universal and pocket a huge loan-out fee. Universal had recently come to terms with the Doyle brothers, who after pissing off Fox had been shopping the Holmes stories around Hollywood. By the time Universal expressed interest, the boys were getting a little desperate and were more than ready to bargain. Faithfulness to the original books? No longer a requirement. Make a B-movies series rather than Fox's A-level productions? No problem. Updating the stories from the Victorian era to the 1940s in order to further reduce costs? Bloody good idea! Rathbone and Bruce? That was the only thing everyone agreed was a must.
And so Rathbone made the dozen films on which his present-day fame rests. The individual entries in the Universal Holmes series look and sound enough alike that they seem like chapters in one long single movie. The beautifully done Baker Street set never changes, of course, but consistency is further ensured by the tight and imaginative direction of Roy William Neill, who was the auteur of all but one of them, and a cast of supporting actors that cycles through the films like a stock company. The first three (Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Sherlock Holmes in Washington) are the least typical, since they plunge Holmes into the current conflict to fight Nazis and assorted traitors and saboteurs. With their unwieldy titles, they seem repurposed from standard B-movie espionage scripts, and with the connection to Doyle so tenuous, Rathbone responds with unusual bite and attack. He's thin, nervous, and high-strung in these movies, taking them at such a clip you barely register how paper-thin and absurd they are. With Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, things improve considerably. References to the war are dropped, and the settings move into a fairy-tale England that suggests the Victorian era without actually showing it. A clever scriptwriter named Bertram Millhauser came aboard with this film, and even more than Neill, he gave the series its distinctive tone — he used Doyle's stories better than most screenwriters and always came up with witty dialogue for Rathbone and Bruce. He also created a great assortment of rotters, cretins, weaklings, and twitching neurotics for the supporting stock company to play.
Millhauser wrote the most memorable movies in the series, which came bunched up in the middle. Spider Woman was a hugely entertaining game of cat-and-mouse between Rathbone and Gale Sondergaard, as an icy femme fatale who actually gets the better of Holmes a couple of times. The Pearl of Death and The Woman in Green were clever reimaginings of Doyle that added elements of film noir. Rathbone's Holmes was losing his exuberance, but his new jaded style worked just fine in the circumstances. The series moved toward horror during this period, reaching its apogee with The Scarlet Claw, widely considered the best of them. It concerns a marauding killer, which may or may not be a supernatural beast, prowling through misty marshes and terrorizing the countryside. The resemblance to The Hound of the Baskervilles was no accident, but in fact director Neill brings far more suspense and tension to the film than Sidney Lanfield brought to The Hound. An effective piece, let down only by the buffoonish dialogue Neill wrote for Watson. His encouragement of Bruce's worst excesses only grew as Rathbone began to unravel, his personal and professional frustrations mounting.
He was 54 years old, his wife spending his money as fast as he could make it, and in his sixth consecutive year of playing the same character day and night. A character who never changed, who had no romantic interests or sex life, who cohabited with an idiot, who existed only to solve puzzles and be smarter than everybody else. "I am Sherlock Holmes — I know everything" was his joke-but-not-a-joke in Universal's lowbrow "comedy" extravaganza Crazy House. Holmes always had all the right answers and inevitably emerged triumphant. "His interminable success," as Rathbone bitterly called it in his autobiography, was slowly but surely turning the actor into a punch-line. At first, he joined in the fun, kidding his image with Groucho Marx and Bob Hope, staring through his magnifying glass at the likes of Gracie Allen and Milton Berle. But the difference between being in on the joke and being the butt of the joke is a slippery slope, especially when the prestige roles that could shore up a career stopped coming. He donned a deerstalker and cape to advertise gin and cigarettes, products he was consuming in ever-greater quantities in private life as well. The last straw was apparently when MGM passed him over for the part of the cynical Lord Henry Wotten in The Picture of Dorian Gray. A good part for a middle-aged Englishman adept at wickedness, it went to George Sanders. When Rathbone's radio and film contracts came up for renewal at the same time in 1946, he left Hollywood (and a furious Nigel Bruce) and moved to New York.
He considered himself saved by The Heiress, an adaptation of Henry James that was shaped into theatrical success by its director, Jed Harris. Ouida thought it would be a hit, but nonetheless didn't want Basil to do it. Perhaps with the intent of derailing negotiations, she handed the startled Harris a sheaf of unsolicited rewrites. The play concerns Dr. Austin Sloper, a distinguished physician who lives with his shy spinster daughter, Catherine. Still in mourning for his late wife, he has idealized her out of all proportion and quietly tyrannizes Catharine, who he feels falls short in looks, poise, and accomplishment. His ostentatious politeness toward her are a paper-thin cover, not just for lack of love, but for profound and bitter disappointment. A theatergoer who saw Rathbone's performance commented that he played it very subtly as a man in tremendous but unexpressed personal pain. No wonder, perhaps, that Ouida found the idea of living with this character for an extended period unappealing.
The play was a hit — his last. He was passed over for the movie version in favor of Ralph Richardson, final proof that Hollywood had washed its hands of him. Six years later, looking for another success, he tried playing Holmes again, this time on Broadway. For reasons nobody will ever know, he commissioned a brand new play from his wife. Or it may have been her idea, and he couldn't or wouldn't say no. Ouida Rathbone had never had a play produced, had never written a talking motion picture, but after years of portraying herself as a successful writer who had given it all up to be a housewife and hostess, she and perhaps her husband believed their own press releases. The playscript was passed around New York theatrical circles, and the Rathbones were warned that it wouldn't work. Not dramatic. Too wordy. Unsayable dialogue. They found a producer and forged ahead, and the play opened on October 30, 1953. "The inept acting and direction of Sherlock Holmes produces an embarrassing result — the play is often ridiculous," wrote one critic on opening night. "In the huge role of Holmes, Rathbone is a dismaying surprise. He has replaced his familiar and appropriately austere Holmes with an agitated, unimposing figure. Further, with Rathbone blowing every fourth line of a part he has apparently yet to learn, Holmes seems down-right muddleheaded." If an actor who'd been on stage for 40 years couldn't remember his lines, you have to wonder just how unsayable they must have been. Sherlock Holmes closed the very next night, on October 31.
Rathbone wrote an autobiography in 1962, In and Out of Character. It's a frustrating book, full of stories and anecdotes that give an impression of candor without actually revealing anything. Reading it is like sitting next to him at one of Ouida's dinner parties. All that practice had made him a skillful raconteur, but the real man seems strangely absent: his tribute to his late dog Moritz is the emotional high point. After Holmes, he continued to make an occasional movie, spoofing earlier roles and crossing swords with Bob Hope and Danny Kaye, but the heart had gone out of him. After the failure of the play, he seemed to age 10 years overnight; his voice thickened and he began to take on the fragile pomposity of a has-been ham. He uses this quality in The Comedy of Terrors, getting shot repeatedly but rising up again and again to recite Shakespeare in plummy tones, but the film was directed like a frantic kiddie show and the waste of Rathbone's talent is deeply unfunny. Whether this talent remained intact in these later years is a moot point, since he never had an opportunity to use it. His films of the '60s are among the most squalid, bizarre, and insulting any actor ever made, and he clearly did them only for a paycheck.
His final film was Autopsia de un Fantasma, a comedy-fantasy made in Mexico by Ismael Rodriguez (who, it's said, Rathbone considered a genius). Filmed in Spanish with the English-speaking actors dubbed, it was never shown in the U.S. and hardly even in its country of origin. If you've ever seen Mexican comedy on cable, you can pretty much get the idea. It's a wild farce — when an old woman cries "it's raining buckets!" at the start, actual buckets begin falling from the sky around her. For the first time since playing Holmes, Rathbone is the film's top-billed lead. At 75, he scampers about gamely, donning doublets and hose as he had so often, and running around waving a sword. He plays a ghost who has been haunting a castle for 400 years, and cannot go to his rest until he wins the love of a woman. When a female robot sacrifices herself for him, he escapes from purgatory at last.
Rathbone died shortly after completing Autopsia, perhaps due to complications from altitude sickness in Mexico. His estate consisted of $10,000 — his salary for the film. Ouida Bergère Rathbone died seven years later, bankrupt.
Bach, Steven. Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1992.
Valley, Richard. Liner notes, The Sherlock Holmes Collection. MPI Home Video, 2003.
Vieira, Mark. Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005.
Weaver, Tom, Brunas, Michael, and Brunas, John. Universal Horrors. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2007.
Eddie Selover is a film blogger, writer, and speaker. He works in marketing communications and is the host and organizer of PechaKucha Orlando, the local edition of the worldwide public speaking and arts forum. He is currently researching a full-length biography of Basil Rathbone.