I first met Basil Rathbone when I was eight or nine years old. In fact, in what I can only call a remarkably fertile and fortuitous period of perhaps six months or so, I really hit the celluloid trifecta.
To begin with, I guess I was a pretty strange kid because, while normal little boys were outside playing baseball, I could usually be found inside conversing with electronic ghosts who nevertheless were – and still are – very real to me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but old movies (and later books) were for me what books (and later the theatre) were for the young Charles Dickens. A refuge from a lonely world to which I didn’t seem to belong.
Anyway…In those days before cable television and home video, the primary medium through which I summoned those spirits was Channel 5 from New York. And it was on a memorable Sunday afternoon that I first encountered an indescribably wonderful film called The Adventures of Robin Hood that I later learned was made in 1938 by Warner Brothers.
Now at this stage of the game, I didn’t know who or what a producer or director was. And I certainly had no idea what they did. However, it was immediately and abundantly clear that Errol Flynn was very handsome and charming and that Alan Hale was very funny. And even at age eight or nine, I didn’t need to be told that Olivia de Havilland was the prettiest woman in the universe.
And what can I say about the rest of that cast? Claude Rains, Ian Hunter, Melville Cooper, Eugene Pallette, Patric Knowles… It was budding film buff heaven.
Interestingly – at least I hope that someone else finds this as interesting as I apparently do – lightning struck again just a few months later when I was treated to my first of many viewings of another indescribably wonderful film called The Mark of Zorro. Somewhere along the line I learned that it was made in 1940 by Fox.
And if Robin Hood rated a 10 out of 10 on my personal internal film nut barometer, then Zorro immediately registered at about a 9.9. It featured another incredibly handsome and charming hero in Tyrone Power and if Olivia de Havilland had a rival then it surely had to be Linda Darnell. Toss in another great supporting cast (Eugene Pallette again!) and it was another trip to heaven.
And finally, just two or three weeks later, along came Captain Blood which later research told me was made in 1935 by Warner Brothers. And once again there was Errol and Olivia. Easily another 9.9; no doubt about it.
Needless to say, these films have much in common. To begin with, they are three of the greatest swashbuckling adventures ever produced in Hollywood or anywhere else for that matter. They are style and fun personified. And then there are those unbearably pretty heroines and those handsome and charming heroes. And notwithstanding the fact that some serious film buffs are in positions of power and autonomy in Hollywood today, they are the kind of films that simply are not, and cannot, be made anymore.
In any event, they have one particularly important thing in common, something that impressed me more than anything else at the time. Each features a handsome and charming villain played by an unconventionally handsome and distinctively charming actor named Basil Rathbone.
And let’s not forget another important common denominator: They also feature some of the greatest duels ever filmed. In fact, I don’t think any film will ever surpass The Mark of Zorro in this regard and The Adventures of Robin Hood is not far behind. Rathbone was an expert swordsman and his encounters with Errol Flynn (twice) and Tyrone Power are simply stunning. I have no doubt that my childhood immersion in these films was behind my decision to take up fencing back in the seventies.
All I can say is that a kind of perfect storm of suave villainy was unleashed and for months my head reverberated with the names and faces of Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Captain Esteban Pasquale and Captain Levasseur. The cumulative impact was overwhelming and I was a Rathbone fan for life.
But it got better. For some reason, New York’s Channel 9 was always a fuzzy, noisy mess on my family’s television set. But at some point in the sixties Santa brought us a motorized TV antenna for the roof. And suddenly the missing link was no longer missing and the Holy Grail had been found. Because Channel 9 meant Universal horror films which, of course, meant that I discovered Son of Frankenstein…
For some reason, the Sherlock Holmes films came later. (The films then turned me on to the books, and much later the radio broadcasts.) And if I remember correctly, they came via New York’s Channel 11. Just the dozen Universal films that updated the stories to the forties. I didn’t discover the two 1939 Fox efforts, both period films, until many years later.
And what can I possibly say about Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes that hasn’t been said, and more expertly, countless times before? Let it suffice to say that just as Alastair Sim is the definitive and transcendent Scrooge, so too Basil Rathbone is the definitive and transcendent Holmes. Yes, there have been other great interpreters of the role. My honorable mention list includes Eille Norwood, Peter Cushing and Jeremy Brett. But for me, Basil Rathbone will always be alone at the top of the mountain.
Enough said. Except, perhaps, to mention that if there is a downside to Rathbone’s close association with Sherlock Holmes it is that it tends to overshadow all of his other work and accomplishments. For example, even a cursory glance at his resume reveals serious Shakespearean credentials as well as the fact that his first love was the theatre.
And then there is the fact that he was also no stranger to Dickens. In this blog’s initial posting of October 13 (An Introduction & An Announcement), I mentioned that my introduction to Dickens came through seeing the famous 1935 MGM version of David Copperfield on television. This encounter came while I was still under the spell of the three swashbucklers already mentioned; and I am almost certain that it came over the Christmas holiday. And it was at some point in the following year that I discovered A Tale of Two Cities, also made by MGM in 1935. His small but important roles in these films – Murdstone in David Copperfield and the Marquis St. Evremonde in A Tale of Two Cities – are beyond brilliant.
It is also worth mentioning that his rich, mellifluous voice also graced radio and recorded versions of A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. And if anyone ever opens The Hall of Fame of Great Voices, then Basil Rathbone will surely have to be included in the first wave of inductees where he will be joined by other immortals like Ronald Colman and Vincent Price, and Alastair Sim and James Mason. People whose very sound can grab you and transport you to magical places.
And rounding out his Dickensian resume, in the fifties he was associated with three dramatizations of A Christmas Carol. In the
first, an excellent 1954 television musical in which Fredric March appeared as Scrooge, Rathbone played Jacob Marley. And in the last, he played Scrooge in a 1959 short that was part of the ambitious Tales from Dickens series; these films were shown extensively on Great Britain’s ITV and were distributed to the educational film market in the United States.
And of course, just in time for Christmas 1956, came Rathbone’s appearance as Scrooge in The Stingiest Man in Town. Long lost, but thankfully no longer lost, its sudden reappearance means that Christmas 2011 is going to be very special indeed! And Carol fans everywhere will now be faced with the always enjoyable task of deciding where he ranks in their own personal pantheon of great Scrooges.
Basil Rathbone died in 1967 and, in trying to bring this rambling discussion to some sort of a logical conclusion, I suppose it makes sense to touch on the last few years of his life. In the sixties he remained active in several arenas, however, his work in this period tends to be overshadowed by the fact that he appeared in some perfectly dreadful films. Sadly, his cinematic epitaph was a 1967 atrocity called Hillbillys in a Haunted House.
However, it should be remembered that the man was a professional actor. And just as Dickens took pride in saying that he “earned his bread” by writing, Rathbone did the same by acting. But even more importantly, it must be remembered that he did not appear in poor films because his talent had somehow diminished. Absolutely not. His talent was as real and as big as ever.
Or to paraphrase the words of that great philosopher Norma Desmond, Basil Rathbone was still big. It was the pictures that got small…
To learn more about Basil Rathbone, be sure to visit this excellent web site devoted to his life and legacy: www.basilrathbone.net.
And check out his wonderful autobiography In and Out of Character.
With Christmas looming large on the horizon, now is the time to get your hands on the long-awaited DVD release of The Stingiest Man In Town! Available from Video Artists International.
And remember that Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT will be hosting the first ever public screening of The Stingiest Man In Town on December 3! This premiere is co-sponsored by the English Department and the Department of Film, Video and Interactive Media.