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Though he became known for his starring role in the Sherlock Holmes movies of the 1940s, actor Basil Rathbone enjoyed a varied career for nearly 50 years. This is his story.
Philip St John Basil Rathbone was born on 13 June 1892 in Johannesburg, South Africa to Edgar Philip Rathbone and Anna Barbera Rathbone, née George. Edgar was a mining engineer, Anna Barbera was a violinist. Basil had a sister, Beatrice, and a younger brother, John, who was killed in the First World War. The Rathbone family moved to England in 1895, and Basil - known as 'Ratters' to his friends - was educated at Repton School. He was a member of the musical and debating societies at the school, and whilst there he wrote a play, entitled King Arthur.
When Rathbone left school in 1910, he told his parents that he wanted to become an actor but his father wanted him first to try working as a junior clerk in the Globe Insurance Company. After working for the insurance company for a year, Rathbone auditioned for his cousin Frank Benson, the founder of the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Festival. He then toured Britain with Benson's Shakespeare company.
In 1914, Rathbone married his first wife, Ethel Marion Foreman. She was an actress whom Rathbone had appeared with in productions of The Merchant Of Venice and As You Like It. In July the following year, the couple had a son, Rodion, who later became an actor, appearing in one of his father's films, Tower Of London.
Rathbone the War Hero
With the First World War raging, Rathbone joined the army in 1915. He was assigned to serve in France with The Liverpool Scottish Regiment and did so with distinction. His First World War adventures included an episode in which he disguised himself as a tree in order to get close to the enemy and pick up information. Rathbone's wartime exploits earned him a medal - the Military Cross, awarded for outstanding bravery.
Rathbone returned from the war to find that his mother had died and his brother had been killed in battle. As if that were not enough to contend with, he and his wife then separated.
Basil Goes To Hollywood
After the war, Rathbone returned to the stage and was spotted by film director Maurice Elvey who signed him up to appear in two films: The Fruitful Vine and Innocent, both made in 1921. In 1923, Rathbone moved to New York. There he met Ouida Bergere, a Hollywood script editor, and they fell in love. Forced to wait three years while Rathbone's divorce from his first wife came through, he and Bergere were eventually married on 18 April, 1926. The couple did not have any children together but they adopted a baby girl named Cynthia in 1939. By all accounts, Rathbone was a devoted adoptive father and Cynthia returned the devotion by becoming his most faithful fan. As she grew up, she often accompanied Rathbone on his theatrical tours.
The Rathbones also adopted a dog - a black German Shepherd called Moritz. The dog was a veteran of the German police force, and at first only understood the German commands he had been taught.
In 1929 Rathbone made his first 'talkie' film, The Last Of Mrs Cheyney. Meanwhile he continued his career as a stage actor, playing roles including that of Robert Browning in The Barretts Of Wimpole Street (the part eventually played by Fredric March in the film version) and Romeo in Romeo And Juliet.
Another role that Rathbone played on Broadway in 1929 led to him being arrested. In The Captive, he played the part of a young man named Jacques who was engaged to be married, but who then found out that his fiancée was in love with another woman. Homosexuality was a taboo subject in those days and the play caused a scandal. It was closed down and the entire cast of the production was arrested and charged with offending public morals. The criminal charges were later dropped, but Rathbone remained angry about the censorship of what he felt to be a serious play confronting important issues.
Then, in 1935, Rathbone appeared in David O'Selznick's film version of Dickens' David Copperfield as the step-father, Mr Murdstone. This is where his career took off and from that day, he would become known as a great screen villain. It was at this time that Rathbone and his wife moved to Los Angeles, at 5254 Los Feliz Boulevard, in an area that was known as 'Hollywood's British Film Colony'.
In 1939, Rathbone played the part of Sir Guy of Guisbourne, opposite Errol Flynn, in The Adventures Of Robin Hood. The film gave audiences a chance to see the actor in a fencing duel - Rathbone was then renowned as Hollywood's finest fencer.
It was also in 1939 that Rathbone first played the role that most people remember him best for - that of Sherlock Holmes, in The Hound Of The Baskervilles. He went on to play Holmes in a further 14 films, including a cameo appearance in the film Crazy House (1943). Unfortunately, playing Holmes so many times made Rathbone feel typecast. In 1946, he chose not to renew his contract with Universal, and returned to his first love, the theatre.
Away From Holmes
He returned to the cinema in 1949, providing the voice of the narrator in the Walt Disney production of Ichabod and Mr Toad. Then in 1953, Rathbone appeared in a rare comic role in the Bob Hope comedy Casanova's Big Night.
Rathbone's films in later years were mostly the horror films that were very popular in those days. They included the beach movie Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, in which he appeared with his old friend Boris Karloff. They had previously worked together on The Son of Frankenstein and The Tower of London.
Around this time Rathbone did a lot of television work, from Victoria Regina to Doctor Kildare. He also narrated documentaries, including one on the subject of ESP. This was a subject that Rathbone was interested in, perhaps because of an incident when he was four years old. His mother refused to sail on a ship that the family were booked on because she had dreamed that the ship would sink - and indeed the ship did sink.
In 1962, Rathbone turned to writing. He wrote an autobiography, In And Out of Character, which - as the title suggests - deals with both his personal and professional life. It also offers Rathbone's advice for budding actors. The book was well received by reviewers, who praised its humour and its candour. It has been repeatedly reprinted and is still available.
Rathbone made two more films in the mid-1960s: Autopsy of a Ghost and Hillbillies in a Haunted House. Sadly, within a month of completing the latter film, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Basil Rathbone died at his home in New York on July 21, 1967. He was 75.
Rathbone's funeral was held at St James Episcopal Church. Poems and sonnets were read, including Elizabeth Browning's How Do I Love Thee? and Rupert Brooke's If I Die, Think Only This of Me... .
Basil Rathbone Filmography
- Innocent (1921)
- The Fruitful Vine (1921)
- The School For Scandal (1923)
- Trouping With Ellen (1924)
- The Masked Bride (1925)
- The Great Deception (1926)
- The Last Of Mrs Cheyney (1929 - his first 'talkie')
- The Bishop Murder Case (1930 - as detective Philo Vance)
- A Notorious Affair (1930)
- The Lady Of Scandal (1930)
- This Mad World (1930)
- The Flirting Widow (1930)
- A Lady Surrenders (1930)
- Sin Takes A Holiday (1930)
- A Woman Commands (1932)
- One Precious Year (1933)
- After The Ball (1933)
- Loyalties (1933)
- David Copperfield (1935 - as the cruel step-father of David Copperfield)
- Anna Karenina (1935 - as Karenin the husband, opposite Greta Garbo)
- The Last Days Of Pompeii (1935)
- A Feather In Her Hat (1935)
- A Tale Of Two Cities (1935 - as the Marquis St. Evremonde)
- Captain Blood (1935 - opposite Errol Flynn)
- Kind Lady (1935)
- Private Number (1936)
- Romeo And Juliet (1936 - Oscar nominated for his role as Tybalt)
- The Garden Of Allah (1936 - opposite Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer)
- Confession (1937)
- Love From A Stranger (1937 - from a story by Agatha Christie)
- Make A Wish (1937)
- Tovarich (1937 - with Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer)
- The Adventures Of Marco Polo (1938 - with Gary Cooper)
- The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938 - opposite Errol Flynn)
- If I Were King (1938 - Oscar nominated for his portrayal of Louis XI)
- The Dawn Patrol (1938 - as a Major in the RAF struggling to cope with the heavy losses in battle)
- Son Of Frankenstein (1939 - as Wolf, son of the monster maker)
- The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939 - his first outing as Sherlock Holmes, opposite Richard Greene, who became known as TV's Robin Hood)
- The Sun Never Sets (1939 - opposite Douglas Fairbanks Jnr)
- The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes (1939 - based on the play by William Gillete)
- Rio (1939)
- Tower Of London (1939 - as Richard III)
- Rhythm On The River (1940 - opposite Bing Crosby)
- The Mark Of Zorro (1940 - opposite Tyrone Power)
- The Mad Doctor (1941)
- International Lady (1941)
- Paris Calling (1941 - opposite Randolph Scott)
- The Black Cat (1942 - with Bela Lugosi and Gale Sondergaard)
- Fingers At The Window (1942)
- Crossroads (1942 - with William Powell)
- Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror (1942 - the first of the Holmes series to be set in contemporary times)
- Terror (1942 - the first of the Holmes series to be set in contemporary times)
- Sherlock Holmes And The Secret Weapon (1942)
- Sherlock Holmes In Washington (1943)
- Above Suspicion (1943 - opposite Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray)
- Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
- Crazy House (1943 - with comedy duo Olsen and Johnson)
- The Spider Woman (1944)
- The Scarlet Claw (1944)
- Bathing Beauty (1944 - with Esther Williams and Red Skelton)
- The Pearl Of Death (1944)
- Frenchman's Creek (1944 - with Joan Fontaine)
- The House Of Fear (1945)
- The Woman In Green (1945)
- Pursuit To Algiers (1945)
- Terror By Night (1946)
- Heartbeat (1946 - with Ginger Rogers)
- Dressed To Kill (1946 - his last Sherlock Holmes film)
- Ichabod And Mr Toad (1949)
- Casanova's Big Night (1954 - opposite Bob Hope and Joan Fontaine)
- We're No Angels (1955 - with Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov)
- The Court Jester (1956 - opposite Danny Kaye, with Glynis Johns and Angela Lansbury)
- The Black Sleep (1956 - with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jnr)
- The Last Hurrah (1958 - with Spencer Tracy)
- The Magic Sword (1962)
- Tales Of Terror (1962 - with Vincent Price)
- Two Before Zero (1962)
- The Comedy of Terrors (1963 - with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre)
- Pontius Pilate (1964)
- Queen Of Blood (1966)
- Ghost In The Invisible Bikini (1966 - with Boris Karloff and Nancy Sinatra)
- Voyage To A Prehistoric Planet (1967)
- Autopsy Of A Ghost (1967 - only released in Spain)
- Hillbillies In A Haunted House (1967 - with John Carradine)
Further Rathbone Resources
Basil Rathbone - Master of Stage and Screen is a tremendous online resource full of detailed information about the great actor's life and work.