I’ve been preparing for this blog for a while, asking friends and collectors for tidbits and morsels, doing a lot of web exploring, which can occasionally bring up nicely unexpected things. And just today I found one. A little book written by Jed Harris, Broadway producer/director, called Watchman, What of the Night?. I’ve linked to a pdf file, but at Archive.org the text is available in various formats, including a Kindle version.
The book is notable for fans of the Baz because it’s all about the struggle (and such it really seems to have been) to get The Heiress onto Broadway for its first outing in 1947. The whole book is interesting but there’s one passage that’s just pure gold for Rathbone-admirers or would-be biographers, so I’m going to quote it in full. But first a little background on Harris, taken from the book’s flyleaf:
“A producer-director whose name is synonymous with perfection in the legitimate theatre tells the story of an Opening Night. When Henry James’sWashington Square was first made into a play, it died a swift and horrible death in New Haven. Jed Harris, feeling it had failed because it had been misdirected, miscast, and badly adapted for the stage, set about the almost impossible task of re-producing a known flop. The result of his effort was the smash hit, The Heiress, which starred Wendy Hiller, Basil Rathbone, and Patricia Collinge.”
One of the major problem was actually getting the play cast. Wendy Hiller was initially reluctant to do the play and needed a lot of persuading, and it’s just after Jed has been dealing with this problem that Rathbone enters the story:
“…The matter of Miss Hiller’s contract having been settled, I thought that the rest of my casting problems would be simpler. And that is exactly the way it turned out not to be. When I first discussed the part of Dr. Sloper with Basil Rathbone, I was astonished to find him oddly noncommittal. An extraordinarily fine actor, he had been buried for years in junk of one kind or another in Hollywood. But I remembered him in Gilbert Millers production of The Captive by Edouard Bourdet, in which he gave as fine and touching a performance as I ever saw. Shortly thereafter he disappeared in California.
Now if there was anything that Rathbone needed on his return to New York it was a good part And yet he seemed disinclined to play it. I wondered if his wife had some aversion to the play, perhaps, who knows. Rathbone would be required to wear a beard, or whether she conceived the part of Dr. Sloper as too unattractive. I knew she had long been a resident of Hollywood even before she married Rathbone. There are some odd corners one must have the courage to look into in these affairs.
If men were bred as beautifully as thoroughbred horses are, no doubt many of them would bear some resemblance to Basil Rathbone. To those who see something of the thoroughbred in that tall, elegantly made figure and something equine in the structure of that long, sensitive, narrow face, I can only say: Well it wouldn’t hurt you to look a little bit like Whirlaway.
In the Rathbones’ house, in the empress-like presence of his wife, the actor seemed like a most gentle saddle horse. Miss Bergere had the commanding style of a first-class showman. When she mentioned Rathbone, she never referred to their relationship. She never said “My husband’ or “Basil” She always said “Mr. Basil Rathbone’ as though she were referring to an institution.
Mrs. Rathbone now disclosed to me, over a cup of tea, that, as Ouida Bergere, she had been a very successful screen writer, having composed many of the screenplays her late husband, George Fitzmaurice, had directed. And she was frank to say that she thought the play needed a great deal of work. I said it would be a great favor to all of us if she would be kind enough to take the trouble to make some notes.
“I should think that Dr. Sloper would be the sort of man who would send his daughter some flowers,” she said. I made no reply to this somewhat enigmatic remark. I knew something of the reputation of Mrs. Rathbone as a Hollywood hostess. I had heard that there were literally hundreds of dollars worth of flowers disposed about the premises at even her most intimate parties. I realized it was only natural for her to feel that Dr. Sloper, who was obviously rich and distinguished, as the Rathbones had been in California, should share something of her own magnificent style. And I must admit that I liked her very much for that.
A few days later Rathbone called me up to tell me that his wife had made some notes and done a little rewriting. And would I be free to come up that evening and discuss these things with them? I said I would very much like to bring the Goetzes with me, and the meeting was set for nine o’clock that night I immediately got in touch with Gus Goetz, who knew nothing of my previous interview with Mrs. Rathbone, and explained that he and Mrs. Goetz might have a rather difficult evening ahead of them. And I cautioned him to impress it upon his wife that we could not afford to get into any controversy with Miss Bergere, because it was she who would probably decide whether or not Basil played the part.
Gus said, “Do you suppose that she has actually been rewriting the play?”
I said, “I haven’t the slightest doubt of it”
Gus laughed, “Jesus Christ!” he said. “Now I have heard everything,”
“You are dead wrong Gus,” I said. “You have not heard everything. That won’t come until tonight”
That evening we sat in the living room of the Rathbones’ apartment, which had been stripped for the summer. The windows were wide open but the air was stone dead. The glasses were the only cool things in the house.
For ten minutes Mrs. Rathbone read from a formidable pile of yellow sheets on the table. The Goetzes and I sat like statues. Rathbone leaned forward in his chair in a Hamlet-like attitude.
Then suddenly Mrs. Rathbone stopped reading.
“I’m sure you get the idea” she said. “Here, you can have all this.” She handed the sheets across the table.
“You are free to use anything I’ve written”
“Yes” said Rathbone, “perhaps it would be better that way.”
We thanked Mrs, Rathbone as warmly as the weather permitted and soon left the apartment. The next day Rathbone came to my office and said that he was ready to accept the part of Dr, Sloper. But only on one condition. I would have to show him how the doctor employed the stethoscope on himself.
“That is the only piece of business in the play that utterly baffles me” he said. It took only a moment to suggest how it
could be done. And Rathbone promptly signed the contract…”
Interesting reading isn’t it. I’m not totally sure Mr. Harris means us to believe he “liked” Ouida “very much” for her comment about the flowers. In fact you get the impression he’s struggling to be polite about a woman he finds very difficult and a little scary. I know it’s probably unfair but when he says Rathbone leaned forward in his chair Hamlet-like as his wife was reading out from all those yellow pages I have a sort of image of Baz pinching the bridge of his nose and closing his eyes like South Park’s Stan faced with public humiliation at the hands of his family.
And what about referring to your husband as “Mr Basil Rathbone” while he’s standing right there next to you, If she did think of him as an “institution,” don’t think there’s much doubt who was chairman of the board of trustees.