BIOGRAPHY, BOOKS, general biography, The Heiress (1947)
Comments 53

Watchman, What of the Night?

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:

Jed Harris, director of "The Heiress"

Jed Harris, director of “The Heiress”

“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.

“for ten minutes Mrs Rathbone read from a formidable pile of yellow sheets on the table”

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.

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53 Comments

  1. This portion of WATCHMAN,WHAT OF THE NIGHT is really quite interesting. Jed Harris may not have been the most commendable of men, but he was a brilliant director. He spent his time in Ouida’a company studying a particular sociopathic type and her damaging relationship to her husband and others, and all the while, taking and sorting
    vast mental notes (as copious as Ouida’s on the Henry James play) for future reference.
    Doesn’t Ouida remind you a little of the lunatic, self-absorbed heroine in SUSAN AND GOD and even, Hedda Gabler?

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  2. Not that I would know Jed Harris from Jed Clampet…wait Jed Clampet was cuter..Still I’m no stranger to acting,and most directors are open to how a actress or actor feels about the development of there chacter. But dragging the wrighter/director over to your house to listen to a compleat rewright of the play done by a member of your family..dosent that seam a bit…odd. Hamlet..interesting? Which sceen? Hamlet wanted to kill off most of the cast.Or perhaps he was wishing Ophelia would go jump in the river.[wink]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. revlon says

    I know people who worked with Harris in their ealry careers and they all say the same thing – he was brilliant but a complete a-hole! I would not judge Basil or his wife on his say so.

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  4. roesbette says

    Read Basil’s chapter on this incident in his autobiography. Ouida is mistrustful of Jed because of his reputation of being a “devil” with actors and that Ouida and Jed were “dynamic personalities” who would not agree to anything. Basil mentions Ouida’s proposed changes to the play. Basil admits that “her version of the play would require major revisions, and Jed would not be sympathetic to them,” but that he had already made up his mind to accept the part of Dr. Sloper. Throughout the run of the play, Jed was very supportive of Basil, but afterward when Jed offered him another part that Basil felt was unsuitable for him, and which Basil rejected, Jed “blew my head off” and later made him feel “frozen to death” when they met on the train. So, Basil’s account shows the many dimensions of Jed’s character.

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  5. Drone says

    I think Ouida is misunderstood by some. She was just a very devoted wife who put her husband before herself the way few women do now.

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  6. Lortrfan says

    I LOL’d at the comparison of Basil with Stan in South Park. I know just what you mean. The “n****r* ep, right? Poor Basil.

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  7. foolofatook says

    Yes, you need to beware people writing with chips o their shoulder as big as Harris’s seems to have been. OTH, who ha offered the contrary view of Ouida’s warmth and loveliness? Thus far no one, and silence sometimes speaks.

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  8. amangeany says

    I can’t help thinking Jed Harris is being a bitch here, anyone agree? People can be made to look inappropriate or weird if their conduct is taken out of context.

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    • AnnaPindurka says

      He seems to be famous for being bitchy, I copy this from his wiki article:

      “… the playwright and director George S. Kaufman …. once said when he died, he wanted to be cremated and have somebody throw his ashes in Jed Harris’s face.

      … Laurence Olivier’s disturbing portrayal of Shakespeare’s Richard III is based on Harris’s mannerisms, because according to Olivier, he wanted to make Richard III completely hateful…”

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      • Bradford says

        Yes, that is something to bear in mind, I agree. I bet he was a bastard to work with. But IF Ouida did as he says she did then it was still profoundly inappropriate and bizarre. What’s needed is an independent secondary source. I wonder if the Goetzes left any account of her at this time.

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      • Yes,Olivier hated Jed.He based his Richard on he and the Big Bad Wolf.Harris treated alot of actors badly.But Basil said he loved working with him in the Heiress.Then he turned down Jed for another play and Jed refused to speak to him when he met him in public again.Go figure.
        So well put that Jed was a Bitch.

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  9. Monna says

    This is so revealing IMO. I absolutely agree about the sense of tragedy in Basil’s life, btw. I’m a psychology professor and I studied war trauma in relation to Vietnam veterans and Rathbone in my opinion manifests many classic symptoms not merely immediately post-war but throughout a large part of his subsequent life. I would welcome seeing this discussed

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    • Not having survived combat,but certainly experienced some PTSD more times than I care to admit,and given precious little relief,I can see it in Basil’s eyes the effects of the war,coming home to demands of your own family,having to look after psychologically scarred father and sister,trying to take up being a father again,probably the demand for more kids,getting back into his acting,being disillusioned as to what they actually fought for,and seeing how many gave some or all,including yourself.Rathbone and Ronald Colman stand out as being profoundly scarred by the war.

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      • Ellen Foley says

        Jed gave OR permission to make suggestions.Maybe during course of follow-up Baz realized how ridiculous her notes were,and hoped she hadn’t flubbed his B’way comeback.And how did she bring him from obscurity,it was his talent that got them where he was to rise.She didn’t support him,she was only capable of elevating her own position.Too bad there weren’t support groups then for survivors of PTSD then and good thing people don’t run to papparazzi as they do now with gossip to destroy reputations.Flynn may have been proud of his off-screen image,but others weren’t living with emotional disabilities,like bipolar personality and didn’t say “who cares what you think” because they couldn’t afford to risk bad publicity.OR needed serious help,and her behavior was NOT socially acceptable as just being a good wife.George was not her “late husband”,but an ex-husband.She shouldn’t try to present herself as a widow,maybe she didn’t,but she was looking for the next hubby while still married to George,and maybe that’s why he went looking elsewhere.Highly moral woman,not IMHO!I’m Catholic,too,but I don’t think she was such a great Catholic,if she was she would’ve picked up and gone where George went like she left CA in 1947-7 and went back to NYC w/Baz,but this time,no Jack Miltern to lean on.

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  10. Newest Baz-Groupie says

    Please tell me theres is a good biography of Basil out there! I have been watching him in Sherlock Hlmes and have fallen massively in love. I need information!

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  11. Leanne says

    Why didn’t Basil just stand up to Ouida and tell her “stop trying to control my life”?

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  12. roesbette says

    Or was she still playing the role of “manager”, and he is letting her play it, but intending to take the role anyway? After all, when he actually does come in for the part, all he’s interested in is stage business in his portrayal, i.e., actually doing the work.

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    • Karoline says

      You are quite right. He didn’t actually rely on his wife’s judgement at all in the end. And it’s Basil who draws a delicate closure to things by saying in effect “yes let’s just leave the rewrites with these nice people, shall we?” He doesn’t follow up on them or even refer to them again so far as we know. Was he actually humouring her, not being controlled by her? In which case his apparent moral cowardice actually becomes a kind of bravery.

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  13. If this account is to be taken at face value, Ouida sure is interesting to read about–and wonder about. What made her tick? What made her the way she was?

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    • Karoline says

      I agree. That scene in the Rathbone apartment, with Ouida reading from a “formidable pile of yellow sheets” begs for explanation and development (and dramatisation!). Why was she dong it? Why was he letting her? She only succeeded in making herself ridiculous – and her husband too by association.

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      • Kendrick says

        Well, I see you’re another Ouida-hater, there are so many here. What’s ridiculous about trying to improve the play your husband is going to be in? And what do you now about it anyway?

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        • Karoline says

          I suppose looking ridiculous is a subjective matter so there’s not much point in debating it if you take a different view from mine, but in my limited experience of working in the theatre, both as actress and writer, it’s not generally considered the done thing for spouses of cast members to begin rewriting the play. In fact it’s fairly bizarre, as you can tell from the way Harris describes the event. It would be like your spouse walking in to your place of work unannounced and telling your boss how to run the department. The playwrights would have been aghast and poor Basil was probably hoping for death while she was sitting there reading out her notes.

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          • Kendrick says

            How can you say what Basil was hoping for? And please tell me what your “experience” as an actress or writer is?!

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            • To be fair, Karoline did say Basil was “probably” hoping for death. I think it’s fair to speculate that someone might be embarrassed by behavior that goes against culturally-accepted norms.

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            • Karoline says

              I can guess how Basil was *probably* feeling in the same way you could guess the state of mind of a man whose trousers fell down at a supermarket check out. It’s not exactly rocket science to figure out such a thing would be embarrassing, and anyhow Harris pretty much conveys the same idea himself.

              As to your second charming question – would you mind, dear total stranger, if I don’t supply you with my entire resume on this blog? I said “limited experience” by the way. I’ve only had one play performed off-Broadway so wouldn’t claim to be any kind of expert on that account.

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    • Alyssia Warren says

      Ouida was just a devoted wife, doing her best for her husband. She’s been badly misunderstood over the years IMO. She helped Basil rise from obscurity, and without her he would never have been heard of. The bad press came from people who were jealous of her place in his life or who misunderstood her character. her character was about sacrifice for those she loved who were her husband and their daughter.

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      • You talk as if you knew Ouida, or at least interviewed her. Please tell us more about your relationship with Ouida. We are all curious about her!

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    • Lily Marlene says

      Yeah she always seem like a bit of a blank, like people say ‘ooh she spent all his money’ and that’s it. But like who was she and why did she and how did she?

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    • Are you suggesting that nothing should be published about Ouida unless it presents her in a favorable light? Wouldn’t you rather have a complete picture of her? That means acknowledging the fact that not everybody liked her.

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  14. this was very interesting.basil ,in his book,states about how strong a personality his wife was.perhaps,knowing what a brutal person jed harris is reported to be,shes being this way.i found it strange jed harris compared basil to the horse whirlaway.i thought that horse was from the citation stable and it was a mare.i could be mistaken.

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  15. Peg says

    Yes! A Basil Rathbone blog! Huzzaaaah! Do you have any notion where I can find a copy of ‘This Mad World?’ Always wanted to see it, never found it

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  16. Hi Bob – I visited your site and I think I’ll add it to my links. Of course any movie would be infinitely improved by his presence! I might do a post about the films that could only have been better if he’d replaced the lead!

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  17. Thank you so much for starting this site. I am a great Rathbone fan, and have been gentled guyed over it for decades. (My friends insist that I think any film would be infinitely improved by his presence — and I guess they’re right!) I mention Rathbone several times in my own blog, http://thejadesphinx.blogspot.com/, which you might find amusing. Best and keep up the great work!

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  18. MrsSmith says

    I agree this is fascinating. Ouida Rathbone was a strange one. Are they any photos where she’s smiling?

    Like

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