BLOG INTERVIEWS, Michael B. Druxman
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Interview with Michael B. Druxman

Basil Rathbone, His Life & His Films, is not just the only biography of the Baz yet written, it’s also an exhaustive and essential filmography, detailing the plot and background information for every one of Rathbone’s movies. It’s basically the essential reference work on the subject of Bazology. Anyone who has admired the man has probably at least glanced inside this book, and many movie freaks and/or hardcore Baz addicts have, like me kept a copy by their bed for constant reference until a visiting aunt spilled cough syrup all over it and stuck the pages together indelibly, so that trying to pry them apart with tweezers only made things worse and there was nothing to do but cry owned a copy at some time.

So, we’re very excited here at The Baz that the author of this bible, Michael B. Druxman, has agreed to be the subject (or object?) of our first Q&A! He very graciously, over several days, put up with being bombarded with email and Word files as we compiled this interview. We’re grateful and hope you pwill be too.

Without more ado – let the Q&A commence…

* * *
TB: What made you decide to write the book?

DRUXMAN: I had just finished my first book, which was about Paul Muni, and I was looking for another project.  The Seven-Percent Solutionwas a best seller about that time, and that had created a resurgence of interest in Sherlock Holmes. Quite frankly, I felt that Basil Rathbone would make a very commercial book.  As it turned out, I was correct.  Within the movie book genre, it was a best seller.

TB: So you weren’t a fan of his?

DRUXMAN: I was not a “fan,” but I certainly enjoyed watching him and thought he was a fine actor.  I would see him in movies that I would have seen anyway; not necessarily because he was in them. Back in my younger days when I was a “fan,” my “heroes” were Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Broderick Crawford, John Wayne and Randolph Scott.  And, I had the “hots” for Ann Sheridan, Alice Faye and Doris Day.  Sadly, I did not discover Carole Lombard until I was in my thirties.

TB: Was it a conscious decision to focus primarily on his film and leave the biography as an outline?

DRUXMAN: Yes, it was always meant to be a “Films of” book.  I sought out people who worked with him in order to give it some “color”.  It was never meant to be an in-depth biography.  His own autobiography, In And Out of Character, didn’t have a lot of depth either…and was not a great help in my research.

TB: Do you regret that? Or do you agree at least that it’s time there was a full biography written?

DRUXMAN: The problem in writing a “full biography” today is that, unlike when I did my book back in the early 1970s, there is almost nobody around any longer who worked with Rathbone.  Who is the biographer going to interview?  Sure, there are “stories” and rumors floating around about Rathbone and many other stars…but are they true?  Sadly, you can write anything you want about a famous person after they are dead (e.g. Errol Flynn was a Nazi spy), and that person’s survivors can do nothing to stop you because you cannot libel a dead person.

TB: Did your opinion of the man change because of the work you did on the book?

DRUXMAN: Not really.  As I said, I always thought he was a fine actor. I enjoyed watching him…particularly in the swashbucklers he did with Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power.

TB:   Do you agree that Hollywood seemed to find it hard to use him to his full potential?

DRUXMAN: No, I think he had many opportunities to display his range (e.g. If I Were King, The Dawn Patrol).  The problem was that he was not really a leading man, but a character actor; best suited to villainous roles.

TB: Wasn’t the problem really that Hollywood divided things as rigidly as that?  This is an actor who played romantic leads in early movies and on stage, and  whose range covered everything from Iago through Prince Hal to Jack Worthing. And a demonic curate! Was it not the shortcomings of the studio system and not his limitations that reduced all this versatility down to a few generic stereotypes?

DRUXMAN: What can I say?  That’s show biz!

TB: He loved the theatre and was never truly happy in Hollywood making films, so what do you think lay behind his decision to spend so long there?

DRUXMAN: Actors go where the work is. You also make more money in Hollywood than you do in the theatre, and Rathbone…while he was “hot”…enjoyed an expensive Hollywood lifestyle.

TB: If he hadn’t, if he’d gone back to NY or London to reaffirm his theatre credentials would that have made it harder or easier for him to be appreciated in movieland?

DRUXMAN: He did go back to Broadway; won a Tony Award for The Heiress…but it didn’t seem to make him any more attractive to Hollywood producers.

TB:But by then – 1946 – was it not already too late?  Although he was only 54,  his career was undoubtedly already finished from the POV of real achievment. If he’d done what Olivier and March and others did and alternate between screen and stage in his heyday might things not have been different  for him? What I’m getting at is the odd sense of waste there is in his career. For a man who awed a young Olivier as Prince Hal, who was endowed with beauty and talent and intelligence  – and apparent opportunities – things seemed ultimately fizzle before they could flame. I’ve never really understood why and wondered if you had any insight into this.

DRUXMAN: We all have choices in our life…and you have to live with the consequences of those choices. Rathbone chose Hollywood and the big money he could make there.  His problem was that he became so identified with the role of Sherlock Holmes that casting him in other roles became difficult.  Overall, he had a wonderful career.  Unfortunately, he and his wife spent the money almost as fast as he made it…which is why he had to take so many crappy movies late in his life.

TB: Turning to his personal life, what over all impression of the man did you get from the people you spoke to?

DRUXMAN: Nobody said a negative word about him.  He was very well liked and respected.

TB: That’s a tribute I suppose. But do you feel as if, had you been engaged in a full biography,  rather than the excellent  and invaluable filmography you did produce you might have unearthed more?

DRUXMAN: Who knows?  As George Cukor said when I spoke to him, “I’m not going to give you any gossip.”  Unlike with my earlier book about Paul Muni, that’s pretty much the attitude that everybody had.  Colleagues adored Rathbone, and IF there was anything negative to say about him, they were not going to talk about it.

TB: You talked to Ouida Rathbone, what impression did you form of her?

DRUXMAN: I spoke to her twice on the phone…a few months before she passed away.  She was destitute, living on her memories.  I think that she was the one who wanted the lavish lifestyle more than Basil.  She “managed” his career.  Her goal was for him to be earning $5000.00 per week (a lot of money back in the 1930s and 40s), which they achieved.  She also liked to spend the money, which is why Basil had to continue working (doing recordings, his one person play, lousy movies like Hillbillys in a Haunted House) until his death.   As he confessed once to a friend, “Ouida is breaking me.”

TB: What idea did you form of her personality and their relationship? I ask because a reader of The Baz has come forward with the claim that Ouida was a “manipulative” and controlling woman who “tricked” Basil repeatedly and  invented a great deal of her own life.  Specifically it’s alleged she lied to the press about helping to reconcile Basil with his son, that Basil knew but just let it go.  Obviously I can’t verify any of this, but I wonder if your own insight would tend to confirm or contradict this view of her personality.

DRUXMAN: I can’t comment on the story about the son, because I don’t know, but from my phone conversations with her and from what other people told me, I don’t doubt that she was “manipulative” and “controlling”.

TB: If you have read The Baz comments you’ll see there has been a lot of disparate material coming out recently that seems to call into question some aspects of Rathbone’s image as the “very married man”.  A woman has claimed he was having an affair with her mother in the 1940s, Rose Hobart described him and Vincent Price as “womanizers” and implies a relationship of some kind between Rathbone and Dietrich. There’s nothing of that in your book. Was it a decision on your part to avoid sensational personal stuff, or did you not get any whisper of such things back then?

DRUXMAN: With all due respect to the people who posted those comments, I find it difficult to accept any of those rumors…and I spoke to many people who would have known if there were any “skeletons in the closet,” including Vincent Price, George Cukor, Louis Hayward, Henry Blanke and many others.  Believe me, if I had come across something juicy that I could verify, I would have included it because it would have increased book sales immensely…and I would definitely have included it in the recently published paperback reprint.  Rathbone, off-screen, was not a “colorful” personality.  As Arthur Treacher described his own career: “He said the words.  He took the money.  He went home.”

TB: I agree that has certainly been the impression, and it’s  certainly the view of his life I had when I started this project. But I now wonder if  some of this impression has been the result of “absence of evidence” being construed a “evidence of absence”.  That is to say, the absence of a full biography, and the apparent silence of people who knew him has given the impression there was less of a story than there might actually have been. Once one looks,  there is  anecdote and even hard evidence out ther that decidedly contradicts this prevailing image and it’s recently begun to surface.

DRUXMAN: Fact or fiction, people will believe what they want to believe.  I prefer hard evidence. When I did my book, Ouida was still alive.  In fact, in the final draft that I submitted to my publisher, I deliberately left out the stuff about her financially “breaking” Basil.  Nobody wanted a lawsuit. The book was typeset, then just before it went to the printers, Ouida died. I immediately called the publisher, and he agreed to let me insert two short paragraphs….one dealing with Ouida’s death…and the other (I believe, a quote from actor Louis Hayward), recounting how Basil told him that Ouida was “breaking” him.  To do more would have meant remaking the entire layout of the book.  Since they didn’t use computers back then, that would have been expensive. I still don’t put much credence in the rumors about Basil that are floating around the Internet, but had Oudia not been alive when I was doing my research and writing. it is possible that some more intriguing information might have been forthcoming.  Of course, whether I would have used it or not would have depended on whether I could verify it.

TB: If you had to sum up your opinion of Rathbone as an actor and as a man in six words, what would they be?

DRUXMAN: I think that Fredric March said it best to me: “He was a good actor and a nice guy.”  Sorry, that’s 9 words.

TB: I allow you the three extra! I think you both deserve them …thank you.

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67 Comments

  1. Clotilde says

    I do so sincerely wish Mr Druxman would consider a re-issue and expansion of his biography of Basil. So much new information is coming in! Please I beg you to think about it!

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  2. Peter Bogdanovitch says

    “Rathbone, off-screen, was not a “colorful” personality.”

    This is fascinating because it opens up so many questions both actual and meta. What is meant by “colorful” in this context? Does it mean “interesting”?Because from what I’ve been reading here I think Rathbone presents as a very interesting subject indeed. Clearly a deeply intelligent, thoughtful man, with quite radical views on sexual orientation, gender politics, and with the balls to create a play questioning orthodox Christianity – in 1929! How is such a man not “colorful”

    Or is “colorful” being used here as a euphemism for sexually indiscreet? I sense Mr Druxman didn’t find his subject interesting and this boredom transferred itself to his book, which is a shame. He missed a very great opportunity.

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  3. Pingback: Michael Druxman answers a few of your questions « The Baz

  4. Elizabeth Arden says

    I think Mr Druxman missed some wonderful opportunities when he wrote his book. When I read it I feel he was not really very interested in his subject and only skimmed the surface. The absence of open scandal doesn’t equate with an uninteresting man or an uneventful life. Open scandal can often be the dullest thing to read about as it so often (though not always of course) involves either stupidity or the pitiful desire for publicity at any cost. A life lived in private is all the more interesting because it was lived for the living and not for the show. Buried secrets are always the most fascinating. If only Mr Druxman had scratched the surface a little.

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  5. Basil's Girl says

    I really like this book. It was my bible too! I want to thank Mr Druxman very sincerely for writing it

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    • AnnaPindurka says

      I haven’t heard that said, in fact, I’ve heard a story that Zanuck immediately chose Rathbone (saying something like “Why, Basil Rathbone, of course” – correct me if I’m misquoting the words here). This (from Amanda J Field’s book England’s Secret Weapon) refers to that story: “In common with other Hollywood moguls, [Zanuck] appeared to make decisions based on instinct and therefore the apocryphal story that, in a spur-of-the-moment conversation about whether to make a Holmes film, he named Rathbone for the part, is entirely believable.”
      Basil Rathbone played Philo Vance in 1930, a role that was associated with William Powell. And they played together in the 1942 film Crossroads.

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  6. Frank B says

    I would like to ask Mr Druckman if he is in contact with the family and if they would like the originals of the letters I have as if so I will let them have them. They are their property IMO and I would not expect any money.

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    • AnnaPindurka says

      The closest we know is a very short New York Times obituary citing acute anemia as cause of death. She died in 1969.

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  7. margaret G says

    I understand Michael Druxman’s decision to leave Mr Rathbone’s biography to a minimum and focus on his films, but it would be good to have a complete biography soon. Things I would be interested in knowing more about would be his early life and his war experiences, his relationship with his siblings and with his children, none of which he talks about in his autobiography. In fact the only relationship he does discuss at length is his marriage to Ouida, which while evidence of his devotion is also quite incomplete and doesn’t help to get a true picture of his life.

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  8. rosebette says

    Just to add a bit — although Muni was not a “method” actor, many of his techniques with make-up, prep, etc., were similar to “method”. Apparently, his attitude toward his performances and his unwillingness to accept criticism made him tough to deal with on sets. Of course, Rathbone was more reliant on traditional techniques, was very professional, and easy to get along with.

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  9. rosebette says

    From what I know of Paul Muni, he was considered a “great” actor and great box office at Warner’s until about 1940 or so, but on the set, he was very full of himself and hard to work with. He felt because he had won a couple of Academy Awards, he could get away with this behavior/

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  10. Winnie the Pooh says

    I have a question. Why does Mr Druxman think those like Cukor stipulated they wouldn’t talk gossip about Rathbone but not about Muni? Was it a tribute to him as a man?

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  11. roxanne says

    Did you like Ouida? She has had some bad press here and someone called her some terrible things, but I think she has been unfairly treated do you agree?

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  12. I bought the first edition of Michael Druxman’s book and have read it cover to cover. It’s my “Bible” where Basil Rathbone is concerned. I appreciate the research that went into this wonderful book. Thank you, Mr. Druxman!

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  13. Katoodle Lolly says

    I love BasilRathbone (BelovedBasil) movies, and I would like to think he was more decent then your average actor, then and now. Even if he did say that his wife was “breaking him”, he still must have loved his wife because he stayed with her, and was happy with her. Besides, he probably knew what her lifestyle was like before he married her, and he still loved her and married her anyway. I think if dirt is there it will surface, and I am happy, cause I think, that with him, there is none. Thanks for reading.

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    • Alyssia Warren says

      I agree completely. Basil was a rare and wonderful person who didn’t exist on the completely physical plain

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  14. How did Ouida manage to spend so much money? Basil as earning around $5000 a picture for the Sherlock Holmes films, which is about $50-75000 in today’s money. How did she do it and why didn’t she stop when she could see they were running out of money?

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    • From Michael B. Druxman (via NeveR) says

      At the time Basil did the 12 Sherlock Holmes movies for Universal, he was under contract to MGM. Between his movie and radio work, he was earning $5000 PER WEEK.

      How did Ouida manage to spend so much of Basil’s money without him stopping her?

      Peg, you’re a woman. Certainly you know how to handle a man so that he can’t say “No”. 🙂

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  15. Fred Singer says

    I have recently purchased a copy of Mr Druxman’s book and was very impressed with the understanding of film it displays. I would like to ask him what he considers Basil Rathbone’s finest film performance?

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  16. Cristiana says

    Hi, this is Cristiana from Rome (Italy) and I’m a great fan of Baz.
    Thanks for creating this blog, it was time someone gave Baz what he deserved, considering his many talents and his greatness as an artist as well as a man!

    I’m not a blogger, so I couldn’t leave a comment, but I stumbled into your fabulous blog and I decideto to give you my comment about the topic related to the writing samples.

    To be more specific, you wrote:
    “BTW – does anyone know what that last word is before the signature? I assumed it was “son” but it doesn’t look like it at all.
    And why (if it is Baz) is he signing himself “PSB” and not “Basil”?”

    SON might be the right word if the letter was for his family and considered how he was writing and where he was writing frrom might make you think he was in an unconfortable position (maybe he wrote the letter piece by piece in different times).
    As for the “PSB”, well, his full name was Philip SaintJohn Basil, so he might just have decided that PSB was quicker.

    This is just my thinking, though… Thanks for your kind attention and keep up the good work.
    Thanks again 🙂

    (forwarded to comments by NeveR as Cristiana couldn’t comment directly – if anyone else is experiencing problems commenting email me and I’ll see what I can do)

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  17. Anita Vaudricort says

    “As George Cukor said when I spoke to him, “I’m not going to give you any gossip.” Unlike with my earlier book about Paul Muni, that’s pretty much the attitude that everybody had. Colleagues adored Rathbone, and IF there was anything negative to say about him, they were not going to talk about it.”

    This is a tribute to Mr Rathbone of course but it also does imply there was gossip of which not to speak and we wouldn’t be human if we weren’t curious about it. But it is a rare human being who can inspire people as gossipy and as catty as Hollywood actors and directors to respect his privacy even after his death

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  18. AnnaPindurka says

    I had to look up the Rose Hobart reference again, it is in Universal Horrors (2007, by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas). And now I see that while Hobart starts by telling the interviewer: “All of those English actors were terrible womanizers… I remember Rathbone telling me one story about Marlene… And their conversation was getting dirtier every day…” And so on and on but then she finishes with these two sentences: “The boys were showing off. They were lying through their teeth!”
    So there, what a lesson for me. I think I’ll quote entire books next time. Proof of how a little knowledge can go a long way (in the wrong direction).

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    • Anita Vaudricourt says

      I don’t read that as meaning literally lying though. I read it as meaning talking things up and exaggerating. “terrible womanizers” and “I remember Rathbone telling me one story about Marlene” doesn’t mean Basil was a womanizer and doesn’t mean the story was about him and Marlene, it is probably just gossip he is reporting in fun.

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    • Molly Pinkerton says

      Would it be possible for you to post the full quote? Sorry to be cheeky but I’m curious to read of the lovely Basil being described as a womanizer

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  19. rosebette says

    I’m looking forward to your interview with Matzen. He has really delved into the archives about the day-to-day filming of the movies Rathbone and Flynn made together.

    Like

  20. Margaret G says

    I don’t think a biography has to be salacious in order to be honest. I would enjoy reading the full story of Rathbone’s life as I am sure it has a lot to teach us. He was by all accounts a good and honourable man and I feel sure nothing that could be forthcoming would do other than illuminate that. As to the information about Eva Le Gallienne, I see no harm in it being talked about since it’s already published, and it does Rathbone no disservice to know he was involved with her. He was separated from his wife and free to love whom he chose after all. Such information only enriches the picture we have of this fine actor and fine man.

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    • Jurgsson F says

      I agree, there’s a difference between telling the truth about a person’s life, even including love affairs and such, and going out of your way to find or invent dirt. The people Basil loved, whether romantically or in other ways were a part of his life and have to be talked about. No point in writing a biography if it’s not going to try and paint a full picture iMHO. It doesn’t mean you have to be like David Brett or Charles Higham and make up dirt or print vague rumors as if they were fact. I read the biography of Lagallienne someone posted about here and I think it tells a beautiful story of her and Basil. I think more of him for it not less because it helps to make him a real human being.

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      • Alyssia Warren says

        I don’t believe and won’t believe Basil Rathbone was involved with Eva Le Gallienne. I think he was a person too sensitive for casual romances and sexual encounters. I think there has been so little said about him like that because there’s little to ay. There were two women in his life, his two wives, one of whom was the love of is life and his soul mate.

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      • I read the statements in the past referring to Basil as a womanizer.I have read in other books he was involved with only two women:Singrid Gurie and Eva Le Gallienne.So,i can not see two women putting him in the category of a womanizer.These women were before Ouida.

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    • Molly Pinkerton says

      I think it’s lovely that Basil had a romance with the wonderful Eva! She was so delicately beautiful and such a talent, if she hadn’t been brave enough to come out as a lesbian (or a bisexual I suppose in truth) she would have had a career as great as any stage diva then or since. All in all her obvious love for and admiration of Rathbone only does him credit.

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        • I understand your POV, but can I just remind everyone that Rathbone was separated from his wife at the time he is supposed to have had a relationship with Le Gallienne, so even if he was her lover (and I think we have to accept he almost certainly was) he wasn’t doing anything wrong.

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  21. Claude Rains says

    How interesting that Druxman admits to leaving things out of his book for fear of a lawsuit! The story of Rathbone’s sexuality for example? He must have been aware of the Flynn/Rathbone relationship, could he elaborate for us now perhaps

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    • margaret G says

      Druxman says he left out the details about Ouida “breaking” her husband financially, he doesn’t admit to leaving out anything else and specifically says he didn’t hear anything scurrilous.

      Like

    • From Michael B. Druxman (via NeveR) says

      As far as I know, Rathbone was neither gay nor bisexual. Where those rumors come from.I have no idea.

      Basil and Errol had a good working relationship. IF there was any animosity, it was probably on Errol’s side, because although Flynn was the star of the 3 movies they made together, Rathbone was being paid more money because he was not a Warner Brothers contract player, but a free lance actor.

      Incidentally, your “daughter,” (Jessica) is a friend of mine.

      Like

      • claude Rains says

        You don’t subscribe to the idea that Flynn and Rathbone were rivals for Olivia de Havilland? (I don’t either I assure you, it’ a risible suggestion, but Matzen makes it in his book)

        As to the evidence for Rathtone and Flynn being sexually involved, have you not read Bret’s book, “Satan’s Angel”? He details his sources there.

        And do give my fondest regards to my little girl 🙂

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        • As has been said here before several times, Bret doesn’t offer any evidence at all. It’s not responsible or ethical to repeatedly assert things you know to be false. You are entitled to your opinion, but not to misrepresent the facts. Neither Rathbone nor Flynn nor their admirers are well served by that.

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      • rosebette says

        From reading I’ve done on Warner’s history of that period, as well as from reliable sources, Behlmer and Thomas, Flynn was annoyed at Jack Warner by the time of making Robin Hood because “free agents” like Rathbone and Raines were making a higher salary than he was. This was a fairly common compalint among Warner “stars”, that the “house” players were bringing in the box office bucks, but not being duly compensated by the studio. I would say such professional jealousy was well warranted under the studio conditions.

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  22. I bought the first edition of Mr Druxman’s book when it first came out and I still have it! May I say sir, thank you for it! I’m not sure a tell-all biography would be preferable. I admire the restraint of mr Rathbone’s own book in that regard, but then I’m English and old fashioned 🙂

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    • AnnaPindurka says

      I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we agree with you wholeheartedly on that one (and while Neve is not old-fashioned, I certainly am…). There are just such brilliant things coming up, though, just to flesh out that autobiography. Would you have thought he was working on a play based on Dostoyevsky’s Idiot? We found this when we looked at the Gravesend catalog of the Rathbones’ papers Neve mentioned on the blog a little while ago.
      I would love to know and hear more about Basil and “angry young” Orson Welles during the Romeo tour. And his friendship with Olivier. And Flynn. “Flynn definitely had what is called the death complex”, he says years after EF’s death. (In Counterpoint, 1964.) And so on.
      And while I may be accused of bringing in a private story when I cited from the Eva Le Gallienne biography, I want to explain that I find this story interesting mostly because of Eva’s unique role in American theatre, her brilliance as an actor and director and her intelligence. If a woman like that admires Basil Rathbone, then I am again reassured that I am fangirling in the right direction.

      But how wonderful is the sentence from Mr Druxman’s answer that “Colleagues adored Rathbone…”?

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      • Robert Matzen, author of Errol & Olivia will be talking about Flynn, Rathbone and de Havilland here in the next few days.

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        • odette FitzPatrick says

          I very much enjoyed his book, will there be a chance to ask questions?

          Like

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