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.
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.