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“It’s Cheers for Basil Rathbone now” – 1935

pdfButton3 b&wAs promised, here is the article quoted in the comments. It's from the magazine Motion Picture, August 1935, and is part of a promotion for Rathbone's new film ANNA KARENINA (1935). Click the pdf button on the left to download a photocopy of the original article

It’s Cheers for BASIL RATHBONE Now

Motion Picture August 15 1935

Basil Rathbone’s performance, as Copperfield’s stepfather, was a cameo of cruelty, but it made a name for him. And Garbo, recognizing genius, quickly made him her leading man
By Paula Harrison

When I heard that Basil Rathbone was to play David’s sadistic stepfather in Copperfield, I recoiled. Not that attractive actor, I protested to myself, not the man who’d played the greatest lover of them all opposite Katherine Cornell. Not Romeo as Murdstone, I pleaded wildly, if silently, to the powers that be. Say it ain’t so, Joe. Murdstone is the villainous uncle in David Copperfield.

I saw the picture and ate dirt – once in apology, once in homage to an inspired piece of casting and acting. Keener eyes than mine had seen clearly what I had missed, – that Rathbone the actor could subdue Rathbone the gallant lover, that his lean, patrician features could be hardened beyond mere strength to flint, that the fire in his eyes could be somber, and that, on the other hand, his dark charm could make credible what – to me, at any rate – had never been credible in the book: poor little Mrs. Copperfield’s infatuation.

He smiled when I told him of my first reaction. “You and I both,” he observed with an engaging blend of American idiom and British precision of speech. Talking to him is like trying to follow a plane that soars over ground you’ve been accustomed to plod on foot. His eager, inquiring mind leaps instinctively from the spring board of a question into the realm of ideas – and you become stimulated by new vistas and horizons of thought. Being the courteous person he is, he not only defers to your choice of theme, but manages somehow to convey the impression that you’re doing him a favor by letting him talk at all. That is a strange phenomenon.

“Interviews,” he assured me comfortingly, “give you a chance to clarify your own ideas. If you have any manners, you don’t ordinarily talk about yourself. But an interview allows you that privilege. So, if I abuse it, stop me, will you?” Rathbone was smiling.

“I refused the part of Murdstone five times,” he told me, “and finally took it as one takes any desperate chance – with my heart quaking and my fingers crossed. Because I’d tried the films before, you know. Or rather, they’d tried me and found me wanting. “

That was a thing I couldn’t understand. It happened that I’d never seen Rathbone in a picture till I saw David Copperfield. But I’d seen him in half a dozen legitimate plays, where he dominated his every scene – not only by virtue of his technical skill but also because of a glowing personality. And if he hadn’t registered in pictures, I was there to proclaim that the fault lay with the cameras or the Kliegs, the scenarios or the script girls or the spooks that haunt Hollywood studios – with anyone, in short, but Basil Rathbone. Of that, I was sure.

The movie moguls must have reached the same conclusion during the two weeks he played Los Angeles with Katherine Cornell. He couldn’t be overlooked any more than you can overlook a patch of crimson on a sandy hill. His phone began buzzing with inquiries as to when he’d be free, and what his plans were. His plans were to continue with Miss Cornell. Nothing else.

“You see, I’d been grooved,” he explained in those pleasant, clipped accents which are just British enough to fall kindly on the ear and not British enough to be incomprehensible. “I’d been grooved as a drawing-room actor, a fellow who knew how to kiss ladies’ hands and tell them sweet nothings, but wasn’t up to much else. I didn’t want to go back to the films in that kind of part. I’d had my fill of them, and apparently so had the public. I wanted something different – and I got it – with a vengeance,” he murmured, his brows tilting, “when they began bombarding me to play Murdstone.”

Five times he wired back an uncompromising “No.” “You can’t play a part you loathe,” he kept telling himself and his wife. “You can’t play a man who is poison to you.”

But finally he closed his eyes and jumped into Murdstone. And from that day to the day he left the studios, he never knew a peaceful moment. “I was in one long state of perpetual revulsion,” he told me. “You’ve seen little Freddie – you’ve seen him in the picture at any rate. Then you know how difficult it must have been to look at the child as though you disliked and resented him, when your whole heart reacted in just the opposite way. He’s a grand little boy – normal, well-balanced – he understood perfectly well what it was all about. He’d look up and smile at me before we went into one of those vile scenes – and thus making it all the harder for me to go through with it.

“When I saw the first rushes, I wanted to give it up. To this day I don’t know how they made me look so cruel. I hated the thought that I could look so cruel. I hated the whole damned thing from start to finish!” He spoke with a kind of fierce intensity that seemed to relieve him of all his pent-up loathing. “I even hated George Cukor at times – childishly, illogically – for the things he made me do. And this I want to say. Whatever credit’s due belongs not to me, but to him. I know it’s the fashion to say pleasant things about one’s director, but believe me, this has nothing to do with fashion. He can get anything out of anyone – the tenderest sentiment, the bitterest cruelty. He wanted cruelty from me and he got it. He was the whip. He stood over me like a circus-master over a trained seal.”

Basil finished the part and went back to a New York season with Miss Cornell. He tried to stop thinking of Murdstone, since all his thinking brought him up against the same blank wall of doom. The picture broke in New York while he was playing Romeo.

“There was a break for me,” he went on, his face brightening. “With Murdstone in David Copperfield at one theatre, I was playing the most beautiful love scenes ever written at another. I think it saved me in New York. It saved my peace of mind, at any rate. When Murdstone glowered, I’d push his ugly face away and say to myself: ‘Tonight I go out and play Romeo.’ ”

But Murdstone’s face, ugly as ever, lost some of its sinister quality one night when a wire from David Selznick came to the theatre, asking Mr. Rathbone to play the part of Karenin opposite Garbo. An excited consultation was held after the performance. Miss Cornell insisted that nothing should stand in the way of this opportunity – not even his contract with her. “And here I am,” Rathbone agreed.
“In the promised land?” I reminded him, smiling mischievously.

“I don’t know yet,” he admitted candidly. “But at any rate, I don’t seem to have broken my neck.” He felt of it to make sure. “I still hate the Murdstone role, mind you. I won’t compromise on that point. But in all fairness, I have to acknowledge that he’s been instrumental in getting me Karenin, and Karenin’s been instrumental in getting me the Marquis in Tale of Two Cities. Murdstone brought me no friends – that is hardly surprising – but perhaps he did make people conscious of me,” he said, his lightness masking a note of real feeling, of genuine emotion.

“Karenin,” he continued, “is a human being – a man whose point of view you can see even though you don’t wholly sympathize with it. To me he’s an even more tragic figure than Anna – for there’s no greater tragedy than that of the person who feels, but is so bound by convention that he can’t give expression to his feeling. I can understand him. I can put myself into his shoes as I couldn’t into Murdstone’s, and I’ve never been so happy or at ease in any picture,” he added contentedly.

I tried to lead him by what I flattered myself was circuitous routes to the forbidden shrine. But the forthright Mr. Rathbone put me and my guile to shame by coming straight to the point.

“You want to know about Garbo! Well, I’ll tell you all I know myself – that since I’ve played with her, the heavens themselves could shriek sphinx and enigma without shaking my conviction that she’s one of the simplest, most genuine people ever born. There’s a kind of simplicity you can’t be fooled by, and that’s her kind. She may be puzzled by life, she may be torn by inner doubts – but her attitude toward the world is honest – no publicity stunt – no bid for attention –but the natural result of her natural inclinations. There’s not a drop of fake in her.” For myself, I needed no persuasion; but the sourest Garbo-skeptic, watching the thoughtful face of this man of wide background and experience, hearing the quiet certainty in his voice, would have been convinced in spite of himself.

I asked about Freddie, who’s playing his son in Anna Karenina.
“We’re buddies,” he informed me solemnly, “and settle the world’s affairs together.” He leaned forward suddenly, his hands between his knees, his face lighting up till it looked not much older than Freddie’s. “As a matter of fact, he’s spending next Sunday with me. We’ve just come out of a series of important conferences on the subject of dinner.”

It was a pleasant picture he’d left with me – of a little figure and a tall one, cantering side by side, swimming in a sunlit pool, romping with the dogs (all five of them), facing each other over their native roast beef – two English gentlemen, spending a day together: the child whose David won him the heart of the world – the man whose Murdstone may have made him no friends but, if there’s any virtue in signs and portents, will make a real name for him in films.

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38 Comments

  1. Wally says

    It’s good to see some of this info on Rathbone becoming available, it’s been such a blank for so long and he was such a world class star!

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      • Wally says

        Yes, I visit it regularly and it’s a great place for looking up anything about his life or career (I recommend it!),but it does not ever publish articles, that is what I mean.

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  4. JaneyKaye says

    “You see, I’d been grooved,” he explained in those pleasant, clipped accents which are just British enough to fall kindly on the ear and not British enough to be incomprehensible. “I’d been grooved as a drawing-room actor, a fellow who knew how to kiss ladies’ hands and tell them sweet nothings, but wasn’t up to much else. I didn’t want to go back to the films in that kind of part”

    Amazing to think anyone could think of Basil as a lightweight actor! So, before Murdstone he was considered to be just a pretty face!

    Like

  5. Theoden King says

    “Karenin,” he continued, “is a human being – a man whose point of view you can see even though you don’t wholly sympathize with it. To me he’s an even more tragic figure than Anna – for there’s no greater tragedy than that of the person who feels, but is so bound by convention that he can’t give expression to his feeling. I can understand him. I can put myself into his shoes as I couldn’t into Murdstone’s, and I’ve never been so happy or at ease in any picture,” he added contentedly.

    That is a modern POV. Moral relativism. He would have preferred today’s cinema where there are no clear cut roles of good and bad. He was ahead of his time.

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  6. Hainault says

    –“It happened that I’d never seen Rathbone in a picture till I saw David Copperfield. But I’d seen him in half a dozen legitimate plays, where he dominated his every scene – not only by virtue of his technical skill but also because of a glowing personality.”–

    It makes you so much regret you never saw him on stage doesn’t it. Is there anyone who visits this site who had that privilege?

    Like

  7. MaskedMadman says

    “If you have any manners, you don’t ordinarily talk about yourself.” – well that makes him a very unusual actor I have to say. (I’m one myself need I add?)

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  8. Anita Vaudricort says

    Did he ever say that Freddie reminded him of Rodion? Because You can imagine young Rodion did look similar, and it might have made it harder for Basil to act mean to him, and it might explain why he was so fond of the boy if he was missing his son.

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  9. James Kruger says

    The one thing missing from Druxman’s book and from so much discussion is Basil’s own voice. It’s there in his autobiography, but that hardly touches on his career really, or on anything solid. Interviews like this are so valuable because it records what he’s thinking, or at least saying, at the time. How eloquent and intellectual he is compared to most Hollywood stars

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  10. Manson says

    It’s strange the way what he says about Garbo in this interview is totally different from what he says in his autobiography. He makes out like they barely knew each other in his book, yet obviously they got along and were friends enough for him to be seen around with her socially.

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    • Margaret G says

      Yes, how does his autobiography jibe with him trying to get Aldous Huxley to write a screenplay for her? That sounds as if he was a close friend of hers, and Garbo didn’t make friends quickly or easily.

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  11. roesbette says

    Such an intelligent and modest man. As far as his early attempts at Hollywood, I’ll add what I know of the early sound era. Many early sound films were filmed stage plays and Hollywood used actors with good speaking voices in those roles, but people quickly tired of these movies because they are often very static. Many felt movies went “backwards” as the result of sound and lacked camera movement and interest. So, Basil’s lack of success may not have been due to his own performances, but to the nature of these very “talky” drawing room comedy/dramas. The Last of Mrs. Cheyney was a successful verison of this formula, but if you watch many of these films now, they seem staged and dull. This is why musicals and action pictures like the early Warner’s gangster flicks had ascendency in that era. A number of actors with good speaking voices, such as Conrad Nagel, were so overused that the public got tired of them and their movies. Basil probaby didn’t want to suffer the same fate, so he went back to theater.

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    • Jennifer says

      Yes, TLoMC was a superior example of its kind, and The Lady of Scandal, which was obviously made to cash in on its success was a vastly inferior product. The chemistry between Ruth Chatterton and Basil was zero, and I think I read somewhere they actively disliked each other, which would explain it. But if he turned his back on films to return to the stage then Hollywood being as it is it might quickly forget him but never forgive, if you know what I mean.

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  12. I wished Basil and Garbo had appeared in other movies together.I read she was at least at one of the Rathbone parties.So i thought she must have felt comfortable with him.I think for her thats saying alot.I also read he was to her home on several occasions,once with Aldous Huxley.She wanted him to write a script for a movie based on St.Francis of Assisi with her playing him.Basil was trying to help out and explained Garbos desire to Huxley.He shook his head and walked out.

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      • A book called The GIRLS:Sappho Goes TO Hollywood.I think it also placed him in friendly company with Marlene Dietrich.I recall it mentioning his affair with LE Gallienne.

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    • jemima says

      Oh that is such a cool story about Basil and Garbo and Huxley. Wasn’t Baz related to Huxley?

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    • Lalla says

      He should have been Vronsky in this film, and March should have been Karenin, they are totally miscast. March is barely even good-looking

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  13. Greg Rathbone says

    Thanks very much. Can I suggest you make a regular feature of reprinting these early articles? they certainly give a changed perspective on Rathbone’ s career

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  14. Bethany says

    “When I saw the first rushes, I wanted to give it up. To this day I don’t know how they made me look so cruel. I hated the thought that I could look so cruel. I hated the whole damned thing from start to finish!”

    OMG, I want to hug him! How gorgeous is it that he hated being mean to little Freddie?

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  15. Helen Granger says

    I don’t think I’ve ever read an interview with Basil before. Thanks so much. I’m confused though. Why does the article imply he was unsuccessful in his first attempt at the movies? Mrs Cheyney was a big box office hit and only one of his early talkies was a serious flop, which was A Woman Commands. Like someone was saying, did he upset someone at MGM and so they bad mouthed his early films retrospectively?

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    • Sophie says

      I have never ever seen The Woman Commands, is it bad? i can’t believe Basil is bad even if the film is

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      • Coincidentally I watched this movie last night (courtesy of Marcia!). I never expected I could be so bored watching Basil Rathbone disporting in gold braid and epaulettes, and kissing women passionately! Well, ok, the bits with him in gold braid weren’t that boring, especially when he was doing the passionate kissing, but OMG – the rest of it! No wonder that movie wrecked Pola Negri’s career. It ought to have wrecked Roland Young’s too. And the director’s. And the screenwriter’s. All the most important action happened off camera and all the dull stuff was filmed in excruciating detail. It was like, “Oh your majesty there’s been a huge revolution” “Oh dear, well after I’ve signed all these documents and had an indescribably dull convo with this man about who I should marry I’ll get right on that.”

        Also Pola sounds like Bela Lugosi having a stab at a drag act.

        Ooh, I think I have to review this movie

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