Elementary My Dear Rathbone
By Jules Archer (Everybody’s Digest, 1946)
Basil Rathbone was about to give the business to Dr(sic) Moriarty in another Sherlock Holmes film, when Denis Conan Doyle, scion of the world’s most famous whodunit writer visited the set. Rehearsals were stalled, while Doyle threw his weight around, passing unsolicited judgments on the props, costumes and sets. Rathbone gnawed his fingernails.
“Hmmm,” deliberated the visitor, scrutinizing the Hollywood version of Baker Street. “Ya-as, it’s veddy much like my fahthah’s description, veddy much indeed!”
Nigel Bruce, more widely recognized as Dr Watson made ominous sounds. Unable to stand any more, he whispered something in Rathbone’s ear. The razor-nosed film sleuth reacted with amusement. “Sounds rather silly,” he said, “but let’s do it.”
Rehearsals finally began, with Doyle shunted tactfully behind the director’s chair. At the conclusion of the scene, Rathbone deviated from the script. “Goodby Wattie, old boy,” he said tenderly. Before this sacrilege could register on the astonished cast, Bruce replied, “Goodby, Holmesy old bean.” And he bent over to bestow a gentle kiss on the noble brow of the great detective.
Everyone on the set waited for a wrathful explosion from the meticulous son of the author. “A beautifully done scene, veddy,” he commented seriously. Then he hesitated. “But Mr Rathbone, do you think Mr Bruce ought to – ahh – kiss you goodby? Really, I don’t think my fawthaw would have approved!”
That was the only time he Rathbone ever burlesqued his meal ticket. He would never be a party to public ridicule of the sacrosanct sleuth. If he ever dared, millions of outraged and vociferous fans would rise as one man to demand his head. Abbot and Costello can play it for laughs, but not Mr Sherlock Holmes himself.
Being Sherlock Holmes to an inestimable number of movie-goers, as well as to seventeen and a half million breathless radio fans, is no light obligation. Rathbone has beetled Holmesian brow through fifteen films and six years of broadcasting. Small wonder that kids are chagrined and puzzled when he autographs their books as Basil Rathbone.
Due respect for the dignity of Sherlock Holmes in public is one thing, but horse play behind the locked doors of a rehearsal studio is a horse of another color. At Mutual’s Hollywood Studio irreverence lightens a solid atmosphere of shrieks, gunplay, whizzing knives and thudding bodies.
A split-second after Sherlock Holmes has discovered 12 headless corpses jammed in the jukebox, the dignified Rathbone and the program’s organist start firing crumpled paper balls at one another.
When the drama is interrupted to allow announcer Harry Bartell to make with the commercial, Rathbone will slump his lean six-foot frame into a chair, make wry faces, and utter such crushing comments as “Oh pooh! Bah! Oh you’re so damned dull!”
Crowd noises happen to be the forte of Nigel (The G as in angel) Bruce, who specialises in a high-pitched, shrieking feminine laugh which he terms “the duchess”. He always tries to squeeze her in behind any mob scene that is called for by the script, but the duchess never gets past a rehearsal. Edna Best the program director, is also supremely indifferent to Bruce’s ability to make beautiful noises like a seagull.
Rathbone’s characteristic stance at the mike is with arms folded, hands open-palmed, a stern masterful pose. Occasionally, while waiting for a long cue, he will lock his hands over his head. When he is scourging the villain, Rathbone rises on his toes and then sags at the knees.
Rathbone and Bruce, in addition to being Holmes and Watson, are also Damon and Pythias in private life. They have been close friends for 25 years. Although both are British, neither was born in the mother-country. Rathbone uttered his first line in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Bruce happened during a tour of his parents of Mexico, at Ensenada.
They were brought together as a dramatic team at a dinner party in 1939 given by Darryl Zanuck, at which neither was present. Gregory Ratoff, royal executioner of the King’s English, happened to bewail the fact that Hollywood had apparently written off Sherlock Holmes as “old-fashioned”.
Gene Markey, suddenly inspired, suggested a new, modernised Holmes series starring Rathbone. And Dr Watson? But of course, Nigel Bruce.
Rathbone’s solid reputation as a character actor is almost buried beneath his identity as the sharp-faced Holmes. And Bruce, when he’s called upon to play other roles, generally finds that they are all “stupid old, English squires.”
With typical Watsonian loyalty, banjo-eyed Bruce is even more indignant on Rathbone’s behalf than on his own. “When something like ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ turns up, does Basil get the part?”
He explodes. “No! They put him in that damn silly thing, ‘Bathing Beauty’, to be pushed into a swimming pool in evening clothes. Fine thing – a great actor like Basil, who has played Romeo, Othello [actually Iago in Othello] and Peter Ibbetson on Broadway and in London!”
Holmes – errr, Rathbone – is more philosophical about his fate, although he won’t deny that Baker Street gets a bit stuffy after six years. Oddly enough, the role he covets most is that of another detective, Porfiry, in Dostoevsky’s psychological murder novel, Crime and Punishment.
It may dismay Sherlock Holmes worshippers to learn that Rathbone doesn’t read mystery stories, doesn’t solve puzzles (not even crosswords), doesn’t smoke a pipe, doesn’t play a fiddle, and his shadow is never seen in the corridors of the department of justice. Heartbreaking, ain’t it? But if it makes you feel any better, he holds a Military Cross for gallantry in action during World War I with BEF.
Rathbone finds the public’s confusion between his private and screen personalities less annoying than Bruce. The 206-pound comedian, who’s sandy eye-brows stand up in tufts, considers it “Dull enough to be playing a half-witted idiot constantly, without being mistaken for him!”
He waxes wroth at the memory of a certain night-club in San Francisco, where he ordered a drink in a darkened room. Though he could barely be seen, the waiter replied “Certainly Dr Watson, where’s Mr Holmes tonight?”
The number of people in the world who think that Rathbone and Bruce are really Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson is shocking only until you count the number who believe that A Conan Doyle’s brain children were actual persons.
Rathbone once received a package and a letter from a fan who lived in England. The parcel contained a pipe, and the letter explained that the gift was a prized family possession that once belonged to Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone turned it over to Bruce who now has collected a room full of possessions, all supposedly owned at one time, by the imaginary sleuth.