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“Elementary My Dear Rathbone” – 1946

Neve’s note – This article first appeared in EVERYBODY’S DIGEST, in 1946. Rathbone was to quit Holmes, Hollywood and his friendship with Bruce within a few months of it going to press. Click on the pdf button to download a copy of the original article

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.


  1. Mikufan says

    I can’t be the only one who sees the likeness here, surely. 😀

    Tik Tok bumbles a lot as well, perhaps they’re long lost twins? 😀


  2. Tory Lemon says

    Ooookaaaay I just wrote a long comment but after I clicked submit it didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m
    not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say fantastic blog!


  3. Fredrick says

    ! am a big fan of Mr Rathbone’s and have been looking for a blog that asks questions about his life as I always thought his autobiography left a lot out of the equation. Never bought his image of his wife for starters. How fascinating to glimpse the back stories. Please keep updating


  4. nicki says

    Your style is really unique. You manage to be both ditzy and academic. Very charming.


    • GRETCHEN says

      I mentioned this in a previous post; I’ve ALWAYS believed Basil was possibly BI-SEXUAL, rather than gay.

      There were certain characteristics of Basil’s personality, his mannerisms and behaviors (with both men AND women), as well as personal stories relayed by those who knew him WELL, which led me to come to this conclusion. I find NOTHING wrong with anyone’s sexuality, nor have I ANY problem with a person expressing themselves sexually in a way they find the MOST comfortable and natural to them. We are ALL beautifully-sexual creatures, and he was NO exception. Basil was STAUNCHLY-AGAINST sexism, racism, and prejudice, and defended gay-rights in his lifetime.

      The IMPORTANT THING, is…whether he was gay, bi, OR straight— it was his GOODNESS that mattered MOST, and that’s what we are most in LOVE with!! 🙂


  5. Tory Aniken says

    GrrrI keep trying to leave a comment but your blog keeps eating my posts!


    • Sorry. I’ve had comment turned off intermittently and there seem to be a problem that recurs with comments being lost.


  6. Strange article, not at all the usual kind of po-faced Classic Hollywood puff piece. I agree it could read like Basil ws not partaking. Probably he was already too damn bored!


  7. Lovely, funny article, and yes I love the vivid picture of Basil at the mike and him slouched in a chair between scenes – very sexy in the imagery 🙂


  8. Pingback: CAT OF THE DAY 092 | CATS ON FILM

  9. David says

    I love how candid Bruce is about the quality of films Rathbone is being asked to do, describing Bathing Beauty as a “damn silly thing” – wonderful!


  10. Bananarama says

    I laughed at the image of Sherlock Holmes throwing balled up paper at the organist 🙂


  11. Havent read the pdf..would take eons to download on my old clunker of a compuker. Was the reporter there in person? or are we reading an openedned interview.Where the interviewer is in one place the interviweie is in another,usuly done over the telephone, and they fill in the answers.As the script is read. .or in the case of our fanclub we would send a writen copy of the interview and ask them to fill in the blanks so to speek. and send it back.If so perhaps Basil wasnt even there.But Nigel was.


    • cinegeek says

      Fair point, it’s possible the guy wasn’t even there and just made it seem as if he was by asking good background questions like “what does Mr Rathbone do during broadcasts?” etc. But I suspect he was there and given leave to sit and watch, because his descriptions of Rathbone seem very real-world.

      So I think the scenario is, he was there, watching, and managed to grab Bruce for an interview before or after the show,but Rathbone wouldn’t talk, so he had to get material from the NBC publicity department, pull back interviews or pump Bruce for stuff Rathbone had previously done or said (and yes, I’ve worked in journalism).


  12. amomwholovesbasil says

    What a lovely man Nigel seems to have been, no wonder he and Basil were lifelong friends!


  13. cinegeek says

    I can’t help noticing, having read the whole PDF, that in this interview there’s no direct quotes from Rathbone, only from Bruce. The writer fills in to give the impression there’s input from both, but I suspect he couldn’t get any direct quotes from BR and so had to work round it.

    Picture the scene: he’s there in the studio, wanting to interview both Rathbone and Bruce, Bruce co-operates but Rathbone doesn’t, slumps in his chair and tells him to go to hell, or just declines to comment, so the guy can use direct quotes from Bruce, but only indirect material, probably supplied by Bruce too or by the station publicist for Rathbone. That fits with Rathbone being so pissed with everything he left soon after.


    • Good point actually, Basil isn’t directly quoted at all, but it’s written to sort of give the impression he has been involved, when possibly he wasn’t.


  14. Francesca says

    That “wig” Nigel is wearing is the feather boa being worn by Evelyn Ankers in the film. You can’t see because the pic is edited, but Evelyn is sitting next to Basil, wearing the boa, and Basil has put it on Nigel’s head.


  15. Speaking of Iago,LOL his relating his case of hiccups while playing Iago.Love Willie’s wig,did he come up with that idea,I wonder.I know Baz was said to love the practical joke,and was part of the reason for fun on Son Of Frankenstein set,visits to joke shops.What happened to Ouida,who seemed to giggle at a lot of what Baz said and did at first outset of their acquaintence?She was more Hollywood than him and seemed to have no tolerance for his friends?


  16. Hot Chick says

    I am completely and insanely in love with the mental pictures this article presents of Basil in everyday. Him throwing paper balls at the organist and slouching in a chair, being bored during the commercials, saying “you’re so damned dull!” Terrific. 😀 Is it me or does off-duty Rathbone seem to ooze relaxed and casual sex-appeal??? Just the picture of his “six foot frame” slumped in a chair in that don’t-care way. Unfi


    • Ulrika says

      Absolutely not just you. That description got me too, and the description of how he stands at the mike. I just wish there was candid film footage of him. I can’t think of any apart from that home movie footage of The Adventures of Robin Hood that’s on the DVD. Has everyone seen that?


    • Jenny says

      LOL I entirely agree with you. Basil, you were born too soon, we all want you here and now


  17. Eugene Tooms says

    Lovely article, and quite unusual to see such frankness from a celebrity of the time as Bruce expresses.I find him charming though, and his defense of Basil as an actor is as the writer says, truly Watsonian loyality. How awfully sad the friendship ended just a few months later. It always seemed strange to me that such a long and close friendship was ended by Basil simply quitting the show, and I’ve wondered if there was more to it than that.


    • amomwholovesbasil says

      Yes, I always wondered about the end of his friendship with Nigel as well. When you see them on screen or look at candids of them together there is a real warmth and closeness between them and it seems odd a a quarrel about the Homes series was enough to end that closeness so totally. It must have been very sad for them both. Were their wives friends and did the socialize? I just always assumed this was true but don;t know if I ever read anything about that.


          • Judy D. says

            There IS a Bruce autobiography online somewhere–someone selected and made available only the Rathbone excerpts–now, where the heck did I see it?? Not on this site? Then possibly on the Scarlet Street magazine website. Wil rummage through the pile.
            Meanwhile, why on earth doesn’t someone look into publishing it as an ebook, if publishers still think there’s no audience.


            • We have a copy of it, and I was thinking of publishing it here, or maybe Marcia Jessen would like to put it on


              • We don’t have the entire Nigel Bruce autobiography–only those excerpts that dealt with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. It may be protected by copyright, and since Nigel’s daughter has died, I don’t know who to approach for permission to publish the extract. Otherwise I would be happy to publish it on


                • Jenny says

                  Why not publish it with a caveat that says you couldn’t get permission because you don’t know who to approach, but if anyone has a problem or would like to grant you permission then please get in touch? That way you’re covered.


                  • There are serious penalties for copyright infringement, including fines and prison. What you suggest is risky. Publishing Nigel Bruce’s memoirs is not important enough to me to take the risk. But I invite anyone with time on his or her hands to track down the copyright holder for me! It’s called “Games, Gossip, and Greasepaint.” Here’s a link to the portion that’s on the Scarlet Street forum:


                    • Claude Rains says

                      Dear Marcia,

                      I am a lawyer by profession so let me hasten to assure you the chance of being sent to prison for posting an extract of Nigel Bruce’s memoirs that has already been on the internet for about ten years is very very small. 😆

                      Huge fines are only levelled for gross infringements or where illegal profits are being made. In a situation where something has been posted for free on a public site then only a very rich or very stupid person is going to engage an attorney before simply asking for the material to be taken down.

                      If they did decide to go straight to the law then the first thing the attorney will do is write you a letter asking you to take down the material. If you refuse you will get another letter. If you keep refusing you or your ISP will get a court order ordering you to remove the material. If you still refuse you may face a fine.

                      What is never going to happen is that you post a copyrighted item and are immediately prosecuted – that simply doesn’t happen.

                      So, my advice to you is to put anything you like on your site that isn’t defamatory to living persons. If the copyright owners see it and want you to take it down they will ask you, or, if they’re very stupid, get their lawyers to ask you. You will then, being law-abiding, take it down, and that will be that.

                      I hope this sets your mind at rest. 🙂


                    • Thank you, Claude, for your reassurance. It’s a moot point now since I found the link to the extract (see my post below). What’s posted on that site is exactly what I have; I don’t have any more of the autobiography that I could post.


            • Claude Rains says

              Yes, the portion dealing with Basil were published on Scarlet Street many years ago, I think before dear Richard died.


                • Pauline Page, Nigel’s daughter, said B’s decision to leave SH effectively ended his friendship with her father. She said they had a “surface sort of friendship ” after that but that was all. I think she also said her father blamed Ouida for it, but I’m not sure.


                  • Oh.I thought I had missed it.Terribaly sad if true. Nigel seems to have been another one of those people everybody liked..aparently xcept Ouida. And yet I can see her trying to break up there close friendship,Perhaps Nigel spoke to much truth.If you get my meaning. A king is goverened by the last voice he hears or what ever the old saying is.


                    • Christopher Plummer talked about Ouida not liking his friendship with Basil and how this effectively meant they couldn’t be friends.


            • Yes,i had read this approved exerpt.I think it was publihed in a paper with an interview of his dtr.That is the question.Who has the entire bio now?


    • Baz said everyone thought he’d lost his mind when he walked away from his film career.Wonder if he was seriously thinking of walking away from OR,too.Nigel couldn’t believe he refused to do the radio show.It was also said the later Holmes films showed he was very bored,maybe if they’d slowed down to give them breathing room the series would have continued with another studio.I remember reading in one of the studio coffee table books that Univ jettisoned Sherlock Holmes series amongst other projects ~1946,but without a Broadway commitment,it probably was taking a risk moving to NYC after 10+ years in films. Sorry for rambling so long,I just love any Baz info learned from other biographies


    • There *was* more to it than that, and it will almost certainly be brought out in Basil’s biography, which I think is going to be a cool and surprising read for us all.


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