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Rathbone as Sherlock

Go HERE for all the Sherlock-related posts on this blog

It’s as Sherlock Holmes that Rathbone became iconic, and, however much he might have deplored it, it’s as Sherlock Holmes that many learned to love him. So, it only seems right we have a Sherlock page here.

As most BR fans and movie buffs know, Basil Rathbone played Holmes in 14 films between the years 1939 and 1946. Two for Twentieth Century Fox and 12 for Universal. He was one of the greatest and most iconic inhabitants of the role.

He started out as an enthusiast for Sherlock, and when he was offered his first film The Hound of the Baskervilles, vlcsnap-2012-08-01-20h39m35s154he cabled his old friend Nigel “Willie” Bruce, who was Fox’s first choice for Dr Watson, “Willie dear do…play Dr. Watson to my Sherlock Holmes, we’ll have such fun”

The enthusiasm didn’t last the course however and by 1944 his boredom was beginning to show and he was starting to hate Sherlock. He likened his experience to that of Holmes’s creator Arthur Conan Doyle, who had ended up detesting the character and resenting the insatiable public demand for more stories. Basil began to feel Holmes was controlling his life, and wrecking his career. He expressed feelings of massive inferiority to this man who was never wrong and demanded “why couldn’t he fail just once…like the rest of us?”

Eventually in 1946 he refused to renew his movie and radio contracts and quit Hollywood in what seems to have been almost a state of desperation.

Thereafter he detested to be reminded of his Sherlock fame and sometimes reacted with intense fury when fans accosted him in the street. “What’s my real name?” he demanded of one group of young fans.

It can’t have helped that they replied “Sherlock Holmes.”
How would he have felt about his persistently iconic image as Sherlock? The fact that he is still regarded as one of the all time – if not the all time- greatest Holmes would probably have astounded him. Would it also have pleased him? Well, we have to say the jury is still out on that one, but personally I hope it would.

Was he the definitive Sherlock? It’s a hotly-debated topic.


Physically, I think there’s not much question. BR looked as if he could have been the model for some of Sidney Paget’s original drawings of Sherlock in the Strand Magazine. I mean look….

He was, of course, hampered by some less-than-brilliant scripts, and by the requirement to fight Nazis for a while, and by an increasingly senilic Watson. That fedora was cute as hell, but not really Sherlock. But even so, his genius in the role shines through, and before Benedict Cumberbatch, I’d have said no one else had come even close to carrying off the impression of prodigious intellect as succesfully as Rathbone. His Holmes really does have that restless, overwhelming mind-energy that Doyle describes, and you can actually believe he might be the preternaturally sensitive, aware, animal he’s supposed to be.

I don’t even think Jeremy Brett – great as he was – came as close to conveying that as Rathbone did.

It’s fitting and pleasing that the latest and massively popular Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch – is perhaps closer to Rathbone’s than any other incarnation. BC has a 21st version of that long overcoat that Rathbone sweltered in through the 12 Universal episodes, and the fact that BBC Sherlock‘s creator Stephen Moffat is a huge Rathbone-fan has resulted in him littering the series with homages to and even direct quotes from Basil’s old movies. So much so that it’s become a nerdy pastime to play “spot the reference” when doing a BC marathon.

Not only is this a just act of respect to the great man, it’s also had the effect of opening up Rathbone’s Holmes to a new generation of fans.

Which can only be a good thing.

At least I think so. And I hope Rathhbone would agree.

Go HERE for all the Sherlock-related posts on this blog





  1. Life Magazine has a special edition out – “Sherlock Holmes: The Story Behind the World’s Greatest Detective”. Baz is full page on the front cover with his deerstalker and pipe and there are several other full page photos of him along with Nigel Bruce in their respective roles. Lots of other old photos of illustrations from The Strand, items from Conan Doyle’s own personal effects, and other sources. It starts out with ACD’s personal history and on to the creation of Holmes and follows through to the present. Interesting read. Get in a long grocery store line and have a look or it may be available at your local library. My good fortune – my sister in Holland sent me a copy from Amazon. (I was too cheap to pay $13.99 for it!!)


    • Absolutely. I congratulate your impeccable taste. Atm I’d put Ben as my second choice. My ideal Holmes movie that never was would be Basil in 7 PER CENT SOLUTION. How great would that have been?


  2. Mikufan says

    Sort or random but…. I’ve decided that I think I want to hear Nigel Bruce sing this…

    It’d be so adorable that I’d fall on the floor and helplessly roll around. >_<


  3. I love Bruce as Watson. Of course he is way off in his portrayal of Doyles Watson. But the chemistry between him and Rathbone!! He gets knocked all the time for bumbling and goofing, but would a straight copy have worked with Rathbone?

    I suspect he was a welcome relief, during this period of history, when there was very little to smile about.


  4. Holly the Otaku says

    I’m not sure about the whole ‘bored of the roll’ thing…it’s not surprising, but according to Nigel Bruce’s daughter, (I think it was his daughter…..might have been someone else :-/ )
    Apparently Basil told Nigel Bruce Ouida told him to stop playing the roll…I think it is more the fact he was bored of the roll though, because I’m pretty sure Ouida would have enjoyed the cash….but it’s still hard to decide…. :-/


  5. Ellen Foley says

    Great blog on Sherlock,past and present.Think Baz too harsh to not appreciate his fame as Holmes.It paid for Ouida’s lifestyle.Brett was good,even if terribly sick toward the end,love BC,but still agree,Baz is HIM!If he ramped up The Mad Doctor,why not creative input for Holmes scripts,Baz & Nigel too gentlemanly to do like Private Life of SH.I know many prefer Brett,but I think he had more outings in the part to become more comfortable,love it or leave it and not a restlessness like Baz,not entirely due to fair scripts at best,but a feeling of being termed a “bad boy”if he didn’t obey studio moguls,unlike today’s SH.He needed to be liked like Alan Napier said,but also had a need to rebel,chafe at bit.


  6. Steve Bingen says

    No doubt, Brett was a very fine Holmes indeed. I agree however, that physically, and in terms of energy, he didn’t quite measure up to what Rathbone brought to the role. But The BBC productions themselves, I’ve always thought looked cheap, with an overuse of locations, which were, by necessity, quickly, and boringly lit, especially when compared to the stylized and atmospheric sets that even a low budget series in Hollywood could offer. Although Brett gets points for never having to square off against the Nazis, the conceit of the Rathbone pictures of updating the characters to the present day is exactly the same as in the Cumberbatch series – which everyone thinks is so innovative. That show does have a terrific Holmes though. Although it will probably be a better thing for the audience than for the star, should he end up paying the role for as long as Rathbone did.


  7. Olivia Bledsoe says

    I was an enormous fan of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes for years and still am. In terms of authenticity, his performance and the productions he starred in are probably the best ever. However, if Rathbone had been given as good a Watson as Edward Hardwicke and as authentic productions I think his Holmes would have outshone Brett’s, simply because he was physically so right, and managed to convey both Brett’s amount of intellect combined with the physical energy that Jeremy lacked IMO.


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