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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, he 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.
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.