An Amiable Icicle
One Of Basil Ratbhone’s Off-Stage Pursuits Is Organized Whoopee
Motion Picture Classic, August 1929
One of the ironic sports of Hollywood’s old inhabitants these days is standing at the studio door to see if you can recognize any of the people who come out. Once in a while you see a familiar face, but most of them leave you mystified unless you’ve been a subscriber to “Theatre Magazine” for the past few years.
Late one afternoon, after I had taken up my post at the Metro studio gate, the tall, slim figure of a man emerged, swathed in a long tubular overcoat that reached almost to the tops of his shell-like shoes, and crowned with a derby hat.
Surely this exquisite gentleman couldn’t be of Hollywood. We’re used to swank out here, but it’s usually in the form of plaid suits, purple ties, and pearl grey fedoras. Never such faultless, such fastidious attire.
As I pondered on his identity, he stepped into the tonneau of an open car, a chauffeur tucked him in carefully with a solicitude that positively amounted to coddling, and whisked him away.
Suddenly I had a mental image of that same tall, inflexible figure moving soundlessly toward the footlights of a New York theater. It was at a performance of “The Command to Love.” A family of three had arrived at the theater in a condition that can only be described as plastered, and proceeded to make themselves perfectly at home in their first-row seats. First they disposed of their overcoats, draping them informally over the footlights, which they no doubt thought had been placed there for their convenience. Then, as the curtain rose, they put their feet up in the home-like manner to which they were accustomed, and began to make comments in a loud, raucous tone.
Put Out in Two Ways
Basil Ratbhone, in his role of the reluctant lover, was playing a scene directly above this babel. There was a moment of confusion. Was it that Basil had gone up in his lines, or that he just didn’t want to take the risk of going up? With magnificent poise he turned and faced the audience.
“There is so much disturbance,” said he calmly, “that it is impossible to go on. We will ring down the curtain and begin the act again.”
And bang! went the illusion for that evening’s performance. The audience was stunned at first, then highly entertained at the embarrassment of the offending family. The management forcibly ejected them, but not without loud protests from the woman, who felt as all women do about Basil Rathbone and deeply resented being deprived of two whole acts of his suave philandering.
“I do hope,” said Basil, when I reminded him of the incident, “you didn’t think, as so many people did, that I was just being fussy. It wasn’t only for myself, you know. Frederick Gottschalk, who is over seventy, was coming on in just a minute, and I knew he’d go up with all that noise, because the least little thing puts him off. It was for his sake as much as mine that I did it.”
Basil was perturbed – a very nice English perturbation. He is a gentle, amiable man, who finds everything charming, and hopes everyone will find him so. And everyone does – especially women, or so I was told by a man on the Metro lot who has apparently stood for a good deal.
“They’re all crazy about him,” my informant complained. “They say he knocks them cold. I can’t see what his charm is,” he added bitterly. “They say he’s handsome, but to me he’s no more handsome than John Gilbert.”
With that scorching indictment he lapsed into a sulky silence, and I left him, to investigate this elusive charm.
A Vestige of Romanticism
IT is hard to define. To the casual observer it consists of nice manners – which most men now seem to consider unmanly or something – a sympathetic sort of disposition, good taste, and a genuine desire to be agreeable. Face to face, he entirely lacks that unbending quality that may have disappointed you a little on the stage. He has an almost boyish spirit that belies his sophisticated appearance.
I’m told Basil was the complete idealist in his earlier years. It may be some lingering vestige of this lovely trait that distils his peculiar charm.
The Rathbone childhood was like that of practically all English actors of the better class. Or Americans either, for that matter. When he finished school he had that well-known yen to go on the stage, which was regarded with great suspicion by his parents. Rebelling utterly at the thought of being a business man, he ran away, as so many do, and joined a Shakespearian troupe.
“That,” says Basil, again in common with others of his profession, “is the most wonderful training an actor can have. If you can speak Shakespeare, you can speak anything. And it gives you complete poise and grace of movement.”
For instance, he went on to explain, when you act in those flowing robes, you have to learn to use your hands gracefully. I can see how it would help. You can’t put them in your pockets, or smoke a cigarette. Still, think how ill at ease you’d always feel afterwards, without your spear.
Nevertheless, to this day Basil is conspicuous for that grace which we will attribute to the Bard of Avon. It is apparent in all his movements. Even when he plays tennis, his racket describes graceful parabolas and pretty aerial flourishes. But don’t get the idea that there isn’t a terrific wallop in his service.
Not a Flapper Marryer
BUT to get back to that life story. The boy had now grown to manhood under the genius of Shakespeare. His taste in wives has always been for women slightly older and more compelling than himself. Accordingly, at this point, while playing Romeo, he married a woman who played Juliet’s old nurse. But that entanglement did not survive his trip to America. He came over to play with Doris Keane in “The Czarina”. After that came “The Swan,” and what with one thing and another, in a few years he found he had become one of our leading matinee idols.
His career was given considerable impetus by his appearance in “The Captive,” which covered its cast with glory by managing to be arrested several times. Between that notoriety and the manoeuvres of Ouida Bergere, his second wife and a clever and aggressive business woman, he was at the peak of his career when the recent sad slump hit Broadway. Very wisely, he at once allied himself with the cause of that slump, the talkies.
Now he is provided with a nice MGM contract, and is sharing the joys of the sound stage with Norma Shearer in “The Last of Mrs. Cheney.” The cameras break down, the large cast takes turns forgetting its lines, and a great air of solemnity pervades the set. Basil will be one of the first to remove the horrid pall of silence that hangs over talkies in the making. He’s going to have a tent, into which he can retire and play records on a victrola, thereby wooing or destroying any mood, as he may desire. This matter of holding moods is the most difficult thing about talkies, after the stage, he says.
“I didn’t give up the stage,” he explained. “The stage gave me up, in a sense. We are having an epidemic of impossibly bad plays now. I haven’t read one that I would consider seriously. But I shall always want to go back to the stage. Nothing can take its place with me.”
I am pleased to report, however, that Mr. Rathbone is not imitating a good many of the recruits from Broadway, who seem to be picking their way daintily through the morass of Hollywood, with a slightly distasteful expression on their faces. He is going for it all in a big way. He loves his Sunday tennis, he loves his home among the palms, he even loves the frogs that croak a welcome. And as for our social life! He recently threw one of the biggest parties Hollywood has seen in many a month – a masquerade ball, at which everyone who was anyone arrived looking thoroughly silly, and Marion Davies won the prize for a costume in which she came in carrying herself on her own back.
And I’m sure that makes perfectly clear to you that indefinable charm which is Basil Rathbone’s.