Sometime in 2015 a handwritten letter from Basil Rathbone to Sam Goldwyn was offered on eBay. I didn’t have the money to bid on it, but I saved the pictures of the letter from the auction listing. This letter is fascinating for what it reveals about Basil. Here’s the text of the letter and the pictures:
Grand Hotel Dunapalota
Dec. 2, 1936
Dear Sam, I would not for the world have you misunderstand why I have not signed the contract with you. There is so much to talk about, which even in a letter cannot be fully covered & I want to talk to you before doing anything as drastic as signing a 4 year contract. To you Sam, it is just another contract along with other artists engaged to you. To me it is the one & only contract & it has so many “ifs” to it.
I have been very happy freelancing & to me freedom is almost irreplaceable. Five years ago I was under contract to MGM & I was miserable. I only got just what was on paper & no more. I was promised this & promised that — hope was high one day & in the dust the next. After “Cheyney” I was typed & I was allowed to do nothing but “tea cup & white tie parts.” Even as late as “Romeo & Juliet” promises have meant nothing. I was to be featured after John Barrymore & Edna May Oliver in the same type. I was not. I was put down
[page 2] with Ralph Forbes & Andy Devine etc. I accepted Count Anteoni in “The Garden of Allah” without reading the script because David Selznick told me the story & the part as he told it was colourful & vital & important. We came to shoot it & it was nothing. In Allah I was promised the same billing as John Barrymore got in Romeo & Juliet. I did not get it. This was my agent’s fault. It was not in the contract & Mr. Selznick pointed out it was not in the contract & would do nothing. So I was bunched down with Tilly Losch, Aubrey Smith & Shildkraut. I don’t say like things would happen with you Sam, but I have been so badly bitten & I am completely lacking in confidence in anyone. I am sure you must be able to understand this.
Your billing clause for instance give me no more than I can get freelancing & yet you star Herbert Marshal with Oberon & March in “Dark Angel,” & you have just starred Brian Aherne with Oberon. My contract would enable you to have me supporting Marshall & Aherne either as stars or featured players & I won’t do it. I must either be very important to you or I will go on freelancing. I earned $120,000 last year and 140,000 this year & I am completely content with your contract in that regard but it is not money I am after (much as I appreciate it!) I have been a very important actor both in London & New York for years. I bring you a very full
[page 3] experience & equipment, especially after the past 2 years in pictures. You not only made Coleman, you gave him the opportunity to learn to act. I come to you a finished product groomed in every branch of my trade. Just look at this for a few important ones.
The Unknown (Maugham)
He who gets slapped
Peter (co star)
de Musset (co star)
The Prince of Wales (no stars)
Iago (co star)
the atheist soldier (no stars)
“He” (co star)
New York & on tour all over the Country
The Command to Love
Count Alexis, 1st feature
The Tutor, equal feature LeGallienne & Merivale
Attache, co-star Mary Nash
the lead, co-star Helen Menken
the lead, co-star Edna Best
Stratford on Avon Shakespeare Festivals
47 parts in 22 plays of Shakespeare!
The pictures you know — This is The above is an education Sam. Only a man like Charles Boyer has anything like it & he is starred & has yet to have an outstanding American success. I am not asking for stardom. I want to win it in pictures as I won it on the stage, but I must have protection against people who were not & are not my equals now or in the past. The Garbos the Gables the Gary Coopers yes, but the Marshalls Ahernes etc. NO NO NO. And I can see no reason why you cannot do for me what you do for Marshall & Aherne. and —
as regards “Hurricane” I have read the book & can see what a fine production picture it will
[page 4] make. I don’t know how it is being treated but my part is a cold blooded unaffectionate duty loving bastard! He has a brief moment of humanity at the end but what of it — he’s a horrible person. I played one for Selznick 2 years ago “Murdstone” & then I played Karenin & a part for fox but no more. I am not against heavies, but I am against men whose wives dislike them, who are unsexed, complex & inhibited. Tybalt, Pontius Pilate & Levasseur (in Capt. Blood) were all heavies but glamorous & full blooded — men, not lily-livered knaves. Such parts as this man in Hurricane & Karenin limit one too much & a career along such lines would soon end. It is no use saying one won’t get typed — one always is & the better one plays the parts the worse it gets. Hurricane as Hurricane
[page 5] doesn’t interest me in a contract unless the contract contains the antidote to such poison. As a freelance to do Hurricane, yes, perhaps, but with a term contract & nothing else stipulated, NO.
People say “O look at Laughton”! Yes look at him. He couldn’t be anything but unpleasant — it’s no argument at all because we have only one thing in common — i.e. we can both act.
And I would be no good to you at all Sam, & so no good to myself unless we were going places untravelled by your other contract players to date. There is a wealth of parts for a man like myself — Casanova, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, “The Cavalier of the Streets” (Michael Arlen), Charles I, Lafayette & a mass of modern stories I know — all good picture material. In other words anyone
[page 6] taking me on, on a contract must be bold & unconventional. I could be made to box office that way but never as a Coleman or a Cooper or a Huston or Gable. I know myself very well & I will wait until someone wants to be bold with me as Irving Thalberg was going to be had he lived. Ask Frances Marion — she says it is criminal that no one sees how to promote me. She wants to write Leonardo da Vinci for me. Ask John Stahl too. There is a grand story on “Casanova” (by Billy Wilder). Bill Woolfenden has it — Wilder wrote it for me. If you can think along such lines with me, we could & would “go places” together, but just to sign a contract for the same money & billing as I now get freelancing does not make sense. To someone who loves their work, that work & its quality means something more than money can buy! I love my work & am proud of the past. The future must belong to the past & be of its quality & standing. You could do it Sam if you would — will you? Kindest regards & please understand I only write because I would like to be with you — If I did not think we could be happy together I would not write.
Yours very Sincerely,
Dec 14-17 – Ritz Paris
Dec 18 Sail “Normandie”
Dec 23 to 28th New York Lombardy Hotel
Jany 1st Home — 5254 Los Feliz Blvd. (Normandie 6140)
[end of letter]
Apparently, Sam Goldwyn was eager to give Rathbone a role in a film called The Hurricane. (See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029030/) But he wanted Rathbone to sign a four-year contract with his company, the Samuel Goldwyn Company. (Even though “Goldwyn” is the G in MGM, Sam Goldwyn had left MGM and formed his own company.)
Basil’s tone in this letter surprises me. He seems to be bragging about what a good actor he is. Elsewhere he seems humble, or even insecure regarding his talent. In an article in Photoplay magazine, Basil told the interviewer that in the early stages of his relationship with Ouida, the woman who would later become his wife, she taught him some very important things: “that you are as important as you make yourself; that you must have respect for yourself or no one will respect you; that an actor, particularly, must be aggressive; that it’s all very well to expect and accept breaks and good fortune, but it’s not enough. … I was a pretty hopeless case. … Frankly I suffered from the worst inferiority complex Dr. Freud ever imagined. I had no assurance whatsoever. Conversations with people terrified me.” He went on to explain that Ouida set about changing him from a shy person to a social person. Well, if this confident attitude of Rathbone’s, reflected in his letter to Sam Goldwyn, is the result of Ouida’s encouragement, she did an amazing job. She may have overdone it, though. I think he sounds like a diva!
Here is a link to the article in Photoplay: