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Was Basil Rathbone a Diva?

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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
Budapest
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

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[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
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[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.

London
Peter Ibbetson
George Sand
Henry IV
Othello
The Unknown (Maugham)
He who gets slapped
My Parts
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
Czarina
The Swan
The Command to Love
The Captive
Melo
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

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[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,
Basil Rathbone
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]

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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:
LoveLifeVillain_photoplay

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16 Comments

  1. I don’t think he sounds like a diva. He sounds like a man who knows what he’s capable of and isn’t afraid to say it, and his anger at having had his talents wasted and having been betrayed by others is justifiable. The Garden of Allah, oh dear… he really should’ve got higher billing in that, but then again, I think the book (being very philosophical and ‘in the head’) is pretty much unfilmable, and in the book, Anteoni is a spiritual, kind man, *not* the jealous, jilted lover with even a touch of sadism at the end. They made him a bitter, love-spurned character, which didn’t suit Basil at all. In the book (spoilers ahead) Domini returns to the spiritual Anteoni’s garden to live there for the rest of the life and Anteoni, having wandered with the Sufis in the desert, converts to Islam and becomes a very kind and gentle character. So if they’d written a script where they just settled down in that garden and lived happily ever after (which would’ve fit the book’s versions of those characters better), it would have been much better and more satisfying a film. I, for one, really would have wanted to see him philosophising in the garden (another scene they cut out of the film) with her and talking about God in nature, being a gentle and interesting and eccentric millionaire type. *That* Anteoni would have fit him. And yet in the movie he is little more than a rival love interest and a bitter guy. I really agree with him when he says he doesn’t want to play men whose wives hate them and who are unsexed, and someone like Levasseur did suit him much better. If only they’d let him play a sensual man who was a great lover and not a bastard towards his women, *and* gave him a good swordfight… sigh. What a Casanova he would have been!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. GRETCHEN says

    Hi, everyone. 🙂
    Update: Yup, that dumb ‘purple ghost-rabbit’ avatar is STILL showing whenever I type my email address in the comment form. But luckily, after my comments were posted & I came back to “The Baz” later on, my orange alien avatar was RESTORED! WordPress/Gravatar is giving me the WRONG avatar when I see it, but not when it’s posted for everyone ELSE to see. What’s ALSO happening is, Judy D. + Grandison + Andrea’s avatars are different in the ‘recent comments’ section on the right of the screen, BUT they are their usual avatars in the actual ‘posted’ comments……HOW CONFUSING!!

    NOW, BACK TO THE BASIL STUFF:
    I’ve been privileged to watch the AWESOME ‘swordfight scene’ in “The Mark of Zorro” 3 TIMES within the past several days, ’cause the “Movies!” channel has played it a BUNCH this month. It’s the BEST thing Baz EVER did on film! Basil’s really in his ‘element’ when he’s got a sword in his hand—kind-of like when Fred Astaire suddenly begins dancing in one of his movies—the OTHER side of Baz comes out! He was quite a skilled athlete; I only WISH he’d done more work like this in his career, for both us and future generations to watch & enjoy. The “Movies!” channel also plays Basil’s old Sherlock Holmes flicks EVERY Sunday morning, at 8. This month, they’ve been featuring LOTS of Elvis Presley films, in his memory. Pretty COOL!! 😀

    Like

    • marciajessen says

      At least your comments are coming through okay! That’s the important thing, right?

      Like

  3. GRETCHEN says

    WAIT A MINUTE——IT’S STILL SHOWING THE STUPID PURPLE BUNNY!!! 😡

    But, in the ‘recent comments’ section on the right side of the screen, it shows my regular orange alien avatar next to my name….AND also on the form where I put my email address. WHAAAAT???? Guess it’s NOT ‘fixed’ AFTER ALL. Rats.

    Anyone ELSE having this problem, or is it JUST ME??
    Argh. I GIVE UP.

    Like

    • marciajessen says

      I’m seeing your orange alien and my avatar is the same peculiar alien I’ve always had.

      Like

      • GRETCHEN says

        WHEW!! 🙂
        Thanks for telling me. That’s GOOD to know……except on MY computer, everyone’s avatars are completely DIFFERENT than usual! How WEIRD IS THAT?? Well, it might clear itself up when I log-in next time.

        Like

        • The avatars are totally messed up on some comments. I don’t know know it happened but one time a hole bunch of email addresses just disappeared and people all had this same generic avatar. But your problem is different again. Noo idea what that is.

          Like

  4. GRETCHEN says

    OKAY……NOW IT’S SUDDENLY GONE BACK TO MY OLD AVATAR, AGAIN—RIGHT AFTER I POSTED MY LAST COMMENT!!!
    HUH?????

    But, will it re-correct the ‘purple bunny’ which is STILL showing on it + on my comment from Aug. 8, for some reason??

    WHATEVER. THIS IS DUMB.
    Well, let’s SEE what happens by tomorrow….at least it actually POSTED my comment, AND gave me back my avatar! 🙂

    I know. You’ve ALL probably figured-out by now that I can be just a BIT ‘anal’ about insignificant stuff.

    Like

    • marciajessen says

      Hi Gretchen! I wish I had an answer for you. Comments are supposed to automatically appear, and not have to be approved. If they aren’t appearing, that’s something funky that I can’t explain. I hope WordPress behaves!
      By the way, I’m working on another post! It will be ready in a couple of days.

      Like

      • GRETCHEN says

        Hi, Marcia! 🙂

        I see YOUR avatar has ‘morphed’ into something ELSE, too.

        Gee, I sure HOPE everything goes back to the way it WAS. And I’d REALLY like to know what those OTHER people’s recent comments say….they’ll probably ‘appear’ in a few days, just like the Aug. 7 ones did about a WEEK after I posted mine on Aug. 8! So far, MY comments appear instantly when I post them. So, maybe this ‘delay’ thing is just happening to SOME people?

        What’s really STRANGE is the fact that this OTHER person’s name and website info were showing in the blanks on the comment form when I filled in MY email address—I’ll BET I got stuck with HER avatar by mistake, somehow!! 😦

        Like

  5. GRETCHEN says

    HEY, WHAT’S HAPPENED TO MY ONCE-AWESOME AVATAR???
    COULD SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON HERE?????!!!!!!!!!!
    GRRRR…….. 😡

    I don’t know if YOU guys are seeing/experiencing the SAME thing I am right now, but:

    My avatar is SUDDENLY no longer the COOL little round orange ‘alien’ guy I LOVE anymore, which it’s been for the past several YEARS—it’s changed overnight, into a STUPID PURPLE BUNNY???????—and when I filled-out my email address so I could comment, someone ELSE’S name appeared in the ‘name’ space BEFORE I put mine in….plus, HER website name was auto-filling into the ‘website’ space!!! I don’t even HAVE a website—so is this ‘other chick’ using MY EMAIL ADDRESS as her own, or WHAT??? How would she have even ‘guessed’ it, since I’ve NEVER shared it with anyone or published it online?? (Plus, NO ONE ON PLANET EARTH COULD EVER ‘GUESS’ IT IN A MILLION YEARS—it’s THAT STRANGE!!)

    THIS IS JUST PLAIN WEIRD.
    Maybe this site’s gone ‘CRAZY’ for a day and it’ll be back to NORMAL, soon……….I HOPE. 😮

    Also, I’ve noticed there are a BUNCH of other people’s comments on this page that STILL haven’t shown-up yet, but ARE listed on the right side of the screen….along with (most likely) the WRONG AVATARS for those people, like what just happened to ME!!

    PLEASE—LET ME (& US) KNOW WHAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT!!!
    I WANT MY LITTLE ROUND ORANGE ALIEN GUY BACK!! 😦 *cry*

    HMMM……I wonder if this comment will ALSO ‘magically’ DISAPPEAR before anyone sees it??

    Like

  6. Ceridwyn says

    First, let me just say that I am SO GRATEFUL that Marcia has taken up the baton and contributed to this site. I would check in and sigh that my thirst for fresh news would again be deprived. It is with giddy elation that I found not one but many additions.

    Wonderful content and pictures from Marcia and heartfelt, intelligent comments from the loyal fans! Huzzah!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Judy D. says

    Wow, an excellent reply from Gretchen! All that frustration in his letter. Too bad he wasn’t of the current era–“Wolf Hall” and all sorts of PBS and indie-studio projects written and cast with intelligence. Plus royalties…Ouida could have lived well on “Holmes” merchandise alone.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. GRETCHEN says

    Basil wasn’t a “Diva”, per se……he was just really TIRED of getting stuck doing parts that befitted OTHER actors better. He was also somewhat SPOILED by having gotten such GREAT stage roles as a younger man, and had become accustomed to working with only the ‘best & brightest’ (and most attractive) fellow players + he was allowed more FREEDOM regarding the characters he portrayed.

    Under film contract, Basil was basically FORCED to play guys he detested, and/or who didn’t suit his personality at ALL. He was thrown together (in sub-par movies) with a bunch of actors that weren’t always complimentary to one another, or their looks/abilities didn’t ‘fit’ the roles they were given. His employers ‘promised’ him parts he never received, and LIED to him about his proposed billing in the credits. He probably also felt ‘trapped’, and feared the idea of signing yet ANOTHER contract—when he could instead happily work on his own, freelancing. This wasn’t fair to him, and he’s understandably upset about it in his above letter. Plus, there’s an even MORE important reason he penned these feelings….

    Basil mentioned: “To someone who loves their work, that work & its quality means something more than money can buy!”

    Most film companies think they can just BRIBE (or in Basil’s case, CON) people to do their bidding. If an actor happens to be ‘chic & popular’ with the public at the time, he/she is quickly hired to be in their next BIG FEATURE….with an equally BIG PAYCHECK. Once signed with them—until the (con)tract has ended—that actor is ‘imprisoned’ by their employer & gives up the right to do work for anyone else + is usually also prevented from making choices related to the parts played (although it’s NOT as bad now as it used to be).

    Prior to his film career, Basil had obtained stage roles he could honestly be PROUD of. His talents were recognized & he wished to continue this legacy throughout the REST of his career; but sadly, it was not to be. 😦

    During his lifetime, Basil never felt GOOD about himself. He was depressed, ashamed of what he HADN’T become, consistently shy & socially awkward, lacked ambition + motivation and probably didn’t perceive he had ANY skill for doing things of ‘real value’. The ONLY thing he ever personally thought he could accomplish WELL, was acting. It made him feel he had a ‘purpose’, other than merely existing.

    However, Basil wanted to do QUALITY work—not necessarily make TONS of money or become FAMOUS playing parts churned-out primarily for the ‘fans’ each season, so producers could make a killing at the box office—by the way, that’s ALL filmmaking is about, folks—“How many tickets can we sell? Let’s target this or that specific ‘group’ of potential attendees, for our highest PROFIT”. The main reason humans began performing has been LOST, ever since moving-pictures were invented: Acting is about telling a STORY, not making a BUCK.

    Artists such as Basil aren’t interested in gaining stupid ‘ratings’, or in what ‘the majority’ WANTS to see—they perform for the mere PLEASURE of the experience + enhancing people’s lives. Those who choose the acting profession primarily to seek out self-gratification through popularity, worship, fame & fortune have FORGOTTEN the significance of what they are doing….and, they are NOT truly ‘actors’.

    Basil loved & admired the beauty of the SOULS of authors & poets who wrote well, and wrote with HEART; in fact, he was PASSIONATE about it. His joy came from taking that beauty and paying homage to these writers by performing their works on stage (not so much in front of cameras—which lessens the bonding experience formed between an audience and the players), as though ‘performing’ a painting or a sculpture or the blooming of a flower—in essence, ‘becoming’ that work of art—to ‘transfer’ that beauty to others.

    The absolute WORST thing that happened to Basil’s career (and sense of self-respect), was of course his last 10-15 years in ‘the business’….and on Earth. By that time, completely BROKE because of Ouida’s outrageous spending addiction, he had to make the TERRIBLE decision to swallow what little pride he had left and ‘act’ in some of the most DEPLORABLE of roles—in goofball comedies, hammy horror & ‘kiddie’ flicks, no less. UGGH. And he thought there was something to COMPLAIN about when he wrote this letter, back in 1936—even BEFORE his dreaded typecasting as Sherlock Holmes?!! Boy, was HE in for a SURPRISE during the next 30 years. 😮

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Grandison says

    I disagree. This is a very well-presented and argued case, not the rantings of a diva. In retrospect, we can see the prescience of what he’s saying, and it makes a lot of sense when you take into account what happened to him after the Holmes movies.

    It breaks my heart to read what he says about Thalberg. What might have been for both of them – and us – had he lived!!!

    Like

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