In March 1940 Hollywood magazine did an article about spring cleaning at the Rathbone house (“How to Do Spring-Cleaning,” pp. 26-27, 44-45). Kay Proctor, the author of the article, paid a visit to Basil Rathbone, whom she described as “one of my favorite people.” She added, “and I like his tea and toasted crumpets.” It’s an amusing article, and perhaps it will inspire you to do some spring cleaning, too!
In a merry frame of mind I whanged the iron knocker of his home which sits on a hill overlooking the sixth hole of a swank golf club.
Something lean and tall opened the door. I knew at once it wasn’t the butler (I catch on quick that way!) because it wore a white cap which said “Simpson’s Paints Are Better Paints” in red letters on the visor. Moreover, it was wearing a striped English four-in-hand, the latest style Mexican huraches, a pale tan shirt, and white denim overalls which hit its legs amidship knee and ankle. A harassed look around the eyes and a wide paint brush in the left hand completed the puzzling picture.
“Hello!” it said heartily. “So nice of you to come. Pop in the library and I’ll be with you in a minute. I’ve got to see a man about a wall.”
That sort of thing is bound to come out in Hollywood sooner or later so I might as well admit right off that the peculiar spectacle turned out to be Basil himself. It really is amazing, the things that can happen out here. Don’t ask me why, because I only work here.
Some inner voice warned me to take a powder then and there. My good fairy, probably. Unfortunately I didn’t. I walked into the library.
Now I honestly can say I have seen everything.
Two gents, whom I later learned were named Elmer and H.A., were doing a balancing act with a pine plank 15 feet long. They were extremely solemn about it. Sitting militantly in a straight-backed antique was a woman with a mixing bowl full of batter in her lap. She said it was angel food and her name was Bessie. Near her stood Nellie, the maid, nervously wringing her hands while near-by was Tom, the Japanese houseboy, giving an excellent imitation of something whipped up by Gutzon Borglum in an off-moment. Placidly ensconced on the davenport facing the fireplace was a Woman in White, absorbed in the inspection of a baby’s nursing bottle.
The silence in the room was deafening. Finally I could stand it no longer.
“What gives?” I asked pleasantly.
Nobody troubled themselves to answer except Bessie who let out as vitriolic a sniff as ever I’ve heard.
“How about a game of rummy?” I persisted. I really didn’t want to play but I thought it was the friendly thing to do.
Another sniff from Bessie. I was getting desperate.
“I’ll wrestle anybody in the house for a quarter,” I volunteered. No answer. “No holds barred,” I coaxed. That brought a gleam of interest from Elmer until H.A. pointed out in a surly tone that he couldn’t hold that blankety blank board by himself.
“A pox on you all, then,” I finally exploded. “I’m going home.”
Just then Basil burst through the door. Around his neck was a snake-like coil of webbed tubing. In one hand he carried a weird assortment of brushes, blowers, etc., and in the other a vacuum cleaner. He fairly was exuding Purpose.
I grabbed the well known bull by the horns. “Basil,” I demanded, “what in the name of St. George is going on around here?”
“Why, darling!” he beamed at me, “didn’t I tell you? We’re doing the spring house-cleaning!”
“But it’s only January!” I remonstrated.
“I know it,” he said calmly. “That’s part of my system.”
Bessie sniffed audibly and Basil said, “Bessie, that will do. We’ve all got to pull together on this thing …”
“Or you’ll all hang separately,” I finished it for him. “Mister Rathbone, answer me one thing. Where is your wife?” I was very chilly about it.
“Ouida?” he chirruped. “Oh, Ouida’s in New York. Shopping, you know.”
“And you’re doing this as a little homecoming surprise for her?” I ventured.
“Well, yes and no,” he answered. “Ouida will be pleased, of course, but mostly I wanted to prove a certain contention of mine based on years of observation. Scientific research, you might call it.”
His face took on a stern expression. “I have maintained for a long time that women made entirely too much fuss about this spring house-cleaning thing,” he pronounced. “They get themselves and every inmate of the house in a frightful lather over nothing at all. They upset routine unnecessarily. They exhaust themselves over trivialities, and for one solid week they make a man’s life a nightmare of eating pick-me-up meals in the kitchen, slipping on cakes of soap left in dark hallways, and dodging frantically between denuded windows while trying to put on his pants with some semblance of gentlemanly modesty. I believe,” he said pontifically, “it is a simple question of organization and am about to prove it!”
“You’re bats!” I said elegantly. It was, I am afraid, an unfortunate choice of words for he nodded enthusiastically, said it was an excellent idea, and promptly made a note of it in his little black book. “You know, of course, that the correct name is Myotis Sublatus and you find them in chimneys just before Christmas,” he observed.
“Find what?” I asked.
“Bats,” he said simply. “We’ll attend to them as soon as we get the downstairs washed up. Should be great sport.”
It’s open season on termites, too,” I said in what I thought was withering sarcasm. His face lighted up.
“It is?” He said joyfully. “That’s wonderful!” Again he made an entry in the black book. “We’ll choose up sides and the first one to bag the limit gets to be a sergeant. No, by jove, we’ll make it a lieutenant.”
The next few hours remain a potpourri of blurred impressions like the time I had my tonsils out under ether. I distinctly remember the deadly self control with which Basil attacked the assembly of the vacuum cleaner attachments and whipped it to a standstill. I remember him balancing the telephone on his shoulder while vehemently denying to Jimmie Fidler that Ouida’s trip to New York had any phfft significance. (As far as I could make out he was proving it wasn’t necessary to stop whatever you were doing just because the telephone rang. Organization, that’s all. Jimmie apparently could make out even less because the next day he wrote a full account of the new laboratory Basil had installed in his home to experiment with atom smashing.) And I remember a hideous interlude called “Guess Where.” We played it with the formal drawing room furniture, and Basil claimed it proved women scattered their energy.
“The average woman displays an incredible lack of imagination and coordination when she wants to rearrange the furniture in any given room,” he stated. “She overlaps herself, if you know what I mean. For instance, she wants the white chair where the gold chair has been standing. So she moves the white chair to where the gold chair is. That means she has to move the gold chair somewhere else. She thereupon puts it where the ultramarine davenport was placed. In turn, the davenport has to be moved to where the piano stands. Then the piano has to be moved. Before she know it, she is right back where she started from everything in its original place. A vicious circle of futility!”
His system, he maintained, was infinitely simpler. Just pile everything in the center of the room and work from the inside out. Then if the white chair doesn’t look well where the gold chair was, all you have to do is move it back to the middle pile and start over again.
It might have worked if he hadn’t made that one teentsy weentsy mistake about the piano. Somehow it got on top of the pile instead of on the bottom. But, as he said when we left the room in the status quo (i.e. everything in the middle with the piano on top), Ouida probably would prefer to make her own decision about it anyway.
We tackled the upstairs next and there I must confess Basil distinguished himself, earning the title of “The White Flash.” He was here, there, and everywhere, a veritable human cyclone of speed and thoroughness. One moment I would see him lugging heavy mattresses through narrow doors, arranging them in a neat stack in the hallway. The next moment he would be perched on top of a step-ladder, explaining to Elmer and H.A. the advantages of painting “across the grain” over “with the grain.” (Elmer and H.A. were just a mite miffed until Basil whipped out his union card in Local No. 71; after that they were real buddies, I can tell you, as friendly as anything. Basil, in fact, was insisting the movies were overlooking two good bets for the screen, and Elmer was talking about putting Basil up for the 1940 presidency of No. 71.) The next thing I would know, Basil would be down on his knees, hard at work on the squared tile flooring.
Ouida Rathbone is an understanding woman so I’m sure she will not mind that awful mess she finds upstairs on her return from New York. She will realize Basil had no alternative but to leave the mattresses stacked six deep in the hall when it turned out he could not remember which one came from which room. She will know he left the walls and ceilings splotched up with a priming coat only because he wanted her to have the pleasure of picking out the final colors. And she is bound to understand about the five buckets on the white squares and the three hatboxes on the black ones in the tiled hall; the squares had suggested a game of checkers but unfortunately Elmer had received an out of town call before the game was finished which gave Basil no choice but to promise to wait until he could come back.
She is a generous woman, too, so she’ll probably understand about the bats and why such extreme measures had to be taken in the end.
Basil had located the nest in the big north chimney with Sherlock Holmesian despatch, and was prepared to use humane methods to dislodge them. His plan, I believe, called for covering the chimney with a pup tent so the bats would think it was night and fly right into the ingenious canvas trap. the bats proved obdurate however, and wouldn’t play by those rules so he had to resort to drastic measures of fire and water. A fine smudgy fire of wet straw was started about two feet from the top of the chimney. Unexpectedly it slipped its moorings and stuck half way down where eventually it fizzled itself out. Naturally that left but one course and Basil took it without batting an eye. He hauled up the garden hose and turned it down the chimney full force.
The resultant mess of smoke, water and debris in the living room was a little discouraging, particularly since Basil never did catch the bats; but as I said, Ouida is a generous and understanding woman about such trivialities. And he meant well.
I’m afraid, though, there’s going to be a little trouble over the termites.
To be fair, I don’t think Basil intended to do it; I think the man just didn’t know his own strength. When he discovered definite traces of the destructive little beasts in the underpinnings of the west wing he grabbed a handy crowbar and went to work.
Theory or no theory, I don’t think Ouida is going to like it when she comes home and finds half her house tilting at a 30 degree angle. A thing like that upsets a woman.
Photos are by Charles Rhodes.