BIOGRAPHY, friends & co-stars, general biography
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A Year in the Life of Basil Rathbone — 1930

1930 was a busy year for Basil Rathbone. Let’s take a closer look at where he was and what he was doing.

  • Where did he live?
  • What was he doing?
  • What did he earn?

Rathbone spent most of the 1920s performing in plays, and when he wasn’t touring with a play, he lived in New York City. In 1929 MGM signed Rathbone to make The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. His performance was so good that MGM offered Rathbone a contract to make more pictures.

In his autobiography, Rathbone wrote:

The original contract that my agent had presented to me Ouida had torn up, and herself had visited MGM’s top representative in New York, Mr. Robert Rubin. Before she had finished with him he had doubled my weekly salary! … Ouida had a very strong argument. She didn’t want to go to Hollywood–she could hardly be said to have been in love with her previous experiences out on the coast, and she threatened not to go with me if I accepted the contract as offered! … She said, “If you insist on going out to the Coast it’s going to be for one hell of a price!” (In and Out of Character, p. 130)

Having signed the MGM contract in October 1929, Basil and Ouida moved to California. (Did Ouida really not want to move there?) Variety reported that they threw a costume ball costing $5000 to introduce Basil to the Hollywood motion picture society.

The caption to this photo reads “A costume ball given in 1929 by Mrs. Basil Rathbone.” It was in Hollywood, so it may have been the $5000 ball.

When they first arrived in Hollywood, Basil and Ouida rented Marie Prevost’s home on Cano Drive. Marie Prevost was an actress who was also under contract with MGM, but her career was going downhill. She probably leased her home because she needed the money.

Basil, however, was doing well in the money department. While under contract, Basil Rathbone earned $2500 a week. This may not sound like a high salary by today’s standards (although it’s higher than my own salary!), but in 1930 it was a very high salary. My grandfather earned $14 a week and he supported a family of seven on that salary. A gallon of gas was 10 cents, and the average cost of a new car was $640. According to http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1930s.html, $100 in 1930 is roughly equivalent to $1200 in 2005. If this is correct, Rathbone’s salary was like $30,000 a week today. So he was not having money troubles in 1930.

One of the things Basil spent his money on was fine clothes. He used Hollywood’s leading tailor, a firm called Watson and Son. An article called “Suiting the Boys” (Silver Screen, Feb. 1931), tells us that Basil placed an order with Watson and Son for a double-breasted dark gray flannel with a light stripe, two brown Harris tweeds, a double-breasted light blue worsted, two blue serges–one single and one double-breasted, a dark blue full dress suit, a dinner suit, a light cream-colored camel’s hair overcoat and a blue guardsman’s overcoat. Mr. Watson’s ledger-sheet reveals that in one year in Hollywood, Basil paid more than $7000 for suits and overcoats alone. One can only imagine what he spent on shirts, hats and shoes from other retailers.

An article in Picture Play (August 1930) reported:

Basil Rathbone, who is known on the screen for his suave, sophisticated performances, goes in for English clothes of a very extreme cut–quite in keeping with his roles.
“Mr. Rathbone,” Mr. Watson [said], “is really responsible for the present style in trousers–high waists and peg legs, large and full at the hips and tapering to a narrow bottom. … A high-waisted trouser gives the impression of long legs and an illusion of height. The plaits are inclined to make the wearer look thinner about the waist.”

Basil was already more than six feet tall. Why would he need to give an impression of long legs?

Another magazine article mentioned that Basil Rathbone was among those men leading a change in the style of men’s formal dress:

The tuxedo and the full-dress coat are beginning to pall upon the well-attired heroes of pictures when they are socially active. A hot summer in Southern California, with wilting collars and shirts, has led to an open advocacy of the changes, and surprising as it may seem, Basil Rathbone and Ivan Lebedeff, two of the strictest adherents to Prince of Wales styles, are among the leaders in the proposal. An agreement is being reached by these actors and an associated group for the discarding of conventional garb for the white Eton, or pea jacket, at dinner dances. This jacket is like a full-dress coat, sans tails.

Of course Basil needed to dress up for all those Hollywood parties he attended, and the ones his wife Ouida hosted.

The July 1930 issue of New Movie magazine reported:

Mrs. Basil Rathbone (Ouida Bergere) is rapidly becoming one of Hollywood’s most prominent hostesses. A week never goes by without the Rathbone home being the scene of at least two elaborate parties. Ouida’s enormous vitality, which used to be expended in writing scenarios, running booking agencies and doing interior decorating, has to find an outlet somewhere and society in Beverly Hills seems to have been elected.

In another article: “There are social affairs and social affairs in filmland, but those sponsored by Basil Rathbone and his wife, Ouida Bergere, seem to top the list by waxing magical and effervescent around the midnight hour.” (Picture Play, April 1930)

In April, Basil and Ouida moved into their new home at 628 Crescent Drive, Beverly Hills. The new home lent itself beautifully to large parties. Four days after moving in, the Rathbones had a housewarming/wedding anniversary party. Ouida wore a white evening gown. There were lots of celebrity guests, a big orchestra, dancing, and a buffet supper. (Source: Screenland, August 1930, and New Movie, July 1930)

Basil and Ouida’s social schedule during 1930 included the following events:

  • The opening of The Embassy Club in Hollywood in February. (Note: The Embassy Club was open only to 300 top celebrities and entertainment industry executives.)
  • a dinner at Lawrence Tibbetts’ estate (Feb 16)
  • the wedding of Cecelia DeMille (daughter of Cecil B. DeMille) and Francis Calvin (Feb 22)
  • an open house/tea party hosted by William Haines (March)
  • a party given by Edmund Lowe and his wife Lilyan Tashman (March)
  • a party hosted by Elsie Ferguson and her husband Frederick Worlock (August)

But of course it wasn’t all party-going. Basil had to work to pay for all his fancy clothes. While under contract to MGM, he made three films:

The Bishop Murder Case (released Jan 3, 1930)

This Mad World (April 12, 1930)

The Lady of Scandal (May 24, 1930)

Basil left MGM around May of 1930 and was freelancing after that. Oddly, though, an MGM ad in the August 1930 issue of New Movie magazine still listed Rathbone among the “featured players.”

Basil made four other films in 1930:

A Notorious Affair and The Flirting Widow (with First National )

A Lady Surrenders (Universal)

Sin Takes a Holiday (Pathe)

In addition to appearing in films, Rathbone appeared on the stage. On August 19, 1930, Archie Selwyn announced that he had engaged Basil Rathbone for the lead in A Paris Divorce, a play adapted by Arthur Hornblow from the French play Monsieur de Saint-Obin by André Picard and Harold Marsh Harwood. Rehearsals were to start on October 19.

The September 17 issue of Variety reported that Rathbone would be at the Erlanger Theatre in Buffalo in To Please the Ladies in October. To Please a Lady was the title Arthur Hornblow preferred for his play that eventually was called A Kiss of Importance. Whether it was To Please “the Ladies” or “a Lady,” I am sure Basil did “please the ladies.” I suppose it was a pre-Broadway tryout of the play.

Also in October, Rathbone leased an apartment on 22 East Thirty-sixth Street from Mrs. Louise Hedley (The New York Times, Oct. 7, 1930).

A Kiss of Importance had pre-Broadway tryouts in Wilmington, Delaware (the week beginning November 14), and Washington DC (the week beginning November 24). The play opened on Broadway (the Fulton Theatre) on December 1. The following day the New York critics had few good things to say about the play.

In a letter to a fan Basil Rathbone wrote that it was a joy to be back in the theatre. He felt the play was light, amusing, and good entertainment. He expressed dismay that the critics were so harsh. It was his impression that the audiences enjoyed the play.

Nevertheless, a long run was not meant to be. The play closed on December 24.

The New Movie magazine reported that Ouida Rathbone attended a couple of Hollywood parties in December, so apparently she did not accompany her husband to New York! (And he claimed she didn’t want to move to California! Ha!)

After the closing of A Kiss of Importance, Basil stayed in New York, at least through March 1931. He took a brief trip to Hollywood to make one film in the Fall of 1931 (A Woman Commands) and then returned to New York. It is unclear where Ouida was during this time. Did she stay in Hollywood, hoping he would return and continue his film career? He did eventually do that, but not until 1935.

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3 Comments

  1. Judy Dawes. says

    Thanks so much for this very informative post! If only he had invested some of his money in Beverly Hills real estate his later years would have been so comfortable…. Don’t recognize anyone in that $5K party photo, but there seems to be a Playboy Bunny prototype in the background. Wonder where the party dough came from–Weed’s divorce settlement? All this fanmag talk of weekly parties, and then in some article he says he rarely gave a party. The plot thickens; what fun. You do a great job.

    Liked by 1 person

    • marciajessen says

      Thanks! I think it may have been in his autobiography that Basil was bemoaning the reputation he and Ouida had as party-givers. Perhaps by the time he wrote that he had forgotten about the weekly parties in 1930! I’m amazed that Ouida didn’t go back to NYC with Basil in the fall and show her support while he was on the stage. I would have been at the theatre every night, clapping for him! But Ouida had her social engagements in Hollywood.

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      • ticotico2 says

        I wonder also at the difficulties in cross-country traveling in those days. All those scary stories of brave pilots delivering the mail. Maybe Weedzie was afraid of flying, and a week on a train was beneath her dignity. But it was in one of those early magazine stories that you printed that Bazzz denied having more than one or so parties a year. Fascinating conversations lasting into morning hours and all that. But since all these articles are fraught with self-serving studio publicity, it’s hard to know when to take any of it seriously. I even wonder: if we had spent a day with him in normal surroundings, would we have even liked him?? I would certainly hope so. Had he been born 20-30 years later, we would have had lots of lovely interviews on YouTube and Decades. Decades runs Cavett, but I guess his BR interview was long before this series. There is an interview I saw once with Lucille Ball and husband Gary Merrill on (I think) Merv Griffin where Gary made some joke about BR slipping off the wall at Central Park and Lucy slapped him on the arm to shut him up; it seemed to be a story that everyone knew, and that BR felt he had to “explain” in his book. There is also an article on Google by some guy who portrays him as a very unhappy alcoholic. Wouldn’t be surprising, with the terrible movies he had to take roles in and the family problems. Not to mention probably a good dose of untreated PTSD from the war. You mentioned how authentic his German sounded in a movie. Also his French in ordering wine in “Confession,” I believe it was. Perhaps he had a gift for languages; would have helped when he snuck over enemy lines.

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