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Rathbone: Handsome Villain

On June 2, 1940, the Milwaukee Journal published an article by Edith Dietz called “Handsome Villain: The Story of an Actor Who Resents Hollywood’s Assembly Line.” Dietz wrote:

Basil Rathbone’s sinister looks are confined to the screen. In reality he is handsome in a tanned, sultry way, his face lighted by brilliant hazel eyes and a warm, glowing smile. He is tall, broad shouldered, of an athletic build, but he likes to slouch and relax. He wears his gray and brown sports clothes easily, smartly, effortlessly.

At the moment he is enraptured with “Rebecca.” “Perhaps I’m prejudiced,” he admitted, sheepishly. “You see, Daphne du Maurier, who wrote the novel, flattered my vanity when she was a young girl of 14. I was appearing with her father, Gerald du Maurier, in her grandfather’s play, ‘Peter Ibbetson.’ She adored everything her grandfather had written and I was for the run of the play, at least, her hero. She was a lovely young girl and I was just at the age when a bit of worship did me a lot of good.”

Daphne du Maurier

Rathbone as Peter Ibbetson, 1920

Gerald du Maurier is still Basil Rathbone’s favorite person. “He was the most amazing man who ever lived,” he declares with conviction. “There is a whole school of actors founded on the Gerald du Maurier charm. Ronald Colman, Herbert Marshall, Leslie Howard, young Douglas Fairbanks, the latter of whom may never have seen him in person.”

The Rathbones – Ouida and Basil – have become the most popular host and hostess in the film colony. To be invited to one of their parties is considered a distinct social achievement. Their big English style home in Bel-Air is admirably suited for entertaining and they like nothing better than giving a fiesta for a hundred or so guests. Sometimes they have only a half dozen or so for dinner.

Ouida and Basil Rathbone

Rathbone is tired of being the villain, the old smoothie who insists on getting what he wants, regardless of the ruthless methods he must employ to accomplish his ends.

“Recently my wife, Ouida Bergere, became interested in the life of Franz Liszt.” he explained. “She is a writer of stories and scenarios, so she did a complete script on Liszt, with me in mind for the character. No takers. No producer can see me except as a heavy. Some way, I must break this Hollywood cabal and it looks as I may do it through Paramount casting me in a sympathetic part in ‘Ghost Music,’ with Bing Crosby and Mary Martin.” [Editor’s note: Ghost Music was later titled Rhythm on the River.]

Rathbone as Murdstone about to beat his stepson (played by Freddie Bartholomew)

As the afternoon sun traveled swiftly toward the Pacific, Rathbone waxed a bit sarcastic on the type of role he has been handed since his Murdstone in ‘David Copperfield,” when he had to beat Freddie Bartholomew. “I beat him all day for the sake of the motion picture camera. I didn’t sleep that night; I was too nauseated,” he said, with a shudder.

It seems that when Rathbone first came to Hollywood, just after the advent of sound, he made a hit in a comedy role. From then on he leaned against boat railings, mantel pieces, pepper trees, kissed the hands of the ladies, and, in each case, delivered wisecracks which finally set him crazy and right out of the Hollywood scene. He returned to the legitimate stage, where he had previously played some 44 parts in 27 Shakespearean plays, as well as innumerable dramas, without being typed for a “Rathbone role.” Lured back to Hollywood, he had a change all right, he became the villain of the piece.

“I’m not complaining about my salary. I can see what some of the producers mean when they tell me to go play golf and be a good boy, but I want to cease being a matrix; it’s too wearing. Once in awhile I shouldn’t mind doing one of these characterizations, but my pride is offended by the assumption of Hollywood that I am incapable of playing anything but this sort of part. I don’t want to stay on the assembly line, tightening a bolt forever. I want and need a change.”

Rathbone is deadly serious about his goal. When he says he will make it, if he has to go back to the stage to prove he can, I believe him. I’m betting on him all the way.

Ouida and Basil Rathbone with baby Cynthia

At this point the villain, instead of pursuing me, showed a real inclination to get away from me. You see, his little daughter, Cynthia, aged 1 year, was being put to bed at 6 and about the only chance he had to see her was between 5:30 and that hour.

“I can’t resist Cynthia,” he chuckled as fatuously as any other doting father. On that note we parted.

All the way home I was thinking how I would tell something of Basil’s interesting background: how he was born at Johannesburg, South Africa, educated at Repton and other schools in England; how he joined his cousin, the actor-manager, Frank Benson, in his repertoire of Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon; how his mother was a direct descendant of King Henry IV, how he was a member of the British escadrille in France, receiving the military cross in the last war.

But he is much more interesting even than his background. I forgot all about that right up to the last paragraph.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in their most famous roles.


  1. Deborah says

    Although the great Baz was way before my time, I have enjoyed his wonderful film performances and his intriguing , enigmatic , and timeless persona. ( Fell a little in love of course.)
    Which leads me to this question… has anyone else noticed the uncanny resemblance of Rathbone to King Charles II (English ) ???
    Put him in a long curly wig and the gorgeous dressing of the 17th c. and Basil is the mirror image of the ‘Merry Monarch’. I would venture to guess that Charles II is in the genetic family tree of the Rathbones, and that Basil is one of those phenomenally rare persons who is a ‘ throwback’, a genetic twin. Reincarnation also comes to mind.
    It would have been amazing to have seen him portray his illustrious ancestor (?) ….. 😉


  2. ticotico2 says

    Wow, was thinking just the other day how perfect he would have been as Max DeWinter in that wonderful book. So maybe he inspired the character. Great article, not too many mistakes in it. With this one and the article of a few weeks ago about Ouida and her parties and installing an artificial moon because the real one wouldn’t change its orbit to suit her, and that other chap not wanting to drop everything to write her a special show, and how she has to choose her few close friends so wisely…..I can’t figure out how to print nice copies so I can savor them! Hope you will add printable versions on your site when you have a chance. Great work finding this stuff!


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