MOVIES, Uncategorized
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Bad Men and Good Acting

Rathbone with Olivia de Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood

In the 1930s Basil Rathbone played a series of villain roles so well that he was in danger of forever being typecast as a villain, and never being offered other roles. Film historian William K. Everson has called Rathbone “the best all-around villain the movies ever had.” In 1938 Bosley Crowther of the New York Times interviewed Basil Rathbone and asked him about playing villains.

Rathbone admitted that villainy does not come to him naturally; it has been thrust upon him. He does not relish a reputation for villainy, but neither would he choose a bed of saccharine heroics. He continued:

“The only thing for which I have affection is acting. I want to play people who think—characters in whom there is some conflict. And, beyond that, I don’t care whether they classify as hero or villain. The only thing I dread is being typed. Oh, yes—I know that the motion picture business has been built on type casting. And, in one way, you can’t blame the producers for working an actor or actress over and over again in the one particular role in which he or she has been found popular. After all, the producers are out to make money. And truthfully, one type is about all you can expect from a person who comes to pictures without any background.

“But it is because of this system that there are so few long lives in the business—professionally speaking, of course. And, if it weren’t so rigidly followed, there would be a great deal more virtuosity in the films. If a fellow’s job is acting and he has fully mastered it, he should be available in many types of acting. Basically, it’s just as ridiculous to demand an actor to repeat one type of role over and over as it would be to require a concert pianist to play nothing but Spanish music, for instance, to the exclusion of everything else.”

Rathbone as the lecherous Wroxton (with Loretta Young in Private Number)

Since Rathbone was a freelance actor during most of the 1930s, he was free to refuse those parts which did not give an opportunity for an interesting characterization.

“Fortunately, the film producers are coming fast to the realization that the best stories are based on honest and interesting characters. Too often, the villain is just a creature put into the picture to make life difficult for the hero and heroine. He himself is nothing but a foil. Endow the same character with variety, however—give him thoughts and emotional conflicts—and I’ll play the role for any man.”

These quotes are from the article “Mr. Rathbone Considers Bad Men and Good Acting” by Bosley Crowther, published in the New York Times, September 25, 1938.  Fortunately for us, Basil’s thoughts and feelings about playing villains have been published in many magazines. Here are some quotes that I have found:

“There is a little of the heavy, the deep-dyed villain, in every man. … Your true heavy belongs to the dim, dark days of the drama. He was wont to tie the curly-haired hero in the path of a buzz saw, or upon the railway racks, where the fast express would make mashed potatoes of him. … He was black all the way through. … the word heavy remains to this day, thanks to pictures. [But in pictures today] they behave like real character in everyday life. They acknowledge no pattern. They behave as you and I would behave, not as leading men, leading women, and heavies would behave. In other words, they are true-to-life characters.”

“Pontius Pilate [Basil’s character in The Last Days of Pompeii] … did his best to prevent the crucifixion. He was merely overwhelmed by odds. You and I could not have stood up before such opposition. Incidentally, I think that that character was one of the best, if not the best, that I have ever portrayed upon the screen.”

(“Gentleman Firebrand,” Picture Play, September 1937)

Rathbone and Aline MacMahon in Kind Lady

“I certainly don’t want to make my fans hate me. When you undertake to create a characterization you tie it in with a definite mood and your very success may be your undoing. …

“I wouldn’t mind occasionally playing a heavy, if this means a character whose wickedness can be justified because he is consistent in following his own line of reasoning. We can all understand Iago’s motives in ‘Othello,’ even though we loathe him, because he appeals to the intelligence. By the way, Iago is the only heavy I ever portrayed on the stage and it became a great experience.”

(“He Resents Being Typed,” Silver Screen, July 1936)

Regarding his role as Murdstone in David Copperfield, Rathbone said:

“When I had to beat Freddie Bartholomew, I wanted to go to the producer and tell him that I couldn’t do it, I was through. But there was no other way out, I had to do that beastly thing. When I came home in the evening my wife said, ‘You look ill.’ I was. I told her I had done the most terrible thing in my life. … Never in my life will I play another Murdstone. He was so cruel, so heartless. A murderer can be very kind to a dog, but Murdstone was the sort of man that would beat a dog to death. He did not have a single redeeming feature. Many of Dickens’ characters are caricatures, but so exaggerated.”

Rathbone and Freddie Bartholomew (David Copperfield)

“In Anna Karenina I had what many would call a brutal and merciless part as the husband, yet it is a character that is real. … He was a man who honored the institution of marriage, and there was no brutality about him. He was an upstanding citizen, married to a very physical wife, whose tragedy was nothing compared to his.

Rathbone with Greta Garbo (Anna Karenina)

“I got the script with the part of Pontius Pilate [The Last Days of Pompeii] all marked out. As I read it, I had cold shivers running up and down my spine. I called my manager and said, ‘Get that part for me whatever you do.’ It was magnificently written, with economy of words—truly a sublime characterization. I played the part, and the director will tell you that everything you saw on the screen was the first take. Not because I was a good boy and learned my lines, or a superlative actor, but because the part was me, and I was the part.”

(“Hissed to the Heights,” Motion Picture, July 1936)

The Last Days of Pompeii

“I have been a cad and a bounder, a sinister, skulking villain who has forced unwelcome attentions upon Garbo, Colbert, Sigrid Gurie, Loretta Young, Olivia de Havilland. I am Public Enemy No. 1, and offense to decent nostrils, and I am fed up with it. I’d like to lead a respectable life on the screen.”

(“Hiss-s-s-s,” Silver Screen, August 1938)

The Mad Doctor

It’s understandable that any actor would get fed up playing only villains. It’s fortunate that Darryl Zanuck and Gene Markey realized that Basil Rathbone would be perfect for the part of Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. That role allowed Rathbone to break from being typecast as a villain—but then he was forever associated with the great detective!

Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

5 Comments

  1. sherlockholmesfanjb says

    Rockhyraxx, That is so cool!
    I too Detested Errol Flynn’s Costume 😂.
    I also remember thinking Sir Guy was kind of a handsome dude, but thought that was kinda gross since he was an adult and evil. THE famous swordfight scene! That was the only part of Robin Hood I actually looked forward to. I am now COMPLETELY OBSESSED with Basil’s sword fighting.

    At age 9 I was a huge tomboy and I loved playing the majestic, menacing, clever villains in the games I would play with my siblings. I was the oldest and bossy one so naturally, I played the bad guy. Darth Vader was a favorite villain of mine to play ;D I always found bad guys somewhat humorous in a way and sometimes a great deal more entertaining than the hero.
    I remember I absolutely loathed the romantic guys in movies. Now, I am kind of a sucker when it comes to romance, which goes expressly against the wishes of little nine year old me, I told myself “I will never like that mushy stuff!”… Hah ha – NOPE! ~I have failed miserably~ ❤️THanks a lot, Jane AUstin and SHakespeare!

    I now have a good deal of my friends becoming Basil Rathbone fans and I always find myself bringing him up in conversations when I meet new people and we talk about the movies we like. My brothers and sisters think Baz is a pretty awesome actor but I don’t think they will be as fangirl crazy as I am. ;D

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    • rockhyraxx says

      Oh wow, how did you manage to achieve that? My friends are all very far away from being BR-fans… Well, ok sometimes they say nice things about him, but just to please me I think. And where do you meet people, who are interested in movies that are older than 10 years or so? Whenever I try to talk about Basil nobody knows him! And sometimes I get asked who that guy on my profile pic is (it’s a drawing of me and him) and I tell them that he’s my favourite actor and they get interested for a short period of time till they ask in what kind of movies he’s playing. Then I list some really good movies of him, which they don’t know of course. And then it turns out they were made in the 30s or 40s and they get uninterested! And I could never convince any of my friends to watch even a single BR movie…
      Btw I loved to play the villain to, it was always a lot of fun to feel so powerful and evil!! But of course it is a different thing, when the public starts to think you are actually a bad person or you get typecast like poor Basil. And I still think it is so shocking that he had so whip Freddie in fact it had to be so horrible for him, as he was such a sensitive and kind man…

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  2. rockhyraxx says

    I think you could really see in pictures like “Love from a Stranger” how good he was in changing from absolutely charming to “ok something is strange about him” and later to complete psycho! And you still feel for his character in that movie, because he is not just a basic villain but a deeply disturbed man and you kind of hope that Ann Harding will save him in the end. I also enjoy him as the very wicked villain, because he is so good in it (like pretty much in everything), but I think he would have enjoyed playing his roles much more, if they would have been kept closer to the original (Karenin or Count Anteoni in GoA) or would have been wirtten with a little more character depth!

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  3. sherlockholmesfanjb says

    Poor Basil! 😦 The fact that he felt sick after doing the spanking scene in David Copperfield breaks my heart. 

    The first character I ever saw him play was Sir Guy but I was about 10 or 11 at the time and didn’t really pay attention to the cast. As a kid I remember not liking Errol Flynn’s portrayal as Robin Hood, I thought he was too mushy with Maid Marian :P. I learned who Basil Rathbone was, about two years ago when I was scrolling through Amazon Prime Video to see what there was to watch when I stumbled upon ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon’ I watched it and instantly became a fan! I watched all 14 of The Sherlock Holmes movies within a week and began looking for more movies that he starred in, I then discovered that I had seen him before in ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are the reason I started reading the Sherlock Holmes Novels and Stories! 🙂   

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    • rockhyraxx says

      OMG actually my story of becoming a Basil-fangirl is very similar to yours! I was about 11, when I first saw him in Robin Hood and I only remember that I was very angry, because my dad wanted to watch it and I wanted to watch some cartoon or idk and so I was very biased on the whole movie. But I know that I disliked Errol’s RH as well (mainly because of his horrible costume) and that I had huge issues with “that bad guy” (aka Sir Guy). Looking back now, I think I thought he would be good looking, what back then was a horrible thought to me, because first he was an adult man and I was 11 and second he was obviously a very evil man and good girls don’t like bad boys, so I guess my brain just substituted attraction by a huge amount of discomfort! Then later, after I became a fan of BR, I suddenly realised it would be him in RH and I was so scared to re-watch the movie because I remembered how much I disliked it. But now I’m healed and I actually love the movie very much!
      (Oh an I also remember my dad telling me during the swordfight, that it’s mostly only stunt doubles and only show fighting. Since I learned more about screen sword fights and how little both of them got doubled I had to re-talk that topic with him, and now he is deeply impressed by BR)

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