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

9 Comments

  1. sherlockholmesfanjb says

    Happy New Year! I hope you also had a wonderful holiday! My family and I, unfortunately, got a bit sick for the holidays but we still managed to have a good time. My sisters and I did some binge watching of The Office for most of our Christmas vacation 😂 LOL
      The pleasure was mine, and may I also say that I feel honored to have met such a nice person who also shares the same admiration for Mr. Rathbone. I feel incredibly lucky to have found this site!
    Oh that’s wonderful! A potential Basil Rathbone fan how exciting! I recently watched the first season of the BBC Sherlock for the first time and I must say I was pretty darn impressed. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman make a great modern day Watson and Holmes.
    I’ve seen all of the Jeremy Brett episodes and I love the entire series, seasons one and two are my favorites!
    My costume was mostly just whatever I could find around the house. I borrowed my brother’s coat, put on a tie, slacks and purchased a hat and a (plastic) pipe. I need to teach myself how to sew again. My mom taught me how to sew when I was 5, but I haven’t sewn in years and I was never really that good at it. I only use sewing now to mend my clothes. Wow, I haven’t been brave enough to try to attempt sewing a skirt yet. Keep practicing and I bet you’ll be making some lovely skirts 🙂 Thank you for recommending the Betty Edwards method I will definitely try it out! When it comes to drawing I like doing silhouettes and shadows. I’m no Auguste Edouart but I feel I am gradually getting better at making some decent silhouettes.

                I also wish this year brings you and your family the best of luck!

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    • rockhyraxx says

      Aww your reply cheered me up so much! (Had a rather hard day – forgot that one of my exams… existed, so I have to repeat that course next winter *unamused face*). I think the Basil Rathbone fan community is just one of the most charming communities ever. I have never actually talked to anybody appreciating Basil yet, who would have been unfriendly in any way; on the contrary, everybody is always so supporting and kind! So yes, I am also extremely glad and thankful that there is a place where I can talk with such friendly and kind people like you, even if it is only via internet.
      I always get sick for the holidays as well, but somehow I got spared this year ;). I hope you all feel better by now; flus can be pretty stubborn sometimes!
      Your costume sounds very creative! I like costumes that are made of one’s own closet, they are so practical and mostly a lot more comfortable than those plastic costumes! Over here we celebrate a carnivalish thing (with dressing up like at Halloween, but not as scary things) and I am severely tempted to get myself a deerstalker hat for this year…
      Haha please don’t overestimate me. it was only a circle skirt and involved sewing only at the waistband + hemming the raw edges, so it wasn’t such a big task and I still failed a little bit… But it is wearable under a shirt that hides some of the monstrosities. But yes, learning how to sew properly will definitely be a future project of mine, currently I like to upcycle some of my plain t-shirts so they all have Basil’s beautiful face on them (or something connected to him)
      Wow, I find drawing shadows pretty hart, because you have t catch a lot of little details, so the person or whatever is recognisable. Chapeau!
      Oh just imagine Basil’s beautiful profile as a self-drawn silhouette!

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  2. 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…

      Liked by 1 person

      • sherlockholmesfanjb says

        Sorry this reply is so late. December got pretty busy getting things ready for Christmas.
        Awesome! I wish I could draw. My Instagram profile pic is of me dressed as Sherlock Holmes from last Halloween. I posted a side by side photo comparison of my profile, with me dressed as Sherlock next to Basil dressed as Sherlock while also showing his profile. I too have a prominent nose :^)
        I usually talk about Basil Rathbone with my closest friends that I have known since I was 5. We were sheltered homeschoolers growing up so our options for entertainment were limited. My mom would play old movies all the time. I thought I was an old school, cool kid who watched black and white movies until I found out that my buddies at church and at homeschool co-op had seen more old movies than I have. Now, it’s become a bit of a competition between me and my friends on who knows the most old movies and movie actors from the 1940s -1960s.
        I was once in a conversation with a mom who I was babysitting for, about how wholesome movies from the 40s were and I brought up how I was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan and Basil Rathbone fan. Surprisingly, she knew who I was talking about and she said “Oh Yeah! My brothers, sisters, and I would watch the Women in Green on VHS.” I was so stunned that someone (whom I was not a close friend with) actually knew who I was talking about for the first time! I was speechless. 😂
        I would recommend that you and your friends take turns picking a movie for movie night. You guys should put movies suggestions in a hat or a bowl and whatever movie gets picked out THAT is the movie that you guys will watch NO BUTS about it and nobody’s hand goes back the hat for another movie NO SIR you watch the first suggestion that has been picked out THOSE ARE THE RULES! You could also have whoever’s movie suggestion was picked that night gives everyone trivia questions to see who was paying attention and whoever gets the most questions right wins a prize! I’m going to be completely honest, I have never tried this idea, it’s just something that I thought of when I was full of caffeine and up at 1:00 AM but I might just do this with my friends and family sometime and see how it works out.
        You could also see if your friends would be interested in watching actor Jeremy Brett’s portrayal as Sherlock Holmes.
        I highly recommend this episode https://youtu.be/bejIYJQ5Qx4 Maybe after watching a couple of Jeremy Brett episodes they might be interested in seeing Basil Rathbone’s movies. It was through doing research on the legendary performance of Basil Rathbone that I learned about the amazing actor Jeremy Brett 🙂
        The show ran on TV during the 80s. It is suspenseful and thrilling! I give the first two seasons, 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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        • rockhyraxx says

          Hi! Thank you so much for your reply! I have to admit, I feel very honoured that you invested so many thoughts in trying to solve my “problem”. I think I will give your idea a try and let you know about the results! Some of my friends have very strange movie suggestions as well, so I think they would appreciate this method!
          According to the different SH adaptions, one friend of mine does actually love the Benedict Cumberbatch version, which borrowed a lot from the Basil version, and she did promise me once that she would do some Basil binge watching, so she is not an entirely hopeless case…
          I got a giant DVD set of the Jeremy Brett series for my birthday two years ago, because my parents grew up with that series and loved it very much. I think the episodes are very well made, though I have to admit, I have not watched them all yet.
          Oh that’s so cool! Was it a self-made costume? You see I would love to be able to sew. (Once I made a circle skirt that is partially falling apart…) And I would not say that I CAN draw, I can only draw in a very specific style that is basically only copying pre-existing pictures, but if you are interested, try searching for the “drawing on the right side of the brain”-method by Betty Edwards. I attended a drawing course based on this method for a weekend and adapted my black and white “skills” to working with coloured pencils in a very unorthodox and nonprofessional way. But the results do look ok nevertheless. Btw I just searched for it and there are some YouTube tutorials on this method for each “lesson”, but I haven`t watched them, so I can’t review them.

          I hope you all have / had a wonderful holiday season and I wish everybody the best of luck for 2020!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. 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!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. 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)

      Liked by 1 person

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