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.”
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)
“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.”
“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.
“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)
“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)
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!