Comments 15

Short Films and Documentaries

Basil Rathbone made a number of feature-length films — 81, if we include Crazy House, in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce had a 15-second cameo appearance. You can see that here:

But what do we know about Rathbone’s short films and documentaries? He made quite of few of those also.

Rathbone earliest appearance in a short film (as far as I know) was also a brief cameo. Screen Snapshots #9 (1936) makes a camera tour of the grandstands at the Santa Anita race track during a special running. Those on view include Joe E. Brown, Arthur Treacher, Basil Rathbone, Ann Sothern, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien, Tom Mix, Donald Wood, Douglas Fairbanks and Jack Oakie.  (10 min.)

Robert Montgomery, Basil Rathbone, Jimmy Stewart (1939)

Screen Snapshots was a series of short films (usually about 10 minutes long) produced by Ralph Staub (Columbia Pictures) between 1930 and 1958. Like newsreels and cartoons, they were shown in theaters before the main feature. Rathbone appeared in several of these Screen Snapshots, including:

Screen Snapshots, series 18, #10 (1939). This short film shows about a hundred Hollywood celebrities arriving at a charity ball hosted by Basil and Ouida Rathbone at their Bel Air estate on April 15, 1939. Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Rudy Vallee, Dolores Del Rio, Cary Grant, David O. Selznick, Irene Dunne, Joan Bennett, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Hedy Lamarr are only a few of the Hollywood film folk who took part in the festivities.

Basil pours champagne for Marlene Dietrich. (photo by William Grimes)

Basil pours champagne for Errol Flynn. Also at the table are Veronica Cooper and Dolores Del Rio. (Photo by William Grimes)

Screen Snapshots, series 19, #5 (1940). Titled “Art in Hollywood,” this short film features Fritz Lieber, Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard, Robert Wilcox, Florence Rice, Mary Boland and Fred MacMurray displaying their painting and sculpture hobbies. The 3 Stooges (Moe, Larry & Curly) collaborate on a painting, and wind up more painted than the canvas. I was not aware that painting and/or sculpture were among Basil Rathbone’s hobbies. He was an avid photographer, however, so perhaps “photography” was the art that Rathbone shared in the film.

Rathbone with his son Rodion on the set of The Dawn Patrol

Screen Snapshots, series 25, #4 (1945). The first portion of this short film features Basil Rathbone, Arthur Treacher, Ronald Colman, C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce and other members of Hollywood’s English colony showing how cricket should be played. The second portion of the film deals with a charity golf match featuring Bing Crosby.

C Aubrey Smith in 1935

Screen Snapshots, series 26, #10 (1949). British comedian Alan Mowbray narrates this look at Hollywood’s British community. Featured are glimpses of Cary Grant, Ida Lupino, Ronald Colman, Stan Laurel (and Oliver Hardy), Clifton Webb, Binnie Barnes, Ray Milland, Herbert Marshall, Basil Rathbone, Charles Laughton, Nigel Bruce and Leslie Howard.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce

Another series of short films similar to Screen Snapshots is Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood. Hedda Hopper was a Hollywood gossip columnist, who focused on what the celebrities were up to, and often exposed extramarital affairs.

Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood #6 is a 9-minute short made in 1942. Hopper covers two war benefit affairs, a garden party, and a USO fashion show held by Mary Pickford at her home (Pickfair). WW2 soldiers got to meet their favorite stars, eat and play games. A large number of stars, including Basil Rathbone, can be seen at this event.

In 1950, Basil Rathbone narrated a 30-minute documentary called H2O—New York. The New York Times ( May 14, 1950) reported the following:

Let it be known that alert is the word for both Glendon Allvine and the New York State Department of Commerce. Last week, “H2O—New York,” a half-hour length documentary, filmed in Kodachrome, written and directed by Mr. Allvine and produced by the N.Y.S.D.C., came out of the cutting room. The film, which has been in production almost from the time local burghers became aware of the water shortage, deals, naturally enough, with our town’s water supply from source to consumer and the state’s varied waterways. Basil Rathbone is the narrator and, according to Mr. Allvine, in a sequence devoted to the Port of New York, “gives a reading of Walt Whitman’s poem, ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’ which has surprising modern phrasing.”  “H2O—New York,” he adds, will have its first showing soon at the Museum of Modern Art. Simultaneously it will be shown in a black and white version over a television network.

Art Treasures from the Vienna Collections (40 min.). Rembrandt, Vermeer and Velasquez are among the painters whose masterpieces are shown in this comprehensive footage of the Hapsburg art treasures. The commentary is written by Thomas Craven and narrated by Basil Rathbone. Art Treasures from the Vienna Collections was made in 1950 by Regency Productions, and filmed in New York, NY.

On loan from the Austrian Government, these paintings were exhibited in several art museums in the United States from 1949 to 1952. The “Art Treasures from the Vienna Collections” were on exhibit in the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC) from November 20, 1949 to January 22, 1950. The exhibit moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) for February 24, 1950 to May 21, 1950. Other U.S. museums that hosted this exhibit included the Art Institute of Chicago; M.H. de Young Memorial Museum (San Francisco); City Art Museum (St. Louis, Missouri); Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, Ohio); Art Gallery of Toronto (Ontario); and the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston). By 1952 the exhibit had reached the Philadelphia Museum of Art (February 9, 1952 to March 30, 1952).

It seems likely that the film was made based on this traveling art exhibit, with Basil Rathbone acting as the docent. Since it was filmed in New York, it must have been at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The catalog that museum visitors could buy

The website of the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC) gives more details about the “Art Treasures from the Vienna Collections” exhibit:

Overview: Among 279 objects were 128 paintings by artists such as Titian, Jacopo Tintoretto, Diego Velázquez, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, and Johannes Vermeer (Vermeer’s The Artist in His Studio, also in the exhibition, was selected by Hitler as the most important acquisition for his proposed museum at Linz). Also shown were 32 Renaissance bronzes, 2 miniatures, 6 Greek and Roman antiquities, 8 ivories, 15 works of goldsmiths and silversmiths (the Cellini gold Salt), 33 vessels of rock crystal and precious stones, 2 pieces of jewelry, 27 pieces of arms and armor, 19 French and Flemish tapestries, and a clock. The works for this exhibition were lent by the Austrian government in gratitude to the American people for the rescue of the works of art from the salt mines in Upper Austria, where they had been hidden during the war. Nearly all the pieces came from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and had been acquired by members of the house of Habsburg, rulers from 1273 to 1917.

Accompanied by Dr. Ernst Buschbeck, curator of the Vienna Picture Gallery, and Erich Stromer, curator of sculpture and objets d’art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the exhibition continued to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Except for a few fragile items not seen in the United States, the same exhibition had already been on view in London, Paris, Zurich, Brussels, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. The shipment of 101 cases was brought from England by the United States Navy in a refrigerator ship.

Adventures into Space is a 73-minute long documentary made in 1958 and narrated by Basil Rathbone. The following is part of the description found on the Turner Classic Movies website (http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/622913/Adventures-into-Space/ ):

The space adventurers of the 20th century are inspired in their conquest of outer space by explorers of Earth’s polar region, who tested the limits of human endurance in the early part of the century. This film follows the course of several of these adventures using footage shot by the explorers themselves, as well as footage shot by others. After American Robert Edwin Peary led the first expedition to the North Pole in 1909 on foot, several others attempted to be the first to reach the area by plane, which was a relatively new invention. The film follows Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s 1922 attempt, beginning with the construction of two water planes. …

By the 1950s these remote areas have become easily inhabitable with the help of modern technology, enabling scientists and explorers to turn their attention to space exploration. Seeking ways to surpass the limitations of the body in preparation for space life, laboratory animals are sent into Earth’s upper atmosphere to test conditions using new technologies in missiles and rockets. The footage from these experiments leads to the discovery that animals can survive in the Earth’s upper atmosphere despite the lack of gravity. After the Soviet Union successfully launches Sputnik, the first space satellite, they send a dog into outer space in a rocket-propelled ship, proving that living beings can exist in outer space. The United States’ Jupiter C satellite is launched later in 1958 and provides measurements of meteorites, cosmic rays and temperature. Later that year, United States’ Pioneer satellite reaches more than a third of the way to the moon. Stations around the world register data about the satellite’s positions to assist in future flights. Although satellites cannot provide the final answer to human travel to the moon, they can gather valuable information. While many nations are preparing for this voyage into outer space, a new kind of pioneer and courageous explorer must be found to brave this new territory.

John Fenton painting

In 1961, Rathbone narrated an animated featurette called The Black Cat.  Twenty-two minutes long, the film was distributed by Continental Distributing. It was exhibited across the country and at the Cannes Film festival.

Boxoffice magazine reported: “Edgar Allan Poe’s classic horror tale of a man brought to the gallows by his nemesis, a black cat, is told through the weird and macabre paintings created by John Fenton. Narrator: Basil Rathbone.” John Fenton designed 50 paintings especially for this film. I have not been able to find a single one of these “weird and macabre” paintings. Here is another Fenton painting, completely unrelated to The Black Cat.

Also in 1961, Basil Rathbone narrated a documentary called Mystic Prophesies and Nostradamus. Directed by Merle S. Gould, the film combines scholarly illustrations and classic stock footage. Stanton Pritchard plays Nostradamus. You can watch the film here:


Two Before Zero is a bizarre film made in 1962. I include it here because it is a documentary (sort of). Or perhaps a docu-drama of anti-communist propaganda. Two actors, Basil Rathbone and Mary Murphy, discuss the evils of communism. Accompanying their debate is archival footage of the Russian Revolution, the death of Lenin, the rise of Stalin, the Spanish Civil War, the invasion of Hungary, and Castro’s takeover in Cuba. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “With Basil Rathbone, dressed in judicial robes before a large volume on a lectern, and Mary Murphy, attired in flowing, white virginal robes, as, we presume, the personification of the eternal woman asking questions about Communism, Mr. Rathbone explains Communism’s history and implications. The dialogue, delivered in portentous, often satirical tones, is pointed and cutting but sometimes too high-flown for the shots it is supposed to underline.” (The New York Times, November 1, 1962)

This film can be purchased at Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B07SZBJZCN/basilrathboma-20

Finally, I have a vague memory of reading somewhere that Basil Rathbone narrated a short film used to promote tourism in Maine. I cannot find any information on this now, but I mention it in case it rings a bell for any of you. Please feel free to add info on the Maine travel film or other short films in the comments section below.


  1. rockhyraxx says

    Hi! I just wanted to say I really hope everybody is all right! Schools and Universities are shut down over here so besides of eLearning and writing my bachelor’s thesis some binge watching of all of Basil’s movies will be on my list for the next month!
    Sending lots of love to everybody – stay safe!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. ticobasiljd says

    Let’s see if Gravatar kicks me to the gutter again!! Love this article–who knew he did so much. On Amazon, last fall, deep into the BR videos available, you could find a series of about 20 historical ones by some company and I believe he narrates two of them, and one I believe is/was available on You Tube if you search for BR. One has to buy the whole set. Can’t find the info at the moment. Also I have an album related to a tour of a museum; it originally came accompanied by slides, from the Polaroid company, maybe. Probably early 1960s. Can’t find this either at the moment! And what may be purely a hallucination: vague memory of b&w tv thing, 1970s-80s, where they showed a horseback jousting contest, and I swear he either narrated it or even rode in it–remember distinctly his pronouncing it “joosting.” A lot of the cute Ken Murray videos are on YouTube but no sign of our Dear Boy. YouTube yesterday was also showing “The Magic Sword,” I think it was (yuck), from the nice fellow who presents some of his Holmes movies in colour…but it came with an over-40-minute commercial to plow through, and my “skip commercial” dingus never works.
    If Gravatar decides to be nice, and we get some winter weather, will send u some of the clipping tidbits.


    • marciajessen says

      I think that the historical documentary you are thinking of is “Time to Remember,” a British television series. Perhaps I need to make another post to include television programs! Here’s a link to the first part of Time to Remember on YouTube. Note that it is labeled Record A Reel 1. So you’d need to look for Record B Reel 1, and then Record C, etc. to see the entire thing.


      • ticobasiljd says

        Hi, I don’t see the link, but that’s OK, I’ve seen it before. I have the entire list printed somewhere in my mess. Just curious: I use the free version of YouTube, but am wondering if the paid version has more BR material. Had to hack through a lot of stuff to get that interview of his temporary Asian servant back in the late 1930s, a delicious little snippet without the man’s name or anything–looked as if it was taped in a nursing home.
        Have you ever tried finding any of his fanclub materials? The man who’s quoted on your site about helping BR rehearse for a radio show when BR was old, and those club presidents before him…. Quite the phenomenon in the old days, in what we were led to believe was an innocent time.


        • marciajessen says

          I think the point of the paid version of Youtube is that you aren’t forced to watch ads before you can watch the video.


        • marciajessen says

          Oh, I do have some fanclub materials. I’ll go through them and see what I can post.


  3. rockhyraxx says

    Oh Basil as a guide, talking about beautiful art… I guess I have to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum again, now that I now some of the pictures connect to Basil!
    By the way, I remember to have read somewhere, that Basil was fond of drawing caricatures of fellow actors (to loose his bad guy image). Maybe that was featured in the short movie? But as photography is also a form of art and Basil seemed to love it very much, it seems very likely to me!


  4. There’s a short film, narrarated by Basil Rathbone, that I saw as a kid many moons ago in Sixth Grade during our study of the country of France. It may have been called, “Traveling through France.” I distinctly remember the film having a sequence on making an omelette. Years later I saw a snippet of this film on another show (but don’t remember what show) – and Basil Rathbone’s voice was a distinct part of it. If I come across it or figure it out, will certainly let you know.

    Liked by 2 people

    • marciajessen says

      Thanks! I haven’t heard of this one. But it seems that Rathbone narrated all kinds of films! Of course, he had a great voice for narration!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well, well, after writing the above commentary, curiosity was killing the cat so I decided to go off and try and find this film. And, guess what? I did. After viewing it, it is indeed the film I saw well over 50 years ago in my geography class, complete with cooking an omelette. But, I don’t think the narrator is Basil Rathbone. He sounds a little like Mr. Rathbone, no question, somewhat nasal and British, but after listening very closely this time around, my gut now says, “No, I don’t think it’s Basil Rathbone – at all.” The narrator is not listed on the film anywhere, so I’m curious as to whom it may have been. Maybe we can let all the commentators here take a look at the film and give their opinion on whether it’s Basil Rathbone doing the narration or someone else. The film’s title is, “Flying Holidays: Travelling through France.” It is a 1960s Air France travelogue and can be viewed on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjyBSDiN3sY


      • marciajessen says

        I agree that it’s not Basil Rathbone’s voice. Also consider that by the 1960s, Rathbone was a star, and any documentary film maker would have had to pay Rathbone to narrate the film. Rathbone would have insisted on being credited as narrator. He would not have been an anonymous narrator.


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