- Where did he live?
- What was he doing?
- What did he earn?
In 1940, Basil was living and working in Hollywood. Basil, his wife Ouida, and their daughter Cynthia had moved from their house on 5254 Los Feliz Blvd. to a new house in Bel Air.
Due to the addition of baby Cynthia to the family in the spring of 1939, the Rathbones moved to a larger house “with a room and a bath and a kitchenette for the baby and a larger garden to care for” (In and Out of Character, pp. 165-166). The new house was located at 10728 Bellagio Road, high in the wooded hills of Bel Air, 1260 feet above Hollywood. The French chateau type house sat on four acres, surrounded by a fence. One side overlooked the San Fernando Valley, and the other side looked toward the Pacific. Thirty-seven oak trees and wild flowers sat on two and a half of the four acres. The property included a fern dell with a waterfall.
The 1940 census record tells us that the Rathbones employed three maids: one English girl, Nellie Green (age 26); a Mexican, Celia Rivas (18); and a Dutch woman, Theresa Glassbergen (30). In addition there was a Japanese houseboy called Thomas Honda (23) and a cook called Eupesnia Caballero (45). An article in Hollywood magazine refers to a cook named Bessie. “Bessie” was likely a nickname for “Eupesnia.” Either that, or Eupesnia was replaced by a new cook named Bessie.
In addition to Basil, Ouida, baby Cynthia, and the servants, the Rathbone household included six dogs, two cats, two canaries and a tortoise. Basil’s son Rodion had been living with Basil and Ouida, but by 1940 he had left to join the war effort. He trained in Canada to become a pilot.
By 1940, Ouida Rathbone had a reputation as the most successful party-giver in Hollywood. Her parties became the talk of the town. She didn’t like buffet dinners, where guests were expected to balance their plates on their knees, so when Ouida entertained, the guests sat down at decorated tables in her 60-foot long dining hall. Ouida’s parties featured dancing, music, lights, and laughter—and to hell with the expense! She had become a legend. Nevertheless, Basil claimed that they didn’t entertain that much. At least 300 evenings of the year they were home reading, or listening to Basil’s vast library of records. Hmm. That still leaves 65 evenings for parties—more than one per week!
The Second World War was being fought in Europe and the Pacific, but the USA had not yet entered the fight. In 1940, Basil was serving as President of the Los Angeles chapter of British War Relief and also the War Chest Executive Committee. He also founded the RAF Benevolent Fund and helped organize the United Nations War Relief.
Basil Rathbone was one of many Hollywood stars who contributed entertainment for a show called “Champions of 1940” and staged at the Los Angeles Coliseum May 17, 1940. Featuring Olympic games track stars, the show benefited the National Finnish Relief Committee.
For the British War Relief Association of Southern California, the Theatre Guild on August 5 launched a stage presentation of Noel Coward’s “Tonight at 8:30” at the El Capitan Theatre with a cast composed almost entirely of British thespians. Dudley Murphy and Alan Mowbray were in charge. The list of players included Nigel Bruce, Reginald Owen, Constance Bennett, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Reginald Gardiner, Basil Rathbone, Henry Stephenson, C. Aubrey Smith, Wendy Barrie, Melville Cooper, Brian Aherne, Ian Hunter, Herbert Marshall and Roland Young. The nine short plays in the cycle (directed by Dudley Murphy, George Cukor, Edmund Goulding, Robert Sinclair and Margaret Webster) were performed over the course of three weeks—three plays each week. Basil appeared in “The Astonished Heart,” one of the three short plays that were performed the first week, August 5-10.
On September 29, Rathbone participated in a radio program to aid the Canadian Red Cross. The program was broadcast on the CBC and included 16 Hollywood stars.
After the United States entered the war, Rathbone entertained troops in the Hollywood Canteen, visited army hospitals, and volunteered his help with other war relief efforts.
Basil Rathbone was busy on Radio in 1940. He was on the weekly Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio show on WJZ-NBC (“NBC Blue”) from October 2, 1939, to March 11, 1940. The show was on Monday nights from 8:30 to 9:00 p.m. The next season started September 29, 1940 and ran until March 9, 1941. The show had moved to Sunday nights, still from 8:30 to 9:00 p.m.
In addition to the Sherlock Holmes radio show, Rathbone was heard on other radio shows.
- On March 10 he took part in a radio program on NBC to raise funds for the Metropolitan Opera House.
- On April 25, he did a guest appearance on The Kraft Music Hall, which starred Bing Crosby and the John Scott Trotter orchestra (NBC). Other guests included Ken Carpenter, Bob Burns, The Music Maids, Carole Landis, and Spring Byington.
- On October 20 he appeared with Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, Edward Arnold and Ernst Lubitsch in an episode of the Screen Guild Theater called “Variety.”
- And on November 4 he performed with Ida Lupino in “Wuthering Heights” on the Lux Radio Theater.
And what about films?
In spite of having played Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in 1939, Basil Rathbone returned to playing a villain in 1940. In the early part of the year, he was working on the film The Mad Doctor (working title: A Date with Destiny). Now Basil renewed his earlier complaint about being typecast as a villain. “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 want and need a change.” (“Handsome Villain,” Milwaukee Journal, June 2, 1940)
In April, the Nottingham Evening Post printed an interesting article about Basil:
HE IS DOOMED TO PLAY THE VILLAIN AND HE GETS TOO MUCH MONEY!
Basil Rathbone’s Lament
Basil Rathbone’s trouble is that the film producers pay him too much.
If they would only cut his salary by about 80 per cent. Basil would be happy, because he would then stay in New York and go on the stage.
Basil is cast in almost every film as the villain of the piece, so his wife has written a script on the life of the composer Liszt. She has offered it to the producers for nothing, provided Basil is the star.
What is more, she says that he will act the part for nothing.
“Basil,” she said, “is one of the stage’s really distinguished actors, but with the coming of the talkies, he was lured to Hollywood. It was the money that was the attraction.
“They kept putting him in one picture after another, doing the same thing; and a great actor with 20 years’ stage experience was wasting his time at £750 weekly.
“It nearly drive us silly. So when his contract was finished, we went to New York, never to come back, and we were really happy. He had his stage work, and for three years we had no worries.
“Then producer David Selznick began pestering Basil to play in ‘David Copperfield.’ The offers mounted higher and higher, until he could no longer say no.
“His villainy made him the star, and how he hated it! Yet the offers poured in for him to play more villainous roles at simply fantastic prices.”
Basil got a break from playing the villain when he played songwriter Oliver Courtney in Rhythm on the River. His reprieve didn’t last long, though. He was a villain again as Captain Esteban Pasquale in The Mark of Zorro.
Poor Basil. Well, not so poor, actually.
According to Variety, Basil Rathbone earned $140,833 in 1939. I don’t have his earnings for 1940, but it was probably similar. He was still a box-office draw and very much in demand. $140,833 is equivalent to $2,782,347 in 2021. Something that cost $100 in 1940 would cost $1976 in 2021.
The average price for a new car in 1940 was $850! And a gallon of gas cost 11 cents.
Basil needed as much money as he could get, of course, because Ouida spent it as fast as he earned it.