This blog is about the movie star and definitive Sherlock Holmes – Basil Rathbone. A man who has legitimate claim to being one of the greatest and definitely most enigmatic actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
And perhaps also the most underrated – by his peers, and most crucially, by himself.
I’ve been a fan of the Baz since I was a kid and watched the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies on TV. Other girls liked George Clooney and Orlando Bloom. I liked Basil Rathbone, who was old enough to be my great grandfather – and also dead.
I’m not sure what the fascination was/is. I mean he’s obviously incredibly handsome in that chiseled thirties way, but it’s not as simple as that. Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn were beautiful too, but while I love them, they don’t draw me to them the way Basil Rathbone does.
I think it might be that I sense something tragic in him . A kind of lost poignancy hangs round his memory like little whisps of Universal mist. Perhaps that appeals to the Gothic in me.
The tragedy is, I suppose, that famous and fabulous as he was, he could have been so much more than he was allowed to be.
I mean this is a man who had almost everything going for him – talent, intelligence, classical theatre-training, and movie-star looks thrown in. In 1929 he was poised, like Olivier ten years later, on the brink between being a succesful classical actor and becoming a great movie star, and there seems no reason why, like Olivier, and others such as Fredric March and John Barrymore, he couldn’t have ended up being both. He had just starred in The Last of Mrs Cheyney opposite Norma Shearer, who was then the Queen of Hollywood. The movie was a success, Rathbone was obviously gorgeous and talented, moreover he was blessed with a beautiful modulated classsical actor’s voice, which, in 1929, two year after the first talking picture was like gold dust in the movie industry. He was in the right place at the right time and he had what it took to succeed.
But inexplicably, rather than being the great beginning it should have been, in some ways The Last of Mrs Cheyney was the start of his slow, strange decline. Yes he was to make some immortal films in the next twenty years, but he would be the top-billed star in very few. And at the same time his stage career that had seen him play everything from Romeo to Iago, from Jack Worthing to Judas Iscariot also began to languish due to his ‘exile’ in the film colony.
By 1947 – when he was only 55 and still well in his prime as an actor – his career in both media was effectively past any chance of glory, apart from a few last sparks and the great swansong of The Heiress. But even there he was, inexplicably, passed over for the movie in favor of Ralph Richardson, a fine actor, but a far less famous or charismatic screen-presence. Why? Go figure. But it was almost par for the course in the Baz’s strange career. Looking at the things he could have done but never did, it almost seems as if his bosses were uniquely blind to what they had in him.
Yes, it’s the hint of tragically unfulfilled genius in Basil Rathbone that appeals to me almost as much as his splendidness. The fact he knew what he had and what was being wasted, but was powerless inside the studio system; the increasing and inflammatory resentment and bitterness in him as his talent became reduced to formulae; horror and swashbuckling, swashbuckling and horror – and of course Holmes. We have to see his rants against Sherlock, so shocking to those of us who grew up loving him in this role, as being a part of the desperate restlesness of a brilliant and versatile performer forced to endure what felt like – and sort of was in real terms – a kind of slow death of his creative energies. It’s not as if he could even retire. Ouida and her legendary ‘lifestyle’ made that impossible.
What really keep me coming back to this is the lack of an obvious explanation. Why did Olivier, March, Barrymore, become movie stars and princes of the stage while Rathbone missed the first, lost the second and so quickly became enmeshed in second billing and type-casting, and ended his career doing cheap horror flicks? He never belonged with Karloff and Lugosi in the “monster-movie has-been” bin; he had been classically trained with Benson, had played Stratford. Why had not only Hollywood, but his mother-theatre also apparently deserted him?
I guess I’ve always wanted to look for answers to that question, but more importantly I also want to do the impossible and rewrite the past, give Mr R back the greatness he nearly had but lost while still in his prime.
Ok, I know I can’t actually do that, but maybe I can do a little bit of it by celebrating him and his still wonderful achievements, while also reminding myself of what we all lost.
I dunno, it’s my rationale anyway.