Basil Rathbone

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Basil Rathbone Pencil Portrait
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During the heyday of Hollywood’s swashbuckling epics, the genius behind the few truly memorable fencing duels was not a director like Michael Curtiz, Maurice Tourneur or Rouben Mamoulian, or stars like Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power – it was Fred Cavens.

In ‘The Mark of Zorro,’ the combination of Mamoulian’s taut direction and the choreography of father & son Cavenses fooled more than a few viewers into believing Tyrone Power could expertly duel. Thankfully, they had no need to tutor the leading man’s co-star for the actor with the rawboned, knife sharp visage and physique had been studying fencing from the age of eighteen; indeed, he might have been a world-class champion had he been sufficiently interested in tournaments. He fought his own duels & the only unrealistic aspect to them was that in film after film, he failed to kill the hero. Agile and adept with all three primary weapons, foil, sabre and épée, the South African born British actor had no need to call upon his penchant for disguise. Watching from the sidelines as the cameras rolled, Fred Cavens was in no doubt that Basil Rathbone was an expert swordsman.

I first became aware of him as a young boy of eight. My father had picked up a heavily discounted book on the year 1967 and I can remember to this day his striking profile in a picture accompanying his obituary. I loved the 1938 movie “The adventures of Robin Hood,” and in particular his performance as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. There was a sense of purpose to him and a disquieting notion in my mind that he was perfectly capable of killing the hero of the film. Little did I realise just how true that was had the two protagonists stepped outside the Hollywood illusion.

Rathbone served Great Britain with distinction as a lieutenant, an intelligence officer, with the Liverpool Scottish, second battalion in World War I. His younger brother John, a captain in the Dorset regiment, died in that war. In an interview with Edward R. Murrow for his “person to Person” series in 1957, Rathbone related the story of how he disguised himself as a tree to get near the enemy camp to obtain information. “I went to my commanding officer and I said that I thought we’d get a great deal more information from the enemy if we didn’t fool around in the dark so much . . . and I asked him whether I could go out in daylight. I think he thought we were a little crazy. . . . I said we’d go out camouflaged — made up as trees — with branches sticking out of our heads and arms . . . . We brought back an awful lot of information, and a few prisoners, too.”

He received the British Military Cross for outstanding bravery. His service to Britain and his brother’s sacrifice contributed to his decision later on in his life to remain a British subject even though he had been living in the United States for many years.

Basil Rathbone rehearsing with Fred Cavens \\

I had the good fortune recently to stumble across his autobiography “Basil Rathbone-In and out of character.” He was an actor and a gentleman of the old school and his memoirs have a sort of dated charm – people are gay, events are gallant, and the prose is gilded. At Repton School, he learned esprit de corps; as a World War hero he recited Rupert Brooke to a French lass and after Stratford-on-Avon repertory and matinee idol success on the West End, he moved to New York, playing with Helen Mencken in ‘Captive,’ Doris Keane in ‘Czarina,’ and Romeo to Kit Cornell’s Juliet. His prominence in England as a Shakespearean stage actor prepared him well for a strong work ethic and he went on to appear in over 70 films, primarily costume dramas, swashbucklers, and, occasionally, horror films. He frequently portrayed suave villains or morally ambiguous characters, such as Murdstone in ‘David Copperfield’ (1935) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne in ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ (1938). His most famous role, however, was the character of Sherlock Holmes in fourteen Hollywood films made between 1939 and 1946 in addition to a radio series.

His autobiography was originally published in 1956 and there was an updated version printed six years later. Rathbone was 70 in 1962 and his reflections on family life and society in general resonate as powerfully today, more than fifty years after they were recorded for posterity.

On page 272 he writes :

“Science and technology have advanced our way of life to an almost unimaginable degree of physical comfort and well being, irrespective of one’s income bracket. I well remember when there was no air conditioning; when carpets were strewn with wet tea leaves and swept by hand with a long handled broom; when every pot and pan and dish and plate and glass and cup and saucer was washed by hand; when the running of a home was a full time job as it was with my mother, and the organisation of a home life was as much a profession as any other profession followed by women today. Days when to have been a good wife to her man and a good mother to her children was not a daily chore but an inspiring and rewarding experience. But science and technology have changed all that. To have the many added comforts, conveniences, and luxuries that are available (mostly on the credit system) to almost all of us, most families find it impossible to meet expenses on father’s pay cheque alone. And so it is that mother has had to go out to work , and more often than not at a considerable cost to family life that no added pay cheque can compensate for. Children have been thrown more and more together and upon their own resources , in a life of their own that has set them apart from their elders.”

I hear “youth” continuously spoken of as if it were a tribal organisation precariously attached to some outworn and outmoded “traditions” that have become no more than antiquated slogans of a dead past.The pace of our lives has so increased that youth is unavoidably caught up in its vortex. The young dreamer soon becomes a neurotic for want of mature companionship and understanding. The young “artist” seeks out his own people and often finds himself hiding with them behind false values he is not ready to evaluate. Modern art and modern music revolt against a past they feel they cannot compete with and so ineffectually compete with each other in sheer desparation and with often distorted and hideous results. Much of our modern literature protests with an angry and frequently ignorant tongue against a life it fails to understand, and consequently falls into an abusive pattern of crude violence and sheer lewdness that it miserably mistakes for reality. Unguided and unguarded, young people, quite early in life, become involved in the “realities” of sex, and “love” becomes a discarded word in their vocabulary because it suggests to them an unacceptable frustration to the immediacy of their emotions. And to a considerable extent much of all this is inevitable when companionship and mutual confidence within the family has been lost and many are strangers to one another in a house that has never been a home.

I wonder what he might have added to these thoughts from today’s perspective? After all, there remains to this day, such a topicality to his views on family life and yet much mystique about his own domestic background. Fortunately, researchers now have recourse to the excellent work of Marcia Jenssen who has run for more than ten years. This is without doubt, the most comprehensive website imaginable on the actor and an interview with the domain holder can be located via the following link. The actor’s legacy is in the most capable of hands.


Recommended listening

The new adventures of Sherlock Holmes 1939 – 1947 (radio Series)

Recommended viewing

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Rathbone’s first best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his villainous Tybalt in George Cukor’s version of _“Romeo and Juliet” and …..

If I Were King (1938)

- his second as the scheming Louis XI in the Ronald Colman vehicle.

Sherlock Holmes – The Definitive Collection (2005)

The definitive collection of 14 restored Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films featuring:

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

Rathbone’s personal favourite, though not a commonly held view amongst Holmes aficionados; the second picture in the series for many taking all the accolades. The professional constraints and limitations of repeating a characterisation in a long running series has bedevilled a number of actors and Rathbone was no exception; the resentment more acutely felt, perhaps due in no small part to the detective’s smug infallability. In his autobiography the actor confesses to a personally disturbing and sometimes destructive critical analysis of his alter ego, essentially the realisation that there was nothing lovable about Holmes. “He himself seemed capable of transcending the weakness of mere mortals such as myself … understanding us perhaps, accepting us and even pitying us, but only and purely objectively . It would be impossible for such a man to know loneliness or love or sorrow because he was completely sufficient unto himself. His perpetual seeming assumption of infallability; his interminable success; (could he not fail just once and prove himself a human being like the rest of us!) his ego that seemed at times to verge on the superman complex, while his “Elementary my dear Watson”, with its seeming condenscention for the pupil by the master must have been a very trying experience at times for even so devoted a friend as was Dr Watson.”

Whilst some Sherlock Holmes fans would cite Basil Rathbone as the ultimate screen incarnation of the detective, in the 21st century others might suggest Benedict Cumberbatch yet for very many devotees of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, one man, Jeremy Brett, inhabited the role like no-one else. Cumberbatch is a huge admirer of Brett’s work on the Granada series ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,’ which ran for a decade between 1984 and 1994 and was struck by the extraordinary hawk-like, magisterial, cold disconnect of his portrayal. His incredible physique, that wonderful beak of a nose, the swept back hair, the lips and those slightly mad eyes, which, sadly, became a lot madder largely as a result of the actor’s bipolar disorder – all made an indelible impact on the future actor.

The character of Holmes was, of course, a recreational drug user, a trait which Brett was able to fully explore yet in reality, the substances involved, whilst illegal in today’s world, remained unregulated in Victorian times. Their side-effects were not understood and they were so widely used by everyone from doctors and surgeons to parents treating their sick children, that nobody thought anything of it. It would not be until 1920, with the passing of the Dangerous Drugs Act, that substances like cocaine and heroin would finally be outlawed in England.

In view of the film censorship rules operating in Hollywood in the 1930’s and 40’s, there was absolutely no possibility of Basil Rathbone being able to explore the darker side of his Holmes characterisation; for that reason alone, any comparison with more modern interpretations remains redundant.

Ultimately, Rathbone’s films, shown all over the world, still thrill and entertain, whilst remaining for many, young and old, the fixed point in Holmes’ cinematic career. In his forward to “Starring Sherlock Holmes” by David Stuart Davies (2001), the actor Ian Richardson writes of the wartime Holmes movies – “I loved them. I thought Basil Rathbone the most wonderful actor I’d ever seen. Much. much later, when I played Sherlock Holmes myself, it was always he that I had in mind, try though I might to get out of his shadow.”

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Moriarty has his eye on both the crown jewels and discrediting Holmes. Ida Lupino, a mere two years before her sterling work opposite Humphrey Bogart in “High Sierra”, is the imperiled young woman who is seemingly plagued by an ancient family curse, a plot development that has been carefully stage-managed by the malevolent villain. Rathbone is excellent not only as Holmes but also in the guise of a cockney music-hall entertainer. The second of Twentieth Century-Fox’s Holmes films, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ was the last in which Rathbone and Bruce were seen in a 19th century setting. In the subsquent Sherlock Holmes series at Universal, the exploits of the heroic pair would be updated to the World War II years.

The opening dialogue between Moriarty (George Zucco) and Holmes (Rathbone), fairly bristles and the plot soon gathers pace. The sets are typically dark and Holmes is one step behind his arch enemy for much of the film. The sleuthing has a prototypical feel yet the characterisations remain strong throughout.

Holmes’ flaky personality is well to the fore as he deploys his violinistic skills to negotiate the chromatic scale whilst recording its soporific effect on the common housefly. Watson remains singularly unimpressed, preferring to rid the room of such irritants with his rolled up newspaper, and our hero is sufficiently amused to avoid the need for a white jacket and long sleeves.

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1944)

Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death (1944)

One of the most intruiging of plot lines involving the theft of The Borgia Pearl and featuring an appearance from “The Creeper”, a grotesque assassin who kills his victims by breaking their spines. I was saddened to subsequently learn many years later that the actor Rondo Hatton utilised no makeup, his once handsome features in youth blighted by acromegaly, a disorder of the pituitary gland. A brief recap of his life can be found via the following link.


I cannot begin to imagine how the poor man suffered when his complaint became ever more apparent. I saw a movie titled “The Rockateer” in 1991 starring Timothy Dalton and the producers deployed a Hatton look-a-like which led me to believe that the visuality of the character had always been prosthetic based.

The role of Lothar was played by Ronald “Tiny Ron” Taylor, a 7 ft tall American film actor and former basketball player. The producers homage to Rondo Hatton can be located at


Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Claw (1944)

Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear (1945)

The Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

The Woman in Green (1945)

Terror by Night (1946)
h4. Dressed to Kill (1946)

Rathbone was moved to say on one occasion : “Ever since I was a boy and first got acquainted with the Great detective, I wanted to be like him…. To play such a character means as much to me as ten Hamlets!”

I picked up this box set for under £20, a snip of a bargain for such audio and visual remastering. Just recently, I have been able to add three of the films to the set in colourised form. For picture quality & sound clarity it outstrips all the other low grade versions doing the rounds on cable television.

Rathbone starred in fourteen movies between 1939 and 1946 alongside Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson with their adventures spanning authentic representations of the Victorian tales as well as some less than authentic, contemporary World War II related adaptations.

There’s hours of enjoyment to be found in this valuable package, including an informative account of the near year long restoration process for each film, and the disturbing realisation that a couple of the entries in the Rathbone-Holmes canon were close to disintegration.

Mainly produced and directed by Roy William Neill, the series originated in England where the first two films were made before the production crew relocated to Hollywood. Despite the contemporary settings and Rathbone’s obligatory eulogies on behalf of the allied war effort, these ‘B’ movies still entertained millions.

Recommended reading

Basil Rathbone – “In and out of character” (1956/1962)

Yes, it’s disappointing in parts – the preoccupation with his “canine family” at the expense of Holmes recollections and the dearth of more in depth analysis of his films in general, yet the anecdotal recollections of co-workers, half-forgotten friends and lovers, and unusual experiences almost compensate. There’s barely a mention of his childre, Rodion and Cynthia and his eulogies for Ouida remain somewhat disaffecting – the jury remains ‘out’ where she is concerned.

Starring Sherlock Holmes (David Stuart Davies) 2001

Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed on screen more often than any other character in history, and this stunning book is the definitive illustrated guide to the films and television series featuring the master detective. An expensive purchase at its recommended retail price of £25, I picked up my copy for £6.99 – I keep abreast of such trivia by refixing the discount price stickers on the inside flap allowing me to reflect over the ensuing years on my financial acumen and patience!

I must at this stage, also confess an addiction to the gloriosensuality of books, the smell of certain prints a literary enhancing experience. Periodically lifting attractively produced volumes to my face and inhaling deeply is perhaps an unusual habit but one I suspect, not as uncommon as many might think since ‘Paper Passion’, a scent from Geza Schoen for Wallpaper magazine, makes its wearers smell like freshly printed books. This edition is right up there in my top ten print sensory experiences.

“The smell of a freshly printed book is the best smell in the world.” Karl Lagerfeld.

Every Sherlock Holmes film and TV series is covered (including foreign and lesser known productions), from the silent movies, through the portrayals of Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing, to the Jeremy Brett television series and beyond.

Illustrated with stills, posters, lobby cards and behind-the-scenes shots, including much rare, previously unpublished material, and also covering the stage and radio works, Holmes’ world and Conan Doyle himself, this is an essential purchase for sleauthing purists.

Sadly of course, any book of this nature must eventually fall out of date and naturally enough, there’s no coverage of the Robert Downey Jr fims or the 2010/11 BBC TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Nevertheless, the various productions are listed in chronological order and take up anywhere from one to four pages. There’s a brief plot summary at the beginning of each entry (which recounts the entire plot, including the ending, so beware of spoilers) and the text is a mixture of production information and opinion, both from Davies and from professional critics. He’s an opinionated writer, which makes him easily as insufferable as I am, however hard I try not to be.

Basil Rathbone: His Life and His Films (Michael B. Druxman) 1976

Out-of-print for over thirty-five years, Druxman’s carefully researched work thoroughly examines the life and professional career of one of Hollywood’s most respected character actors.

The 2011 reprint edition mirrors the original 1975 biography/filmography, including its more than 250 rare photographs, and also contains a new introduction by the author. unfortunately i don’t have it and so i cannot offer any personal observations. Nevertheless, there are slim literary pickings out there in Bazland and consumer reviews are favourable so I can guardedly recommend this volume.

An interview with the author is available via


The Holy Grail of “all things Baz”.