Today is the birthday of Basil Rathbone (1892-1967). His long association with the character of Sherlock Holmes in the 14 films he made as that character between 1939 and 1946 nowadays tends to overshadow his broader reputation as a villain and character actor in countless Hollywood horror films, swashbucklers and costume dramas, and both tend to blot out his substantial career as a classical actor for the stage.
From 1911 to 1915 he toured with Sir Frank Benson’s company, playing in The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet and a half dozen other Shakespeare plays before serving in World War One, where he was decorated for bravery. His stage career in both in England and the US was to last another two decades, overlapping his film career, which began in 1921.
While he made a half dozen silent pictures, it was in talkies that he was truly able to shine, showcasing as it did his magnificent rumbling voice with its impeccable diction. Even without the Holmes series, he’d have been on the map with his classic turns in such movies as David Copperfield, Anna Karenina, The Last Days of Pompeii, Captain Blood, A Tale of Two Cities (all 1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Son of Frankenstein, andTower of London (both 1939).
When the dust had cleared from the Holmes series, much of what he did in the remainder of his career was self-parody in both film and television. His skills as a fencer were legendary (demonstrations of it constituted the climaxes of some of his most famous films). His turn in Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester in 1955 was the capstone of this aspect of his career.
In the early 60s, like so many others (Vincent Price, Peter Lorre) he appeared in Roger Corman films for American International Pictures. This was a step down, but it still had a certain dignity. However, his last several roles were several steps even below that. He must truly have needed the money to have appeared in Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), and Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967).
To find out about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc