Basil Rathbone was the epitome of suave British athleticism in the movies, radio, the stage and television in the 1920s through the 1940s. However, his heritage was South African. Philip St. John Basil Rathbone was born in Johannesburg on June 13, 1892. The family had to escape the Boers and move to England in 1895 because Rathbone’s father was accused of being a British spy. In his autobiography In and Out of Character Rathbone gives readers a vivid recollection of being with his whole family in a freight car that was stopped by armed Boers and of being instructed by his mother to cry loudly to distract them if she pinched him so they could be on their way “to Durban to visit my mother—she is ill”. They all eventually sailed to England. We do not know for certain that Edgar Philip Rathbone was a spy. We do know he was a mining engineer and Basil’s mother Anna Barbara Rathbone was a violinist. Basil was the older brother to his sister Beatrice and brother John. In the early 1900s Basil attended Britain’s Repton School and even though he loved sports and drama class, he did not do quite so well with other studies. Basil announced to his parents one day that he wanted to be an actor. Edgar was not too keen on the idea and convinced him to spend a year in the insurance industry before he made a permanent decision. Basil finished out the year and then joined his cousin Frank Benson’s theatrical company. Frank wasn’t actually that eager to take him on, but Basil proved himself quite competent. The young Basil married fellow performer Marion Foreman in October 1914 and nine months later their son Rodion was born.
In 1916 Basil enlisted in the British Army to serve admirably as an intelligence officer and later as Patrols Officer with the Liverpool Scottish, second battalion. He recalled in an interview with noted American journalist Edward R. Murrow many decades after the War that disguising one’s self as a tree, branches and all, to get behind enemy lines in the middle of the day is not just something done in a comedy… he actually did this, and brought back some prisoners in the process!! Details are in his autobiography, mentioned above.
Basil resumed his stage career after the war but his marriage to Marion unofficially ended when he left her and his son. He continued to pay for his own apartment and his family’s, not wanting them to be without anything they needed, even if it meant he had to skip the streetcar and walk sometimes. His upbringing forbade him from divorcing. Basil’s work with the New Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon led to a part in The Swan in New York City and there in 1923 he met writer Ouida Bergere. He eventually had to divorce Marion if he was to marry Ouida. He remained married to Ouida until his death in 1967. The couple did not moved immediately from New York to California even when Basil’s successful performance in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1929 release The Last of Mrs.Cheyneymade him a star. Basil made seven films in the United States in 1930 and three in England in 1935, usually playing the debonair ladies’ man character he played in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. Ouida and Basil made Hollywood their home in 1935. They loved to play sports and host extravagant parties. They were also great dog fanciers, favoring the Alsatian or German shepherd. Rodion moved in with them for a while and even acted in two of his father’s films, The Tower of London for Universal and The Dawn Patrol for Warner Brothers. Later Rodion served in the military in Great Britain. The Rathbones adopted a daughter, Cynthia, and Basil endeavored to be a more attentive father than he had been for Rodion in the past. Basil, meantime, enjoyed the peak of his popularity in films like Universal’s Son of Frankenstein, portraying the well intentioned Dr. Wolf Frankenstein who journeys with his wife and son to the old castle and workshop in Germany, only to find himself in the same trouble with the villagers as his monster creating father had been. The character Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in the popular Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein lovingly parodies Basil Rathbone’s role.
Basil had a chance to display his proficiency with the rapier in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood for Warner Brothers, portraying the wicked Sir Guy of Ginsbourne. Twentieth Century-Fox initially wanted Basil for the role of Zorro in The Mark of Zorro because of his looks and superb fencing skills. However, the studio decided he would be better as villain Captain Esteban Pasquale, pitted against Tyrone Power as the masked hero Zorro, who fought against a cruel new Alcalde governing Spanish California in the early 1800s. Both Basil and Power were among the most skilled fencers ever to work in Hollywood.
Basil’s work in the Sherlock Holmes series for 20th Century Fox with Nigel Bruce as assistant Dr. Watson has earned him a place in cinema history even beyond all the other film, television, stage and radio work he had done. After several years Basil grew weary of the Holmes character, feeling the adventures were “old fashioned”. When his movie contracts expired in 1946 he returned to the theatre for a few years. Some small motion picture studios in the United States offered him roles in perhaps less than stellar horror and science fiction films like 1956’s The Black Sleep from United Artists and the 1966 Queen of Blood released by American International, in which a good friend of this author’s, Forrest J Ackerman, shared a crucial scene. Basil was part of a delightful trio of funeral home directors and their greedy landlord comprised also of Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in the horror spoof Comedy of Terrors from American International Pictures. Basil gave his all, and also appeared in guest roles on American television comedies and a lighthearted horror anthology series, Lights Out.He was surprised to see that younger television audiences admired his work in the Sherlock Holmes films when they were aired on television. As a result he was invited to speak at college campuses. He did some radio work and even gave a dramatic reading for Jacqueline and President John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1961. Basil passed away at his home on July 21, 1967 from an apparent heart attack and is buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
His work will endure.