(Media Wednesday is a weekly article that talks about items of interest in books, movies, music, or any other form of “media” out there. Topics don’t always include the latest and greatest media – a lot of the time we’ll be talking about older media as well.)
It’s almost fitting that I turned on the television this morning and Turner Classic Movies (one of my go-tos, as you’re discovering) was doing a detective movie marathon. Leading off the marathon were three Sherlock Holmes movies, then a pair of Dick Tracy classics, and then some other suspense/mystery movies leading up to tonight’s main event, North by Northwest.
Now, I know what you’re thinking… I’m probably going to talk about North by Northwest. After all, it starred Cary Grant and was directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock.
But actually… I’m not.
Instead I want to talk about an actor who, like many of the day, was a great master of the stage but rose to prominence in the 20s and 30s. He starred alongside some of the Hollywood greats of the era – John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Greta Garbo, and Gary Cooper (to name a few). Much like Christopher Lee he seemed to always get villain roles which he played admirably with charisma and suaveness. By all accounts, in 1939, it would have appeared his star was on the rise and he might become one of the great actors of Hollywood. The story goes that he was even the first choice of author Margaret Mitchell to play Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.
South African-born Basil Rathbone had many things working in his favor by the middle of 1939. The previous year he’d been in four major movies, two of which were alongside Hollywood heartthrob Errol Flynn. He and Flynn had starred opposite each other in The Adventures of Robin Hood, which had earned a nomination for Best Picture. They’d been together in The Dawn Patrol, which had been one of the highest-grossing movies of the year for Warner Brothers. In another film, If I Were King, he had earned himself a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Earlier in 1939 he had just finished work on Son of Frankenstein, starring two of the great horror movie actors of the day – Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff – the first time that both actors were together in a movie! (More than just that, Rathbone had top billing!)
You can imagine, then, that being offered a chance to play the role of Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles was another opportunity for Rathbone to distinguish himself. He took the role and the movie performed very well, despite 20th Century-Fox’s concerns about how well a Sherlock Holmes film would do. (They had actually cast Richard Greene, who played a secondary part, as top billing for the movie)
Both Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who played alongside him as Doctor Watson, received good reviews for their roles. Rathbone went back to star alongside Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in The Sun Never Sets, but not long after that he received a call from Fox asking him to reprise the role in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This he did – the movie was also released that same year – and then he went back to other movies.
He didn’t know it at the time, but it was these two movies in 1939 that would inevitably set the stage for the rest of Rathbone’s Hollywood career. Starting in 1941, continuing until 1946, almost all of the movies Rathbone did were continuations on the Sherlock Holmes series. 20th Century-Fox, and later Universal Studios (who acquired the rights from the Doyle estate) loved Rathbone and Bruce in their respective roles. From mid-1942 to the end of 1946, Rathbone was in 16 movies. Of these 16, 12 were Sherlock Holmes. In addition to this he was also in the radio series that began in late 1939 (alongside Bruce).
One of the reasons why so many movies were made in so short a time was because of the agreement with the Doyle estate – Universal had to make three films a year. Due to this particular clause, Universal focused more on making these “B-reel” movies with less focus on the details. Fox had allowed the contract to lapse as World War II approached, both because of complications with the Doyle estate and because Fox felt that audiences would be more interested in spies and secret agents.
Following 1946, Rathbone refused to renew his contract and returned to the stage. He later reconciled himself with his association with Holmes, bringing the character back in a number of places, and eventually he returned to Hollywood to do the occasional movie. Prior to the Sherlock Holmes movie series starting in 1942, Rathbone had been in 42 pictures over the course of twelve years – averaging nearly four pictures a year. Following the Holmes series, he was in fifteen movies across a time span of 22 years – less than a movie a year. He did have several TV movies as well during this time.
This second half of his movie career did not, however, see the same sorts of movies or billings that he had enjoyed in the first half of his career. It was rare for Rathbone to receive top 3 billing in a movie unless it was a horror movie. Very few movies he was in saw him starring alongside contemporary Hollywood stars. While he did play alongside Karloff and/or new horror stars Vincent Price (a story for another day) and Peter Lorre, the roles were not the same.
Rathbone passed away in 1967 of a heart attack at the age of 75. It is ironic, but one of the greatest gifts he gave to the world was the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” – a phrase that had never been used in any of Doyle’s written works, and which sits as the 65th greatest movie quote by the American Film Institute in their 2005 “100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes” list.