Arguably one of the ultimate movie villain actors of the Golden Age is the incomparable Basil Rathbone. But most film aficionados know him best as the master of mystery, Sherlock Holmes, in a series of films beginning at Twentieth Century-Fox in the late Thirties, then moving to Universal throughout the duration of the war.
Black-hearted, icily suave and sadistically ruthless, Rathbone's pre-Holmes characterizations were anything but forgettable. (Rumor has it that author Margaret Mitchell wanted him to play Rhett Butler in the filmization of her novel Gone With The Wind!) A Shakespearean actor in England, he came to the United States in the mid 1920's to perform on the New York stage, but it was his reputation as a sophisticated villain in Hollywood films that made him famous. Although wonderfully sinister in several classics of the mid and late Thirties, including Anna Karenina (1935) and Tower of London (1939), three of his best roles were in Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Mark of Zorro (1940).
An accomplished swordsman in real life, he fought impressive duels in each of these films with the lead actor (Errol Flynn in the first two and Tyrone Power in the latter) only to lose dramatically in the end. In Captain Blood, Rathbone plays a French pirate who first allies with then defies Flynn. In The Mark of Zorro, the distinctively profiled actor portrays the cool and cruel Captain Pasquale, who acts as nemesis to Tyrone Power's masked avenger. But it's as filmdom's greatest scoundrels, Sir Guy of Gisbourne in Warner Brothers Technicolor masterpiece, The Adventures of Robin Hood, that ingrains in the memory, Basil Rathbone's vision of menacing rogue.
Then in 1939, Rathbone was cast as the definitive detective, Sherlock Holmes, in Twentieth Century-Fox's version of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. With Nigil Bruce by his side as Dr. Watson, the iconic duo found themselves in the middle of an unforeseen hit. Rathbone's popularity as Holmes was such a surprise he wasn't even top billed but second to Fox contract player Richard Greene. The studio quickly developed The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to cash in on the success of Baskervilles. Both films were set in Victorian England as reflected in the Conan Doyle stories, but when the burgeoning franchise was acquired by Universal in 1942, the setting was changed to the present and many of the story lines revolved around World War II based intrigue. All told, Rathbone and Nigil Bruce would make 14 Holmes films. Quite an offering for what started out as a quaint little period picture.
So which do you prefer? Rathbone the Rogue or Sherlock Holmes.
Reprinted from Rupert's blog Classic Movies Digest