The Golden Age of Hollywood

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

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Comment by sam ajo on September 3, 2009 at 9:19pm
i love both ! But Sherlock Holmes is better ! ^_^
i love his voice, his face and his gentlemanliness ! I have had found all 14 films of Sherlock Holmes series and some of his other films like Frankenstein, Heartbeat, Notorious affair, Robin Hood, Romeo and Juliet and David Copperfield .
Still remain some movies i want to watch but i cannot find them !
Comment by Ktrek on May 14, 2009 at 9:33pm
Rupert - Although I love Rathbone's sinister roles my very first impressions of him as an actor were when I was a kid and seeing the Sherlock Holmes films. Those will always hold a dear and special place in my affection. So, although I love the rogue it has to be Holmes for me!

Comment by Bob Grove on May 14, 2009 at 9:07pm
You have provided me with another hard choice. Basil’s first two outings as Holms were superb. When I re-read a Holms story I always picture Basil as Holms in my minds eye. Even after Jeremy Brett.

But, he provided audiences with some really great villains. As Sir Guy in Robin Hood he as such a stinker. Plus I read somewhere that he and his wife hosted some great parties back in the day.
Comment by Chris Johnson on May 14, 2009 at 8:54pm
Re: Basil Rathbone

Also loved him in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. As the criminal/attorney trying to knock off the beneficiaries of Boris's Karloff's estate. And was cute with knock-out Quinn O'Hara as his cheesecake daughter Sinistra who was trying to eliminate the hunky Aron Kincaid through the whole flick.

Granted was highly bashed but he was still brilliant as always.
Comment by Rupert Alistair on May 14, 2009 at 2:11pm
LOL. Christopher, you crack me up!!
Comment by Christopher on May 14, 2009 at 1:53pm
don't forget Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield!.."Don't beat me Mr. Murdstone!..please don't beat me Mr. Murdstone!"
go ahead and beat the PUNK!
Comment by Rupert Alistair on May 14, 2009 at 7:55am
Wasn't he great in Confession! I actually mentioned Confession in my original draft but had to edit some things and unfortunately the blurb got cut. But he was deliciously sinister in it. Thanks.
Comment by Lolita on May 14, 2009 at 7:52am
Isn't it ironic that, being the great swordsman he was, he only won a duel on-screen once? That was in Romeo and Juliet, and he later in the film looses another duel, haha.

Great post! And it's Rathbone the Rogue for me. I agree with Anthony on Love From a Stranger, he is so mean and insane in that film. But an underappreciated role is as Michael Michailow in Confession from the same year, 1937 - who else could have played that part?
Comment by Christopher on May 13, 2009 at 10:49pm
I like him as both ,but if were to be stranded on a deserted island with only one type of BAZ'IL..I'd want the entire Sherlock holmes series!
Comment by Abdullah aka Chuck on May 13, 2009 at 10:19pm
Tough one Rupert!! Basil is so great in either style of role! I just bought a Sherlock Holmes comic the other day( a brand new one, just released last week) and laughed to myself that every line I read in my head that Holmes spoke was in Rathbone's voice! To me, he is Sherlock Holmes!

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