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By Scott D. O'Reilly

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1936 Basil Rathbone MGM/Watkins 4x5 Promotional Photo 1938 Basil Rathbone Player Tobacco CardOf all the Hollywood villains during the 1930's and 1940's none made such an indelible impression as Basil Rathbone.  Tall, with strong angular features, impeccable diction, and an aristocratic manner, Rathbone repeatedly served as the perfect foil - the actor audiences loved to hate - for screen idols like Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Yet despite frequent typecasting as the ultimate bad guy Rathbone left behind a diverse body of work, appearing in swashbucklers, comedies, serious dramas, horror films, and creating, perhaps, the definitive screen interpretation of the legendary super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes in fourteen films.

Born in Johannesburg on June 13th 1892, Rathbone was raised in England after his family fled South Africa when his father was accused of being a British spy.   As a youth Basil was attracted to the theatre at an early age, and after appearing in several school production the young thespian earnestly contemplated a career in acting.  Initially dissuaded by his parents the young Rathbone agreed to take a conventional job, as an insurance clerk, for at least a year.  One year later to the day Rathbone dropped his job and took up acting in his cousin's theatre company.

Rathbone's early stage career was interrupted by the First World War.  During the war Rathbone served as an intelligence officer in the British army, and received the Military Cross for outstanding bravery.  He would retain a lifelong love for his adopted country, maintaining his British citizenship long after he had relocated to the United States.  Shortly before going to war Rathbone had married Marion Foreman and had started a family.  In 1926, after 12 years of marriage Rathbone's marriage fell apart.  Though he continued to support his family Rathbone later expressed guilt for the impact the divorce would have on his son Vidion.  The father and son would remain close, however, and Vidion later appeared in small roles in two of his father's best known films, Dawn Patrol and The Tower of London.  In 1926 Rathbone married the screenwriter, occasional actress, and socialite Ouida Bergere.  The marriage would last 40 years until Rathbone's death and the couple would adopt a daughter.

By 1923 Rathbone had left is native Britain for the United States were he had a prolific career on stage and in film.  He appeared in nineteen films from 1921 through 1934, garnering strong notices for The Last of Mrs. Cheney, but it was only in the mid 30's that Rathbone would burst into the consciousness of the movie going public as one of Hollywood's leading players.
In 1935 Rathbone had the kind of year that many actors would be happy to call a career. Rathbone scored memorable roles in: Captain Blood. A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, Anna Karenina, and The Last Days of Pompeii.  1936 was a banner year too for Rathbone as he garnered an academy award nomination for his portrayal of Tybalt in M-G-M's lavish production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  It was the only role incidentally, in which Rathbone - famous for his prowess and Basil Rathbone Fatima Cigarette Adagility in staging swordfights - actually won a swordfight on screen. Rathbone would again be nominated for an Academy award in If I were King, but he lost for the second time to the veteran character actor Walter Brennan.  Rathbone would, however, receive the critical acclaim he deserved, winning a Tony award for his performance in The Heiress on Broadway in 1949.

Rathbone was probably born to play the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  In 1939 Rathbone starred in Fox Studio's The Hound of the Baskervilles, a film most critics and audiences regard as the most successful screen version of the super-sleuth.  Nigel Bruce - an actor who made a living playing stuffy, upper-class Brits - played Dr. Watson to Rathbone's Holmes.  The screen chemistry between the two stars was undeniable, and they went on to make 14 Sherlock Holmes films together in addition to their popular series of radio broadcasts -- more than 240 performances all told - as Holmes and Watson.

Rathbone's success as Holmes, however, led an outcome he feared - being typecast.  Though Rathbone continued to work steadily in the 50's and early 60's quality roles became fewer and further between.  He scored a small but memorable role opposite Spenser Tracey in John Ford's tale of political corruption The Last Hurrah and was deliciously grumpy as a foil for Humphrey Bogart and Peter Ustinov in Michael Curtiz's We're No Angels.  In 1958 he delightfully spoofed his villainous screen image, creating one of cinema's funniest swordfights in the Danny Kaye vehicle The Court Jester.  A number of Rathbone's final films were in this vein, including A Comedy of Terrors in which Rathbone teamed up with veteran villains like Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre to parody their screen past.

Basil Rathbone passed away of a heart attack in 1967.  He left behind his wife of over 40 years Ouida Bergere, their adopted daughter Cynthia, and their son Rodion.  Rathbone's frequent costar Hillary Brooke remembered Rathbone as a very kind man who loved animals, the theatre, and entertaining.   In private, it seems, Rathbone was so unlike the immortal villains he brought to life in the classic adventures he is best remembered for, like the treacherous Sir Guy in The Adventures of Robin Hood or the arrogant Captain Esteban in The Mark of Zorro.
Scott D. O'Reilly is an independent writer with degrees in philosophy and psychology.  His work has been published in The Humanist, Philosophy Now, Intervention Magazine, Think, and The Philosopher's Magazine. He is a contributor to the book The Great Thinkers A-Z (Continium, 2004) and is working on Deconstructing Demagogues, a book which examines how politicians use and misuse language.  Contact:( Read about classic film stars every month in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.