Philip St. John Basil Rathbone (13 June 1892 – 21 July 1967)
Then there were the Liverpool Rathbones, including a continuous line of William Rathbones, from I straight through to VI and, whilst not particularly gifted in the thinking-up-names department, they did some other stuff to make up for that. William II founded Rathbone Brothers (with sibling Richard), still one of the UK's largest of wealth management services providers (first bonkers, now bankers – you need all that in the family, don’t you?), while William V was a reforming Mayor of Liverpool and then William VI (Basil’s grandfather) thought up the idea of District Nursing. There were also two notable women, both near contemporaries of Basil’s: Elfrida (1871-1940), a dedicated educationalist who would found the Rathbone Society; and Eleanor (1872-1946), MP, women’s rights campaigner, establisher of Family Allowance etc, etc. All in all, a fair old family history for Basil to live up to, so it’s high time we thought about getting him born, don’t you think?
Philip St John Basil Rathbone (the name St John is always pronounced Sinjun; don’t ask why, nobody knows), our epitome of an English gentleman, was actually born in South Africa and would later spend a large part of his life in the United States. His mum, Anna Barbara George, was a violinist (cute Holmesian touch there), while his dad, Edgar Philip, was a mining engineer who probably thought the William Rathbone idea had been done pretty much to death by then, so he fell back on the old recourse of naming his son after himself, like his own dad had done to him. (Though quite where he plucked the St John from is anyone’s guess). To be fair, he had produced two other sons prior to Basil without having to rely on that old standby but, sadly, both Harold and Horace seem to have vanished almost entirely from history, other than as rare mentions as Basil’s brothers. Well, half-brothers, actually, which may explain it. Old man Rathbone then carried on his ostentatious christening work with a flamboyant Beatrice George Woodham Rathbone for his daughter (George being the mother’s maiden name, not merely a piece of paternal maliciousness), followed by a final flourish with John Ernest Vivian Rathbone before hanging up his naming boots for good and all. You’d think being lumbered with a moniker like St John might’ve instilled some mercy in our Basil when the time came but, oh no: he ended up calling his own lad Rodion. Possibly after the lead character in Crime & Punishment. A murderer …
His schooldays behind, Ratters then fancied a career treading the boards, only old man Rathbone took a very dim view of thespians altogether and suggested to his son that, rather than slapping on make-up for an occupation, why not try a year working in finance first, see how that suits. Which, he reckoned, would also be enough time for young Basil to get the whole absurd acting notion out of his system. Ratters, it seems, agreed and, next thing he knows, he’s become an employee of the Liverpool and Globe Insurance Companies, something he stuck at for exactly the prescribed year before contacting his cousin, Frank Benson, who happened to be managing a Shakespearean troupe in Stratford-on-Avon at the time. On 22 April 1911 (four months, incidentally, before his kinsman Major Henry Rathbone died), the world was treated to the debut appearance on stage of Basil Rathbone, as Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew, and then it was off to America for the first time, in October 1912. Back in England, he then met and fell in love with a fellow performer, Marion Foreman, in August of 1913, marrying her the following October and not long later (just over the nine months, in fact) son Rodion made his bow.
remastered versions now available in boxset, so fresh-looking they could’ve been made today (take a look at the included original theatre trailers to see how painstaking the restorations are). The gothic lighting effects are worth it in themselves.
Now, before you all start complaining about that being an utterly outrageous assertion, the fact is that as soon as she got the ring on her finger, Mrs Rathbone decided to jack in the theatre lark and concentrate on the spending instead, the couple (both boxing fans, bizarrely) becoming notorious in the 1930s for lavish socialite parties thrown at their luxurious mansion (once owned by Jack Dempsey, as it goes) and, before very long, Basil could barely keep pace with all the retail therapy she needed. He got rather less choosy in the work he was prepared to undertake. Certainly he was still able to command roles in major films, such as with Bogart in We’re No Angels (1955) and in John Ford's political drama, The Last Hurrah (1958), and also to appear in dignified anthology programmes on television, but the desire for dollars drove him to some “most regrettable” depths. TV game shows for one thing. His later films included cheap, low quality thrillers and horror movies, such as Queen of Blood (1966), Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967) and, leaving little to the imagination (perhaps too literally), the ghastly sounding The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, in which he played Reginald Ripper, of whom one character remarks, “that guy looks like Sherlock Holmes!” How he must have shuddered at that. Then there was the time when he once again donned the infamous deerstalker and Inverness cape in a series of commercials for Getz Exterminators, famously insisting “Getz gets 'em, since 1888!” Oh, Basil …
Basil Rathbone died suddenly of a heart attack in New York City on 21 July 1967 at the age of seventy five. He always insisted that he wished to be remembered for his stage career but it is his films that live on today and, to many of us, he will always be the Sherlock Holmes.
Basil: By Trailer screenshot Licencing information : http://web.archive.org/web/20080321033709/http://www.sabucat.com/?pg=copyright and http://www.creativeclearance.com/guidelines.html#D2 (Tovarich trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Major Henry Rathbone: By The Mystery Man at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
William Rathbone VI: Racklever at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Rorke’s Drift: Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Repton School: By Victuallers (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Haig: By Sir William Orpen, RA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ouida Bergere: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Holmes: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Gone with the Wind: By Employee(s) of MGM [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons