Friday, 10 April 2015

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Philip St. John Basil Rathbone (13 June 1892 – 21 July 1967)

That would be Basil Rathbone, of course, the quintessential English actor “best known for his film portrayals of Sherlock Holmes”, as they always insist on saying, though he himself wished to be remembered more for his stage work, especially in the Shakespearean productions he so loved. Like Conan-Doyle previously, he would eventually become disenchanted with the Great Detective, though neither of them would ever manage to shake themselves finally free of the character, however much they tried. In a career spanning some fifty six years, only about seven of them would be in the guise of Sherlock Holmes, by the end of which it was already far too late: the image had become indelibly fixed in the public imagination. Basil Rathbone didn’t play Sherlock Holmes in those films, he was Sherlock Holmes.

Even playing a Rathbone wouldn’t prove to be a straightforward role, as this was an ancient name that had already boasted some remarkable bearers. Take Major Henry Rathbone for one. On 14 April 1865, he and his fiancée, Clara, received an invitation to go see a show and so, as it would be gratis and better than a poke in the arm with a pointed stick, off they went. Best seats in the house, mind, sitting right next to their good friends, Abe and Mary Lincoln. Though they weren’t actually first choice as guests (that was Ulysses S. Grant and wife), nor yet second nor, alas, even third. Then the party managed to turn up late so the play had to be stopped for Hail to the Chief to be thumped out (rather drawing attention to their somewhat red-faced tardiness), during which (or soon after) the bodyguard stationed outside their box sloped quietly off to the pub with Lincoln’s footman. No matter. The play, Our American Cousin, got going again and, as it was famously a real rip-roarer, they all settled back to await the arrival of one particular line, so hilarious it was sure to bring the house down, just as it always did. But, seeing that this basically boiled down to the words “you sockdologizing old man-trap!” quite what was so amusing about it remains shrouded in mystery. Sounds about as funny today as discovering that not only has Grant Shapps moved in next door to you but his Pekingese has also gone and widdled on your doormat. Still, they all thought it a right rib-tickler, just as John Wilkes Booth well knew and so, during the ensuing cacophony of cachinnations, he put a bullet in the President’s head. Rathbone was understandably incensed (well, the evening was ruined), so he grappled with Booth, who slashed his arm with a knife, severing an artery, before jumping down onto the stage, breaking his own leg (with the still-laughing audience thinking this was all part of the play) but still managing to hop it away sharpish to twelve days on the run. Well, on the limp anyhow. Lincoln died, of course, but Rathbone’s wound healed and he eventually married Clara, they had three children and then he went mad. He attacked his children, fatally shot and stabbed his wife and then stabbed himself five times in the chest, after which he was sent to an asylum in Germany, where he died in 1911.

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 …

The old man’s occupation was the reason why the Rathbones were in South Africa in the first place. In 1877, the British, or Sir Theophilus Shepstone anyhow, announced that South Africa actually belonged to us, not the Boer, so we simply nicked it, with the added bonus that it would be well handy for when we decided to pinch neighbouring Zululand too while we were at it. All purely for the good of the countries concerned, you understand. But were they grateful? Not a bit of it! Instead, both lots decided they’d rather have a war with us than see sense but, given that the Zulu were armed with nothing more formidable than spears, we soon gave them what for but, when it came to the dastardly Boer (the word means farmer, by the bye), it rather looked like they might end up giving us a good licking and, if there’s one thing a British gentleman cannot tolerate, it is being licked by a Boer. To be honest, he even blenches at the thought of having a damp towel flicked at him in the changing rooms. And so we naffed off livelyish and left him to get on with it. Right up until 1886, that is, when they found they’d got simply oodles of gold lying around under their very feet. But, being farmers, not mining engineers, they couldn’t dig it up, so up pops old man Rathbone, just in the nick of time. Everything was pootling along quite nicely, thank you very much, when the infamously botched Jameson Raid rather scuppered things, which had been intended to impose colonial rule on the ingrate natives but merely led to the Second Boer War. All the British workers were denounced as spies (typical shabby Boer spitefulness) and were forced to hightail it out of there as fast as their legs could carry them. Which is how young Basil then found himself steaming rapidly Englandward, along with a newly-acquired and lasting belief in the power of premonition: about to book their homeward passage, his mother had a dream that the ship would sink and so she convinced old man Rathbone that they’d best take a later boat. Which they then did, the original one going down with the loss of all hands.

Basil was educated at Repton School in the small Derbyshire village of Repton, which claims an impressive array of Old Reptonians, including (these just a very few): Jeremy Clarkson (the ex-Top Gear pugilist), Andy Wilman (Top Gear producer, coincidentally enough), Roald Dahl, Sir Christopher Frayling (RCA), Graham Garden, Christopher Isherwood and Michael Ramsey (Archbish). And Basil himself, of course, who the roll predictably lists as, “actor most known for playing Sherlock Holmes.” Face it, Baz, that’s all they’re ever going to say. Even the school itself managed to get into the movies, in two separate productions of Goodbye, Mr Chips, the 1939 version featuring two hundred Reptonians as schoolboy extras. For the record, Rathbone’s chums didn’t actually call him Baz but seemed to prefer Ratters instead. As ever with our Giants, he wasn’t much cop at the academic stuff, being more interested in sports, especially fencing, in which he excelled, an accomplishment that would serve him well later …

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.

And then along came the Great War. Younger brother John, who left school in 1915, joined up straight away. Ratters, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so keen, describing the very idea of war as “monstrous … irrational, pitiable, ugly, and sordid.” Nor was he alone, not once the ever-burgeoning casualty lists began to prove that life-expectancy at the Front could be counted in days, and so the numbers of volunteers soon began to tail off badly. The Asquith government, not wanting to resort to actual conscription until Haig forced their hand in 1916, then fudged up the Group Scheme of 1915, which was still sort of voluntary, apart from the fact that you either had to have a darn good excuse or it was off to the Front with you sharpish, matey. Thus it was that Basil found himself freshly kilted and a fully-signed up member of the Liverpool Scottish, a regiment in which he would rise to the rank of captain. A bout of measles meant that he didn’t actually get to the Western Front until May 1917, far too late to join Haig’s hare-brained scheme for a Big Push, the very reason why the country needed so many young men in the first place: so that he could pointlessly toss them away like toysoldiers for no perceptible gain. This was the Battle of the Somme (1 July – 18 November 1916), in which the blockheaded Commander-in-Chief (a one-time Bullingdon Clubber) managed to squander some 419,654 men as casualties (including a seriously wounded John Rathbone), 95,675 of them dead or “missing” (which meant dead) in Britain’s worst and bloodiest military catastrophe.
John eventually recovered and, in 1918, Basil was reunited with him, so they had a good dinner, a good few Scotches and went late to bed. Not long later, Basil awoke from a nightmare in which he had seen his brother killed and, for some moments, could not persuade himself that John was not dead until at last he heard him breathing. “A tremulous premonition haunted me - a premonition which even the dawn failed to dispel.” A few days later, on June 4, John was duly killed in action. Basil was a battalion intelligence officer and it was his job to go out on night patrols to gather information and then write a report of what he’d seen but, being as it was darker than a miser’s wallet out there, he was obliged to make up his reports. Possibly in reaction to his brother’s death, or perhaps out of a desire for vengeance, he then suggested to his commanding officers that the patrols be allowed to go out in broad daylight, so they might actually see something for a change, which was how he ended up playing his next role, a suitably Macbethian one disguised as a tree. In camouflage suits, foliage hats and blackened faces, three of them made their way into the enemy trenches and gained some highly important intelligence. On 26 July, in what they had thought was a deserted trench, they suddenly heard footsteps and then a German officer appeared but, so astounded was he to be confronted by a trio of trees, he could do nothing but stand and gape. Rathbone promptly shot him twice, killing him stone dead. He was later awarded the Military Cross.

Back in Blighty, Ratters ditched the kilt, ditched the wife and went back to Shakespeare. From then on, he began to divide his time between England and America, a 1923 production of The Swan with Eva Le Gallienne not only making him a star on Broadway but also providing the material for a bit of a saucy fling with his co-star, though it was a short-lived one, as it turned out. Instead, he switched his attentions to a diminutive redheaded actress by the name of Ouida Bergère who, by lucky good hap, had been smitten with him for some time already, so they got straight down to the falling in love business and then making plans to get married. Which is when they hit a small snag in proceedings: Baz was still married to Marion Foreman. Not only that, but the Rathbone clan were notoriously old-school when it came to matters of honour, believing that once you were married, you stayed married, however grim it got. Besides which, old man Rathbone hadn’t yet forgiven his son for throwing up a promising career in insurance just so’s he could go flouncing around in greasepaint instead, so it was going to be a decidedly ticklish situation when Basil had to spill the beans on the proposed divorce to his father, which is where he went now. How it all went off isn’t known but Rathbone's father died on 13 June 1924, which, by cruel irony, was also Basil’s birthday. This time, however, our man did stick with it and the marriage lasted right up until his own death in July 1967.
By this time, Basil had already got stuck into his movie career, starting with the 1921 British silent film, Innocent, in which a naïve country girl (handily called Innocence, in case the plot proved too tortuous to grasp) comes to the city, where she is seduced by a cynical artist. Played by Rathbone, of course – Ratters the Rat, you might say – the first of many such suave villains that he would eventually become so well-known for, though he didn’t seem to mind that image half so much as he would being typecast as Sherlock Holmes later on. Several more silents followed, then along came the “talkies,” when Basil was able to really get into his stride, starting with The Last of Mrs Cheyney (1929) and going on to roles such as Mr Murdstone (David Copperfield), Pontius Pilate, Captain Blood and Anna Karenina’s husband (all in 1935!) before getting to his best-remembered baddie, Sir Guy of Gisbourne in Robin Hood (1938). Being the perpetual rotter did have its downside though: despite being regarded as the greatest swordsman in Hollywood history (he was also British Army Fencing Champion), his roles usually obliged him to “lose” to his on-screen foes, particularly Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn – “I could have killed Errol Flynn any time I wanted to!” – meaning he only ever won twice, once as Captain Pascuale (in The Mark of Zorro and over in seconds flat) and once as Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet (1936). His last on-screen clashing of the steel was with Danny Kaye in The Court Jester (1955), when Basil was sixty three, and said by some to be the best swordfight ever filmed.
After playing so many villains, it must have come as something of a relief when Fox, having decided to make an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, instantly thought of Rathbone for the part of Holmes (second billing, under Richard Greene, mind), with Nigel Bruce as a superbly bumbling Doctor Watson (apparently he played every role he ever had like that) and the rest is history. Sherlock Holmes had first made print in 1887, just five years before our man was born, and last appeared in 1927, a dozen years before Rathbone’s Hound of 1939, so still relatively new at that time. After two films, both set in pukka Victorian times, Fox lost interest and Universal took over, placing the detective in modern settings for a further twelve films, three of which are out-and-out war propaganda pieces, though all were B-movies filmed in Hollywood, with the same American actors turning up time and again, but with astoundingly convincing English accents (in most cases). Nigel Bruce was actually three years younger than Rathbone, who was himself fifty four when they made the last one, Dressed to Kill (1946). Holmes is markedly cruel to Watson in some of his remarks: “So simple a child could do it,” says the Doctor; “Not your child, Watson,” replies Holmes. And there’s a generous smattering of “Elementary, my dear Watson” while they’re at it, along with a good few “So I observed” put-downs too. If you haven’t seen these films, watch them at once; if you have, take another look at them as soon as you can; but, in either case, do so via the lavishly 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.

Having played Holmes pretty much non-stop (the radio series was running concurrently) for so long, Rathbone decided to exchange his deerstalker for a pair of tights and get back to the Shakespeare. Well, to the stage, anyhow. Alas, too late! The association was irredeemably fixed and Rathbone even believed this typecasting cost him the role of Lord Henry Wotton in A Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). Legend also has it that Margaret Mitchell had wanted Ratters to play Rhett Butler in the film version of her novel, Gone with the Wind (1939) but this is unreliable, though Basil did actively campaign for the part. Holmes would crop up again in Rathbone’s later career nonetheless, thanks to a stage play written by his wife, Ouida, in which Nigel Bruce was supposed to reprise his Watson but was too ill, which depressed his old friend no end, especially when Bruce died while the play was still in rehearsals. It was a complete turkey and closed after three performances. With a wife doing that to your career, who needs drama critics?

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 : and (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 (], 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

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