By Jessica Pickens
When actor Basil Rathbone is mentioned, what do you think of?
Is it Rathbone with a deerstalker hat and pipe, in costume as Sherlock Holmes? Or perhaps him in a sword fight with the hero of a film?
Born June 13, 1892, Rathbone started as a Shakespearean actor on the stage and entered films in 1921. He started to grow in fame on the screen in the 1930s.
Basil Rathbone could seemingly perform in any role. He often played a villain, which was aided by authentic swordsmanship that helped him during a screen sword fight. But Rathbone could also play the hero or love interest.
Here are a few of his varied roles:
The film is set in Rome, beginning 20 years before Vesuvius erupts.
After the death of his wife and baby, a blacksmith named Marcus (Preston Foster) rises to fame as a gladiator in ancient Rome. Marcus raises an orphan, Flavius, who meets Jesus. Marcus also meets and partners with Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone) before he condemns Jesus.
Rathbone is outfitted in full Roman garb and his character of Pontius Pilate is written to be sympathetic. The Last Days of Pompeii is an odd film, which makes it an interesting, must-see watch.
King Richard the Lion Heart (Ian Hunter) overthrown by his brother King John (Claude Rains). Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) leads his group of Merry Men to get King Richard back on his rightful thrown. Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) is hired to kill Robin Hood.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of Basil Rathbone’s most famous film roles. Rathbone is excellent as the loathsome Sir Guy and his swordsmanship in fights with Errol Flynn is amazing to watch! The film is in Technicolor and spectacularly gorgeous.
Twenty-five years after Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster’s death, his son Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) and his family (Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan) travel to the Frankenstein estate from the United States when it is willed to them. The whole town resents Baron von Frankenstein returning because of the terror his family brought on the village. When realizing the Monster (Boris Karloff) is still alive, he follows in his father’s footsteps to bring him back to life with the help of Ygor (Bela Lugosi).
Basil Rathbone’s character starts out as a friendly and normal fellow, but he is maddened by the power and genius of his father, who created a living being. In the end, Rathbone’s character manipulates the Monster just as his father had. Son of Frankenstein is the third Frankenstein film released by Universal, following Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It is an enjoyable early horror film.
Basil Rathbone started acting as the detective Sherlock Holmes starting in 1939 with the film The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939). Along with Robin Hood, the Holmes character is one of Rathbone’s most famous roles. From 1939 to 1946, Rathbone performed the role of Sherlock Holmes in 14 movies. Rathbone’s Holmes characterization is one who is wise, thoroughly thinks through the issue, and is also extremely distinguished. Nigel Bruce plays Dr. Watson in each of the films, and is a bit bumbling but still fun.
George Adams (Basil Rathbone) is unhappy when his star songwriter Steve Elliot (Red Skelton) says he’s leaving the business to marry swim instructor Caroline Brooks (Esther Williams). George deliberately creates a shocking misunderstanding between the two that sends a newly single Caroline back to the all-girls college where she is an instructor. Determined to win her back, Steve finds a loophole in the school rules and enrolls.
To me, one of Basil Rathbone’s most random roles is in Bathing Beauty. If you aren’t familiar with Esther Williams films, Williams was an Olympic hopeful-turned-movie star. Each of her films featured Williams in elaborate swimming numbers. While Rathbone is the antagonist in Bathing Beauty, he isn’t nearly as dastardly as he is in other films. Here, he is a greedy business man who doesn’t want to lose his cash cow. Rathbone’s role is rather small, but I love that he is in a Technicolor MGM musical.
Early Christmas Eve 1895, Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray), Jules (Peter Ustinov) and Adolf the poisonous snake escape from prison on French colonial Devil’s Island. Joseph embezzled money and Albert and Jules are murderers. They are able to blend in easily in the town in their prison clothes, as many paroled convicts work out in the open.
They hide on the roof of shop owner Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll). From the roof the three observe the family’s problems: Felix and his wife Amelie (Joan Bennett) aren’t making any money at the store owned by his cousin Andre Trochard (Basil Rathbone) and their daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) is in love with Andre’s nephew Paul (John Baer), who lives in Paris with Andre.
Basil Rathbone’s character of Andre Trochard is especially cold blooded and despicable in We’re No Angels. First off, he’s a snob who believes that he is above the Ducotel family, including not permitting Isabelle to marry his nephew Paul. Andre is also fully prepared to throw the Ducotels in jail if his audit of their store does not please him. Basil Rathbone has a short role, but you quickly loathe him.
Jessica Pickens is a North Carolina-based writer. She has a degree in print journalism and now works in public relations. Outside of work, she writes about pre-1968 films at CometOverHollywood.com with a special interest in musicals, films released in 1939, and World War II-era films. You can follow her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.