Basil Rathbone was one of my favorite "classic Hollywood" actors. He could play the hero or the villain with equal skill and panache. But not everyone appreciates classic films these days. I went to another estate sale a few months ago, where the sellers were getting ready to throw away (?!?) this poster for the 1938 film Robin Hood, in which Rathbone played the wicked Sir Guy of Gisbourne. Errol Flynn and Olivia De Haviland got top billing, and most of the space on the poster, as Robin Hood and Maid Marian.
I rescued the old poster and gave it to a 20-something aspiring filmmaker who loves old movies and goes to my church. I carefully unrolled the poster and took pictures of it first, spreading it out on the floor because it was so huge. You can see the evil character of Sir Guy, next to Rathbone's name in the lower center.
A year after Robin Hood was filmed, Basil Rathbone made the first two in the series of films for which he is best-remembered: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Basil Rathbone was "the" Sherlock Holmes for more than one generation of fans. He considered it quite an honor to play the part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic character. A Rathbone fansite explains:
|"Ever since I was a boy and first got acquainted with the great detective I wanted to be like him . . . To play such a character means as much to me as ten 'Hamlets'!" -- Basil Rathbone, in a 1939 interview|
It's worth taking a little time to read the article on the Sherlock Holmes films starring Rathbone on BasilRathbone.net :
The article gives the history of Rathbone's Holmes films, explaining that few of these movies were actually based on Conan Doyle's stories. Instead, Hollywood updated Sherlock Holmes to bring him to a modern audience. We needed a hero to fight the Nazis in the 1940s; Hollywood decided that Sherlock Holmes was the man. The plots may have been contrived, and Nigel Bruce's Dr. Watson character may have been a nitwit, but as the writer on the website observes:
Basil Rathbone portrays the character of Sherlock Holmes so well that he's a joy to watch, even if the time period is "wrong" and the plots are ridiculous. And even though Watson is absent-minded, and frequently silly, he is charming. The chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce is superb.
The last time Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes on film was in 1946. That brings me back to the short story in Esquire, sitting here on my table, which was published in 1956. As Rathbone's tale begins, the narrator is on vacation in the English countryside:
The last afternoon of my holiday I was walking across the gentle countryside when I was rudely stung by a bee. Startled, I grabbed a handful of soft earth and applied it to the sting; it's an old-fashioned remedy I had learned as a child. Suddenly I became aware that the air about me was swarming with bees. It was then I noticed the small house with a thatched roof and a well-kept garden, with beehives at one end, that Mrs. Messenger, my landlady, had so often mentioned. She had told me that "he" had come to live in the thatched cottage many years ago. As he bothered no one, no one bothered him, which is an old English custom. Now, in 1946, he had become almost a legend.
People can forget a lot in ten years. "Daydream" ends:
He held out the book in his hand, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. "Do you know these stories? They are often overdramatized; but they make good reading." Once again the smile danced in his eyes.
I acknowledged an intimate acquaintance with all the works to which he referred and he seemed greatly pleased by my references to "The Master." ...
"The adventures as written by our dear friend Doctor Watson mean a great deal to me at my time of life," he reflected. "As someone once said, 'Remembrance is the only sure immortality we can know.' "
On my return, Mrs. Messenger gave me an urgent telegram from Scotland Yard, requesting my immediate return. I didn't speak to her of my visit to "him." I was afraid she might consider me as childish as the youngsters in Heathfield who still believe "he" was the great Sherlock Holmes.
Which they did, until they reached an age when he was dismissed together with Santa Claus and those other worth-while people who, for a brief, beautiful period, are more real than reality itself.
Basil Rathbone died in 1976, but despite the melancholy tone of Rathbone's story, Sherlock Holmes has never been forgotten. Other actors have played his character, off and on, with varying levels of success and credibility. Not all the incarnations of Holmes, then and now, have been true to the spirit of Conan Doyle's character.
In 1984, the great detective came back on Granada Television in the UK inside the person of Jeremy Brett for a ten-year run of traditional Holmes adventures based on the original stories. For legions of fans, Jeremy Brett was "the" Sherlock Holmes. If you haven't seen this series, you need to. Brett died in 1995. Even as I write, the BBC is filming a third series of adventures with Holmes' most modern incarnation, played by the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch.
Great characters and great stories don't always pass from our imaginations. Sherlock Holmes is, indeed, more real than reality itself. When we need a hero -- even a flawed hero -- Sherlock Holmes will be there.
You can read "Daydream" in its entirety, thanks to the devout Basil Rathbone fans who transcribed it and put it on this website:
The Internet Movie Database website's entry for Robin Hood is here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029843/
And the link for Basil Rathbone is here: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001651/?ref_=tt_cl_t3