Basil Rathbone — Once A Villain (1937) 🇺🇸

Basil Rathbone |

January 22, 2022

Menace takes a holiday, and Basil Rathbone, so good at being bad that nobody wants him to be otherwise, proves a “heavy” can be a hero.

by Kenneth Thomas

This is the Menace Man’s hour. And the cry of Hollywood’s charm boys is: “Give me characters I can get my teeth into.” Meaning characters with a little iron in them and not so much sugar coating. Indeed, why shouldn’t they? The “villain” who used to receive only hisses from the gallery in the “legit,” now gets mash notes from the feminine fans and fat pay checks from the producer every week.

The devilish fellow in the piece can be devilish attractive to the ladies out front — and definitely is one to be noted by the Hollywood powers that turn out for the previews.

Even the actor who has done a procession of menace roles is entirely content to keep away from out-and-out hero assignments. Within certain limits, you understand. Take Basil Rathbone for example.

Basil has made people hate him so thoroughly they like him tremendously on the screen. He wouldn’t be a goody-goody if Hollywood paid him for it.

He is one of Hollywood’s foremost examples of the new idea in Menace Men — the selection of a thoroughly schooled and finished actor, capable of playing the most difficult part, to give vitality and life to the modern screen “heavy.”

Considering his importance and his achievements in the pictures, you don’t read much about Rathbone in the news and feature columns of papers and magazines. But that isn’t because he plays villain roles. There’s another reason. He’s too convincing to make good copy.

Listening to Basil talk gives you the same reaction experienced by that fabled Britisher who, picking up a geometry textbook, read it through, returned it to the table beside him with a laconic: “Why, of course!” You don’t argue with geometry — or Basil Rathbone when he talks about acting.

If he ever decides to hire himself a gallery of yes-men, they’ll earn their money the easy way, giving him the affirmative nod automatically — from conviction. Just as we did that day he talked about acting in the living room of a Manhattan hotel suite he and his wife, Ouida Bergère, were to vacate within the hour to entrain for their home in Hollywood.

Tall, he’s over six feet; dapper, slight, Rathbone has the finely trained actor’s sense of timing and inflection to accent the ideas he expresses so fluently. He has the easy, cordial suavity associated with his English background. Straight black hair, and dark, almost swarthy complexion, coupled with a nervous energy which finds outlet in quick motions and frequent gestures with the hands, suggest more the characteristics of the Latin than the Anglo Saxon.

“It does get monotonous,” he said, “when you play the same sort of part all the time. There is no more interest for the actor in that than there would be for the artisan, a cabinet-maker let’s say, to make only tables, when all the while he has the desire as well as the knowledge necessary to design and construct chairs, and desks, cabinets, and all the other articles of furniture turned out by his craft.

“It’s bad enough playing unconvincing villains, but the conventional ‘hero’ type of character is even worse as a steady diet. As a matter of fact the actor’s professional life is far happier if he does parts that lean more to the heavy’ (how I do hate that term), than those cast in the mold of eternal goodness. If you want to check on that, just consider the roles Bill Powell plays so superbly. They’re men who are human enough to stray from convention’s narrow path, and are vicariously satisfying to the spirit of adventure that’s in the very best of us. But the characters that lean over backward to be mean, they are another thing. They’re not real, nor are their offences forgiveable. Nobody condones the cruelty of a child-whipper like Murdstone in ‘Copperfield.’ Such people are offensive.”

Does Rathbone yearn for characters that will go direct to the hearts and the tender affections, particularly of women — whose active regard and loyalty every actor in films admits is necessary to his life on the screen? Not at all. He has that without the build-up of a series of “sympathetic” parts.

“The only thing I hear in the way of advice from them is that I should play more human characters. But not the stylized hero kind. Of course, I have to answer by saying that I would dearly love to have such parts to play, and if anybody can persuade the producers to give me such roles, I shall be eternally grateful.

“But you can be sure that the length of life an actor can enjoy in films is something of deep concern to me, as well as to any other actor. And I must say I have my doubts at times about the future if I cannot get more variety in acting assignments than I’ve been drawing these past two years.

“It happens that I love acting. I would want to go on acting even if I had no need for the material rewards of income from my efforts. Since my twelfth year on this earth I’ve felt the same way about that. My father, a mining engineer in South Africa, where I was born, had an entirely different career mapped for me. But the theatre was the only thing that interested me. I wrote plays when I was twelve years old — plays that, thank heaven, I and the few kindred spirits with whom I found mutual theatrical interests never even tried to act out!

“Now, after all these years of working in the theatre I want the best opportunities possible, opportunity to do the things I am capable of as well as the best monetary returns that can be made from my profession. That’s human nature. And it’s also natural to be concerned about the future if I wear people out, make them tired of me by doing a series of slab-sided ‘heavies.’”

You can’t cry “conceited” at Basil Rathbone for regarding himself as trained and qualified by years of experience and accomplishments in his profession to essay a more varied type of acting than has been permitted him these past couple of years in Hollywood. Gilbert Miller, stage producer who is not given to praising lightly, has said he considers Rathbone one of the most completely equipped actors he has ever seen on a stage.

From his beginnings in the theatre, Basil Rathbone, starting in Shakespearian roles in England, has interpreted with distinction a wide variety of dramatic characters. His Iago won acclaim in England; his performances in Shakespeare and “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” with Katharine Cornell were roundly applauded here in America. “He Who Gets Slapped,” “Peter Ibbetson,” “Command to Love,” and a number of other important plays found him winning the plaudits of critics and public.

Since his return to Hollywood in David Copperfield — he had played in pictures before, with Norma Shearer in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney as the most important of several earlier films — Rathbone has been playing mostly the same sort of thing since his memorable portrayal of Murdstone in “David Copperfield.” And we, the screen-goers, have as much trouble remembering him in anything but such merciless creatures as the Dickens villain as do the producers who cast the pictures we see. “Tale of Two Cities,” “Anna Karenina,” “Captain Blood,” all found Rathbone as more or less rubber-stamp villains of the deep-dyed sort. A rather thankless part in “Garden of Allah,” and a better one, Tybalt in “Romeo and Juliet” about complete the list of more important things Basil Rathbone has played since his return to the screen.

But in all these he proved too convincing a Menace Man to be forgotten.

Last fall he packed his baggage and his candid camera and with his wife set off for London, mainly to make a picture at a British studio, but also to travel and vacation a bit. Perhaps this would offer some change in the kind of parts he might play. But lo, and behold, the villain that Hollywood discovered in Basil Rathbone went ahead of him to the land of his acting nativity. And there waiting for him was a nice villain part, opposite Ann Harding in a play about a woman who marries a seemingly attractive man who turns out to be a pathological case subject to fits of mania to murder — particularly women. This, of course, is “Love from a Stranger,” adapted to the screen from a very successful London stage play.

There’s an amusing side to the manner in which Hollywood turned Basil into the screen’s most velvety villain. Hollywood itself doesn’t seem to know just how it discovered the bad in him — because Basil asked.

David Selznick,” he relates, “sent for me after I had closed a tour with Katharine Cornell in Los Angeles. We had played The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Romeo and Juliet there. Selznick made me a flattering offer to do Murdstone in ‘Copperfield.’ Later I asked him: ‘in heaven’s name, what did you see in me in those plays with Kit Cornell to pick me for this part?’ And to that he replied that he didn’t know precisely, but felt sure I would play Murdstone exactly as he wanted it in the picture.”

Which is just another illustration of how shrewdly these top men in Hollywood guess — if guessing it is. They found a Romeo and turned him into a Murdstone, and the whole world cheered the feat — Hollywood’s as well as Basil Rathbone’s. Now Basil Rathbone is everybody’s discovery at being so good at being bad that nobody wants him to be anything else.

Second only to his desire for screen roles that test his acting skill, is Basil’s fondness for checked materials for his smartly cut clothes. You see that in his screen costume above, for “Love From a Stranger,” and at right, in a new portrait, as well as when you go to interview him.

Collection: Screenland MagazineApril 1937