African-born Basil Rathbone was the son of a British mining engineer
working in Johannesburg. After a brief career as an insurance agent,
the 19-year-old aspiring actor joined his cousins repertory group. World
War I service as a Lieutenant in Liverpool Scottish Regiment followed and
he won the Military Cross (a considerable feat) for bravery during the
conflict. A rapid ascension to leading man status on the British stage
followed and Rathbone's movie debut was in the London-filmed The Fruitful
well profiled, and blessed with a commanding stage voice, Rathbone shifted
from modern dress productions to Shakespeare and back again with finesse.
Very much in demand in the early talkie era, one of Rathbone's earliest
American films was The Bishop Murder Case (1930), in which, as erudite
amateur sleuth Philo Vance, he was presciently referred to by one of
the characters as 'Sherlock Holmes'. He was seldom more effective than
when cast in costume dramas as a civilized but cold-hearted villain:
Murdstone in David Copperfield (1934), Evremonde in Tale of Two Cities
was a good friend of Robin Hood star Errol Flynn, and a far better swordsman.
He was greatly admired for his athletic cinema swordsmanship, particularly
as Sir Guy of Guisborne in the long fight scene in Robin Hood. Other
noteworthy swordfights appear in The Mark of Zorro and The Court Jester
(1955). The later duplicates a scene in the former in which Rathbone
slices a candle in two and leaves it burning.
content with shallow, one note performances, Rathbone often brought
a touch of humanity and pathos to such stock 'heavies' as Karenin in
Anna Karenina (1936) and Pontius Pilate in The Last Days of Pompeii
(1936). He was Oscar-nominated for his portrayals of Tybalt in Romeo
and Juliet (1936) and the crotchety Louis XVI in If I Were King (1938).