Basil Rathbone
(1892 - 1967)
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South 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 Vine (1921).

Tall, 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 (1935).

Rathbone 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.

Never 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).











 

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