Basil Rathbone, A 20th Century Sherlock
No compilation of Sherlock Holmes actors would be complete without recognizing Basil Rathbone in the famous role. From 1938 to 1986, almost fifty years, Basil portrayed Sherlock in film, on stage, television and radio. His last performance was as the voice of The Great Mouse Detective (1986) in an animated film. This was thirty three years after his starring in a short lived stage production of Sherlock Holmes written by his wife, Ouida Rathbone.
At an inch and a half over six feet Basil most closely fits Sherlock’s physical description as Conan Doyle gives it in A Study in Scarlet, right down to the thin hawk-like nose:
In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.
After feasting on Robert Downey, Jr’s. technicolor, high tech, blockbuster action movies, Sherlock in black and white filmed on simple stage sets is rather a culture shock. Another shocking thing is that the writers of Basil’s series of movies brought Sherlock into the 20th century, at least to the 1940s. For the first time since the Victorian age, Sherlock Holmes is a contemporary of his viewers. Technology updates from the Victorian era movies include, automobiles, telephones, x-rays, film projectors and sonic beams, things we take for granted in the 21st century.
In the First World War, Basil served as a second lieutenant in the Liverpool Scottish 2nd Battalion as an intelligence officer (1915-1919) and received the Military Cross for bravery. So who better to play Sherlock, the hero? In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, Sherlock, just doing his patriotic duty, smuggles a Swiss scientist and the bomb sight he’d invented into to England to aid the Allies against the Germans (1943).
Moriarty remains Sherlock’s main nemesis along Colonel Sebastian Moran and some pretty treacherous women in The Woman in Green (1945), Terror by Night (1946) and Dressed to Kill (1946). These are not what we would call action movies, although in Terror by Night, Sherlock is forced to cling to the outside of a speeding train until he is able to make his way back aboard. Premonition of Robert Downey, Jr’s. train stunt? Basil was actually the British Army fencing champion during his day and declared the best swordsman in Hollywood history. Too bad he didn’t get to demonstrate his fencing skills as Sherlock.
Basil’s Sherlock is truly a master of disguises and infiltrates many scenes in the guise of another character to gain information. His everyday wear runs to tweeds with a tweed walking hat to match. He’s often seen smoking pipes, cigars, cigarettes. No wonder he’s an expert at identifying tobacco ashes.
Nigel Bruce’s interpretation of Dr. Watson, Sherlock’s friend and colleague, is the one to be blamed for the misconception that Dr. Watson is a bumbling, mumbling incompetent. Basil’s Sherlock is tolerant of Watson’s misdeeds because once in a while the good doctor actually stumbles on a correct answer. Perhaps Nigel’s interpretation is meant to show how ordinary people compare to Sherlock and his brilliant mind.
Basil’s contemporary Sherlock Holmes laid the groundwork for today’s updates of our favorite characters in BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary. Thank you, Mr. Rathbone. Well done!