Basil Rathbone (1892–1967)

While you might not know the name Philip St. John Basil Rathbone, if you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes productions, there is a good chance you have heard the name Basil Rathbone.

Rathbone, born on 13 June 1892 in Johannesburg, South African Republic, took to the character Sherlock Homes like a duck to water.

When it comes to the mid-twentieth century, Rathbone was the quintessential Homes just as his co-star Nigel Bruce was the quintessential Dr. John Watson.

Beginning in 1939 with “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” Rathbone set the tone for future actors that would done the deerstalker cap.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles,” directed by Sidney Lanfield, was based of the book of the same title written by Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. The premise of the tale revolves around Holmes and Watson investigating the existence of a legendary supernatural hound.

As the narrative unfolds, there are concerns expressed that suggest the beast was intentionally stalking a young heir to an estate which borders on a fog-shrouded moorland.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles,” originally published in a serialised formatted in The Strand Magazine August 1901 to April 1902 in a similar fashion to that seen with Charles Dickens’ novels, is arguably one of the most famous Holmes stories written.

The successfulness of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” prompted Fox to produce a sequel, “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” in the same year.

Oddly, Fox lost interest in making Holmes films. Universal Pictures saw an opportunity in acquiring the character; consequently, there were no fewer than twelve feature films made between 1941 and 1944, all of which co-stared Rathbone and Bruce. While the last film was made in 1944, it was not released until 1947.

While the early films were set during the Victorian period, later instalments, beginning with the 1942 John Rawlins directed “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror” were set in contemporary times. Contemporary times as in the period in which the films were made, the 1940s.

Three of the films, including “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror,” revolved around Second World War-related plots.

Of course, like all good acting careers, Rathbone’s credits did not begin or end with the Homes film series he headlined.

Even though Rathbone is best known for playing Holmes opposite Bruce’s Watson, a cursory glance at the Johannesburg born actor’s credits will reveal many of the characters he played were villainous and or morally ambiguous.

For evidence of this point, one would not need to look any further than the 1938 Michael Curtiz / William Keighley co-directed “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Rathbone played Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

Many actors have played Gisbourne since Rathbone but none have been able to recapture the level of villainous intent which he was able to instil in his interpretation of the character.

Rathbone died suddenly of a heart attack in New York City on 21 July 1967 at age 75. He is interred in a crypt in the Shrine of Memories Mausoleum at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

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Shain E. Thomas, recently graduated with an M.Sc. in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of North Texas, is currently working on an M.Sc. in Library Science. Shain, the senior editor of "Harsh Light," is also the U.S. Correspondent for "The Welshman" and a regular contributor to the "North Texas Daily."