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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Basil Rathbone on Sherlock Holmes

Some of his fans call him "The Baz"
Reading In and Out of Character, I rather wish the author had stayed in character.

This is the 1962 autobiography of Basil Rathbone, the great Sherlock Holmes of my generation. I bought a copy recently from the Baker Street Irregulars Trust and read it for the first time.

As in most biographies and autobiographies, I learned some things about the subject that I would rather not have not known. On the other, Rathbone is quite stingy with anecdotes about the making of 14 movies and more than 200 radio plays in which he starred as Holmes. And his judgement on Holmes is rather harsh:

"I came to the conclusion," he says, "that there was nothing lovable about Holmes. He himself seemed capable of transcending the weaknesses of mere mortals such as myself . . . "

Ultimately, he concludes that he was jealous of Holmes: "Jealous of his mastery in all things, both material and mystical . . . he was a sort of god in his way, seated on some Anglo-Saxon Olympus of his own design and making! Yes, there was no question he had given me an acute inferiority complex!"

Rathbone follows this assertion immediately with Vincent Starrett's classic poem, "221B," which sends a bit of a mixed message as to how the actor really felt about the Great Detective.

In all, he devotes only 11 pages of his 278-page memoir to his Hollywood years as Holmes -- and four of those pages are a short story!

After being away from the character for five years, Rathbone asked his wife, Ouida, to write him a play about Sherlock Holmes. The curtain went up two years later, in 1953. Rathbone tells the story of that disaster in another chapter, about one-third of which includes another short story! Oddly, he never mentions the name of the play -- Sherlock Holmes: A New Play in Three Acts. It lasted in New York just three days before closing forever.

Rathbone concludes that the play was too leisurely, thoughtful, and analytical for an audience that was already corrupted by television: "We were outdated, hopelessly outdated."

It could also be that the audience shared my opinion that it just wasn't a very good play.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it sounds like it was written by Basil Rathbone, who was certainly lovable even though he wrongly thought that Holmes was not. It was good to hear his voice again, if only in my head.


  1. Well he probably considered the Sherlock movies as the “B” movies of his career as opposed to Robin Hood and Captain Blood and Anna Karenina. But he certainly had an affinity for and with Holmes.