Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Birthday Book of the Day: the memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, B.C. (before Cumberbatch)

Before movies, there was William Gillette, who picked up the deerstalker and pipe from the Sidney Paget illustrations and brought Sherlock Holmes the stage in 1300 performances over thirty years.

Two years later, the heir was crowned in the movies: the British actor Basil Rathbone.

He was born 125 years ago today, and took his last bow fifty years ago.

In between, Philip St John Basil Rathbone became one of the best-known classical stage and film actors in English, and spent the last quarter-century of his life trying to escape the imprint of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films he did between 1939 and 1946.

Rathbone was born in South Africa, into one of those globe-spanning British Empire families (a distant cousin, Major Henry Rathbone, was injured in the assassination of President Lincoln, a guest in Lincoln’s box).

The Rathbones decamped South Africa during the Boer War, the boy’s father having been accused of being a British spy. Rathbone graduated high school and briefly worked for an insurance company, at his dad’s insistence, before making his stage debut in 1911, at his own.

After distinguished front-line service in World War I, Rathbone returned to the stage. Rapier thin (Mrs Patrick Campbell, the doyenne of the London stage, called him “two profiles pasted together” and “a folded umbrella taking elocution lessons”), he found his calling in Shakespeare.

Villains, and the morally ambiguous, were his stock in trade. As movies came on, he made the transition easily: he had a resonant baritone voice and was an expert fencer. He crossed epigrams with Errol Flynn as easily as epees, but- as the villain- almost always ended up the one run through.

A luncheon chat among 20th Century Fox executives surfaced the urbane Brit as a possible Sherlock Holmes for a costume drama Hound of the Baskervilles. Rathbone, who pined, unsuccessfully, to play Rhett Butler, took the job, and the 1939 film- a mostly faithful recreation of the Conan Doyle novel- did well enough to generate another period sequel, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

With World War II on, Fox lost interest in the property. Universal picked up Rathbone’s option and launched him and his half-wit sidekick, Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson, into modern times.

Holmes became an anti-Nazi crusader in titles like Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, Sherlock Holmes and The Secret Weapon, and Sherlock Holmes goes to Washington.

The last of the increasingly threadbare plots imploded with the explosion of the first nukes. The war was over and Holmes had nowhere to go. He carried a radio version into 1948.

The rest of his life Rathbone was stuck with the deerstalker. He took more stage roles, and gamely tried out television game programs and variety shows but gigs were harder to get. His wife was a legendary party giver, and the bills had to be paid. In 1953 she penned a stage play to reunite Holmes and Watson, but Bruce died in rehearsals and the show closed after three nights.

Rathbone alternated between fleeing and embracing his most famous role. In the 1960s he appeared as Holmes in a series of TV ads for an exterminator (“Getz gets ‘em, since 1888!”) He collected paychecks from some of the low-budget horror-comedy teen flicks like The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (prompting the character Eric von Zipper to explain, “That guy looks like Sherlock Holmes!”).

Late in life he moved into spoken word recordings and had a successful one man touring show whose title he moved to his memoirs. A heart attack felled him in July 1967.

One can argue the success of Jeremy Brett’s 1984-94 run with 41 of the Holmes tales in period- not to mention the more recent success of others- has placed Rathbone’s Holmes movies in a more balanced light versus his body of work. His medieval swashbucklers remain in regular rotation on movie channels; he won a Tony and two Oscar nominations, and left three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: for film, television and radio.

Henry Bemis Books remembers our first Sherlock Holmes with this rare first edition of Rathbone’s 1962 autobiography:

IMG_20170613_110100 - Edited.jpg

Rathbone, Basil, In and Out of Character (Doubleday, 1st ed. 1st printing, 1962). LOC 62-15316. Memoirs by the man who will, to some, always be the definitive Sherlock Holmes on film. Entertaining tale of a long career on stage and screen. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket, very good condition. Octavo, 278 pp. HBB price: $50.

Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at www.henrybemisbookseller.blogspot.com. Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory; for pricing on this or others items, kindly private message us. Shipping is always free to US locations; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like.

We accept electronic payments via Facebook Messenger, powered by Stripe.

We regret that while California Assembly Bill 1570 (2016) remains in force we are unable to do business with California residents.

We offer 25% off to fellow dealers.

What’s your favorite social media outlet? We’re blogging at www.henrybemisbookseller.blogspot. com. We tweet as Henry Bemis Books. Have you liked us on Facebook yet? Henry Bemis Books is there, too. And Google+!

You can also see Henry’s alter ego, Lindsay Thompson, on a three weekly Facebook Live programs: Rare Book Cafe, a 2:30-3:30 pm EDT Saturday panel show about books; Book Week- Rare Book Cafe’s weekly Thursday noon news program (both on Rare Book Cafe’s Facebook page); and Gallimaufry, a Wednesday nights at 11 show about literary history on Henry Bemis Books’ ‘Facebook page.

#SherlockHolmes #BasilRathbone #FirstEditions #HenryBemisBooks #Charlotte

No comments:

Post a Comment

We enjoy hearing from visitors! Please leave your questions, thoughts, wish lists, or whatever else is on your mind.