Basil Rathbone, the American screen’s most distinguished villain was British to the core even though he was born in South Africa. He moved to Hollywood in 1924. Lean-faced, intellectual, icily commanding, he waited until sound came to give up the theatre and devote himself to films. When he did, the incisive, dismissive voice combined with his other assets to make a remarkable actor.
People remember him as a superb swashbuckling villain, (though never a heavy – in his duels with Flynn and Power he was nimble and light-footed as a cat), and as the movies’ best Sherlock Holmes, but he was much more. Outside of Holmes he never managed many lead roles but excelled when he did, his last significant role was in 1958’s The Last Hurrah for John Ford. We’ve deliberately left out the Sherlock Holmes ouvre from the list because lets face everyone of those is essential viewing and we thought we’d highlight a few of his other stand out roles so here is our pick of five of his best non Sherlock Holmes movies.
Anna Karenina (1935)
Could there be a better interpreter of Leo Tolstoy’s ill-fated heroine?one of the most-remade film stories?than Garbo? The pains of doomed love seemed oddly suited to that stoney Nordic visage. March and Rathbone are also fine, and Garbo had plenty of preparation for the role, having starred in the silent version (“Love”) with John Gilbert.
Director: Clarence Brown
Cast: Greta Garbo, Basil Rathbone, Fredric March, Freddie Bartholomew, Reginald Denny, Maureen O’Sullivan, Reginald Owen, May Robson
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Arguably both Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone had their greatest movie roles here, this is the swashbuckling spectacle about the infamous outlaw and his band of merry men who “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.” Robin Hood fights for justice against the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne, while striving to win the hand of the beautiful Maid Marian. A rollicking adventure never outdone by remakes, this epic features great swordplay, music, characters, and storybook. Shot in glorious Technicolor.
Directors: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
Cast: Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, Olivia de Havilland, Patric Knowles, Claude Rains,
The Sun Never Sets (1939)
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Rathbone star in this epic British tale about pride of both family and country. Fairbanks and Rathbone play John and Clive Randolph, brothers from a large and loving family who serve their nation by heading to the Gold Coast to stop a mad, power-hungry arms baron (Lionel Atwill). Rowland V. Lee (The Count of Monte Cristo, 1934) directs this moving story of loyalty, heroism and family history.
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill, Melville Cooper, Virginia Field, Barbara O’Neil, Theodore von Eltz
Above Suspicion (1943)
On the eve of WWII, a newlywed couple (MacMurray and Crawford) about to embark on their honeymoon are suddenly given an important assignment by the British Secret Service. Despite a total lack of previous espionage experience, they accept a mission to obtain the top-secret plans for a magnetic mine. As they do their duty, the pair confronts shady characters, secret codes, assassins, complex clues, deadly traps?and Nazis. Rathbone is superb as the evil Gestapo Chief Count Sig von Aschenhausen. Based on the novel by Helen MacInnes.
Director: Richard Thorpe
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Joan Crawford, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, Richard Ainley, Felix Bressart, Cecil Cunningham, Sara Haden, Ann Shoemaker, Conrad Veidt
The Last Hurrah (1958)
Edwin O’Connor’s colorful novel of the Boston political scene comes to life in this adaptation by Ford. Tracy revels in his role as an old-time Irish-American pol, the longtime mayor of Boston, who runs afoul of the gentry (in the form of newspaper publisher Carradine and banker Rathbone) and his idealistic nephew (Hunter), a reporter for Carradine’s paper who rejects his uncle’s rough-and-tumble backroom politicking but respects and admires his devotion to the city’s working people. The story culminates in Tracy’s last, losing campaign for office.
Director: John Ford
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Pat O’Brien, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Donald Crisp, James Gleason, Jeffrey Hunter,