Born June 13 in South Africa, raised in England, Basil Rathbone (1892-1967) was an established Shakespearean by the time he first came to America in 1923, eventually to marry (a second time) and settle in New York. The couple would relocate to Hollywood in 1935 where they came to be known for their lavish parties.
Rathbone played heroes and villains, often in elaborate costume dramas, with nervous energy, delivering lines in a clipped accent as cutting as his profile. He was twice nominated for an Academy Award in serious minded supporting roles, but he is best remembered for popular fare, notably his villainous turns opposite Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935) and the magnificent The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
His most famous role was that of Sherlock Holmes, beginning in 1939 with big budget period pieces made at 20th Century Fox and continuing in programmers from Universal, fourteen pictures in all (and a radio series, too) over a period of seven years. Aided by Nigel Bruce as an elderly, bumbling Watson, Rathbone’s Sherlock would match wits with George Zucco’s Moriarty, Gale Sondergaard’s Spider Woman and Rondo Hatton’s Creeper.
In the late Forties, Rathbone returned to New York and his first love, the stage. In the Fifties, his popularity sustained by the Sherlock films released to television, he would appear often on the new medium in dramas and variety shows. By 1955, he returned to film, though sporadically. Horror titles included the all-star vehicles The Black Sleep (1956), with Lon Chaney, John Carradine, Thor Johnson and Bela Lugosi, and Comedy of Terrors (1964) with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre.
Back in 1939, Rathbone was cast as the first in Universal’s long line of science-meddling Frankenstein heirs with Son of Frankenstein, a film that inaugurated the studio’s second wave of monster movies. As Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, with wife (Josephine Hutchison) and young son (Donnie Dunagan) in tow, Rathbone reclaims his family’s castle estate against the protest of distrustful locals for whom the family name is synonymous with “Maker of Monsters”. Exploring the shattered remains of his father’s laboratory, Rathbone’s Baron encounters the broken-necked Ygor (Bela Lugosi) and his “friend”, the comatose Monster (Boris Karloff).
In a memorable scene, Rathbone examines The Monster, measuring its superhuman strength, noting the peculiar composition of its blood, and counting the bullets lodged in its beating heart. Re-energized, The Monster is used by Ygor to settle accounts with the men who had ordered his botched hanging.
The film was Karloff’s last pass at playing The Monster, the part largely robotic, performing Ygor’s commissioned deeds. Lugosi, cast against type in scruffy, snaggletooth makeup, and obviously enjoying himself, fairly steals the show. Lionel Atwill is also excellent as the ramrod Inspector Krogh, with an artificial arm replacing that which was ripped from its socket years before, when he was but a child, by the rampaging Monster.
As Frankenstein’s son, Rathbone displays naïve enthusiasm and genuine wonder at his father’s monumental achievement, mimicking The Monster’s gait and raising his glass to a large painting of Colin Clive. Facing the revived Monster, Rathbone is terrified as he comes to understand the danger personified by a giant he can never hope to control. In a swashbuckling climax, his child in jeopardy, Rathbone’s Wolf von Frankenstein finds his courage and, swinging from a rope, he kicks The Monster into a boiling sulfur pit.
Son of Frankenstein was the template for Gene Wilder and Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein.
Basil Rathbone, Master of Stage and Screen, an excellent fansite loaded with information and candid photos.