Tuesday, February 24, 2009
A Nobody Knows Anything interlude: Basil Rathbone
Basil Rathbone was part of a bankable franchise when he played Sherlock Holmes from 1939 to 1947, but in much of the rest of his career, he played suave and sophisticated villains. Fans might go to see an Errol Flynn film, but if Basil Rathbone wasn't the villain, it just wouldn't be as good. He was an expert fencer, but in his entire movie career, he only got to win one fight, when he played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet.
Something that set Rathbone apart was his tendency to sign very short contracts, sometimes only for one film at a time. If you look at the his filmography, you'll see he made movies for nearly all the big studios, including M-G-M, Universal, Warner Bros. and even Disney. In his heyday, almost everyone was on long term contracts, from stars to character actors to directors. As a contract player, you did the movies the studio told you to make, and only big stars had a chance to even consider saying no, often to the detriment of their career. Rathbone's longest contract was specifically for the Sherlock Holmes pictures for Universal, and he walked away from that when he grew bored, refusing to re-sign even though a significant signing bonus was waved in front of him.
What makes this a Nobody Knows Anything interlude is that in Hollywood of the 1940s, no one would have guessed that Basil Rathbone's way of doing business was the wave of the future, that studios would have to negotiate with most actors and directors on a picture by picture basis. One of the few of Rathbone's contemporaries who also made contracts on a picture by picture basis was the director Rouben Mamoulian, who was in the director's chair for the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro, where the very Spanish looking Rathbone played the villain opposite the very Spanish looking Tyrone Power. (Warning: this post may contain trace elements of sarcasm. Also peanuts.) Mamoulian did not have as successful a career as Rathbone, finding himself fired and replaced on big films like Laura and the Liz Taylor version of Cleopatra. If someone were trying to find a narrative for Rathbone's greater success, some might say talent or timing, but another possible reason is that Rathbone in his day was famous for throwing fabulous parties.
It's perfectly all right to be fiercely independent, but a guest list full of the glamorous and a well-stocked open bar never go out of fashion.