Film classics!

I raided BPL for interesting things again and have succeeded in getting David to watch a couple of the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films. These things are fantastic or terrible, depending on who you ask and how much they are nitpicky purists when it comes to their Sherlockiana.

The films -- fourteen of them, I think -- starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson are infamous, partly for their popularity at the time, and partly because the first two were, at the time, the only real effort to make Holmes films as period pieces. They were very "Hollywood Victorian", but it was more of an effort than anyone else made. The latter dozen were updated to what was then the modern day, including elements of wartime intrigue and sometimes wacky pulp-novel "science". Several of them have fallen into the public domain and can be viewed here, at the Internet Archive, if you are inclined to go poking around to find them. The picture quality is pretty awful in places, but luckily so is the encoding! So you probably won't even notice.

Dorothy Parker once famously described Basil Rathbone as "two profiles pasted together". She was quite right. I'm fairly convinced he did most of his own stunts in these, partly because of his reputation as an action star, but mostly because there is no way in hell the studio would ever have found a stunt double with an equally majestic nose. Prior to Holmes he was known as the villain in a lot of epic swashbucklers, one of the most famous being Captain Blood; after Holmes, he was known primarily as Holmes, which annoyed him for many years. Regardless of his feelings on the matter, it made him a good living for quite a long time; even after the movies were finished, he and Nigel Bruce went on to do quite a lot of half-hour radio programs, which are also now in the public domain.

If you're at all interested in autobiographies, you ought to read Rathbone's. He begins during WWI, in media res. By page five, he's sneaking across enemy lines dressed as a tree. Not kidding. I am generally inclined to believe Rathbone about the outlandish stuff, as he includes a lot of ordinary but sentimental stories to fill in the backdrop. There are also lots of entertaining bits about his wife, Ouida, who was a spitfire flapper when he married her (even in their wedding photo!) and seems to have carried on just like that ever afterwards. I am under the impression that Rathbone was the exact opposite of jealous when it came to his missus, who spent money and collected friends like it was her purpose on Earth; he recounts with a fond sort of bemusement all the times she managed to get something done by simply stepping over all the men who cast themselves at her feet until she located one with the required skills or connections, who would then run himself ragged trying to help her.

Occasionally while rummaging through these things, I trip over both halves of the same story in two different books. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone both reminisce about their long acquaintance, and refer to each other as friends, though by the time he wrote his book Rathbone had to do it in the past tense. Although not in the least displeased by this, Rathbone professes to have never managed to figure out quite why the mercurial Flynn liked him so damn much. Flynn on his end apparently thought ol' Basil was a stand up fellow who threw awe-inspiring parties, which is probably Flynn-ish for 'he never quit talking to me even when I was being a drunken idiot, which was often'. Rathbone used to say that Flynn was the only fencing opponent who ever made him nervous; he was flashy and reckless and refused to ever defend himself properly, which meant Rathbone poured far more effort into not accidentally killing Flynn than Flynn ever did.