How Sherlock Holmes ruined Basil Rathbone’s career

·7-min read
Chemistry: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson - Corbis Historical
Chemistry: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson - Corbis Historical

The life of Basil Rathbone, the man who for many was the embodiment of Sherlock Holmes, is stranger than anything to have sprung from the imagination of Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s a story of intrigue, drama, tragedy, and romance – and much of it involves his second wife Ouida Bergère.

In 1921, Rathbone left his wife, Marion, and young son, Rodion, and travelled to New York where he embarked on a successful Broadway career Bergère was a successful scriptwriter with Paramount, twice-divorced and one of New York’s leading socialites. When they first met in 1923, she was 37 and he was 31 and they soon became lovers. This may seem like some sort of irresistible romance, but the truth is far from elementary.

Rathbone’s earlier life might have bordered on the conventional – Repton-educated and steeped in the tradition of the English repertory theatre system – but he had been left traumatised by his experience in the First World War. He served on many brutal missions with the Liverpool Scottish 2nd Battalion and foresaw his younger brother’s John’s death in an horrific nightmare that he awoke from at the exact moment John was killed in action.

The subsequent readjustment to civilian life never came, which may explain his decision to cross the Atlantic. Ouida – attractive, successful and strong-willed – must have seen both a fragility and talent which she could mould. Indeed, once Rathbone had persuaded his first wife to divorce him and married Ouida, she effectively started stage managing his career. She extricated herself from a lucrative writing contact with Paramount (something that confounded Samuel Goldwyn) and travelled America with her husband whose acting career was burgeoning.

This was a transitional period for cinema – the silent era was drawing to a close and Rathbone with his commanding, cut-glass English vowels was in demand. It says something about Rathbone’s restlessness that Hollywood success did not make him happy. He had begun to miss England and would have returned home for good, had the British film industry in the Twenties not lacked sufficient funds or vision.

Rathbone and Ouida, at their wedding in New York in 1926 -  Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Rathbone and Ouida, at their wedding in New York in 1926 - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Nevertheless he found a niche – one well exploited by British actors in Hollywood over the decades – playing the villain. He was the Marquis de St Evremonde in the 1935 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, the sadistic Murdstone in another Dickens that year, David Copperfield (he received hate mail after his character savagely thrashed Freddie Bartholomew’s young hero), and Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the famous Errol Flynn pic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). By the end of the decade he had been nominated for two Oscars.

Then, in 1939 Rathbone received a phone call from 20th Century Fox that would change the course of his career: it was an offer to play Sherlock Holmes in a big budget version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Despite his success, Rathbone longed to show the depth of his acting abilities and here, seemingly, was the chance to do so. British actor and close friend Nigel Bruce was cast as Dr Watson and the chemistry the pair had – Bruce, utterly charming as the unassuming and sometimes bumbling sidekick was the perfect contrast to Rathbone’s Holmes – clinical, brisk, a little sardonic. And so began one of Hollywood’s most enduring movie franchises (comprising 14 films in total), making worldwide stars of Rathbone and Bruce.

Behind the scenes, however, Rathbone and Ouida’s marriage had become strained. If Ouida had started out with a mission to control her husband’s career, her main motive at this point appeared to be to spend his money. Her extravagance was in contrast to her rather quiet husband’s desire for a more ascetic existence. Soon after the couple adopted a baby, Cynthia, in 1940, Rathbone had an affair with one of his leading ladies (whose identity has never been revealed) and Ouida came close to having a breakdown. In one letter to his mistress, Rathbone wrote: “Well darling, I have finished a wonderful evening going around locking away all sharp objects and all the medications. It’s 2.30am. Everyone is asleep. This is a kind of hell isn’t it? Not sure how it’s to be endured. God willing, we will find some way.”

The affair eventually ended, although the situation at home remained fraught. Rathbone was eventually reconciled with his son Rodion who then got married at the family home in California. However, Ouida was unimpressed at her son-in-law and his new wife’s appreciation of the ceremony she had planned – and spared no expense for – and when the wedding gift of a house was turned down, an argument erupted and ended with Rathbone abandoning his son for the second time in his life.

This decision seems intolerably cruel and sheds light on Rathbone and Ouida’s complicated relationship. It is clear that he felt indebted to this once-sparkling hostess, believed that she had been crucial to his success. In 1947, Rathbone made his 14th and final Sherlock Holmes film. The restlessness that was such a part of his personality was in evidence here; he had grown tired of Holmes, found him cold and joyless. He also felt imprisoned by the part and indeed one can understand the neurosis. Once he abandoned the franchise, this most versatile of actors found himself horribly typecast.

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce
Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce

Following a brief (and triumphant) return to Broadway, Rathbone – in desperation – created a stage version of Sherlock Holmes, (written by Ouida naturally). With Nigel Bruce unwell and unable to take part, the play flopped and closed after just three performances. Rathbone later commented: “I hoped to be carried by the volume of public opinion that had supported me so enthusiastically from 1939 to 1946. But this was 1953. Seven years had passed—yes, we were at least seven years too late! … Then there was this new gadget television that was sweeping the country with one-hour and half-hour plays. We were outdated, hopelessly outdated.” The failure of the stage play marked a sharp decline in Rathbone’s career. He appeared in a number of commercials (including one for Skippy Peanut Butter) and was a regular panellist on a number of shows for “this new gadget”, never afraid to make fun of himself.

By the Sixties, he was reduced to appear in low-budget horror films and B-movie trash such as The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and Hillbillys in a Haunted House. When granddaughter Dounia – daughter of his son Rodion – now in her late twenties, happened to be in Hollywood, she contacted Basil, thinking that she could perhaps see him without Ouida’s influence… but was saddened to hear how far her grandfather had fallen. She said: “I was in Hollywood and so was he, so I asked if I could visit him on the set of his latest film.  At that time, he was making these ‘beach movies’ just to make money.  His answer was something like....”This is so awful that I really don’t want you to see me doing this.” 

Hillbillys in a Haunted House would be his final role and on July 21, 1967, Rathbone suffered a heart attack and died. He was 75. Basil Rathbone was one of Britain’s first leading men in Hollywood with a legacy that, to the casual viewer, is untarnished. But the sad autumn of his life cannot go unremarked. Ouida died in 1974 – and while it is hard to pinpoint the extent of her influence in her husband’s declining years, the legacy of their relationship can be seen in the current generation of Rathbone’s family who still feel some resentment towards Basil and Ouida. As Dounia Rathbone, Basil’s great granddaughter recalled in 2016, her mother Heloise once told her: “He was a brilliant actor, but not a brilliant father.”

The Curse of Sherlock Holmes by David Clayton is published by  The History Press

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