3/18/20: Elementary, My Dear Watson

In the 1930’s and ‘40’s. a weekly double feature at the local movie theater was a staple in the lives of many American families. It was the Golden Age of Hollywood. Each of the studios kept hundreds of actors and actresses under contract and used them to create a steady stream of new features. In the 1930’s and ‘40’s. a weekly double feature at the local movie theater was a staple in the

When a particular formula or pairing of actors worked, the studio used it over and over again until the public, or the actors, finally said “enough”. One such example of this was a series of 14 Sherlock Holmes films released between 1939 and 1946, starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce, as Dr. Watson. While the stories were updated to reflect the times, and many of the characters, particularly Dr. Watson, were changed significantly from those created by author Arthur Conan Doyle, the movie-going public loved them.

Although coming from vastly different backgrounds, Rathbone and Bruce were close friends, and also shared a great many things in common.

Philip St. John Basil Rathbone was born to British parents on June 13, 1892, in Johannesburg, South Africa. His mother, Anna, was a violinist, while his father, Edgar, was a mining engineer. The family were cousins to Union army Col. Henry Rathbone, who was present at Ford’s Theater when President Abraham Lincoln was shot, and he was himself seriously wounded attempting to stop John Wilkes Booth from escaping. Young Basil was three years old when the family was forced to leave South Africa for Britain when the Boers accused his father of spying. After leaving school in 1910, where he had excelled at sports and had developed an interest in the theater, Basil went to work for an insurance company to satisfy his father’s wish that he pursue a “conventional career”. His desire to perform won out after a short time and he made his stage debut in April, 1911, with his cousin’s Shakespeare theater company. In 1915, Rathbone was called up for World War I service with the London Scottish Regiment, which also included future actors Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall and Ronald Coleman. He was trained as an intelligence officer, eventually reaching the rank of Captain. During his years of service, he was also two-time British Army fencing champion, a skill which would serve him well in the future. After his brother, John, was killed in action in June, 1918, Basil, whether from guilt or a need for vengeance, took on highly dangerous daylight scouting missions behind enemy lines, for which he was awarded the Army’s Military Cross for bravery. After the war, he returned to acting, both on the stage and in silent films. During the following decades, he alternated between the London and New York stages, while taking on more and more movie roles. Despite two Academy Award nominations, his film roles evolved from romantic leads to villains, often wielding a sword. In 1939, he took on his best-known and most popular role, as Sherlock Holmes, in THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939).

William Nigel Ernie Bruce was born to British parents on February 4, 1895, while the family was residing in Ensenada, Baja, Mexico. His family was part of both Scottish and English aristocracy, descendants of Scottish King Robert the Bruce and the Royal House of Stuart. His father, Sir William Bruce, was the 10th Baronet of Airth, a title eventually passed on the Nigel’s older brother, author and adventurer, Sir Michael Bruce. Back in Britain, Nigel excelled at sports in school, but left at the age of 17 to take a job as stockbroker’s clerk in London. In early 1914, months before the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted in the British army as a private. In January, 1915, while serving at the front in Belgium, he was severely wounded by machine-gun fire, requiring him to spend nearly a year recovering in a military hospital. Finally given a medical discharge due to permanent damage to his legs, he re-enlisted several months later and, though not allowed to serve in combat, he was awarded an officer’s commission. After the war, he decided to pursue a career in the theater and made his stage debut in May, 1920. After eight years of stage roles and stage management, he made his first silent film appearance. In 1934, he moved to Hollywood, to begin a successful career playing British characters in American films. In 1939, after more than 20 Hollywood films, he was finally paired with Basil Rathbone, as Dr. John Watson, his most famous role.

Rathbone ended the Sherlock Holmes film series out of fear of being type-cast. It was a decision he later came to regret. In addition to the films, Rathbone and Bruce were also paired in over 200 Sherlock Holmes radio episodes.

Next week, another story from Silver Screen Memories.


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