(The headline above will bring you to a great site from Marcia Jessen on all things Rathbone.)
Probably the actor best known as Holmes for many older Americans is Basil Rathbone. The actor played the role in fourteen films beginning with “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in 1939 for the Fox studios. He co-starred in all of them with Nigel Bruce portraying his friend and colleague, Dr. Watson. While a number of others have played the Great Detective in films, they have all been compared to Rathbone to some extent. It was not until Jeremy Brett began walking the foggy streets of Victorian London in the 1980s that any other actor became so identifiable as Holmes. Although Rathbone was already a well-known screen actor (appearing often as the heavy) it is as Holmes that he will always be remembered.
Considering that he was already known for the character, it should not come as a surprise that he was eventually contracted to play Holmes for radio. Rathbone, again with Bruce playing Watson, brought adaptations of the original stories as well as new ones to the air first for NBC and later for the Mutual Network from late 1939 until 1946, when Rathbone returned to working in the theatre. While in the films Holmes found himself jumping from his familiar Victorian setting to fighting spies & saboteurs in WWII Washington and London, the radio dramas stuck closer to Sir Arthur’s original concept.
Most of these scripts were by actress/writer Edith Meiser, who with a series of assistants including Leslie Charteris (creator of THE SAINT, whom I have written about before) and Anthony Boucher (another well-known mystery writer/editor for whom an award and a mystery convention are named) was head writer on the show for over fifteen years. Meiser, was personally responsible for getting the original radio program brought to the air, even convincing William Gillette to come out of retirement to play Holmes in the premiere broadcast.
Surprisingly, Rathbone only appears in a single broadcast in this collection. It is Meiser’s adaptation of Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”, which brings Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft to Baker Street to ask for assistance. A nice adventure with spies, mysterious deaths and a young woman hoping to save the reputation of her late fiancé.
I’ll have more to say on Rathbone’s successor on the series and later shows in a few days.