Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mount TBR #57

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

In and Out of Character – Basil Rathbone

Rathbone is a literate, fluent writer, and a fine story-teller as the English, the Irish, the Scots, and American Southeners often are. The content about his theater acting is interesting, especially for readers who know The Theatre well enough to know who Katherine Cornell was.

He covers his Hollywood years broadly, because he felt that his work in films was sub-par. However, there are some fascinating production stories here and there. He relates, for example, how MGM nixed his nuanced idea about how to play Karenin, forcing him to play the part as the dumb heavy to contrast with Garbo’s tortured – and over the top, to our eyes nowadays – Anna. O classic Hollywood – waster of talent in mediocre movies!

Rathbone was an actor-artist, pouring study and thought into making his characters different in every production.  Rathbone says this is the difference between an actor (always different ) and an entertainer (always himself or herself). Recall (if you’re old enough) Peter O’Toole’s memorable line in My Favorite Year, “I’m not an actor – I’m a movie star!”

From Buffalo in western New York to Perth in western Australia, moviegoers knew Basil Rathbone for his role as Sherlock Holmes in 17 Universal movies from 1939 to 1946. However, in this autobiography, he spends just eleven pages telling about the various productions, Nigel Bruce, and his sympathy with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who tried so hard to kill off Holmes and write the historical novels he wanted to write:

He had created a sort of Frankenstein that he could not escape from. And so he decided to kill Mr. Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls and be done with him. I frankly admit that in 1946 I was placed in a somewhat similar predicament — but I could not kill Mr. Holmes. So I decided to run away from him.

Rathbone writes that he was typecast as a villain (think Sir Guy in Robin Hood) and then “buried,” creatively speaking, as Holmes. I think he’s rather hard on the Holmes movies. While the first two are brilliant and the remaining much less so, Rathbone does play Holmes in different ways. Professional as he was, Rathbone never seems to be mailing it in.

Since Rathbone was a typical guy of his generation (born in 1892), his default inclination is reticence. In the trenches during the Great War, he had a premonition of his younger brother’s being killed in action at the exact time he was in fact getting killed in action. Rathbone concludes the story as if to give the impression he's done talking about this topic forever: “We had always been very close to one another.”

As a consequence of the  writer’s discretion, readers of Hollywood books looking for juicy gossip will be disappointed by this book. As an example of how trying reading this book is, Rathbone, a dog-lover, tells some moving stories about his canine buddies. But the pictures don’t include any shots of him and the dogs. Weird.

This is a frustrating autobiography. Mercifully, though, the book does not cover twilight of his career which included monstrosities like Queen of Blood, Hillbillys in a Haunted House, and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. It would be fun to be snarky, I guess, if it weren’t so goddamn sad.

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