This is it, the one that is the best of the series. Many a classic literary figure has been put upon the silver screen, but never before or since has an actor so perfectly portrayed an icon so completely that the two remain inseparable. That was the accomplishment (and curse) of Basil Rathbone when he took on the legendary role of Sherlock Holmes.
Before 1939 Rathbone was best known for playing suave villains. Just the year before in 1938 the deep voiced thespian had dueled his way through The Adventures of Robin Hood, and a few years before that had crossed swords for the first time with Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. Rathbone is in fact to this day considered the greatest swordsman in Hollywood history, and was known to tutor his on-screen rivals off-screen including Flynn and Tyrone Power. His duel with Danny Kaye in The Court Jester is widely considered to be the best sword fight ever caught on film (and Rathbone was 63!).
Interestingly enough Rathbone triumphed in only one on-screen duel in his entire career and that was as Tybalt in the 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet. The performance garnered him the first of two Oscar nominations as Best Supporting Actor, and the second nomination came in 1938 for his role as King Louis XI in If I Were King. Both times he lost out to the extremely likable Walter Brennan. Rathbone was certain it was his 1935 portrayal of the cruel Murdstone in David Copperfield that had begun the typecasting as a villain, costing him the well-deserved public accolades.
So in 1939, eager to rid himself of what he considered to be undue bias upon his abilities, Rathbone jumped at the chance to play the antithesis of evil, and in the process he created what is generally accepted as the definitive screen interpretation of the famed fictional detective. Alongside Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson (Rathbone’s personal choice for the role) the two became one of the most memorable screen duos of all time. Their "ying" and "yang" balance of intelligence and befuddlement set the Holmes standard for years to come. Thanks to Bruce one always thinks of Watson as a bit more gullible than the original stories had ever portrayed him. And Rathbone appears to have been born to play the world’s greatest detective, possessing every last caricature of the fabled man right down to his physical likeness.
In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Rathbone and Bruce play the game that’s afoot against Holmes’ arch enemy, Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) as he plans to steel the crown jewels. The duo seem right at home amidst the Victorian atmosphere so brilliantly evoked through the set design and black and white cinematography. In fact, it is their very actions that help to define it – Rathbone’s restraint, Bruce’s hokey, yet whimsical interpretation of the old time military veteran. It is these nuances provided by the actors that give such credence to the conceit of living at 221B Baker Street in the 1890s. Unfortunately, the later films in the series would forego the period setting for the then current backdrop of WWII and Nazi spies, and thereby loose the essential charm at the heart of the world of Sherlock Holmes.
Ultimately, Rathbone’s choice to exchange one confining role type for another would come to haunt him as he ended up playing the legendary hero more than any other character in his esteemed career: in sixteen films and in over two hundred radio plays. By 1946 Rathbone felt that his close identification with the character was killing his film career and become so sick of the role that he quit the popular series. He went back to New York and the stage in 1946.
Even though by the next year Rathbone won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Dr. Sloper in the Broadway play The Heiress, he still could not shed the personae that had made him a household name. Later in life he had a change of heart on the subject, he came to accept his place in cinematic history and finally learned to embrace the defining role. He began appearing as Holmes on television and in several movies, and even wrote a play in which he played the character on stage. Although he had once said, "When you become the character you portray, it's the end of your career as an actor" he added later, after years of reflection, "Never regret anything you have done with a sincere affection; nothing is lost that is born of the heart." It is that sincere sentiment that makes Rathbone’s alter ego the Holmes movie fans will remember for a very long time.