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Basil Rathbone

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Biography

Basil Rathbone's acting career spanned from Shakespeare to low-budget horror and in fact included both at once in the Comedy of Terrors, where he recites every Shakespeare line there is about dying. Reciting was his specialty, because he had one of the greatest voices in the history of the acting profession. There is little one could do with the human voice to make it sound more dignified than Rathbone. It is also hard to sound more intelligent than Rathbone, a skill he put to good use in his many performances as master detective Sherlock Holmes. He recorded a great deal of the Holmes tales in spoken word form, as well as the complete writings of Edgar Allan Poe, because yet another attribute of this lavishly praised voice was its ability to sound incredibly sinister. Among the bad guys portrayed by the actually charming Rathbone were the evil nemesis of Robin Hood, Sir John, and two of Charles Dickens' creepiest creations: Scrooge and Fagin. He did many of his recordings for the Caedmon label, but ventured into the recording studio at the bequest of many other labels and organizations as well. He even recorded tours of famous museums and great cities of the world for the Columbia Record Club, to be presented in conjunction with slide shows. Rathbone was also in demand for personal appearances as a narrator with symphony orchestras and chamber groups. During his career, he took part in performances of King David, Arthur Honegger's oratorio and symphonic psalm, the inevitable Peter and the Wolf, and a gala presentation of Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov. He worked with classical performers such as soprano Helen Boatwright, contralto Beatrice Krebs, tenor Robert Price, and conductor Manfred Schumann. He was fond of collaborating with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, perhaps not coincidentally Edgar Allan Poe's hometown. Another musical era friendly to his on-stage presence was early music, and he took part in performances with several instrumental groups specializing in this genre, combining their musical performances with his recitation of poems from the same era.

His acting career took off following his return from the first World War, and he was launched into the British public consciousness by a series of impressive roles in Shakespeare productions at Stratford on Avon. In the '20s, he relocated to New York City, continuing a theater career, but made a drastic switch to the film industry the following decade. In 1930 alone, he cranked out seven different films. He established his authority in the role of Sherlock Holmes at the end of that decade in a series of films that seemed to never end, the role of faithful assistant Dr. Watson essayed fabulously by the lovable Nigel Bruce. In the '40s and '50s, he remained a character actor in films but concentrated more on his first love, the stage. In the '60s, he was one of many older Hollywood actors lured into horror films, amassing enormous new cult followings as a result. He was not particularly happy about this part of his career, however, he did enjoy the chance to hang out with old friends such as Boris Karloff. He did do some fine recordings in the '60s, however, and in the end was more consistently comfortable in the recording medium than any other.

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