Monday, October 28, 2013

Best Basil Rathbone Films - #1 "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938)

The moment you have all been waiting for has arrived - my pick for the best Basil Rathbone film. If there's one thing that you should have picked up on from these reviews, it's that I love swashbuckling epics. My top three picks have all fallen into the sub-genre. My number one favourite Basil Rathbone film is 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood."

King Richard the Lionheart has been captured on his return from the Crusades, and his brother Prince John (Claude Rains) has his eye on the throne. Oppressing the masses, it seems as though the commoners are helpless against Prince John and his right-hand man, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Rathbone). One man stands in the way of their total control - an arrow-toting vigilante called Robin Hood (Errol Flynn). As Robin gathers together his band of merry men, he falls in love with Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland). Exposing the truth about how poorly Prince John is treating the people, she joins Robin in his quest to steal from the rich and give to the poor.

Simply stated, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is a very fun movie to watch. Even by today's standards, some of the action scenes are standouts. I won't spoil any of the best moments, but rest assured "The Adventures of Robin Hood" is exciting from start to finish. Part of what makes the movie so good is the level of enthusiasm from all the players. Errol Flynn, who stars as Robin Hood, is excellent. Since his career-making performance in 1935's "Captain Blood," the actor had become associated with swashbuckling costume epics. It seems like Flynn is having a very fun time playing the part, and his joviality transfers wonderfully to the screen.

The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Olivia de Havilliand is excellent as Maid Marian and Claude Rains is at his evil best as Prince John. Rains is one of this reviewer's favourite actors and aside from his brilliant performance in 1933's "The Invisible Man," Rains is at his finest here. Basil Rathbone, much like Flynn, seems to be having a ball in his part. Rathbone is seldom seemed so menacing or intimidating as he does in this movie. His performance is a testament to how fantastic he was as an actor, and it for that reason that I cite this movie as one of Rathbone's greatest performances.

Flynn (left) and Rathbone (right)
What is also notable about the movie is that it was produced on such a grand scale. The sets created for the film are breathtaking - especially the giant dining hall which is glimpsed early on in the film, and provides Robin Hood with a brilliant entrance. With a deer which he has caught and killed slung over his shoulders, Robin forcibly gains entrance into the dining hall and takes a seat opposite Prince John. It's a stunning vignette and one of the film's standout moments. (I know I said I wouldn't spoil anything - but I had to wet your appetites) As can be expected with a film of this sort, there's plenty of swordplay and the climatic duel between Flynn and Rathbone is brilliant - surely the finest sword duel ever committed to film. Fencing expert Fred Cavens was Warner Bros.' instructor when it came to sword duels, and he choreographed many of the most outstanding duels committed to film. Cavens also worked with Basil Rathbone two years earlier when Rathbone had co-starred in a 1936 adaptation of "Romeo & Juliet."

"The Adventures of Robin Hood" is based entirely upon the original legends which persist concerning the cunning thief. Many of the Robin Hood myths are crammed into the script, which means that a real plot does sort of fall by the wayside. Though this could be a problem, I think that this manages to make the movie exciting, as it bobs and weaves its way through the Robin Hood mythos. In fact, in my background research for the movie, I discovered that a jousting sequence was excised from the final film, which would have only added to the spectacle prevalent in the movie. Yet, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture - losing out to Frank Capra's "You Can't Take It With You."

And so, I conclude this series of five reviews. For those of you anticipating more Sherlockian-related posts, they will be along soon. In the meantime - what are your favourite Basil Rathbone films? Do you agree with my Top 5 list? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Best Basil Rathbone Films - #2 "The Mark of Zorro" (1940)

After my last review concerning 1935's "Captain Blood," which was filled with enthusiasm and euphoria, you must be wondering how an adventure, swashbuckling-type of movie could top that. Well, 1940's "The Mark of Zorro" appears to have done so, as it is one of my very favourite films and my pick for the 2nd best Basil Rathbone movie.

Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power) returns to his native California from an extended trip in Spain to find his homeland very different. The people are being oppressed by a powerful and corrupt ruler, Luis Qunitero (J. Edward Bromberg) and his deadly right-hand man, Captain Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone). To fight back against the injustice, Vega masquerades as Zorro, the town's vigilante who will stop at nothing to protect the people.

"The Mark of Zorro" was produced at 20th Century Fox, who during the 1940's, wasn't well-known for action, adventure dramas. The studio specialized in mystery movies and some of the finest '40's Film Noir emerged from the studio. It is perhaps for that reason that "The Mark of Zorro" feels as though it were filmed on a smaller, less expensive scale, than other swashbucklers of the time. The fact that "Zorro" has less of a grandiose air is not a bad thing though. If anything, it adds realism to the more or less secluded Southern Californian setting. It also provides a nice contrast between the poor citizens of the community and the wealthy, corrupt government who oversee them.

Starring in the duel role of Diego Vega and Zorro is Tyrone Power, who in the early '40's, was still making a name for himself. The previous year, Power had played the title role in Fox's 1939 biopic, "Jesse James," which garnered the actor some stardom, but it was his contribution to "The Mark of Zorro" which solidified Power as a romantic, leading man. Linda Darnell makes for a fine love interest - her acting is fine, but her character as Lolita Quintero, the corrupt governor's daughter, is somewhat bland. On a side-note, Darnell is perhaps best remembered today as a sleazy lounge singer who is murdered in the 1945 thriller, "Hangover Square."

Rathbone (right) and Tyrone Power (left) in the climatic
sword duel from 1940's "The Mark of Zorro"
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Rathbone, who is absolutely fantastic as Captain Esteban Pasquale. It is interesting to note that Pasquale is more-or-less a stooge to the main villain, but Rathbone manages to steal the show. From the moment he appears on screen, it's obvious that Pasquale is up to no good. Practicing his swordsmanship, he produly tells Diego: "Some men toy with their canes, monocles or snuff boxes. I toy with a sword." Throughout the film, Rathbone's performance is grand, enthusing the part with subtle hints of black comedy. And when Rathbone is playing a sword-toting villain in a swashbuckler, there is of course going to be a duel. The sword duel in this film is brilliant, excellently executed. It is, unlike other fine sword duels committed to celluloid, confined to a small space, but this manages to heighten the suspense and adds an element of claustrophobia.

Overall, "The Mark of Zorro" is a very enjoyable, though a slightly atypical swashbuckler. Much like all of the films in this countdown, I highly recommend it.

Coming Next Time: Well...I think I'm going to keep my number one pick a secret

Friday, October 18, 2013

Best Basil Rathbone Films - #3 "Captain Blood" (1935)

I am of the opinion that we, the movie-going audience, still love pirate movies. Surely that's one of the reasons the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies are still so popular? Films glorifying the actions of pirates have come a long way since their start, but I do not know if any of them have surpassed 1935's "Captain Blood" in terms of style, production and entertainment. It is this swashbuckling epic which ranks as my third favourite Basil Rathbone film.

Dr. Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) is accused of treason during the Monmouth Rebellion. Blood is sold into slavery in Port Royal, Jamaica, where he comes under the watchful eye of Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill) and his daughter, Arabella (Olivia de Havilland), who he falls in love with. Blood leads a rebellion against the colonel and takes to the seas to make a career off plundering ships as the most feared pirate of the seven seas.

"Captain Blood" was the second of three big-screen adaptations of Rafael Sabatini's popular adventure novel. I have never the book, but if its anything like this move version, it is great fun. "Captain Blood" is an immensely entertaining adventure film, and surely one of the finest epics I have ever come across. What is most surprising about the film is Errol Flynn, who at the time of the movie's production, was a relative unknown. The actor's prior credits included a few supporting roles and cameos and only one lead - as Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutiny aboard the H.M.S Bounty in "In The Wake of the Bounty," a 1933 Australian film never released in the United States. Warner Bros. was certainly taking a risk casting Flynn as the lead in this movie. The same applies to Olivia de Havilland as Arabella Bishop. "Captain Blood" was only her third film.

Basil Rathbone (right) in a duel to the death with Errol Flynn
in 1935's "Captain Blood"
The supporting cast of "Captain Blood" is made up of some veteran actors, and they compliment the newcomers to the screen excellently. Of note is, of course, Basil Rathbone as the pirate captain Levasseur. Though Rathbone has a small role in story, his part is an important one as he provides the true turning point in Captain Blood's character. When Levasseur and Blood strike up a partnership, Levasseur and Blood eventually butt heads which leads to a duel to the death. I'll say now that I love sword duels on film, and "Captain Blood" features one of the best. In real life, Basil Rathbone was one of Hollywood's finest swordsman, and it's obvious that he exhibits true skill throughout. Meanwhile, Lionel Atwill turns in a fine performance as Colonel Bishop. Similar to Rathbone's Levasseur, Bishop is a character we're supposed to hate, but Atwill manages to make the character strangely likable by enthusing bits of comedy throughout. It is obvious that both Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill are having a grand old time playing their parts in this film, and their joy really does translate brilliantly to the screen. Rathbone would reunite with Flynn later in life - crossing blades with the actor in 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and the two would share the screen in my number four pick, "The Dawn Patrol."

"Captain Blood" is I think the pirate film to end all pirate films. Later in life, Errol Flynn would take to the seven seas as a pirate in 1940's "The Sea Hawk," which is a fine film in its own right, but it cannot possibly eclipse "Captain Blood." It is such a great adventure film and one which I highly recommend to anyone.

Coming Next Time: Its another swashbuckler - "The Mark of Zorro"

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review - "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes" (1968)

In the grand scheme of things, "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes," the 1968 BBC television series, is one of the most important in Sherlock Holmes' history. It was only the second time that a real attempt was made to bring Arthur Conan Doyle's work to the small screen. Yet today, this influential series is largely forgotten.

The story of how the series made to the screen begins in 1964. The BBC was in the midst of their first Sherlock Holmes television series which starred Douglas Wilmer as the detective and Nigel Stock as Watson. Wilmer had become infuriated by the production staff, finding the shoot a hectic and un-enjoyable one. When the series debuted, it stirred little interest, however upon a second transmission, the show gained popularity and the BBC commissioned a second series. However, Wilmer refused to return. The search was on to find a replacement for the actor. Eventually, Peter Cushing was chosen to play Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Stock returned to the part of Dr. Watson.

Much has been made of the series' production history, especially in the excellent book, "Sherlock Holmes on Screen," by Alan Barnes, but little analysis of the show's episodes have seen print. So, the following will focus mostly on the existing six episodes which have been recovered. Much like early "Doctor Who" serials, much of this show's run is lost to the pages of history due to the BBC's emphatic "junking" policy. The series kicked off in grand style with a two-part adaptation of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," making it the second adaptation to feature Cushing in the lead. As would become the custom with the series, the episodes follow, the plot doggedly follows Doyle's novel. That, however, is the least of the episode's worries. "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is truly let down by a lack of location filming. The moor, which becomes a character in itself in the book, is barely glimpsed here, and so much of the book's atmosphere is lost.

One cannot blame the BBC though. "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes" was filmed quickly and relatively inexpensively making location shooting not the easiest of tasks. The studio-bound locations would not impact many of the other episodes which survive, but it does hinder "The Hound of the Baskervilles" greatly. Next was an adaptation of "A Study in Scarlet," an oddity amongst Sherlockian adaptations. By omitting Holmes and Watson's initial meeting, as well as streamlining the American back-story, "A Study in Scarlet," proves to be a brisk and enjoyable mystery, and my personal favourite of the surviving episodes. Peter Cushing is still in top form here, and despite being in his late fifties at the time of shooting, still seems young and agile.

The next surviving episode is "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," which makes the most of its limited location filming. This episode also provides us a look at Cushing wearing the infamous deerstalker hat and cape, a point which he brought to the attention of the crew. Cushing made it a point to emulate all possible points from the canon, and therefore only wore a deerstalker hat when it was shown in Sidney Paget's original stories. He also refused to wear the typical Inverness cape, as it was not the type of clothing Holmes was depicted wearing in the original stories. It is for that reason that most scenes in the series found the actor donning a homburg or top hat and dispelling many of the conceptions regarding the great detective. Location shooting was also imperative for the next surviving episode, an adaptation of "The Sign of Four," which in this reviewer's opinion is the series' weakest. Far too much plot is crammed into a single 45-minute episode, rendering the entire story a rushed and jumbled mess. What's more, attempts at creating any hint of romance between Dr. Watson and Miss Mary Morstan, per Doyle's novel, fall flat. Luckily, the last surviving episode, "The Blue Carbuncle," does improve upon its predecessor. It provides the series' finest character moments between Holmes and Watson, and manages to end the series on a good note. I am quite partial to this particular adventure on a whole and this adaptation nicely plays up the Yuletide-spirit inherent in Doyle's original.

As I noted at the top of this review, "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes" is important in the great detective's television history. Despite the fact that it is far from perfect, it is interesting to see how much this particular show paved the way for Granada series featuring Jeremy Brett. It is almost unfair to give the series a true rating as so much of it is lost today, but I will certainly recommend it. If you are a self-respecting Sherlockian and you have not yet sank your teeth into this series, you really should. I think that you will be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Best Basil Rathbone Films - #4 "The Dawn Patrol" (1938)

You can easily argue that "All Quiet on the Western Front" is the definitive World War I drama. However, one of the finest films ever to depict the Great War was released by Warner Bros.' in 1938 and features a fine ensemble cast of Errol Flynn, David Niven and Basil Rathbone. That film is "The Dawn Patrol."

Stationed near the German border in France, Courtney (Errol Flynn) and Scott (David Niven) are two aviators. Outnumbered by the Germans and low on resources, the circumstances have truly taken their tole on the squadron's commander, Major Brand (Rathbone). Brand would rather fly the missions himself rather than have young, inexperienced men shot down on their first flight. However, soon Brand is called away from the squadron and appoints Courtney as his successor. What sort of impact will the conflict have on the happy-go-lucky Courtney and will he survive the war?

"The Dawn Patrol" is a brilliant character study, especially for its lead characters. It is interesting to note that the film has a very small cast, unusual for war epics, but this helps develop the characters extremely. All three leads are very real, humane characters and the limited cast helps establish the closeness and develop a real kinship amongst them. Most notably is Flynn who turns in one of his finest performances. Although Flynn is brilliant in his swashbuckling, sword-toting types of roles, his down-to-Earth performance here is excellent. It was not very often that Flynn was able to play a "normal" human being and this film shows that Errol Flynn had acting chops which could match the best of them.

From Left to Right: David Niven, Errol Flynn
and Basil Rathbone
David Niven also shines as Courtney's friend, Scott. Though I have not seen much of his work, I am always impressed by Niven's range as an actor. He seemed just as capable of performing comedy (see "The Pink Panther" or "Around the World in Eighty Days") as he was performing drama. Much like Flynn and Rathbone, Niven's character is very down-to-Earth, and by the film's conclusion he is probably the one who is most affected by the events which have transpired. He gives a tremendously moving performance, the same which applies to Rathbone as the squadron commander. Though Rathbone's character of Major Brand is hardly a warm and cuddly guy, he's not the film's antagonist. Brand is constantly suppressing his inner guilt. He has no choice but to send young, inexperienced flyers into battle, wrought with the knowledge they will probably not make it beyond their initial flight. Rathbone's performance here is more than usually sincere and it's probably due to the fact he saw action on the front-lines during the war, and I wouldn't be surprised if he managed to channel that into his performance.

"The Dawn Patrol" is a movie which is likely to linger in the memory long after you've seen it. It's one of the finest examples of war drama I've ever come across and certainly gives the aforementioned "All Quiet on the Western Front" a run for its money as the finest World War I film out there. The same year as "The Dawn Patrol's" release, Rathbone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in another 1938 film, "If I were King." Rathbone ultimately lost to Walter Brennan, but I feel as though if Rathbone had been nominated for "The Dawn Patrol," Mr. Brennan may not have been so lucky. "The Dawn Patrol" is a fine film which comes highly recommended from me.

Coming Next Time: "Captain Blood" - Enough said

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Best Basil Rathbone Films - #5 "Son of Frankenstein" (1939)

To those of us in the Sherlockian world, we're liable to forget that Basil Rathbone was involved with so much more than just a series of 14 movies featuring the world's greatest detective. Today I begin a series of reviews of my top five favourite Basil Rathbone films (not Sherlock Holmes-related). We begin with 1939's "Son of Frankenstein" released by Universal.

The success of "Son of Frankenstein" would decide Universal's fate in 1939. Universal had since the release of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" in 1931, been the leading provider of horror films in Hollywood. However by the time of 1935's "The Raven" starring Bela "Dracula" Lugosi and Boris "Frankenstein" Karloff, the censors were cracking down on the amount of horror present in a movie. Great Britain banned horror films all together. It seemed like Universal was doomed.

Fast forward a couple of years to late 1938. A single cinema which was low on income put "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" on a double bill in hopes of turning a good profit. The public's reception is almost indescribable. It was obvious that horror films were back in vogue and Universal Studios was more than willing to supply it. A third installment in their Frankenstein series was scripted and soon found its way under the watchful eye of master filmmaker Rowland V. Lee. Soon Basil Rathbone was cast as the title character. Boris Karloff took up the role of the Frankenstein Monster for the third and final time. Bela Lugosi was cast as Ygor, the broken-necked blacksmith in one of the actor's finest performances. The ingredients were perfect for a spectacular horror film - and that's just what happened.

Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) is returning to his ancestral home with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter, (Donnie Dunagan). Little does Wolf realize the name of 'Frankenstein' has become reviled by the villagers of the town ever since his father Henry Frankenstein brought to life a monster which went on a killing spree. While exploring the ruins of his father's laboratory, Wolf meets Ygor (Bela Lugosi), the blacksmith who was hanged years before after being accused of body snatching. Ygor survived the hanging and has since taken refuge in the ruins of the lab where he has befriended the Monster (Boris Karloff). Though still alive, the Monster is very weak and Ygor implores Wolf to restore him to health. Wolf consents and soon the Frankenstein Monster is on the loose again...

"Son of Frankenstein" truly is Universal's blockbuster horror film. It is by far the most spectacular-looking horror film they ever made, and this sense of grandeur goes a long way towards making the whole movie feel so epic. Usually, I think a sense of claustrophobia works best when it comes to horror films, but the fantastic sets (such as Castle Frankenstein or the lab) evoke great moodiness. The acting also goes a long way towards creating an incredibly moody atmosphere. Co-starring in the movie is Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh, the village's representative of the police. Krogh has horrible, vivid memories of the Monster which killed his father and tore off his arm. Atwill evokes great sympathy as the inspector whose hopes for a military career are prevented by his run in with the Monster.

Basil Rathbone meets his father's creation (Boris Karloff)
Interestingly, for such a fine film, it was Boris Karloff's final straw when it came to playing Frankenstein's creation. Karloff felt as though there was no challenge inherent in the role. Karloff had originated the role in 1931's "Frankenstein" and along with director James Whale returned to the sequel, "Bride of Frankenstein" with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek as that movie is depicted as being a dark comedy sending up the horror genre. Perhaps Boris Karloff was somewhat founded in leaving the role of the Frankenstein Monster after this film. The Monster is only granted a little screen time, and he is more or less a tool used by Ygor to exact his revenge. However, Karloff's swansong in the role still has some brilliant moments and in the long run, this film would provide the Monster's last greatest moments. Universal's subsequent installments in the Frankenstein series could never live up to the initial three films, partially due to the studio being unable to thoroughly replace an actor to play the Monster.

What is most fascinating about Basil Rathbone in this film is that it was one of the first times the actor got to play a hero. As we'll see with some of my future picks for Top 5 Rathbone films, prior to this movie, the actor was typecast as a villain. Getting the opportunity to play the film's hero was a great coup to Rathbone, especially since he lost out playing two parts he desperately wanted: Dr. Frederick Steele in "Dark Victory" and Rhett Butler in "Gone with the Wind." One wonders if Rathbone's involvement in this movie was a deciding factor for him getting the role of Sherlock Holmes only a short while later in "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

Basil Rathbone and director Rowland V. Lee reunited twice more at Universal Studios. Following close on the heels of "Son of Frankenstein" was "The Sun Never Sets" which starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Lionel Atwill. Part war propaganda piece part thriller, "The Sun Never Sets" didn't perform well at the box office. Rathbone returned to Universal in late 1939 for "Tower of London" which reunited him with Boris Karloff. "Tower of London" gave Rathbone the opportunity to chew some scenery as Richard III in this historical epic which united Rathbone and Karloff with Ian Hunter, John Sutton, Barbra O'Neil and Vincent Price. But neither of these films could top "Son of Frankenstein." It is an extremely entertaining film which boosts fine performances from all involved. Positively dripping with atmosphere, this movie also  has the distinction of being responsible for jump-starting the horror genre once more.

Coming Next Time: Rathbone joins Errol Flynn and David Niven in one of the most moving World War I tragedies ever filmed - 1938's "The Dawn Patrol."