Note: In honor of the showing of The Adventures of Robin Hood on TCM/U.S. during the 31 Days of Oscar, I am reprinting a classic 2011 column from my Errol & Olivia blog.
If you comb through the UCLA Warner Bros. Archives in Los Angeles, you see lots of memos about the casting of Warner Bros. pictures, with key roles going to the Warner stable of stars. In The Adventures of Robin Hood, there was no question that Errol Flynn would portray Robin of Locksley once he had become known as an action hero, or that contract player Alan Hale would portray Little John, a role he had already played once in the silent Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks 15 years earlier. When freelancer David Niven wasn’t available for Will Scarlett, contract player Patric Knowles got the part.
For a while contract player Anita Louise had been considered for Maid Marian, but Louise had just appeared with Flynn in a little medical drama called Green Light, and their chemistry had been minimal. But pickings were slim at Warner Bros. in 1937. Joan Blondell was wrong; Margaret Lindsay too. There was “the de Havilland girl,” but Hal Wallis had no confidence in little Livvie for the biggest-budget Warner Bros. picture up to that time, and continued to push for Anita. Jack Warner saw nothing special in 19-year-old de Havilland either, but he recognized the box office appeal of Olivia with Errol that had already paid off in Captain Blood and Charge of the Light Brigade, so the role went Livvie’s way.
Standard practice was to go to the bullpen for freelancers to round out the cast—you needed a rotund male and called in Gene Pallette; you needed a traditional English maid and the call went to Una O’Connor. When you sought an elegant bad guy, the first choice would be South African-born Basil Rathbone, who had cut a swath through 1930s Hollywood in pictures like The Last Days of Pompeii, A Tale of Two Cities, Romeo and Juliet, and Warners’ own Captain Blood. You could get a Pallette or an O’Connor for a couple grand per picture, but Rathbone was up there around five or six G’s because of his multi-faceted set of talents, including that stunning, classical profile and handsome face, athletic ability that played younger than his 45 years (at the time of Robin Hood), and a baritone voice and approach to dialogue crafted in classical theater.
In the final shooting script for The Adventures of Robin Hood, Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne—arch-rival of Sir Robin—is handicapped from the start. In their first scene together, Robin gets the drop on Sir Guy and holds him at bow-and-arrow point, forcing Guy to ride off with his men in humiliation. Sir Guy’s next sequence, a Saxon celebration in the Great Hall of Nottingham Castle, shows Rathbone’s range as a player, and why the major studios counted on him. He’s comfortable and confident in this setting, except that as written, his character is in love with virginal Maid Marian, and he’s reduced to an idle boast or two within her earshot as he tries to impress her. Then Robin Hood bursts in and spoils the party, and again Sir Guy begins to pale. A reel later, Sir Guy and his entire army are taken prisoner by Robin Hood’s band—with Maid Marian an observer.
The original (and far better) pre-production script for The Adventures of Robin Hood called for a jousting tournament to open the picture, and here Sir Guy would have been introduced more robustly, mounted on a steed and jousting with Robin to establish their rivalry. But just weeks before production commenced, Wallis cut this sequence for budgetary reasons. The new script made the odds against Sir Guy much longer because in almost every encounter, the situation favored Robin Hood. Still, we understood Gisbourne and his human wants and needs, as evidenced by his crush on Marian. At every turn the scriptwriters were stacking the odds against poor Sir Guy, so that by the time (a third of the way into the picture) that Guy boasts of outlaw Robin, “I’ll have him dangling in a week,” the audience stifles a giggle and wonders what picture this poor fellow is watching, because up to now he hasn’t made a dent Robin’s command of every situation. Still, a part of me always pulls for Sir Guy to hold his own, including the time he captures Robin at the archery tournament and almost makes him dangle. Rooting for a bad guy isn’t exactly what you’re supposed to do in an Errol Flynn picture, which to me indicates how good Rathbone was in the prime of his career.
Just a year after finishing The Adventures of Robin Hood, Basil Rathbone would find the role of his lifetime, as Sherlock Holmes in a pair of pictures at Fox. Three years later Universal would pick up both actor and character for a long-running and popular series that he would one day walk away from. For a long time I assumed that Rathbone feared type casting as Holmes, but the real reason he left Holmes and Hollywood behind had to do with marital strife and not career concerns.
Proof of Rathbone’s talent and versatility can be found in the fact that one year after walking out on Baker Street, he earned a Tony for playing Dr. Sloper in the stage version of The Heiress on Broadway. He would remain a busy actor for the remainder of his life and move from suave bad guy parts to mad doctors and crotchety old men while covering the range from horror to comedy and even sand-and-surf musicals. Basil Rathbone kept his name relevent on the big screen, television, radio, and theater. Desperate for money, he went on to tour universities for “an evening with Basil Rathbone” and make a new generation of fans.
In 1949 Basil Rathbone was knighted for services rendered to the British people, to which I say, bravo, Sir Basil! You lived a lot longer than poor Sir Guy’s, and tonight I’ll root for you like always, even though one isn’t supposed to. When you bloody Robin in the climactic duel, I’ll cheer you on and hope that just once you manage to escape the castle to fight another day. But thanks to those meddling Warner scriptwriters, it never seems to happen.