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Basil, Basil, How I Love Basil!


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He is still the Sherlock Holmes against which others are measured, and he was the greatest costume scoundrel in the history of movies.

 

Basil Rathbone.

 

The pure joy that this theatre trained actor has brought me in his movies. During the mid to late 1930s he appeared in the cast of a remarkable collection of some of the best films produced in Hollywood at the time, and there wasn’t a single one of them that wasn’t immeasurably enhanced by Rathbone’s contribution.

 

He brought an intelligence to his villains, and a precise, rich delivery of sometimes florid dialogue. He forced those actors playing costume heroes to perform at their best when sharing  the screen with him, or else they knew that Rathbone would potentially take it away from them. Rathbone also had an impressive physical presence, and he was, by all accounts, an accomplished fencer who did not have to be doubled in his screen duels.

 

Even when Basil overdid it on occasion (his deliciously over-the-top French accented Captain Levasseur in Captain Blood, for example), the remnants of the thick ham he left on screen still left a flavour to savour in the viewer’s mouth. Ah, Basil, for me, he could do no wrong as a baddie. And many of those same cold imperious qualities that made him such a great villain also served him well when he then went on to a series of films in which he was the comforting presence of Conan Doyle’s most famous literary character, Sherlock Holmes.

 

I have to say that from what I’ve seen of Rathbone’s earliest forays into the talkies they strike me as curiosity pieces more than anything else. He was a curious choice as leading man to Norma Shearer in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and a rather stiff Philo Vance in The Bishop Murder Case. He was working at various studios during this time and neither the films nor dear old Baz were really making much of an impression during the initial period.

 

In 1933 Rathbone sailed for England for a three picture deal with the departing words, Hollywood “is a cruel place – relentless, stern and unforgiving – as I suppose all great industrial centres must be.” But his English films didn’t make much of an impression either, and, after doing a few plays (including playing Romeo to Katherine Cornell’s Juliet) he was back in Hollywood for what was about to be the richest period of his film career.

 

He was recruited by David O. Selznick to be part of his impressive all star cast in the elaborate 1935 MGM production of David Copperfield. This film would contain the first of Rathbone’s memorable screen heavies, as the cruel Mr. Murdstone, the cold haughty step father of young David (as played by Freddie Bartholomew).

 

One of the key scenes in this film is that in which Murdstone beats the boy. But, for me, it’s not so much the beating as the prelude to it that makes the most vivid impression. Rathbone sits on a bed, with a long intimidating stick in his hand, as he addresses the young boy.

 

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“If I have an obstinate horse or a dog to deal with, what do you think I do?” he asks David.

 

Bartholomew, pale with fear, is slightly shaking. “I don’t know,” he says.

 

There is a memorable close up of Rathbone’s face.

 

“I beat him,” he says.

 

There is a pause for a followup close up of Bartholomew’s terrified features.

 

“I make him wince and smart,” Rathbone continues, the camera back on him again, “I say to myself I’ll conquer that fellow. And, if it were to cost him all the blood he had, I’d do it!”

 

In his close up Rathbone’s eyebrow arches in arrogance and he barely contains a smile on his thin lips. In playing a man who is clearly a sadist, Rathbone is glorious to behold.

 

Soon after this film Rathbone had a smaller part, symbolizing the arrogance of the French artistocracy, as he played the Marquis St. Evremonde in MGM’s lavish film adaption of another work by Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. At one point Rathbone is the occupant of a fast moving carriage charging through the narrow Paris cobblestone streets when it runs over a small boy trying to get out of its way.

 

As the villagers gather around the crumpled body of the boy, Rathbone emerges from the coach to give them a lecture about taking better care of their children. He also expresses concern that his horses might have been injured. He gets back in his coach and the carriage moves on. “Irritating episode,” Rathbone coldly mutters to himself. Ah, truly, a nasty to hiss!

 

Good supporting roles in major productions just kept coming to Rathbone at this time. After effectively playing Garbo’s cold, aloof husband in Anna Karenina (another MGM adaption of a major literary work) and Pontius Pilate in RKO’s Last Days of Pompeii, Basil had the relatively small but effective opportunity to appear in his first swashbuckler, Captain Blood.

 

And just as this film was a triumph for all involved (particularly so for director Michael Curtiz, newcomer Errol Flynn and co-star Olivia de Havilland), Rathbone, too, benefited from his appearance as a flamboyant colourful French pirate. While Rathbone’s attempt at a French accent may bring a smile to the lips of some, he was still an imposing physical presence, and had the first of his two legendary screen duels with Flynn.

 

After this success, Rathbone was back at MGM, where he was an impressive Tybalt in their elaborate 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet (this time having two brief screen duels, with John Barrymore and Leslie Howard). A little difficult to believe that this Romeo (Howard) could best Basil in a duel, of course, but, well, Willy Shakespeare didn’t know about the future casting of this film when he originally wrote his play, did he?

 

Rathbone’s villainy continued. A wife murderer in Love from a Stranger. Dark skinned and swarthy as he connived against Gary Cooper in Adventures of Marco Polo.

 

Then came one of the great highlights of Rathbone’s career, as he played Sir Guy of Gisbourne to Errol Flynn’s Sherwood Forest outlaw in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Warners most expensive production until that time, this Technicolor marvel had it all, two directors (William Keighley and the great Mike Curtiz in peak form), a cast of actors born to play their roles, and the triumphant operatic like musical accompaniment of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Oscar winning musical score.

 

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It’s a joy to watch the tag team villainy of Rathbone’s Sir Guy and Claude Rains’s Prince John in this film. Rains brings a delightful flamboyance and fruity dialogue delivery to his ambitious ruler, while Rathbone provides a steely eyed cold implacability to Sir Guy. Rathbone and Flynn climax the film with one of the great duels in screen history, their battle taking them across a good portion of Nottingham Castle, down a stone staircase, their shadows at one point (courtesy the dramatic theatrical eye of Mike Curtiz) looming large on a castle column.

 

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One of the joys of this duel, too, is the fact that it was the two actors themselves that performed the athletics, a fact that would be a source of considerable pride to both of them.  There’s only one shot in the Robin Hood duel in which I strongly suspect both actors were doubled – that being the moment following their shadows appearing on the castle column when they briefly appear at the bottom of the screen.

 

Following this triumph Rathbone travelled from Warners to Paramount where he played King Louis XI to Ronald Colman’s Francois Villon in If I Were King. Now this is not a typical Basil performance at all, but, instead, a more pronounced character turn, a “busy” performance with a lot of cackling which netted the actor one of two Oscar nominations as best supporting actor (the other had been for Romeo and Juliet)..

 

Personally, I find Rathbone far more convincing and certainly intense when he then returned to Warners, reunited with Flynn once again, along with David Niven, for that studio’s remake of The Dawn Patrol. In the role of a WWI Royal Flying Squadron’s commanding officer, tormented over the fact that he must send young men in decrepit air ships to almost certain death as they battle their German enemies in the skies, Rathbone delivers one of his finest performances, in my opinion.

 

In fact, the entire cast of The Dawn Patrol is excellent,  the actors’ scenes , alternating from drunken good cheer to conflict and alienation, giving the film greater emotional impact than the 1930 original directed by Howard Hawks. Rathbone, at one point in his self torment, proclaims, “You know what this place is? It’s a slaughterhouse and I’m the butcher!”

 

The decade ended the next year with Rathbone appearing in no fewer than six films. Two of them were at Universal, getting a little over the top, at times, as Wolf Von Frankenstein in the studio’s big budget Son of Frankenstein, followed by his turn as Crookback Richard in Tower of London, co-starring a head shaven Boris Karloff as Mord the executioner.

 

Rathbone’s two 1939 films at 20th Century Fox, however, had far greater impact on his career, The Hound of the Baskervilles and Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. These were elaborate, handsome studio productions that served as Rathbone’s introduction to his most famous screen character. Both had atmospheric Victorian England settings and, of course, featured Nigel Bruce in his own inimitable interpretation (at which many Holmes scholars scoff) of Dr. Watson as a well meaning, cheery bumbler. Certainly these two actors had great chemistry, and they would continue that chemistry through the war years, not only playing Holmes and Watson on screen, but in a series of popular radio broadcasts, as well.

 

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For myself, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes ranks as the best of all the Rathbone Holmes films. Aside from the effective appearance of a pre-stardom Ida Lupino as a damsel in distress, the film features a wonderful George Zucco as Professor Moriarty, hell bent on performing another great crime and doing so right under Holmes’ nose, if he can. Zucco is perfect in the part because he is convincing as being Rathbone’s intellectual equal.

 

In 1940, still at Fox, Rathbone would be recruited as a costume villain once again for that studio’s handsome production of The Mark of Zorro. Never did Rathbone strut more of a macho walk than in this film, openly contemptuous of Tyrone Power’s fey Don Diego. This would eventually lead to their climactic screen duel, furiously paced, magnificently choreographed, one of the great fencing gems of the screen. Considering the fact that Rathbone was 22 years Power’s senior at the time, this makes his athletic performance here all the more remarkable.

 

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It had been a great run of often outstanding films for Rathbone but it was about to come to an end. Not that there isn’t plenty to still enjoy in the series of “B” Sherlock Holmes films that Rathbone and Bruce made at Universal during the war years. Certainly their endearing performances alone make these economy features well worth more than a single viewing. These films were updated at the time to the ‘40s, with Holmes representing the democratic powers as he initially battled Nazis in the early entries.

 

Highlights of the Universal Holmes films would include a cobra eyed Lionel Atwill as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, as well as Henry Daniell in the same role in The Woman in Green (the latter film also having the beauteous Hillary Brooke at one point hypnotizing Holmes in an attempt to have him take a suicidal step off a building top). However, I would concur with a lot of Holmes fans who regard The Scarlet Claw as the highlight of the updated Holmes features, this one dealing with a “monster” performing mutilating slayings in a fog laden small Quebec town, a film reminiscent in some respects of Hound of the Baskervilles.

 

Tired of what he felt to be severe typecasting as Holmes (which it was) Rathbone decided to end his association with that character (much to Nigel Bruce’s chagrin), as he returned to the stage. Among the roles that he played was that of Dr. Sloper in The Heiress, a role to be played in the film version soon afterward by Ralph Richardson. (I’m not certain if Rathbone had been under consideration for the William Wyler production).

 

Rathbone’s ‘50s film work is, unfortunately, pretty sporadic and largely undistinguished. However, he did have the wonderful opportunity to parody the costume films that had given him fame when he was featured as Ravenhurst (now there’s a costume scoundrel name for you) in Danny Kaye’s delightful The Court Jester in 1956. Rathbone and Kaye had a terrific (and hilarious) screen duel. The film was a fine farewell for Rathbone to a film genre to which he had added so much.

 

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Rathbone appeared effectively (if briefly) in one more major film production, as part of a large cast of character actors in John Ford’s The Last Hurrah. There’s not a lot of positive reports to make on Rathbone’s largely sorry ‘60s films, however. He was in a scramble for money by this time, and an aging actor had to eat. (There has been much talk of Basil’s wife, Ouida, a legendary Hollywood party giver, and a lavish lifestyle that she loved which, in turn, drained the actor of much of his funds).

 

On the positive side, however, he was united with the likes of Karloff, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in a pair of light horror efforts at AI, Tales of Terror and the spoofy Comedy of Terrors. There is some pleasure here, at least, in watching these old Hollywood pros still able to do their thing and seeming to have a little bit of fun in the process.

 

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On the other hand, the title of one of Basil’s last films was Hillbillys in a Haunted House, a film I’ve never seen but was, apparently, as wretched as it sounds. According to IMBd he also appeared in a Mexican horror film, the English translation of which is Autopsy of a Ghost, released the year after his 1967 death. Yikes!

 

Fortunately for Basil Rathbone this final work is largely forgotten. To film buffs he will always be Sherlock Holmes , Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Mr. Murdstone or that French pirate dandy, Captain Levasseur.

 

So what about it? Any other fans of dear old Baz here?

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...costume scoundrel in the history of movies...

 

I'd have removed "costume" from your argued statement because his performance in 1935's KIND LADY as Aline MacMahon's murderous butler shows his villainy without need of anything beyond contemporary fashion, too.

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Tom,

wonderful tribute to, indeed, one of my fav actors

whether sophisticated, urbane & heroic OR delightully wicked

 

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BTW, his "Tower of London" is airing late tonight :)

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So what about it? Any other fans of dear old Baz here?

Who doesn't love Basil and his movies?  He is indeed the Sherlock Holmes against which all the others are measured, and, in comparison, found wanting. I don't really think of Basil as a villain -- yes, he played those roles, but for me, it's Holmes that defines him, though for sheer villainy, his most evil character may be in Confession (1937).

 

He had a rich career on the stage. Just look at the cast for this production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he played Romeo to Katharine Cornell's Juliet, with a very young Orson Welles as Tybalt and Edith Evans as the Nurse.

 

http://ibdb.com/production.php?id=10436

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Who doesn't love Basil and his movies?  He is indeed the Sherlock Holmes against which all the others are measured, and, in comparison, found wanting. I don't really think of Basil as a villain -- yes, he played those roles, but for me, it's Holmes that defines him, though for sheer villainy, his most evil character may be in Confession (1937).

 

He had a rich career on the stage. Just look at the cast for this production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he played Romeo to Katharine Cornell's Juliet, with a very young Orson Welles as Tybalt and Edith Evans as the Nurse.

 

http://ibdb.com/production.php?id=10436

It's been too long since I saw Confession to comment upon it.

 

I didn't know that Orson Welles played Tybalt to Rathbone's Romeo. It would have been interesting to see Rathbone slay the future Boy Wonder.

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I like Basil Rathbone ever since my late teens as i discovered the Holmes series on late night movies-the good old days- i was a reader of Sherlock Holmes's stories by A.C.Doyle,Rathbone fitted the role perfectly.Personnally i never liked Nigel Bruce,maybe he fitted Watson physicallly but Bruce`s character was more a buffon than anything else. I have read 2 books on Basil Rathbone,his own one published in 61 or 62 titled .IN AND OUT OF CHARACTER good title- and a great one-quite rare in hard cover in the mid seventies. I think thelast 15 years of his life are very sad.He let his wife Ouida spending like a queen,in the mid 30's he was earning up to $5000 a week on a movie set- theduration on a film- she was making ridiculous lavish parties in their RENTED house in the Hollywood Hills like putting artificial snow on the grounds etc etc Rathbone was no millionnaire even by  mid thirties standards he was doing great.His wife was spending like crazy and he accepted all her excentricities.When he quit the Holmes series-he despised the role in the last years-he found himself typecasted, after a few years he had to do anything to cover Ouida lifestyle,even doing a Sherlock Holmes play that tanked  on Broadway he did summer stock, i found out he even came to Montreal-my hometown- in the early 50's,well Montreal in 1950 was not exactly Chicago,Boston,you know what i mean.His wife did not realized what was going on it seems,i found her careless and insensitive to his struggles.

Against his own will he had to redo his Holmes role to get work,doing lectures,doing summer stock,wharever movie work he could get to make the end of the month.He wasted  his capital on stupid parties for people who were gone as soon as he was no longer a big star,he did not invest in land or a big house,he invested his $ to accomodate his careless wife.After reading everything i could find on him,i was surprised he lived 75 years,the heart attack that killed him should have happenned much sooner, financial stress is always a killer.

I have seen more than 50 of his movies ,he was an excellent actor.Dorothy Parker said of him:

`2 profiles pasted together'

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Thanks for the information on Rathbone's life, nakano. I read his autobiography In and Out of Character some years ago. I don't recall it particularly well but do remember being rather disappointed that Rathbone seemed to skip over so much in his career. It was almost like a teaser on his life without going into that much in the way of the many details that I would have loved to have read about the making of his films.

 

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Basil and wife Ouida out on the town

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If you really want to know more about him ,you must get the rare hard cover bio by Michael Druxman,very informative and complete published around 1973,it is usually expensive but what a great book it is,i bought it on Ebay 10 years ago, my duplicates at the time in excellent condition were going for $75-$100,Druxman even contacted me at one point,he told me he was surprised ANYBODY could have had more than one copy! as it did not sell.Look for it,it is worth every penny.II is true his own bio was very disapointing.

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If you really want to know more about him ,you must get the rare hard cover bio by Michael Druxman,very informative and complete published around 1973,it is usually expensive but what a great book it is,i bought it on Ebay 10 years ago, my duplicates at the time in excellent condition were going for $75-$100,Druxman even contacted me at one point,he told me he was surprised ANYBODY could have had more than one copy! as it did not sell.Look for it,it is worth every penny.II is true his own bio was very disapointing.

Thanks very much, nakano. Based on your recommendation, I just ordered a used hard cover version of it off Amazon. I didn't know that there were any Rathbone biographies in existence. I'm looking forward to reading this.

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Thank you Tom for a wonderful piece on a wonderful actor,  he's worthy of the highest praise.  The fact that he can lay claim to being one of the screens greatest villains while simultaneously playing one of the greatest heroes tells a lot about the talents of this fine actor. Like most I suppose my first exposure to this man was through the  tv reruns of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films.  At that time those films were 20 to 30 years old but it mattered little to me, they were great entertainment and still are today.  I don't remember if I immediately recognized that Basil was also the man playing those despicable villains in "Robin Hood" and  "Zorro" , both of those terrific films were greatly enhanced by his efforts.  In time I would learn more about this actor and appreciate his many  performances.  As you say Tom  it took a little while for Rathbone to hit his stride as a film actor,  he was in his mid 40's in the mid 1930's when he started doing his most memorable work.  You listed most of his best films, but I must add a film I only first saw a few years ago, CROSSROADS, which has villain Basil blackmailing hero William Powell. Two of my very favorite actors , ironically both also associated with great screen detectives. Powell and Rathbone by the way were both born in 1892.  Another film you omitted (hey, nobody's perfect) was  WE'RE NO ANGELS , a great comedy with Bogart and friends doing away with despicable Basil at his most despicable. He plays those parts as few others can.  Apparently in real life Basil was a very likeable fellow, liking to throw lavish parties (courtesy of his wife)  and generally fun to work with on film projects.  Another candidate for the "real life nice guys make the best screen villains"  theory.

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Thank you Tom for a wonderful piece on a wonderful actor,  he's worthy of the highest praise.  The fact that he can lay claim to being one of the screens greatest villains while simultaneously playing one of the greatest heroes tells a lot about the talents of this fine actor. Like most I suppose my first exposure to this man was through the  tv reruns of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films.  At that time those films were 20 to 30 years old but it mattered little to me, they were great entertainment and still are today.  I don't remember if I immediately recognized that Basil was also the man playing those despicable villains in "Robin Hood" and  "Zorro" , both of those terrific films were greatly enhanced by his efforts.  In time I would learn more about this actor and appreciate his many  performances.  As you say Tom  it took a little while for Rathbone to hit his stride as a film actor,  he was in his mid 40's in the mid 1930's when he started doing his most memorable work.  You listed most of his best films, but I must add a film I only first saw a few years ago, CROSSROADS, which has villain Basil blackmailing hero William Powell. Two of my very favorite actors , ironically both also associated with great screen detectives. Powell and Rathbone by the way were both born in 1892.  Another film you omitted (hey, nobody's perfect) was  WE'RE NO ANGELS , a great comedy with Bogart and friends doing away with despicable Basil at his most despicable. He plays those parts as few others can.  Apparently in real life Basil was a very likeable fellow, liking to throw lavish parties (courtesy of his wife)  and generally fun to work with on film projects.  Another candidate for the "real life nice guys make the best screen villains"  theory.

Thanks very much for your comments, mrroberts.

 

Yes, it really does say something about any actor who can be so convincing as both movie scoundrels as well as one of the greatest fictional detective heroes in history.

 

I don't think that I've ever seen Crossroads. I have seen We're No Angels and, in spite of the contributions of Curtiz, Bogie and Rathbone, have to say that I find it, at best, a mildly amusing, rather stagey, comedy. However, those moments in the film that I enjoy the best are clearly those when Basil is on screen.

 

Here are a few shots of Rathbone on the Robin Hood set:

 

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The man beside Basil is Howard Hill, archer extraordinaire, who also played one of the finalists in the film's archery contest. I may be wrong but the man in the striped shirt behind them looks a lot like the film's producer, Hal Wallis.

 

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That's Flynn in costume for a planned joustling tournament sequence that had originally been planned as the opening of the film. Producer Hal Wallis axed those plans for budgetary reasons.

 

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Looks like Sir Guy and Maid Marian got along better off screen than on.

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First, it was the name that fascinated me.  Basil.  My MOM had a jar of it in her spice rack!

 

Rathbone.  It just sounded kinda cool to me.  Plus, I also had an old 78rpm platter of PETER AND THE WOLF narrated by him.  THAT'S where I first became fascinated with the name.

 

THEN over the years I started seeing him in a few old movies here and there and liked him in those, and as I grew older and got more "into" the whole movie and acting thing, I became MORE enraptured by him.

 

I don't know if anyone ELSE did, but I noticed that in some scenes, and some of his facial expressions and lighting or an added moustache or so, there's a resemblance of sorts to FRANK ZAPPA.  But, ZAPPA  is Italian, and nowhere in any info on him I've found, does it say Rathbone is also Italian.  The only thing that MIGHT lead me to think there may be some somewhere in his line is the slight similarity in HIS name to actor Anthony CarBONE, who IS Italian!  That seems like a stretch, however, but...

 

Famed FRENCH actor YVES MONTAND is actually half Italian, as I understand it.

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Yves Montand was a full Italian,ivo Livi,he got his stage name because his mother always called him while he was downstairs Monta, Monta for his lunch.I see the similarity with Zappa in a way,Rathbone was South African by birth,i do not know he had any Italian in his genealogy.

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Here is Basil Rathbone's memorable narration of Peter and the Wolf, Part One of a 6 part series on You Tube

 

 

 

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An interesting shot of Rathbone on the set of A Tale of Two Cities. The face in the mirror is that of the film's director, Jack Conway.

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Basil Rathbone would have been great to watch in one of those dual roles, "good brother vs  evil twin brother" .  A great climactic dueling scene, that way he could have finally won a duel.   :)

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