Stephenson Tales

Basil Rathbone

Drama Season prided itself on bringing "stars" to Ann Arbor. Basil Rathbone came to repeat his leading Broadway role in The Winslow Boy, and Lucy Chase and I were asked to go to Detroit and pick him up at the train station upon his arrival a week before the production.

So we took Lucky, who was 1½ years old, along with us to meet his train. It was on time, and we accompanied him to the baggage office to pick up his luggage. His presence drew a lot of attention as he stood waiting with us. Of course, everyone who noticed him recognized him at once.

One flustery middle-aged lady came up and said in a reverent whisper, "Are you really Basil Rathbone?"

He looked at her for a long moment and said, "Yes, Madam."

She gasped and fluttered off. I said to him, "You must get that all the time."

"Yes," he said, "It's the face...One critic said I was a face with two profiles stuck together."

We waited and waited for his luggage, Rathbone posing elegantly with his black cane with a crystal the size and shape of a glass doorknob on top. Lauritz Melchior had given the cane to him and he, of course, handled it with great poise and elegance. We waited and waited. We were astonished at his patience.

Eventually a representative of a taxi company came puffing up and told us that the luggage had become mixed up with the bags of another passenger and was now in Inkster or Hamtrammack or some outlying suburb. The driver, in his zeal, had put not only his passenger's bags into his trunk, but also those belonging to Rathbone. We were told that the driver was exceeding the speed limit and was on his way back to the station.

After about half an hour more of waiting, the bags were delivered to us and dutifully carried to our car amid much groveling and many apologies. Rathbone continued to be gracious and unperturbed.

As we drove to Ann Arbor, Lucky stood between Lucy Chase, who drove, and our passenger. She had her arm around his neck and, calling him Basil, kept him entertained the whole trip by talking non-stop.

We asked him about the choreographing of the sword fight scenes in the movies. He told us that he had learned fencing as a boy in school. He had recently finished the movie Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. He spoke very tolerantly of Errol Flynn, but said wryly, "He was a very poor swordsman. I could have run him through at any moment."

During one performance of The Winslow Boy in Ann Arbor, he blew his lines! This, after playing the role for two years in New York! In the third act, his character has just come back from appearing in court on behalf of the Winslow boy, who was being tried for theft of a postal order. The defense had gone through at least one previous trial, and this was the court of final appeal. "Let right be done."

As Rathbone entered the scene in the Winslow house and sat down, he glanced down at his shoes and realized that he had neglected to change out of he "court shoes" into his less formal footwear. He immediately began to stammer. The others on the stage looked at him in alarm. He was gone!

Somebody had the wit to feed him an ad-lib cue to get him back on track. But it was a very embarrassing, awkward, and obvious fluff before they got back to the script.

Composed 27 October 2008; Transcribed by Lucky

© Jim Bob Stephenson 2008

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