Nigel Bruce


Actor
Nigel Bruce

About

Also Known As
William Nigel Bruce
Birth Place
Mexico
Born
September 04, 1895
Died
October 08, 1953
Cause of Death
Heart Attack

Biography

Many performers personified Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary heroes Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson onscreen, but no film actors were so identified with those roles as the team of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Over the course of 14 feature films, the pair battled everything from a seemingly supernatural menace on the English moors to Nazis undermining the American war effort. In c...

Photos & Videos

Biography

Many performers personified Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary heroes Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson onscreen, but no film actors were so identified with those roles as the team of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Over the course of 14 feature films, the pair battled everything from a seemingly supernatural menace on the English moors to Nazis undermining the American war effort. In contrast to his literary counterpart, Bruce's Watson abetted as much as aided that process, but he and Holmes remained inseparable friends and Bruce's loveable bumbler endeared himself to audiences around the world. Even before he was cast as Watson, the gregarious Englishman had already made a name for himself both on stage and film playing various colonels, dukes, and aristocrats, blowhards virtually to a man, but appealingly so, thanks to Bruce's comedic talents. Over a long career, the actor's talents also enhanced such notable features as "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (1934) and "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936), and Alfred Hitchcock thought enough of his countryman's abilities to cast him in both "Rebecca" (1940) and "Suspicion" (1941). Sherlock Holmes aficionados may have objected to the way in which Bruce's older and chubbier Watson - whom they nicknamed "Boobus Britannicus" - was used mainly for comic relief and to help advance the narrative, but few would take issue with the actor's personification of the character as written, a wonderful mix of innocence and pomposity that provided a nice contrast to the sagacity and self-assurance of his famous partner.

Although he soon established a screen persona as a quintessentially upper class Englishman, William Nigel Ernle Bruce was actually born in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico on Feb. 4, 1895. His father, Sir William Waller Bruce, 10th Baronet, was in that country on vacation with his wife at the time, but the young Bruce received his education and upbringing back home in England, where he attended prep school at The Grange in Stevenage and Oxfordshire's Abingdon School. Following the death of his father, the family title went to Bruce's older brother, while he set about trying to establish himself as a stock broker. However, career aspirations were put on hold when Bruce enlisted in the military following the outbreak of World War I. While serving in France, he suffered an astonishing 11 bullet hits to his left leg. Doctors were able to save the limb, but he was confined to a wheelchair for some time. The leg required additional later surgeries and caused Bruce some difficulties for the rest of his life. In 1921, he married British actress Violet Campbell. The happy couple would remain together for more than three decades and raise two daughters together.

By that time, Bruce had established an unexpected new career on stage. Laid up because of his wounds, he had tried his hand at acting just to alleviate boredom, and proving himself to be a natural. As his career blossomed, he worked in both England and Canada, but his profile in the acting world rose considerably after he appeared on Broadway in Noël Coward's "This Was a Man" (1926). He also started landing roles in British features, including "Red Aces" (1929) and "The Squeaker" (1930), both directed by famous mystery novelist Edgar Wallace. In addition to work on his home soil, Bruce made return trips to the Great White Way in "Lean Harvest" (1931) and "Springtime for Henry" (1931-32) before playing supporting roles in Hollywood productions like the hit films "Treasure Island" (1934), "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (1934), and "Becky Sharp" (1935), which was notable for being the first feature-length film in Technicolor. By that point, Bruce had proven himself invaluable when producers needed someone to personify a stuffy, pompous upper-class Brit. Bruce invested these parts with great humor and while prone to hamming it up, he rarely went so far over-the-top as to be exasperating rather than endearing. Off the stage and screen, Bruce and Violet enjoyed a charmed life in Los Angeles, socializing with a tight-knit colony of British expatriate actors that became known as the 'Hollywood Raj," which included C. Aubrey Smith and Basil Rathbone. Following roles in major motion pictures like "She" (1935), "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" (1936), "Under Two Flags" (1936), "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936) - in which his incompetent British commander makes a disastrous military decision that ends in a massacre - and "Kidnapped" (1938), the in-demand character player returned to Broadway with trademark roles in the musicals "Virginia" (1937) and "Knights of Song" (1938). The latter turned out to be a major failure, lasting only 16 performances. Thankfully, Bruce came away from that experience with the role that would bring him fame and years of steady work.

His depression over the failure quickly vanished after the arrival of a telegram from his friend Basil Rathbone, who wrote, "Do come back to Hollywood, Willie dear boy, and play Doctor Watson to my Sherlock Holmes. We'll have great fun together." Thanks to his friend's recommendation, Bruce was hired to play opposite Rathbone in a film adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous Sherlock Holmes thriller "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1939). Loyal in most respects to its source and made with care and style, the film scored with both critics and the public, so 20th Century Fox brought the pair back for "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (1939). The men were also great friends off-screen and their natural camaraderie came across beautifully. However, while Rathbone was the picture-perfect representation of Conan Doyle's brilliant hero, Bruce's Dr. Watson strayed considerably from the standard text by being a rather clumsy blowhard, with Holmes providing all of the brilliant deductions and sleuthing savvy. This interpretation of the character rankled Conan Doyle purists, but in terms of these films and that time period, the humorous contrast Bruce offered nicely offset Rathbone's ever serious detective. Now one of the premier personalities in Hollywood's "British Colony," Bruce found himself consistently busy in pictures like "The Rains Came" (1939), "The Blue Bird" (1940), "Hudson's Bay" (1941) and "The Chocolate Soldier" (1941). He was also engaged by Alfred Hitchcock for roles in both "Rebecca" (1940) and "Suspicion" (1941) In the former, he portrayed the kind confidant to Joan Fontaine's traumatized heroine, and in the latter, his warm-hearted, gregarious presence provided temporary relief from the darkness of the story.

In 1942, Rathbone and Bruce returned as Holmes and Watson, but at a new studio (Universal) and in a new time period. With America now a participant in World War II, it was decided to bring the characters into the modern day to use their detection skills to battle the Nazis in "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror" (1942), "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" (1942) and "Sherlock Holmes in Washington" (1943). After these entries, the longtime friends were back in more traditional mysteries, though the contemporary settings remained. Now under contract with Universal for $850 per week with yearly raises, Bruce enjoyed regular and lucrative employment, a character actor's dream. The series' popularity and his increasing notoriety with the public also resulted in requests for Bruce's services from other studios. He went on to play the Duke of Radling in MGM's picturesque family films "Lassie Come Home" (1943) and "Son of Lassie" (1945), and both he and Rathbone were loaned to Paramount for the Technicolor pirate adventure "Frenchman's Creek" (1944). However, Bruce's main duties were on the Holmes series. "Dressed to Kill" (1946) was the 14th and final entry, though Rathbone and Bruce had also simultaneously played the characters more than 200 times on the live weekly radio series "The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (NBC/Mutual, 1939-1946), which ran during the same time period as the movies.

By this point in time, Rathbone had had enough of the character and refused to continue the role in any medium, a decision that strained his friendship with Bruce, though the men later reconciled. Once again a freelancer, Bruce went on to appear in such films as the Humphrey Bogart/Barbara Stanwyck thriller "The Two Mrs. Carrolls" (1947), the romantic comedy "Julia Misbehaves" (1948), and Charlie Chaplin's "Limelight" (1952). He also played a notable role in the low-budget adventure thriller "Bwana Devil" (1953), the first widely released 3-D movie. Unfortunately, Bruce suffered a major heart attack and died on Oct. 8, 1953 at the comparatively young age of 58. His final feature, the film noir thriller "World for Ransom" (1954), was released three months after his passing. From the fall of 1944 through November of 1947, Bruce had gradually worked on his autobiography, Games, Gossip and Greasepaint, which failed to find a publisher. However, excerpts did eventually turn up in the The Sherlock Holmes Society Journal and online, exposing him to a new generation of fans long after his passing.

By John Charles

Filmography

 

Cast (Feature Film)

World for Ransom (1954)
Gov. Sir Charles Coutis
Limelight (1953)
Postant
Bwana Devil (1952)
Angus "Doc" Maclean
Hong Kong (1952)
Mr. Lighton
Vendetta (1950)
Col. Sir Thomas Nevil
Julia Misbehaves (1948)
Colonel [Bunny] Willowbrook
The Exile (1947)
Sir Edward Hyde
The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)
Dr. Tuttle
Dressed to Kill (1946)
Dr. Watson
Terror by Night (1946)
Doctor John Watson
Sherlock Holmes in Dressed to Kill (1946)
Sherlock Holmes in Terror by Night (To Be Deleted) (1946)
Pursuit to Algiers (1945)
Doctor [John] Watson
The Woman in Green (1945)
[Doctor John] Watson
The Corn Is Green (1945)
The squire
The House of Fear (1945)
Doctor [John H.] Watson
Son of Lassie (1945)
Duke of Rudling
Follow the Boys (1944)
The Pearl of Death (1944)
Doctor [John H.] Watson
The Scarlet Claw (1944)
Doctor [John H.] Watson
The Spider Woman (1944)
Doctor [John] Watson
Frenchman's Creek (1944)
Lord Godolphin
Gypsy Wildcat (1944)
High Sheriff
Forever and a Day (1943)
Major Garrow
Lassie Come Home (1943)
Duke of Rudling
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
Doctor [John H.] Watson
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
Doctor [John] Watson
Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
Doctor [John] Watson
Crazy House (1943)
Dr. Watson
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)
Doctor Watson
Journey for Margaret (1942)
Herbert V. Allison
This Above All (1942)
Ramsbottom
Eagle Squadron (1942)
McKinnon
Roxie Hart (1942)
E. Clay Benham
Hudson's Bay (1941)
Prince Rupert
The Chocolate Soldier (1941)
Bernard Fischer
Suspicion (1941)
[Gordon Cochran] Beaky [Thwaite]
Play Girl (1941)
Bill Vincent
This Woman Is Mine (1941)
Duncan MacDougall
Free and Easy (1941)
Florian Clemington
Lillian Russell (1940)
William Gilbert
A Dispatch from Reuters (1940)
Sir Randolph Persham
Susan and God (1940)
'Hutchie'
Rebecca (1940)
Major Giles Lacy
The Blue Bird (1940)
Mr. Luxury
Adventure in Diamonds (1940)
Col. J. W. Lansfield
The Rains Came (1939)
Lora Albert Esketh
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
Dr. Watson
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Dr. Watson
Suez (1938)
Sir Malcolm Cameron
Kidnapped (1938)
Neil MacDonald
The Baroness and the Butler (1938)
Major Andros
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937)
Willie
Thunder in the City (1937)
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936)
[Major] Thurber
Under Two Flags (1936)
Captain Menzies
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
Sir Benjamin Warrenton
Follow Your Heart (1936)
Henry Forrester
The White Angel (1936)
Dr. West
The Man I Marry (1936)
Robert Hartley
Becky Sharp (1935)
Joseph "Joss" Sedley
The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1935)
Ivan
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1935)
The Prince of Wales [H.R.H. the Prince Regent]
She (1935)
Horace Holly
Jalna (1935)
Maurice Vaughn
Treasure Island (1934)
Squire Trelawney
The Lady Is Willing (1934)
Welton
Channel Crossing (1934)
Nigel Guthrie
Murder in Trinidad (1934)
Bertram Lynch
Springtime for Henry (1934)
Johnny Jelliwell
Coming Out Party (1934)
Troon
Stand Up and Cheer! (1934)
[Eustace] Dinwiddie
I Was a Spy (1933)
Scottie
Bachelor's Folly (1932)
The Midshipmaid (1932)
The Perfect Alibi (1931)
Manager

Cast (Special)

Chaplin Today: Limelight (2003)

Life Events

1934

Screen debut, "Coming Out Party"

1939

First teamed with Basil Rathbone to play Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes for "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"

Photo Collections

Suspicion - Publicity Stills
Here are a few Publicity Stills from Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941). Publicity stills were specially-posed photos, usually taken off the set, for purposes of publicity or reference for promotional artwork.
The Two Mrs. Carrolls - Scene Stills
Here are several scene stills from Warner Bros.' The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck.

Videos

Movie Clip

Chocolate Soldier, The (1941) - Song Of The Flea Aiming to test her loyalty, Viennese opera star Karl (Nelson Eddy) appears at the club where his wife Maria (Rise Stevens) and best pal Bernard (Nigel Bruce) are in the audience, disguised as a romantic Russian, in MGM’s The Chocolate Soldier, 1941.
Corn Is Green, The (1945) - So This Is My House Miss Moffat (Bette Davis), with Watty (Rosalind Ivan), arrives at her inherited Welsh home, the squire (Nigel Bruce), Miss Ronberry (Mildred Dunnock) and Jones (Rhys Williams) surprised to discover she's a female, early in The Corn Is Green, 1945.
Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1935) - Open, London 1792 Elegant opening credits then needless British martial display for the benefit of the Prince (Nigel Bruce) from Alexander Korda's The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1935, starring Leslie Howard.
Chocolate Soldier, The (1941) - My Hero Right from the start, MGM offers their new star, Rise Stevens from The Metropolitan Opera in her first movie scene, paired with leading man Nelson Eddy, as Viennese light-opera singers Maria and Karl, with a song from the Ferenc Molnar-based operetta Testor, using only the title from the George Bernard Shaw play, The Chocolate Soldier, 1941.
Chocolate Soldier, The (1941) - Mon Couer S'Ouvre A Ta Voix Rise Stevens, with her second song in her first movie, is observed by her husband (Nelson Eddy, with pal Nigel Bruce), indulging her urge to move from her Vienna musical theater career into high opera, with a song from Saint-Saens, in MGM’s mix-and-match musical The Chocolate Soldier, 1941.
Last Of Mrs. Cheyney, The (1937) - Charming And Popular Joan Crawford (title character), runs an English charity auction, Lords Kelton (Frank Morgan) and Dilling (Robert Montgomery) competing, butler Charles (William Powell, his first appearance) assisting, the Duchess (Jessie Ralph) impressed, in The Last Of Mrs. Cheyney, 1937.
Charge of the LIght Brigade, The (1936) - Massacre At Chukoti Vickers (Errol Flynn) and Warrenton (Nigel Bruce) come upon the altogether fictional "Massacre at Chukoti," which provides the revenge motive for the climax, in Warner Bros. British Imperial epic The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936.
Treasure Island (1934) - Long John Silver Jack (Jackie Cooper), having been warned about a "seafaring man with one leg," arrives at Bristol with sponsor Squire Trelawney (Nigel Bruce), whereupon they meet Long John Silver (Wallace Beery) in director Victor Fleming's 1934 production of Treasure Island.
Last Of Mrs. Cheyney, The (1937) - You Are A Cad! Playboy Lord Dilling (Robert Montgomery) and sidekick Willie (Nigel Bruce) are hustling the ship's burser for info about the hot new passenger (Joan Crawford, title character), taking turns pursuing her until a rescue by Lord Kelton (Frank Morgan), early in The Last Of Mrs. Cheyney, 1937.
Suspicion (1941) - Open, Is That Your Leg? Standard credits followed by an opening scene in the dark, as Johnny (Cary Grant) meets Lina (Joan Fontaine) on a train, in Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, 1941.
Journey For Margaret (1942) - After The Fall Of France The opening (not featuring title character Margaret O’Brien, in her first billed role), as expectant parents John and Nora (Robert Young, Laraine Day) arrive in London, 1939, having fled France, greeted by Herbert (Nigel Bruce), in MGM’s Journey For Margaret, 1942, based on real events.
Thunder In The City (1937) - The Duchess Fails Knocking about the English manor home of distant relatives, American ad-man Armstrong (Edward G. Robinson), cut loose by his firm, meets the forthright duke and duchess (Nigel Bruce, Constance Collier) and their daughter (Luli Deste), with her suitor (Ralph Richardson), in Thunder In The City, 1937.

Trailer

Susan and God - (Original Trailer) A flighty socialite neglects her family to promote a new religious group in Susan and God (1940) starring Joan Crawford, directed by George Cukor.
Dispatch From Reuters, A - (Original Trailer) An entrepreneur (Edward G. Robinson) builds an international news agency.
Chocolate Soldier, The - (Original Trailer) A jealous husband tests his opera singer wife's fidelity by pretending to be another man in The Chocolate Soldier (1941) starring Nelson Eddy and Rise Stevens.
Son Of Lassie - (Original Trailer) Peter Lawford and his dog are trapped behind enemy lines in World War II in the sequel to Lassie Come Home (1943).
Lassie Come Home - (Original Trailer) A faithful collie undertakes an arduous journey to return to his lost family in Lassie Come Home (1943) starring Roddy McDowall.
Suspicion - (Re-issue Trailer) A wealthy wallflower (Joan Fontaine) suspects her penniless playboy husband (Cary Grant) of murder in Suspicion (1942), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Woman in Green, The - (Television Trailer) Basil Rathbone is the great detective investigating a string of mutilations in The Woman in Green (1945).
Sherlock Holmes in Dressed To Kill - (Re-issue Trailer) Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce take their last turns as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigating a string of murders over cheap music boxes.
Roxie Hart - (Original teaser trailer) To try and kick-start her show-business career, a woman (Ginger Rogers) admits to a Chicago murder in Roxie Hart (1942).
Sherlock Holmes in Terror By Night - (Re-issue Trailer) Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) signs on to protect a priceless diamond from jewel thieves in Sherlock Holmes in Terror By Night (1946).
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon - (Re-issue Trailer) Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) fights Professor Moriarty (Lionel Atwill) to keep him from handing a new bombsight design to the Nazis.
Charge of the Light Brigade, The (1936) - (Re-issue Trailer) Two brothers love the same woman at a perilous Indian outpost in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) starring Errol Flynn.

Bibliography