William Nigel Ernle Bruce
4 February 1895
Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico
|Died||8 October 1953 (aged 58)|
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Violet Pauline Shelton (1921–1953; his death)|
William Nigel Ernle Bruce (4 February 1895 – 8 October 1953) was a British character actor on stage and screen. He was best known for his portrayal of Dr. Watson in a series of films and in the radio series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes). Bruce is also remembered for his roles in the Alfred Hitchcock films Rebecca and Suspicion.
Bruce was the second son of Sir William Waller Bruce, 10th Baronet (1856–1912) and his wife Angelica Lady Bruce (died 1917), daughter of General George Selby, Royal Artillery. He was born in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, whilst his parents were residing there. His older brother was the author and adventurer Sir Michael Bruce.
He received his formal education at The Grange School in Stevenage, and from 1908 to 1912 at Abingdon School in Abingdon-on-Thames. At Abingdon he was a keen sportsman, playing for the first XI cricket team (for which he received Colours), the athletics' first team and the school's football 2nd XI.
In 1912, Bruce left school at the age of 17, and took up a position as a stockbroker's clerk in the City of London. In early 1914, whilst working in the City he voluntarily enlisted into the British Army's Territorial Force as an infantry soldier with the Honourable Artillery Company as its Private #852. On the outbreak of World War I in early August 1914, he was mobilized with the regiment, and went out to the Western Front with its 1st Battalion on 18 September 1914 at the age of 19. On 5 January 1915, whilst in trenches at Kemmel in Belgium, he was machine-gunned in the legs, causing multiple wounds and a fractured right thigh, and was subsequently medically evacuated to the United Kingdom, where he spent the rest of 1915 recovering in hospital. He was discharged from the British Army as medically unfit for further military service due to permanent damage to his legs in December 1915. In October 1916, he re-enlisted with the British Army and received training with an Officer Cadet Battalion in Cambridge, subsequently receiving a commission in January 1917, as a subaltern with the 10th (Service) Battalion, of the Somerset Light Infantry Regiment, a home service battalion, with which he served as a training officer for the rest of 1917, the permanent infirmity of his 1915 wounds preventing further active service at the front.
After being discharged from the British Army, Bruce abandoned a career in the City of London Stock Exchange, and pursued a career as a professional actor. He made his stage debut on 12 May 1920 at London's Comedy Theatre as a footman in the play Why Marry?. In October of that year, he went to Canada as stage manager to Henry V. Esmond and Eva Moore, also playing "Montague Jordan" in Eliza Comes to Stay. Upon returning to England, he toured in the same role. He appeared regularly on-stage thereafter, and 8 years later began working in silent films. In 1926 he made his Broadway debut as Major Evelyn Bathurst in Noël Coward This Was a Man. He returned to Broadway several times during the 1930s, portraying Philip Downes in Ronald Jeans's Lean Harvest (1931), Mr. Jelliwell in Benn W. Levy's Springtime for Henry (1931-1932), His Excellency, Governor of the Colony in Arthur Schwartz's Virginia (1937), and William Schwenk Gilbert in Oscar Hammerstein II's Knights of Song (1938).
Bruce typically played buffoonish, fuzzy-minded gentlemen. During his film career, he worked in 78 films, including Treasure Island (1934), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Rebecca (1940), and Suspicion (1941).
He appeared in two landmark films: Becky Sharp (1935), the first feature film in full Technicolor, and Bwana Devil (1952), the first 3-D feature. He uncharacteristically played a detestable figure in The Rains Came (1939) which became the first film to win an Oscar for special effects.
Bruce's career signature role was that of Dr Watson in the 1939–1946 Sherlock Holmes film series, alongside his friend Basil Rathbone playing Holmes. Bruce starred as Watson in all 14 films of the series, and over 200 radio programs of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Although Watson often appears to be the older of the two main characters, Bruce was three years younger than Rathbone.
Though for most viewers Nigel Bruce formed their vision of Dr Watson, Holmes purists have long objected that the Watson of the books was intelligent and capable (although not an outstanding detective), and that Bruce's portrayal made Watson intellectually dimmer and more bumbling than the literary figure. (A nickname resulting from this portrayal was "Boobus Britannicus.") Loren D. Estleman wrote of Bruce:
"If a mop bucket appeared in a scene, his foot would be inside it, and if by some sardonic twist of fate and the whim of director Roy William Neill he managed to stumble upon an important clue, he could be depended upon to blow his nose on it and throw it away."
Rathbone, however, spoke highly of Bruce's portrayal, saying that Watson was one of the screen's most lovable characters. The historian David Parkinson wrote that Bruce's "avuncular presence provided the perfect counterbalance to Rathbone's briskly omniscient sleuth". Historian Alan Barnes notes that, despite the criticisms against him, Bruce rehabilitated Watson, who had been a marginal figure in the cinematic Holmes canon to that point: "after Bruce, it would be a near-unthinkable heresy to show Holmes without him". The Rathbone-Bruce co-star film series lapsed with the death of its producer-director Roy William Neill in 1946. Since then, most major modern adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, especially since the 1970s, have consciously defied the popular stereotype, and depicted Watson faithfully as a capable man of action.
Bruce was married, from 1921 until his death, to British actress Violet Campbell (née Violet Pauline Shelton; 1892–1970) whom he always lovingly called "Bunny"; they had two daughters:
- Jennifer, married in 1944 (divorced in 1946) Jay Gould III, son of Jay Gould II;
- Pauline, married in 1946 the British flying ace Alan Geoffrey Page.
Bruce, known as "Willie" to his friends, was a leading member of the British film colony in Los Angeles, and was captain of the (mostly British) Hollywood Cricket Club. Unlike some of his contemporaries, and along with other British actors such as Basil Rathbone and Charlie Chaplin, Bruce maintained his British citizenship, despite long residence in the United States. He also retained his membership of London's Garrick Club and Buck's Club until his death. His final film, World for Ransom, was released posthumously in 1954.
Bruce died of a heart attack, in Santa Monica, California in 1953 at the age of 58. His body was subsequently cremated, with his ashes being placed in a niche at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.
He wrote an autobiography titled Games, Gossip and Greasepaint, which is unpublished; however, excerpts have been printed in the Sherlock Holmes Journal, and these have been posted online with permission.
|1922||Flames of Passion||Undetermined minor role||Uncredited|
|Red Aces||Kinsfeather, T.B.|
|Birds of Prey||Major|
|1931||The Calendar||Lord Willie Panniford|
|1932||Lord Camber's Ladies||Lord Camber|
|The Midshipmaid||Major Spink|
|1933||I Was a Spy||Scottie|
|Channel Crossing||Nigel Guthrie|
|1934||Coming Out Party||Troon, the Butler|
|Stand Up and Cheer!||Eustis Dinwiddle|
|Murder in Trinidad||Bertram Lynch|
|The Lady Is Willing||Welton|
|Treasure Island||Squire Trelawney|
|Springtime for Henry||Johnny Jewlliwell|
|The Scarlet Pimpernel||The Prince of Wales|
|1935||Becky Sharp||Joseph Sedley|
|The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo||Ivan|
|1936||The Trail of the Lonesome Pine||Major Thurber|
|Under Two Flags||Capt. Menzies|
|The White Angel||Dr. West|
|Follow Your Heart||Henri Forrester|
|The Charge of the Light Brigade||Sir Benjamin Warrenton|
|The Man I Marry||Robert Hartley|
|1937||Thunder in the City||Duke Of Glenavon|
|The Last of Mrs. Cheyney||Lord Willie Winton|
|1938||The Baroness and the Butler||Major Andros|
|Suez||Sir Malcolm Cameron|
|1939||The Hound of the Baskervilles||Dr. John H. Watson|
|The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes||Dr. John H. Watson|
|The Rains Came||Lord Albert Esketh|
|1940||The Blue Bird||Mr. Luxury|
|Adventure in Diamonds||Col. J. W. Lansfield|
|Rebecca||Major Giles Lacy|
|Lillian Russell||William S. Gilbert|
|Susan and God||Hutchins Stubbs|
|A Dispatch from Reuters||Sir Randolph Persham|
|1941||Hudson's Bay||Prince Rupert|
|Play Girl||William McDonald Vincent|
|Free and Easy||Florian Clemington|
|This Woman Is Mine||Duncan MacDougall|
|The Chocolate Soldier||Bernard Fischer, Critic|
|Suspicion||Gordon Cochrane 'Beaky' Thwaite|
|1942||Roxie Hart||E. Clay Benham|
|This Above All||Ramsbottom|
|Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror||Dr. John H. Watson|
|Journey for Margaret||Herbert V. Allison|
|Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon||Dr. John H. Watson|
|1943||Forever and a Day||Maj. Garrow|
|Sherlock Holmes in Washington||Dr. John H. Watson|
|Sherlock Holmes Faces Death||Dr. John H. Watson|
|Lassie Come Home||Duke of Rudling|
|Crazy House||Dr. John H. Watson||Cameo|
|The Spider Woman||Dr. John H. Watson|
|1944||Follow the Boys||Himself||Uncredited|
|The Scarlet Claw||Dr. John H. Watson|
|The Pearl of Death||Dr. John H. Watson|
|Gypsy Wildcat||High Sheriff|
|Frenchman's Creek||Lord Godolphin|
|1945||Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear||Dr. John H. Watson|
|The Corn Is Green||The Squire|
|Son of Lassie||Duke of Radling|
|The Woman in Green||Dr. John H. Watson|
|Pursuit to Algiers||Dr. John H. Watson|
|1946||Terror by Night||Dr. John H. Watson|
|Dressed to Kill||Dr. John H. Watson|
|1947||The Two Mrs. Carrolls||Dr. Tuttle|
|The Exile||Sir Edward Hyde|
|1948||Julia Misbehaves||Col. Bruce "Bunny" Willowbrook|
|1950||Vendetta||Sir Thomas Nevil|
|1952||Hong Kong||Mr. Lighton|
|Limelight||Postant, an Impresario|
|Bwana Devil||Dr. Angus McLean|
|1954||World for Ransom||Governor Sir Charles Coutts||Released posthumously|
- Obituary Variety, 14 October 1953.
- "Register". Abingdon School.
- Abingdon School register entry for Bruce.
- Bruce's WW1 Medal Index Card, The National Archive, Kew, Surrey, England. Archive document code: WO 372/3/140620.
- 'Famous 1914–1918', by Richard Van Emden & Vic Piuk (Pub. Pen & Sword, 2009).
- Brooks Atkinson (3 September 1937). THE PLAY: 'Virginia' Opens the Season With a Large Musical Drama at the Center Theatre Theatre Units' Plays Tonight. The New York Times. p. 13.
- New Plays on Broadway – 51ST STREET. Billboard. 50. 5 November 1938. p. 17-18.
- Matthew E. Bunson (1997). Encyclopedia Sherlockiana. Simon & Schuster. p. 38. ISBN 0-02-861679-0.
- Estleman, Loren D., "On the Significance of Boswells," introduction to Sherlock Holmes : The Complete Novels and Stories Volume I, Bantam Classic, page vii, ISBN 0-553-21241-9
- Parkinson 2004.
- Barnes 2011, p. 256.
- "DEATH - VIOLET CAMPBELL". 12 January 1970.
- Turner Classic Movies
- 'Famous 1914–1918', by Richard Van Emden & Vic Piuk (Pub. Pen & Sword, 2009).
- Utechin, Nick ed. (Winter 1998). Fanning, Stuart (poster). "Excerpts from Games, Gossip and Greasepaint". Sherlock Holmes Journal. 19 (1). Retrieved 12 August 2007.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- Barnes, Alan (2011). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Titan Books. ISBN 9780857687760.
- Parkinson, David (2004). "Bruce, (William) Nigel Ernle (1895–1953)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/57390. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Alistair, Rupert (2018). "Nigel Bruce". The Name Below the Title: 65 Classic Movie Character Actors from Hollywood's Golden Age (softcover) (First ed.). Great Britain: Independently published. pp. 54–56. ISBN 978-1-7200-3837-5.
- Parker, John, ed. (1947). Who's Who in the Theatre (10th revised ed.). London: Pitman. pp. 341–2. OCLC 6344958.
- Townend, Peter, ed. (1970). Burke's Peerage, Baronetage, and Knightage (105th ed.). London: Burke's Peerage. p. 389. OCLC 8948585.
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