from The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937)
William Nigel Ernle Bruce|
4 February 1895
Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico
8 October 1953 (aged 58)|
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Heart attack|
|Spouse(s)||Violet Pauline Shelton (1921–1953; his death)|
Sir Michael Bruce, 11th Baronet (brother)|
Julian Gilbey (great-grandson)
Will Gilbey (great-grandson)
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. Bruce was born in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, while his parents were on holiday there. His older brother was the author and adventurer Sir Michael Bruce. He was educated at the Grange, Stevenage and at Abingdon School, Oxfordshire. He served in France from 1914 as a lieutenant in the 10th Service Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry and the Honourable Artillery Company, but was severely wounded at Cambrai the following year, with eleven bullets in his left leg, and spent most of the remainder of the war in a wheelchair.
He made his first appearance on stage on 12 May 1920 at the Comedy Theatre as a footman in 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 acting the same part. He appeared constantly onstage thereafter, and eight years later started also working in silent films. In 1934, he moved to Hollywood, later setting up home at 701 North Alpine Drive, Beverly Hills.
Nigel 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).
Bruce participated 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 signature role was that of Dr. Watson in the 1939-1946 Sherlock Holmes film series with close friend Basil Rathbone as 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 actually three years younger than his co-star 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 far dimmer and more bumbling than his literary original. (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 film series lapsed with the death of 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.
Nigel 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.
He wrote an autobiography called Games, Gossip and Greasepaint which has never been published; 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. 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 Reuter's||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|
|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||(final film role)|
- Obituary Variety, 14 October 1953.
- This is covered in The Peerage. Source: here
- 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.
- Utechin, Nick ed. (Winter 1998). Fanning, Stuart (poster). "Excerpts from Games, Gossip and Greasepaint". Sherlock Holmes Journal. 19 (1). Retrieved 12 August 2007.
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