Nigel Bruce: Willie, War, and Watson

Nigel Bruce (William Nigel Ernie Bruce, 1895-1953), known as “Willie” to his friends, is most widely remembered for playing Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in 15 films from 1939 to 1946. Like Rathbone, Bruce put his personal stamp on his character, in his case to a controversial degree, transforming Watson into a befuddled, superficial, ease-loving upper crust Britisher rather than the competent and useful wing man of the novels (and the more recent reboots). Bruce was a man of his times, and in those days, the sidekick in action stories was frequently comic relief (think especially of westerns). Bruce had not really devised a new conception of Watson from scratch, he merely played him as an extension of himself, as he had done in some 65 films outside the Holmes franchise. In other word, he wasn’t always Watson, but he was always Nigel Bruce.

Bruce often played minor aristocrats and men of the British military caste. He was the second son of a baronet and the maternal grandson of a general of the artillery. His older brother, Sir Michael Bruce, was a lifelong military man as well. Bruce served in World War One, was critically wounded in the trenches in Belgium, and was invalided out of the service, though he managed to re-enlist and serve another tour before the war was over, This was a point in common he had with Dr. Watson, who was also a war veteran with old injuries. After the war he ditched his old job as a stockbroker’s clerk, and went on the stage, touring the UK and Canada throughout the 1920s.

From 1930 through 1933 Bruce was a star of the British screen, usually in mystery films. I find most of the films of this period interesting for one reason or another. His British movies include a 1930 adaptation of John Galsworthy’s Escape, directed by Basil Dean, and starring Gerald du Maurier and Edna Best; Red Aces (1930), a very late silent film written and directed by Edgar Wallace and featuring Muriel Angelus; The Squeaker (1930), also written and directed by Wallace: Birds of Prey (1930), directed by Dean from an A.A. Milne script, which also featured Bruce’s future Hollywood cohort C. Aubrey Smith; The Calendar (1931) with Herbert Marshall and Edna Best; Lord Camber’s Ladies (1932), produced by Alfred Hitchcock and featuring du Maurier and Gertrude Lawrence; The Midshipmaid (1932), in which John Mills made his cinematic debut; I Was a Spy (1933) with Herbert Marshall, Madeleine Carroll and Conrad Veidt; and Channel Crossing (1933) with Constance Cummings.

In 1934 Bruce moved to Hollywood and became a key member of the colony of British actors there, even serving as captain of their cricket club. Even if he had never played Watson, Bruce would be remembered for the large number of classics enlivened by his lovable personality: Stand Up and Cheer! (1934), Treasure Island (1934), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), Becky Sharp (1935), She (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937), Kidnapped (1938), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), Lillian Russell (1940, as W.S. Gilbert), Roxie Hart (1942), two of the Lassie movies (1943-45), Follow the Boys (1944), The Corn is Green (1945), The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1946), the Howard HughesPreston Sturges misfire Vendetta (1950), Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952), and the adventure film Bwana Devil (1952), which set off the 3-D craze of the early to mid ’50s. Bruce’s last film was Robert Aldrich’s World for Ransom (1954) with Dan Duryea, Gene Lockhart, and Reginald Denny.

In addition to Hollywood films, Bruce also appeared in a half dozen Broadway plays and was frequently heard on radio as Dr. Watson and in other roles. He was felled by a heart attack at the relatively young age of 58. An excerpt from his unplublished memoir Games, Gossip and Greasepaint, may be found here.