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
Cast (Feature Film)
Screen debut, "Coming Out Party"
First teamed with Basil Rathbone to play Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes for "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"