A Year: Day to Day Men: 4th of February, Solar Year 2018

Breath of Fresh Air

February 4, 1895 was the birth date of William Nigel Ernie Bruce, a British character actor on stage and screen.

Nigel Bruce made his first appearance on stage on May 12, 1920 at the Comedy Theater, a theater in the West End of London, as a footman in the play “Why Marry?”. In October of that year, he went to Canada as stage manager to Henry 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.

Nigel Bruce typically played buffoonish, fuzzy-minded gentlemen. During his film career, he worked on seventy-eight films, including “Treasure Island”, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, ”Rebecca”, and “Suspicion”. He took a role out of character when he played a detestable figure in “The Rains Came”.

Bruce’s signature role was that of Doctor Watson in the 1939-1946 Universal Studios’ 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”. 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.

Basil 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”. Cinema 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”.

“Cheer up old fellow, cheer up. As Dr Samuel Johnson once said, “There’s no problem the mind of man can set, that the mind of man can not solve.”              – Nigel Bruce as Watson in “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code”, 1945

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