Thursday, September 18, 2008

Nigel Bruce

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Ah, Nigel Bruce. If we were to look up "befuddled" in the dictionary, surely your picture would be right there next to it. The man best known to the public for playing Dr. Watson next to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes made a fine career out of being charming confused and often in mortal danger. But he came to my attention recently while I was watching Hitchcock's "Suspicion."

"Suspicion" is a good but not great Hitchcock -- you can feel Hitchcock straining against the sensibilities of RKO and struggling to find his footing in America. There are some great moments, of course. Everyone talks about the lightbulb in a glass of milk, but to me the scrabble game is much more ominous. One of the great joys of the film is Nigel Bruce as Cary Grant's old pal "Beaky" - a professional layabout who counsels Joan Fontaine not to worry about Grant's constant lies because, after all, "that's just old Johnnie for you!"

Nigel Bruce followed a typical British actor's career path; wounded in WWI, he became well-known on the stage and in music halls, and acted in some British silents before moving to Hollywood in 1934. By 1941, when "Suspicion" was released, Bruce had only played Dr. Watson twice, in the excellent "Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes." Always best at light comedy, Bruce seems to revel in the part, no doubt enjoying being surrounded by a British cast and director. And he had already worked with both Hitchcock and Fontaine on "Rebecca," playing a similar side character. In "Suspicion," a simple bit of business, like his pretending to stand in the corner after being scolded by Fontaine, is truly winning, and despite his buffoonery and uselessness, it's impossible not to care for him as a character, making him an excellent foil to Grant's oily Johnnie.
Bruce would go on to play Dr. Watson thirteen more times (in twelve features and one cameo in the inexplicably amazing Olsen & Johnson film "Crazy House"), to diminishing results. In fact, he became so associated with the role, that audiences found it hard to accept him in anything else, which meant that his acting propositions outside of Dr. Watson were limited. Which is a shame, for while he is excellent as Dr. Watson, the role rarely afforded him the chance for physical comedy. In "Suspicion" there is a ridiculous scene where Grant and Bruce try to cheer up Fontaine after one of Grant's lies, and Bruce mugs for the camera and quacks like a duck. I haven't found a clip of it online, but trust me, it's really worth seeing!

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