It was a happy thing to be reminded of Nigel Bruce's birthday this morning, by a tweet from @CanadianHolmes. Perhaps it's just my generation, but I've always had a big soft spot for his lovable "boobus Britannicus" Watson.
As much as one might decry Nigel Bruce's character's departure from Canon, his addle-headed Watson is simply a comic portrayal like all those wacky-yet-lovable nerds that sitcoms are currently finding so useful, taking one of our less-awful mental stereotypes and working our prejudices for laughs. (Yes, yes, it all may not be as funny now, but comedy is such a personal thing that decades of time can hit its effectiveness overly hard.)
One thing I've come to appreciate Nigel Bruce's comic Watson for, in this day and age, is that because he took the hit, Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes got to be pretty normal. Brilliant, yet normal. No hygiene issues, no distractingly large personality flaws, no social issues. Bruce's Watson took one for the team, and we got a healthier Sherlock Holmes for it.
One could practically chart the rise of Dr. Watson as a functional, healthy human being coinciding with the fall of his Sherlock Holmes, as I've noted here before. One of the reasons I've enjoyed BBC's Sherlock over the other most recent versions is that its Holmes and Watson both seem to share the load equally -- both being very good at who they are and what they do, yet both taking the comic foibles hit when the funny has to happen.
Nigel Bruce, however, took it all, and was just such a big lovable teddy bear of a man while doing so, a sort of charmingly befuddled uncle one wouldn't mind having at family reunions. It was a stereotype he played in more than just Sherlock Holmes movies, but at that time, with that Holmes, it just fit perfectly. Bruce wouldn't have gone with Jeremy Brett's Holmes whatsoever, Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes would have surely killed him by accident, and as for CBS's Mr. Elementary? Well, I'd pay to see that debacle -- somehow Watson would surely wind up mistakenly putting heroin in his tea at some point.
Oddly, I could almost see Nigel Bruce's Watson fitting in with Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock . . . if the old boy could keep up with all that running and jumping. Perhaps it's because Nigel Bruce just belongs on the big screen, as a larger-than-life Watson.
And today is his birthday. Raising a glass to you, N.B., even if it is the breakfast glass of milk. Good job, well done.