Nigel Bruce — The Actor’s Promised Land (1936) 🇬🇧

Nigel Bruce and Claudette Colbert |

February 03, 2022

It’s fashionable to be superior about Hollywood, but here’s one screen player who likes the life in the film city and doesn’t care who knows it.

by Nigel Bruce

Hollywood is the actor’s Paradise; the work and the life is a dream come true!”

Thus Nigel Bruce, that rotund and jovial British actor, member of a fine old Scottish clan, and now one of Hollywood’s most popular personalities. And, incidentally, one of the most in demand of the character players. In two years he has acted in fourteen pictures, the latest of which are “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” and The White Angel, the story of Florence Nightingale.

We were talking in the garden of his place in Beverly Hills. Looking around one could easily imagine his home to be a spacious country residence in England. We sat on the lawn at the edge of the swimming pool; behind us was the tennis court. A trellised walk hung thick with white roses extended from the house to the garage. The Bruce Scotty barked playfully at a couple of chirruping birds happily winging from tree to tree. And above us the early morning sun poured down with such intensity that the Philippino houseboy was called for to erect a garden umbrella beside us to keep off some of the glare.

We might have been sitting in a Surrey garden in July, instead of a Californian garden in March. On the morning in question the English newspapers that had just arrived disclosed gales at home. All through the eastern parts of the United States the worst floods in history were washing away towns, destroying the homes of thousands.

Nigel Bruce tilted the old slouch hat he wore farther over his eyes and repeated his assert, ion. “Yes, Hollywood is the actor’s Paradise. Ever since I started on the stage nearly twenty years ago,” he ruminated, “ I’ve dreamed of a life like this — in a climate like this. On the stage in London I’ve played every kind of part. I’ve been in short runs and long runs. But the stage can offer an actor nothing compared with the films. If a stage play is a big success after three or four months of repeating the same lines night after night with a couple of matinees a week one is liable to get stale. But here, apart from the climate and other living conditions, life is full every minute of the day.

“A character actor really has the best ‘breaks’ to my way of thinking,” he went on. “In one picture I’m an English butler, in the next a South African prospector, and so on. There is no getting in a rut. One acts for three or four days at a stretch and then we have a couple of days off. It’s hard work while you’re at it, but working here in Hollywood conditions are my ideal.”

I asked Nigel Bruce how he found the cost of living in Hollywood for an actor compared with London.

“The best way I can answer that,” he replied, “is to tell you that in all the years I’ve worked in the West End earning good money all the time I’ve never been able to save anything. Here I find I can save half of what I earn and yet live and provide for my family in comfort at the same time under conditions impossible in England. Look at the weather!” he exclaimed with a wave of his hand around the garden. “Sunshine and warmth every day! I was badly wounded in the war for one thing, and in the damp climate it has often nearly crippled me. But here I can play golf, play cricket, ride — do everything and I’ve never felt fitter in my life.”

“How do your two children living here?” I asked him.

“They simply love it!” he exclaimed. “And why shouldn’t they? They lead a life here quite different from what they would in England. And there’s another thing out here, the education. Both my girls are at the Hawthorne school down the road. And it doesn’t cost me a penny, The school is the most lovely building you’ve ever seen in your life and the mistresses and the children there delightful in every way. They can amuse themselves outdoors all the time. They’re being taught tennis; they go riding every Saturday, and they live at home and we can enjoy their company, instead of seeing them only during the school holidays three times a year as we would in England.”

I certainly agreed with him as to the wonderful time children have in California. “What is there for an actor to do with himself in London?” he challenged me.

“Nothing,” I answered. “Especially in the winter time, except ‘mooch’ around the house all day or idle the time away in a club until the evening.”

“Exactly!” he agreed. Then working his big frame to the edge of his blue upholstered garden chair, “Would you like a glass of iced beer? It’s hot enough!” And when I readily assented: “Steve!” this in the general direction of the house, “Steve! Bring a couple of glasses of beer!”

A moment later Steve, the Philippino house-boy, trim, smiling, in a short white jacket, emerged from the terrace door bearing a tray with a couple of glasses of foaming beer. “Mr. Niven is on the ‘phone, Mr. Bruce.”

“Oh, excuse me!” said the jovial actor, taking a quick pull at his glass. “ It’s about a fishing trip. I won’t be a minute.”

While he was absent I took a look around me at the neighbouring houses in the palm-lined, wide avenue in the heart of beautiful Beverly Hills. From next door came the pling-pling of tennis rackets engaged in smashing balls back and forth across a net. There lived Adrian Rorke, the famous polo player. Directly opposite Nigel Bruce, the Fred Astaires have a lovely place.

A few doors down Lupe Vélez has her home. At the comer lives Douglass Dumbrille, another well-known character actor.

Nigel Bruce, or “Willie,” as he is known to his friends, reappeared. “That was David Niven wanting me to go fishing to-morrow. That’s another thing about living here. There’s wonderful fishing within a few miles, either up in the mountain lakes or in the Pacific. Then there’s polo. Where,” he asked me, “can the ordinary individual in England, the man in the street, watch a polo match?”

“Only Ranelagh or Hurlingham,” I suggested. “Precisely I And you’ve got to be a member and that costs you Heaven knows what, even if you can get in.

“Why, here there are half a dozen matches one can go and see. The other Sunday we went out to dear old Will Rogers’ polo ground. There must have been five or six thousand people there watching two of the finest teams in the world play. And the cost! Forty cents! Less than a couple of shillings!”

I told Nigel Bruce that I had even gone one better than he. The day before I had driven out a few miles to Burbank to watch a polo game at which visitors were welcomed at no cost at all to them!

That’s just it,” rejoined the actor. “A man doesn’t have to have money in the accepted sense of the term to give his family a good time here. You can buy two motor cars for the price one would cost you in England, for instance. And petrol is practically given away. Food is cheaper here than in any place I’ve ever struck in my life.”

“How does your wife like it?” I asked him. “Loves it,” came the ready answer. “Any woman should. A house is so easy to run. Mark you, I know rents and servants cost more than at home, but shopping is a pleasure. My wife says she gets the greatest delight in shopping at these marvellous markets. Under one roof you can buy every mortal thing from vegetables to fish. And the houses!

A house with a bathroom to every bedroom in England is almost unheard of. Here it’s the usual thing.

“And look at the kitchens and the plumbing and refrigerators and hot-water systems, not to mention the marvellous cupboards built into every room.”

“How do you like the studio working conditions?” I put to him.

“I admire the wonderful organisation here,” he answered. “And the really fine types of men in the working crews.

“I’ve been on several location trips. We were ten days in the desert making “Under Two Flags,” and with Treasure Island nearly two weeks over at Catalina.

“After a few days with most of these fellows, prop men and assistant directors and so on, they’re calling me by my Christian name — not in a familiar sort of way, but in a friendly way. You can play cards with them and have your meals with them, and they are all people who are worth knowing, and whose friendship I value.”

“Do you think a character actor is in a more enviable position than the big name stars?” I asked him.

“I certainly do!” he insisted. “For one thing, the income and other taxes for the hundred-thousand-a-picture star are so enormous in California that they cut earnings down by half. Then an actor who just trots merrily from picture to picture playing anything from butlers to baronets and making a consistently good salary never has to worry about his ‘public’ and whether his pull is the same now as it was a few pictures back. He hasn’t got to fight like mad to keep his name for ever in the papers and generally live up to what is popularly known as being a big Hollywood star. I’d rather make a decent living and be able to live in comfort and yet save plenty of money at the same time. A character actor can go on working in pictures for twenty years. There are few big name stars who can stay up at the top for long.”

“Are you going to stay in Hollywood?” I asked him.

“Yes, until I’ve saved enough to be independent,” came the answer. “Then I’d like to go back to England for a while to the stage, knowing that I could work just when I pleased and come back here to the sunshine and flowers when I pleased.”

Mrs. Bruce, looking very attractive in a summery creation of white and blue, appeared on the terrace.

“Oh, Willie!” she called, “I’m just going down to the village. Is there anything you want?”

“Yes, my dear,” he replied. “I want a new pair of tennis shoes.”

“Well,” laughed the actor’s wife, “you’ll have to get those yourself. I can’t fit your shoes for you! I won’t be long.”

Tennis, polo, fishing... Nigel Bruce has all the average Briton’s love of sports, and he gets them all in abundance in the lovely Hollywood climate.

He is not even deprived of his cricket. In the season he can be seen regularly keeping wicket — and with surprising skill and dexterity — for C. Aubrey Smith’s famous Hollywood team. It was Aubrey Smith, incidentally, who set his feet on the road to fame by giving him his first small stage part just after the War.

Nigel is also a keen follower of boxing, and he is at the Hollywood “fights” most Tuesday and Friday evenings. He has quite a useful record as an amateur.

There is another factor which may explain the actor’s obvious liking for California. It is not generally realised that he was born here.

“Yes,” he told me, “it happened in San Diego in 1895, while my parents were touring America.”

We settled down in the garden chairs again and the old slouch hat was pulled a little farther over the Bruce brow.

“This is the life!” he said. “ This is what an actor dreams of! And there must be something wrong with any British actor who comes here and says he doesn’t like it.”

The actor with Sylvia Sidney and Spanky McFarland in “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.”

“We were ten days in the desert making ‘Under Two Flags’” — Nigel Bruce with Claudette ColbertRonald Colman and Herbert Mundin.

Collection: Picturegoer Magazine, November 1936