by: KEN ROBICHAUX
Charles Aubrey Smith
July 21, 1863
December 20, 1948
Los Angeles, California
St. Leonard’s Churchyard
(More information about his gravesite can be found here.)
Tall, thin, athletic, affable and focused as a youth, C. Aubrey Smith matured into an imposing figure who became the personification of an English gentleman for most moviegoers during the 1930s and 1940s. His bushy eyebrows, piercing eyes, impressive patrician nose, prodigious chin, long craggy face, and generous mustache (that waxed and waned depending on the part he was playing), gave him a dignified and stately countenance that, for many people, epitomized what a British official, military officer, or aristocrat should look like. But though he almost always played the part of someone who was self–assured, decisive and in command, he appeared in a surprisingly wide variety of film genres. From musical comedies to historical epics to adventure stories to war films to murder mysteries and beyond, Aubrey’s long list of movies often allowed him to reveal hidden depths in the characters he portrayed. But in each movie his commanding presence, tempered by tolerance and understanding, rarely wavered, and people both on and off the screen couldn’t help but look up to him and pay attention to his measured, resonant voice.
Before he became a mainstay of Hollywood movies, however, Aubrey Smith was a popular actor on the British stage. By the beginning of the 20th Century he was performing in both London and on Broadway with such stars as Ellen Terry, Sarah Bernhardt, Tallulah Bankhead, Edith Evans, and Ethel Barrymore.
It wasn’t until 1915 (when he was in his 50s) that Aubrey appeared in his first movie. Although his film career would not overtake his stage career until the end of the Roaring Twenties when “talkies” finally replaced “silent pictures”, he would go on to be a featured player in more than 100 motion pictures.
But despite his success as an actor, in some circles Aubrey Smith was (and still is) better known as a talented cricket player. The sport of cricket was an important part of Aubrey’s life from the time he was able to hold a cricket bat, and it played a significant role in forming his character. Learning the fundamentals of the sport at school when he was a young student, Aubrey went on to captain England’s cricket team in 1889 when it traveled to South Africa and played against their national team in a “Test Match” (the longest form of cricket, and the ultimate test of ablility and endurance, when two national representative teams play each other).
When Aubrey finally moved to California it was natural for him to continue playing and promoting the sport of cricket as he had done all his life. In 1932 he founded the Hollywood Cricket Club, an organization that attracted to its roster a number of prominent show business personalities. Over the ensuing years the Hollywood Cricket Club raised a great deal of money for worthy causes by staging exhibition matches.
On June 9, 1938, King George VI made Aubrey Smith a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), and in 1944 Charles Aubrey Smith became Sir Charles Aubrey Smith when that same King of England conferred a knighthood on him for his services to the Theater.
Charles Aubrey Smith was born at St. Stephen’s Hospital in London, England, on July 21, 1863. Aubrey’s father, Charles John, was a tall, good–looking doctor who was something of a “lady’s man”, a propensity that must have caused a great deal of pain for his wife Sarah Ann. Unfortunately, Charles also had a cruel streak that went beyond commonly accepted Victorian discipline, and during Aubrey’s childhood the young boy was subjected to severe corporal punishment for the slightest infraction. But the punishments didn’t stop Aubrey from growing up defiant and strong–willed. Once, when his mother insisted that he had to wear his best clothes to church on Sunday instead of his regular clothes, he simply declared that he wouldn’t go to church anymore. (This dispute left Aubrey with a lifelong aversion to the sound of church bells.)
Besides being a lady’s man, or perhaps because of it, Aubrey’s father was profligate with his money and the family was rarely financially secure. However, despite the family’s fluctuating financial situation Aubrey was able to attend excellent schools throughout his academic life thanks to the generosity of his uncle Fred, who had taken over control of the family’s wine business.
Shortly after Aubrey was born the family moved 75 miles northwest of London to the small market town of Chipping Campden in the North Cotswolds. Here, where his father practiced medicine at what is now the Cotswold House Hotel, Aubrey formed his first memories. When he was seven years old they moved again, this time 45 miles south of London to the seaside resort of Brighton. It was in Brighton, at the Crescent House Academy, that Mr. William Adams introduced the young Aubrey to the sport of cricket. Little did Aubrey know at the time that he would eventually become one of the most famous players for the area’s Sussex County Cricket Club.
When Aubrey was 12 he was sent to Charterhouse, a historic school founded in London in 1611 and relocated in Godalming, about 50 miles north of Brighton, a few years before Aubrey arrived. (Students who attend Charterhouse are called ‘Carthusians’ because the original school was built on the site of a Carthusian monastery.) It was at Charterhouse that Aubrey was introduced to the rigors and discipline of being away from home at an all–boys boarding school. But it was also at Charterhouse that Aubrey Smith’s skill as a cricket player began to blossom, and during his last two years at the school he was chosen to be one of the Charterhouse First Eleven (the team that represented Charterhouse in cricket matches with other schools). Some authorities at the time rated his Charterhouse team as the best ‘school eleven’ in England, and after Aubrey’s final year at Charterhouse the team traveled to Brighton where they played against the ‘Gentlemen of Sussex’ in a match that ended in a draw.
Aubrey’s performances on the cricket pitch caught the attention of the Sussex County Cricket Club in Hove (next to Brighton), and with its support Aubrey was given some professional instruction and allowed to play in a few local matches before leaving for Cambridge University.
Aubrey Smith entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, on October 13, 1881. Although ostensibly there to study chemistry and physics with a view to following in his father’s footsteps as a physician, the 18–year–old Aubrey focused more on sports and his burgeoning interest in the theater. Within two months he was elected a member of the ‘Thespids’ (the college dramatic group), followed two months later by his theatrical debut in the lead role of an original domestic drama titled “Payable on Demand“.
With the arrival of summer, however, Aubrey was once again on the cricket pitch where he quickly distinguished himself. During one match he was given the nickname that would remain with him for the rest of his life. When bowling (pitching the ball), Aubrey would often begin his run from behind the umpire and bowl the ball with an unusually wide sweep of his arm that effectively concealed his approach and delivery. The legendary crickerter W.G. Grace said of Aubrey’s bowling, “When Smith begins his run, he is behind the umpire and out of sight of the batsman; and I can assure you it is rather startling when he already appears at the batting crease.” One day, while Aubrey was taking an especially long time preparing to bowl, the opposing batsman C.I. Thornton called out, “Why, you are not coming round the corner, are you?” ‘Round the Corner Smith’ became Aubrey’s sobriquet from that moment on, and when he moved to California many years later he named his home in Beverly Hills “The Round Corner”.
Referred to by some observers as the best amateur fast bowler in the country, the tall, athletic Aubrey Smith “had a high action and persistent accuracy, cutting the ball in from the off with purpose rather than subtlety.” His skill as both a bowler and batsman continued to develop, and during the following seasons he played for Cambridge, the Sussex County Cricket Club and other teams.
Even while competing in cricket matches during the summer at St. John’s College, Aubrey spent his evenings rehearsing with the Thespids. In June 1882 he was busy learning the part of Henri de Flavigneul, the romantic lead in the play ‘The Ladies Battle’, and within a few months he became vice–president and acting stage manager of the company. The reviews of Aubrey’s acting were often very complimentary as many performances followed with both the Thespids and the Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Company.
Aubrey Smith the Cricket Player:
After graduating from St. John’s College, Aubrey accepted a position in Haywards Heath (just 12 miles north of Brighton) teaching mathematics to cadets who aspired to enter one of England’s two top military academies. But even while teaching, Aubrey continued to act in amateur theatrical productions and to play cricket with the Sussex Club and other teams whenever he could.
In 1887 the establishment where Aubrey taught folded and he was suddenly out of a job. He had given up thoughts of a medical career, and in those days acting as a profession was out of the question for a Varsity man. At this crucial juncture in his life Aubrey was asked to be the captain of the Sussex County Cricket Club’s team. The team had not been doing well, and several influencial members of the club felt that Aubrey embodied the Carthusian traditions of leadership and versatility, and that he was a man who seemed to relish responsibility.
Aubrey readily accepted the position with the Sussex Club, and though his first season as captain did not produce many wins, the team’s matches were entertaining and the morale of the players improved. Aubrey’s skill as a player aided the team in every match, and the magazine ‘Cricket‘ reported that “Mr. Smith may be fairly classed as one of the very best amateur bowlers of the day.” The club’s members felt they had made a good decision and that Aubrey “had given good service personally, and had showed no small judgement in the management of his team.”
Between cricket seasons in England Aubrey accepted invitations to play cricket abroad. At the end of 1887 he captained a team that played a number of cricket matches in Australia, and at the end of 1888 he was chosen by retired Major Robert Gardner Warton (who had been on the General Staff of the Army in South Africa for five years) to captain a team that was the first officially organized cricket team representing England to visit South Africa. In both instances the teams were made up of both amateur and professional players; the amateurs (which included Aubrey) receiving just their expenses and a little pocket money, and the professionals a salary plus expenses.
In March, 1889, Aubrey’s England team played a “Test” match against a South African team in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. (As stated above, a Test match, the highest level of cricket, is played only between teams representing two different countries. Test matches can last up to five days, and are considered the sport’s most challenging test of ability and endurance.) The match lasted two days with Aubrey’s team winning. This historic game became the first Test match between these two countries, and Aubrey became the only man to captain his country’s cricket team in his only Test match.
Seeking His Fortune in South Africa:
Three years before Aubrey and his team arrived, gold had been discovered in South Africa. While touring the country Aubrey and some of his teammates were struck by the quick fortunes being made in gold stock speculation. When the team’s tour ended, Aubrey decided to stay in South Africa to seek his fortune. With his teammate, Monty Bowden, he formed a partnership and became a broker on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The partnership immediately began to prosper.
With money now coming in, Aubrey had time to follow his two passions, acting and cricket. During the next year he took part in a number of what were called “semi–amateur” theatricals in Johannesburg, receiving glowing reviews as he portrayed such characters as Captain Hawksley in ‘Still Waters Run Deep’ and Lionel Leveret in ‘Old Soldiers’. He also successfully captained a cricket team called ‘The Wanderers’.
Then, suddenly, it all came to an end. The stock market bubble burst and Aubrey contracted a severe case of typhoid fever, pleurisy, and pneumonia that left him at death’s door. His illness was so critical that the newspaper Graaff–Reinet Advertiser ran Aubrey’s obituary, and someone inquired whether his cricket team’s band might officiate at the funeral.
After recuperating from his illness on a quiet farm near Krugersdorp, Aubrey discovered that his partner, Monty Bowden, had disappeared and left their firm with a £1,300 debt. Although Aubrey managed to eventually scrape together enough money to take care of the debt, he was left virtually penniless. Fortunately, at the time he chose to stay in South Africa he had the foresight to keep his return boat ticket, and with the help of friends he managed to leave the country and return to England.
Acting Career Highlights:
First Professional Stage Appearance:
Upon his return to England in the spring of 1890, Aubrey resumed his previous position as captain of the Sussex County Cricket Club’s team but was replaced after his first season because of the team’s poor showing. Working at various jobs while seeking to gain admission to the London Stock Exchange, he fought an up–hill financial battle for quite some time as he struggled to pay off debts. The struggle was made more difficult when the Stock Exchange denied his application for admission because of the debt his firm had incurred in South Africa (even though Aubrey had settled the debt by this time). But even while working to resolve his fiscal problems, and playing cricket whenever he could, Aubrey and his two sisters, Beryl and Myrtle, continued to pursue a shared interest in amateur and semi–professional dramatics as he stage–managed, and they together performed in ‘one–nighters’ at clubs and country houses around London.
In the summer of 1892 Aubrey was approached by the theatrical producer August B. Tapping and offered a position in his professional touring repertory company. Tapping had stage–managed Aubrey during some performances at the Brighton Green Room Club, and been impressed by Aubrey’s portrayals of Douglas Cattermole in ‘The Private Secretary’ and Jack Wyatt in ‘Two Roses’. But the decision to join Tapping’s acting company was a difficult one for Aubrey because earning a living as an actor was not regarded as ‘quite the thing to do’ for someone of his background and social position. Still, he needed the money and the opportunity was too good to pass up. So, with the advice of a benefactor to “look after the consonants, and the vowels will look after themselves” ringing in his ears, Aubrey took to the professional stage playing three different parts in ‘Jim the Penman’.
An English theatrical touring company in those days was an excellent training ground, but the pay was poor and the life arduous. The actor George Arliss, who had been an aspiring actor in one of those touring companies at the same time as Aubrey, noted that the average actor who was part of a theatrical touring company in the provinces was paid no more than 25 shillings a week, and that he personally had, “worked for 8 years in every kind of company in the provinces before I reached the sum of £3 10 shillings a week.”
First Important Play, and Marriage:
After serving a three–year apprenticeship touring the provinces playing various roles with various companies, Aubrey Smith was invited to join John Hare and Mrs. Patrick Campbell in the cast of ‘The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith’ at London’s Garrick Theatre. Although Aubrey’s role as the Reverend Amos Winterfield was small, he was now acting with some of the finest talent in England. The play, written by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, caused a sensation due to its portrayal of a woman who is a vehement critic of all social conventions, especially marriage, and an advocate of free love. After a short run in London the play, with Aubrey Smith still in the cast, traveled to the United States and opened on Broadway at Abbey’s Theatre where it ran for several months. This was the first of a dozen appearances on Broadway for C. Aubrey Smith.
Finally established as a working professional actor, Aubrey decided it was time to marry. After being formally introduced to the daughter of Major Alexander Wood, one of his father’s patients, Aubrey married 23–year–old Isobel Mary Scott Wood on August 15, 1896. Ten years younger than Aubrey, Isobel was an attractive girl with playful grey eyes and curly, red hair. Although some of her relatives murmured that she was marrying ‘down’, her immediate family felt that “dear Aubrey is such a nice man, and has been up at the University, even though he is an actor.” Aubrey and Isobel would have one daughter, christened Honor, and remain married to each other for the rest of their lives.
Notable Appearances on Stage:
Like plays today, the box–office success of the plays in which Aubrey Smith appeared ranged from hits to flops. But throughout his career he appeared with some of the most popular actors of his day, and many of the plays were written by, or adapted from the works of the era’s most renowned literary figures. Included in this list were:
- ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ (1896), an adaptation of the popular novel by Anthony Hope Hawkins;
- ‘The Degenerates’ (1899) with Lillee Langtry;
- George Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Admirable Bashville’ (1903);
- ‘The Light That Failed’ (1903), an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novel;
- J.M. Barrie’s ‘Alice Sit–By–The–Fire’ (1905) with Ellen Terry;
- ‘The Morals of Marcus’ (1906) with Alexandra Carlisle – based on a popular novel by W.J. Locke. With Aubrey Smith in the title role the play was a hit in both London and on Broadway, after which it toured the eastern United States;
- ‘The Flag Lieutenant’ (1908) with Cyril Maude & Winifred Emery. The play ran for 381 performances and King Edward VII asked for a Command Performance at Sandringham;
- ‘The Runaway’ (1911) with Billie Burke (Florenz Ziegfeld’s second wife);
- J.M. Barrie’s ‘The Legend of Leonora’ (1914) with Maude Adams;
- ‘Daniel’ (1921) with Claude Rains and Sarah Bernhardt;
- ‘Polly With A Past’ (1921) with Nöel Coward and Edith Evans;
- Clemence Dane’s “A Bill of Divorcement” (1921) (which ran for 401 performances and would later be made into a movie three times);
- ‘The Creaking Chair’ (1924) with Tallulah Bankhead and Nigel Bruce. Theatre World called it “the best mystery play of the season“;
- W. Somerset Maugham’s ‘Caroline’ (1926) with Edith Evans & Marie Löhr;
- W. Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Constant Wife’ (1927) with Ethel Barrymore (which ran on Broadway for 295 performances);
- ‘The Bachelor Father’ (1928) with June Walker (which ran on Broadway for 263 performances and was made into a major movie in 1930 starring Marion Davies and Aubrey Smith.)
As early as 1896, when reviewing a London production of Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, George Bernard Shaw had singled out C. Aubrey Smith for special praise. So it may have come as no surprise that for the 1920 revival of Shaw’s play ‘Pygmalion’, staged by Shaw at the Aldwych Theatre in the heart of London’s West End, Aubrey Smith was chosen to play Professor Henry Higgins opposite Mrs. Patrick Campbell (who had originated the part of Eliza Doolittle in 1914). Although the production itself received reasonably good notices, Aubrey did not. As one critic wrote, “Mr. Aubrey Smith takes up the late Sir Herbert Tree’s role of Professor Higgins, but fails to evolve any definite character from it beyond that of a rude red–headed fellow.” But Shaw himself seemed to like Aubrey’s performance. After the opening night he wrote, “You wiped the floor with the end of the fifth act handsomely last night, and if you do it again tonight you will have a triumph.”
Appearances on Broadway:
Although much of C. Aubrey Smith’s stage work was done in England, he frequently toured with plays in the United States and Canada. He appeared on Broadway in the following productions:
1895: The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith
1903: The Light That Failed
1907: The Morals of Marcus
1911: The Runaway
1914: The Legend of Leonora
1915: The Lie
1923: Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
1926: The Constant Wife
1928: The Bachelor Father
1942: Spring Again
The Call of the Silent Screen:
By 1915 the motion picture industry had grown from an experimental curiosity into a thriving, world–wide business. Thousands of movies were being produced in dozens of countries, and the lure of large profits was enticing many entrepreneurs to try their hand at making moving pictures.
One of these entrepreneurs was Charles Frohman, an American theatrical manager and producer with whom Aubrey Smith had often worked. Frohman had formed the Frohman Amusement Corporation to make movies in New York City, and he had persuaded Aubrey to take part in his new enterprise. Tragically, Charles Frohman unexpectedly died when the ocean liner he was traveling on, the RMS Lusitania, was torpedoed by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. But his brother Daniel immediately took over and the 51–year–old Aubrey Smith became, for a short time, one of the Frohman Amusement Corporation’s leading actors.
Aubrey Smith’s first film (the Frohman Corporation’s second) was ‘The Builder of Bridges’ (1915) a feature–length movie (5 reels) based on a play of the same name by Alfred Sutro. Some scenes were shot in Atlantic City, NJ, including some interior scenes at the Shelburn Hotel, but most scenes were shot in the corporation’s makeshift studios located in two abandoned churches – one on New York City’s Tenth Avenue, and one in Flushing, Long Island. The work was exhausting, but Aubrey seemed to find filmmaking to be endlessly interesting and he quickly starred in three more films for the Frohman Amusement Corporation before moving on.
After a quick trip West that gave him the opportunity to observe movies being made in California, Aubrey Smith returned to England where he continued to dabble in film roles on and off throughout the 1920s. Probably his most popular movie was ‘The Bohemian Girl’ (1922) which also starred Gladys Cooper, Ivor Novello, and Ellen Terry. Despite being a silent film of an opera, it topped the British movie box office polls for two years and also proved to be popular in the United States. But though Aubrey even joined Leslie Howard, A.A. Milne, Nigel Playfair, and Adrian Brunel in financing the short–lived Minerva Film Company, motion pictures continued to be overshadowed in his life by the unrelenting call of the theater until 1930.
At the end of 1927 Warner Bros. created a sensation by releasing the feature length movie ‘The Jazz Singer’ with a synchronized soundtrack that included music, singing, and some dialogue. Although the movie was still, for the most part, silent, public demand for more “talkies” was suddenly overwhelming. Theater owners scrambled to install sound equipment, and Hollywood scrambled to find appropriate scripts and actors who could speak loudly and distinctly. The transition to sound films was remarkably quick, and by 1930 over half of the 21,993 movie theaters in the United States had been wired for sound, while many theaters that had previously shown only live entertainment began showing talking pictures.
The legitimate stage proved to be fertile ground for Hollywood talent scouts, and by the end of 1929 almost 200 Broadway actors, playwrights, and directors had been put under contract by the movie studios. By the end of the following year it was estimated that 75% of featured actors in talking pictures were from the stage. Aubrey Smith was part of that new wave of talent arriving in Hollywood.
In 1928 the famous Broadway theatrical producer David Belasco cast Aubrey as one of the leads in a new comedy called ‘The Bachelor Father’. The play proved to be a tremendous success both on Broadway and when it toured the eastern U.S. When it opened in London Aubrey Smith’s performance was widely praised, Theatre World describing his portrayal of Sir Basil Winterton as:
. . . all that the part demands in the highest degree. He is the old regular war horse to his finger tips, with his gusts of explosive anger due to long sojourning in the East, his lovable ‘volte faces’, his innate simplicity almost childlike, and under it all a heart of gold, and an undying love of the spirit of youth.
A reviewer for one of the London newspapers enthused:
Surely never was there on the English stage a more finely polished, a more manly figure, or a greater master of the higher comic spirit. Mr. Aubrey Smith has a richly avuncular if not paternal personality. Watching this consummate comedian at the Globe the other night in this crudely funny American play, I could not but be reminded of Charles Wyndham in his prime. No one could have given a richer, more persuasive, or more genial performance. He has to represent an innately objectionable blackguard, but all the coarseness of the character was effectually concealed by the actor’s art.
When M–G–M acquired the screen rights to the play for their star Marion Davies, they signed Aubrey Smith to reprise the title role. By the time he arrived in Hollywood in 1930 he had already been in a couple of sound pictures in England, so when production started on ‘The Bachelor Father’ in October Aubrey was well prepared for his Hollywood debut. He was 67 years old, and Los Angeles now became his new home.
With his first Hollywood movie “in the can” (‘The Bachelor Father’ was filmed in twenty–two days at a cost of $502,000), Aubrey Smith was suddenly in great demand. Although under contract first to M–G–M, then to David O. Selznick for five years, and then back to M–G–M in 1940, he was often loaned out to other studios. For the next 18 years he worked almost nonstop with some of Hollywood’s finest directors and brightest stars.
Even a small selection from the 100+ films he was in (some now considered classics) reveals the extraordinary list of talent with whom he worked during Hollywood’s Golden Age:
- The Bachelor Father (1931) with Marion Davies;
- Love Me Tonight (1932) with Maurice Chevalier & Jeanette MacDonald (directed by Rouben Mamoulian);
- Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) with Maureen O’Sullivan & Johnny Weissmuller (directed by W.S. Van Dyke);
- Trouble in Paradise (1932) with Herbert Marshall & Miriam Hopkins (directed by Ernst Lubitsch);
- Morning Glory (1933) with Katharine Hepburn & Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.;
- Queen Christina (1933) with Greta Garbo & John Gilbert (directed by Rouben Mamoulian);
- The House of Rothschild (1934) with George Arliss & Loretta Young;
- The Scarlet Empress (1934) with Marlene Dietrich (directed by Josef von Sternberg);
- Cleopatra (1934) with Claudette Colbert & Henry Wilcoxon (directed by Cecil B. DeMille);
- The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) with Gary Cooper & Franchot Tone;
- China Seas (1935) with Clark Gable & Jean Harlow;
- Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) with Freddie Bartholomew;
- The Garden of Allah (1936) with Marlene Dietrich, Charles Boyer & Basil Rathbone;
- Romeo & Juliet (1936) with Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard & John Barrymore (directed by George Cukor);
- Wee Willie Winkie (1937) with Shirley Temple & Victor McLaglen (directed by John Ford);
- The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) with Ronald Colman & Raymond Massey;
- The Hurricane (1937) with Dorothy Lamour & Mary Astor (directed by John Ford);
- Another Thin Man (1939) with William Powell & Myrna Loy (directed by W.S. Van Dyke);
- The Four Feathers (1939) with Ralph Richardson & John Clements;
- A Bill of Divorcement (1940) with Maureen O’Hara, Adolphe Menjou, & Herbert Marshall;
- Rebecca (1940) with Laurence Olivier & Joan Fontaine (directed by Alfred Hitchcock);
- Waterloo Bridge (1940) with Vivien Leigh & Robert Taylor (directed by Mervyn LeRoy);
- Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1941) with Spencer Tracy & Ingrid Bergman (directed by Victor Fleming);
- Madame Curie (1943) with Greer Garson & Walter Pidgeon (directed by Mervyn LeRoy);
- The White Cliffs of Dover (1944) with Irene Dunne & Roddy McDowall (directed by Clarence Brown);
- Little Women (1949) with June Allyson & Peter Lawford (directed by Mervyn LeRoy).
Audiences and critics alike held Aubrey Smith in high esteem. Although he played a wide variety of parts over the years, for most movie–goers Aubrey always represented the finest qualities of an English gentleman. As the noted New York Times’ theater and film correspondent (and future film critic), Bosley Crowther, wrote in April 1938:
. . . for Mr. Smith is Great Britain personified in the eyes of millions of people. Whenever he appears on the screen – his elderly figure erect, his chin up and his eyes flashing out from under those beetling brows – it is as though an invisible band were playing “Rule Britannia”. No matter what his role, he remains an Englishman – the stout and unalterable type, as fixed in the cinema’s vocabulary as a stock shot of Big Ben or the Houses of Parliament. He is the Bank of England, the cliffs of Dover, the rock of Gibraltar and several super–dreadnoughts rolled into one. Upon Mr. Smith and the empire the sun would never dare to set.
. . . it was comforting to discover . . . that he, in real life, is quite as impressive and authentic as he is upon the screen. None of your round–faced, florid Englishmen in Bowler hat and mackintosh is Mr. Smith. Rather is he on the cut of a hearty fox–hunting earl or a landowning squire or, at least, a retired major general in the Indian army. When he swings through a hot lobby, with his six feet three inches of raw–boned frame towering well above the lesser breeds, one can fancy him striding over a misty moor or through the crowds in a sweaty bazaar “out East.” Since he never uses make–up on the screen (more than a little dash of grease–paint here and there), his face is unmistakable – the same shaggy sheep–dog’s eyebrows with the stern but kindly eyes behind them, the same lean, leathery jaw and firm, expressive mouth. Indeed, it is hard to think of Mr. Smith as an actor when you see him. His years, his dignity and too many excellent performances in the role have combined to make him an “empire builder.”
After finishing the filming of LITTLE WOMEN in September 1948 (with June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, and Mary Astor), Aubrey Smith agreed to do the role of old Jolyon Forsyte in the movie adaptation of John Galsworthy’s novel ‘That Man of Property’ (movie title: ‘That Forsyte Woman’) which was going to star Errol Flynn, Greer Garson, and Walter Pidgeon. Aubrey was asked to report for wardrobe tests on December 21, but a few days before his appointment he came down with a cold that developed into double pneumonia. At 12:25 AM on Monday, December 20, 1948, at the age of 85, Aubrey Smith died of complications from the pneumonia.
During Aubrey’s Beverly Hills funeral, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., read a tribute composed by James Hilton, the author of ‘Lost Horizon’ and ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’. At the end of the tribute Hilton wrote:
And so in the fullness of time this long, rich, valiant, happy life came to an end, and it is clear that we are gathered here today not for distress or to mourn, but rather to take pride that we knew such a man, that we lived part of our lives with his, and that the two countries he most loved are our own. The world is not lost while such men are remembered, because their way of life is of immortal Christian quality – true, faithful, lovable – ‘with malice towards none, with charity for all’. Those great words, not yet spoken when Aubrey was born, might have been coined for him, and for us to remember him by as long as we ourselves are on earth.
When Aubrey Smith attended St. John’s College at Cambridge University in the early 1880s, he met William J. Locke and the two became close friends. Locke was the same age as Aubrey, and though he graduated with honors in Mathematics he dreamed of writing a great novel. By the beginning of the 20th Century his dream had come true and his novels were bestsellers in both England and the United States. One of his novels, ‘Jaffery’, was one of the New York Times’ top 10 bestselling novels for 1915, and the following year Aubrey Smith starred in the silent film version of the story. According to Moving Picture World, “When Mr. Locke first conceived the plot for “Jaffery” he decided that [C. Aubrey] Smith was his ideal in appearance and actions for the gigantic, whole–souled British war correspondent. He kept Smith constantly in mind as the story progressed. Many of Jaffery’s deeds of kindness, it is declared, are really those of Smith.”
Aubrey Smith’s nickname for his wife was ‘Tor’, from her political (“Tory”) inclinations when she was young. She retaliated by calling him ‘Bootles’, probably referring to the title role he played when he joined the touring company of ‘Bootles’ Baby’ early in his acting career. The play ‘Bootles’ Baby’ was adapted from the popular 1885 novelette by John Strange Winter (the nom de plume of Mrs. Henrietta Stannard). Oscar Wilde wrote, “‘Bootles’ Baby’ is une œuvre symboliste: it is really only the style and the subject that are wrong. Pray never speak lightly of ‘Bootles’ Baby’ – indeed, pray never speak of it at all; I never do.”
Aubrey enjoyed carpentry and had a flair for painting. He was a better than average piano player, and he once set Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Barrack–Room Ballads’ to music. Although he drank only moderately, when he did have a drink his alcoholic beverage of choice was Scotch whiskey.
Boris Karloff gave Aubrey Smith a Great Dane as a gift. Using the first letters of the names ‘Boris’ and Boris’ wife ‘Dorothy’, Aubrey named the dog Bodor.
Although Aubrey was too old to serve during World War I, he joined the Artists Rifles Volunteers and for a year and a half went on the Night Watch at Waterloo and Westminster Bridges. During these watches he took up painting to pass the time.
In January 1923, at the Haymarket Theatre in London, Aubrey Smith appeared on stage with his daughter, Honor, for the first time. The play “Plus Fours“, written by Horace A. Vachell & Harold Simpson, ran for 86 performances.
In 1930 the United States and many other countries had slid into an economic depression that would last for the rest of the decade. Unemployment rose to over 20% and the average annual family income in the U.S. stagnated at between $1,500 and $2,000. Despite this poor economic situation, Aubrey Smith was doing quite well financially. Around 1937, when Aubrey was under contract to David O. Selznick, he told his friend Sir Home Gordon that he was making £17,000 a year (over $80,000). This was at a time when someone in Oakland, California, could purchase a 5–room stucco bungalow with a separate garage for under $4,000, or a new Master Deluxe Chevrolet automobile for less than $700.
When Aubrey Smith arrived in Hollywood he found that the small group of devotees playing cricket were using broken wickets on rough fields. He quickly obtained permission from UCLA, Westwood, to use their sports field for cricket games on Saturday and Sunday, readily accepting the condition that he provide instruction to any student who wanted to learn the game. Eventually, working with the Women’s Field Hockey Association of Los Angeles, Aubrey and the British Consulate persuaded the Los Angeles Park Commission to lay out grounds for these popular English sports in Griffith Park, just north of the Los Angeles River. Five carloads of English grass seed were brought in for the two fields and practice area, and a $30,000 pavilion with showers, lockers, and a verandah to watch the matches was erected. In a moving ceremony at the end of May, 1933, the larger of the two fields was named the C. Aubrey Smith Cricket Field. (Sadly, the C. Aubrey Smith Cricket Field no longer exists. In the early 1980s the Equestrian Center in Griffith Park took over the area being used for cricket.)
At the beginning of the previous year, 1932, Aubrey helped found the Hollywood Cricket Club, and with vice–presidents Ronald Colman, Leon Errol, P.G. Wodehouse and George Arliss, Aubrey became the club’s first president. Among the actors who played for the Hollywood Cricket Club over the years were Boris Karloff, Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Nigel Bruce, Leslie Howard, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Aubrey’s enthusiastic promotion of cricket was instrumental in creating a resurgence of the sport that spred rapidly throughout California, and he played regularly for the club until 1940 when his age restricted him to only sporadic appearances. Once, in 1943, he confessed in a letter that, “I was persuaded to play again the other day . . . and didn’t I get a wigging when I got home for playing against Doctor’s orders.”
David Rayvern Allen notes in his biography ‘Sir Aubrey‘: “Once, before a match in San Francisco, he [C. Aubrey Smith] was found in an excavated hole in the road holding a shovel and demonstrating to a group of Negro workmen how a cricket bat should be held, and in fact it was Aubrey who introduced the first black player into the Hollywood side.”
In the early 1930s M–G–M built a standing set on its backlot called “English Home”. This set, a façade that resembled a stately Tudor mansion, was used in many movies including ‘Peg o’ My Heart’ (1933), ‘David Copperfield’ (1935), ‘Mrs. Miniver’ (1943), ‘The Canterville Ghost’ (1944), and ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ (1944). The M–G–M Art Department nicknamed the set the “C. Aubrey Smith Home” (perhaps because, like Aubrey, it seemed to evoke the immutable durability of the English spirit).
According to the book ‘Cricket in America, 1710–2000’ by P. David Sentance, “[C. Aubrey] Smith had a clause inserted in his MGM contract that provided for visits to watch test matches in England. In the days before regular air travel this meant leisurely trips home on the Queen Mary.”
Evelyn Waugh satirized the idiosyncratic mannerisms of Hollywood’s British community in his 1946 novel ‘The Loved One’, using the character of Sir Ambrose Abercrombie to draw a thinly disguised portrait of Sir Aubrey Smith.
Aubrey Smith and his wife lived in a number of houses in and around Beverly Hills during the early 1930s, but the one that is most often associated with him is the house he built at the junction of Coldwater Canyon Drive and Mulholland Drive. He saw the lot while making ‘The Lives of the Bengal Lancer’ (1935) and was attracted to its panoramic view of Santa Catalina Island on one side and the San Bernardino Mountains on the other. The low rambling stucco house he built had a cricket bat, ball, and wicket arranged as a weather vane at the top of its gabled roof, and was set in a steep garden on the edge of a deep valley with a little lake. Named ‘The Round Corner’ by Aubrey, his Beverly Hills home at 2881 Coldwater Canyon Drive became a frequent destination for quite a few Hollywood personalities looking for some peace and quiet after working all day at the movie studios, including Greta Garbo who didn’t live far away.
As Aubrey grew older he became increasingly hard of hearing and relied on an assistant to warn him when he was needed on the set. Even so, he never failed to arrive on time with his lines letter perfect. Everyone involved in making a movie with Aubrey treated him with the utmost respect and deference, and he in turn treated everyone around him with the same courtesy.
Although Aubrey Smith was careful with his money, he was always generous to a fault when someone needed a helping hand. Sometimes undeserving souls took advantage of his unquestioning beneficence, but when someone brought this to his attention one day he just shrugged and said, “Yes, I know. But when I remember all my good fortune – well, old son, good luck to ’em!” There was unanimous agreement when, during a celebratory dinner, Claude King introduced Aubrey as, “The dearest soul I have ever met on God’s green earth.”
When Aubrey Smith went to London to receive a knighthood from King George VI in 1944, the King recalled attending a Command Performance thirty years earlier when Aubrey had performed. Aubrey, in turn, told the King about the time his grandfather John Clode, Mayor of Windsor, had been knighted by Queen Victoria.
Aubrey’s friend, Sir Home Gordon, noted in his book ‘Sussex County Cricket’ that, “When last here [in England] in 1947, on my invitation, he [C. Aubrey Smith] came to James Langridge’s benefit at Hove and had to have police protection from being mobbed.”
Nine months after Sir Aubrey died his ashes were brought to Hove, England, and buried in St. Leonard’s Churchyard. St. Leonard’s is not far from where Sir Aubrey used to live in Hove, and years later the Hove Borough Council erected a commemorative “Blue Plaque” on the wall of his former residence at 19 Albany Villas with the inscription: 1863–1948. Sir C. Aubrey Smith, captain of Sussex and England, actor and film star, lived here.
Beginning in 1963 a series of short cartoon segments featuring a character named Commander McBragg appeared on the animated television show ‘Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales’. Commander McBragg was styled after C. Aubrey Smith and some of the characters he had played, and ‘The World of Commander McBragg’ went on to appear on the ‘Underdog’ cartoon series until 1973.
In 1994 a set of 25 trading cards, celebrating some of Sussex Cricket Club’s greatest “Test” players, was produced in the UK by County Print Services. Sir C. Aubrey Smith was one of the players chosen to be pictured on a card. Each player chosen was drawn by Michael Tarr as they would have appeared when they were playing for the club.
In 2005 the actress Beverly D’Angelo purchased one of the houses that Sir Aubrey had rented when he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1930s. Located at 1819 Coldwater Canyon Drive, she paid $2,350,000 for the house.
© 2011 The Picture Show Man. All Rights Reserved.
Many newspaper and magazine articles were used as source material for this article. Among the books used were:
- “Sussex County Cricket” by Sir Home Gordon (1950)
- “Sir Aubrey: A Biography of C. Aubrey Smith” by David Rayvern Allen (1982, reprinted 2005)
- “The Brits in Hollywood: Tales from the Hollywood Raj” by Sheridan Morley (1983, reprinted 2006)
- “Bernard Shaw, Volume II, 1889–1918: The Pursuit of Power” by Michael Holroyd (1989)
- “Bernard Shaw, Volume III, 1918–1950: The Lure of Fantasy” by Michael Holroyd (1991)
- “Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick” by David Thomson (1992)
- “Griffith Park: A Centennial History” by Mike Eberts (1996)
- “Boris Karloff: A Gentleman’s Life” by Scott Allen Nollen (with Sara Jane Karloff) (1999)
- “When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood ‘British’ Film, 1939–45” by H. Mark Glancy (1999)
- “The Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the Silent Era to 1965” by Barry Monush (2003)
- “Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood” by Robert S. Birchard (2004)
- “What is a Googly: The Mysteries of Cricket Explained” by Rob Eastaway (2005, reprinted 2010)
- “Cricket in America, 1710–2000” by P. David Sentance (2006)
- “The Complete Encyclopedia of Cricket” by Peter Arnold & Peter Wynne–Thomas (2006, 2007)
- “More Than A Game: The Story of Cricket’s Early Years”, by John Major (2007)
- “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham” by Selina Hastings (2009, 2010)
- “Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster” by Stephen Jacobs (2011)
- “M–G–M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot” by Steven Bingen, et al. (2011)