25 December 2013

C. Aubrey Smith

C. Aubrey Smith (1863–1948) was an English cricketer and actor, who started his film career in the British silent cinema. He went to Hollywood where he had a successful career as a character actor playing stereotypical Englishmen with the stiff upper lip and a stern determination. His bushy eyebrows, beady eyes, and handlebar moustache made him one of the most recognisable faces in Hollywood.

C. Aubrey Smith
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 790A. Photo: Walter Wanger.

Lurid, Sensationalist and Distasteful

Sir Charles Aubrey Smith CBE was born in London, England in 1863. He was educated at Charterhouse School and St John's College, Cambridge.

He played cricket for Cambridge University 1882-85 and for Sussex at various times between 1882 and 1892. He settled in South Africa to prospect for gold in 1888-89. He developed pneumonia and was wrongly pronounced dead by doctors. While in South Africa he captained the Johannesburg English XI. He captained England to victory in his only cricket Test match, against South Africa at Port Elizabeth in 1888-1889.

Aubrey Smith began acting on the London stage in 1895. He was 30 then. His first major role was in The Prisoner of Zenda the following year, playing the dual lead roles of king and look-alike. He married Isabella Wood in 1896.

Despite the theatrical community's disdainful attitude towards the cinema, Smith enthusiastically launched his film career in 1914. He appeared in silent dramas as The Builder of Bridges (George Irving, 1915), The Witching Hour (George Irving, 1916), and Red Pottage (Meyrick Milton, 1918), co-starring Mary Dibley and Gerald Ames. He was already in his forties at the time.

Other British silent films were the drama Castles in (Horace Lisle Lucoque, 1920) with Lilian Braithwaite, the crime film The Face at the Window (Wilfred Noy, 1920) with Gladys Jennings, and The Shuttle of Life (D. J. Williams, 1920) starring Evelyn Brent.

In 1922 he co-starred in the romance The Bohemian Girl (Harley Knoles, 1922), starring Gladys Cooper and Ivor Novello. It was inspired by the opera The Bohemian Girl by Michael William Balfe and Alfred Bunn which was in turn based on a novel by Cervantes.

In the drama Flames of Passion (Graham Cutts, 1922) his co-star was Hollywood actress Mae Marsh. The film was made by the newly formed Graham-Wilcox Productions company, a joint venture between Cutts and producer Herbert Wilcox. The entrepreneurial Wilcox tempted American star Marsh to England with a high salary offer, believing this would improve the film's marketability in the US. The gamble paid off as it became the first post-war British film to be sold to the US, where it was shown under the title A Woman's Secret.

The final reel of the film was filmed in the Prizmacolor process. Flames of Passion proved controversial with critics, many of whom found the subject matter lurid, sensationalist and distasteful. Cinemagoers had no such qualms, and turned the film into a big box-office hit.

Aubrey Smith made his Broadway debut in a revival of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion in the starring role of Henry Higgins.

In Hollywood, he played a supporting part in the silent drama The Rejected Woman (Albert Parker, 1924), featuring Alma Rubens in the title role and Béla Lugosi in a supporting role.

He returned to England to the theatre and it was his 1928 stage hit Bachelor Father that led to Smith's phenomenally successful career in talking pictures.

C. Aubrey Smith, Cyril Maude
British postcard by J. Beagles & Co. Ltd., London, no. 184E. Photo: Dover St. Studios. Publicity still for the play The Flag Lieutenant with Cyril Maude as Lieutenant Richard Lascelles and C. Aubrey Smith as Major Thesiger at The Playhouse, 1908.

C. Aubrey Smith and Charles Hawtrey in Inconstant George
British postcard in the Rotary Photographic Series, no. 4208D. Photo: Foulsham & Banfield, London. Publicity still for the play Inconstant George with Charles Hawtrey as Georges Bullin and C. Aubrey Smith as Luciene de Versannes. The play written by Gladys B. Unger and directed by Charles Hawtrey was performed during the 1910-1911 season at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London.

The Hollywood Raj

First C. Aubrey Smith appeared in the early British sound film Such Is the Law (Sinclair Hill, 1930). A year later, he was back in America to co-star with Marion Davies and Ralph Forbes in the MGM drama The Bachelor Father (Robert Z. Leonard, 1931).

In Hollywood, Smith would have a successful career as a character actor playing military officers, successful business men, ministers of the cloth and ministers of government in films like the romantic comedy Just a Gigolo (Jack Conway, 1931) with William Haines, the romance Son of India (Jacques Feyder, 1931), and the magnificent comedy Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932).

In the classic jungle adventure Tarzan the Ape Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1932), featuring Johnny Weissmuller, he played Jane’s (Maureen O’Sullivan) father.

Smith was also regarded as being the unofficial leader of the British film industry colony in Hollywood, the Hollywood Raj. Other British actors who were considered to be ‘members’ of this select group were David Niven (whom Smith treated like a son), Ronald Colman, Rex Harrison, Robert Coote, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Leslie Howard and Patric Knowles.

In 1932, he founded the Hollywood Cricket Club and created a pitch with imported English grass. He attracted fellow expatriates such as David Niven, Laurence Olivier, Nigel Bruce (who served as captain), Leslie Howard and Boris Karloff to the club as well as local American players.

His films include such classics as The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934) starring Marlene Dietrich, The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell, 1937), as the wise old advisor opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda, 1939).

Smith became infamous for expecting his fellow countrymen to report for regular duty at his Hollywood Cricket Club, and anyone who refused was known to "incur his displeasure".

He was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1938, and knighted by King George VI in 1944 for services to Anglo-American amity. Fiercely patriotic, Smith became openly critical of the British actors of enlistment age who did not return to fight after the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

His later films include Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Victor Fleming, 1941), and the Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None/Ten Little Indians (René Clair, 1945) in which he played General Mandrake.

Smith died from pneumonia in Beverly Hills in 1948, aged 85. His body was cremated and nine months later, in accordance with his wishes, his ashes were returned to England and interred in his mother's grave at St Leonard's churchyard in Hove, Sussex. With Isabella Wood, he had one child. His last film appearance as Mr. Lawrence in Little Women (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949) was released posthumously.

Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Tony Fontana (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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