How many of us, when we reach(ed) our 50s would be facing a turn in our career that would bring us more fame and fortune than we could imagine? That is exactly what happened to star cricket athlete-turned acclaimed stage actor-turned movie character actor par excellence, Sir C. Aubrey Smith, and he’s my topic for today, for the 4th Annual WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon 2015, hosted by those fabulous classic movie fans: Aurora, Kellee, and Paula. Be sure to visit their wonderful sites to read about the awesome character actors and actresses who have graced the movie screens through the years.
Sir C. Aubrey Smith(knighted in 1944) was born in 1863, son of a doctor and he did consider a medical career ever so briefly in his youth. At the age of 12, when enrolled at Charterhouse, a boarding school for boys in Godalming, 50 miles north of Brighton, where the Smith family lived, C. Aubrey was introduced to playing the game of Cricket and quickly mastered the sport, eventually parlaying his natural skill for the sport when he enrolled at Cambridge University in 1881. Playing cricket and performing in the University’s amateur thespian troupe interested him a lot more than his plan of studying chemistry and physics. He did graduate from Cambridge and took a position teaching mathematics in Haywards Heath, 12 miles from Brighton, at a school for cadet students who wished to be accepted at either of England’s top two military academies. He also continued to act in area theatrical shows and to play cricket with the Sussex Club. In 1887, the school was closed, and Smith found himself without a job. He didn’t want to pursue a medical career, and acting professionally didn’t appeal to him as a proper career for a Cambridge grad. Fortunately, the Sussex Club asked him to be the captain of their cricket team. Smith quickly agreed to this offer, and in the off seasons, he was invited to play “Test Cricket Matches” in Australia and South Africa.
While in South Africa, he and a cricket teammate decided to try and make it rich with the booming gold market and began their own brokerage firm that was recognized by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Smith was making money, all was looking wonderful when the gold market bubble burst, Smith became deadly ill with typhoid, pleurisy, and pneumonia, and his business partner fled the country, leaving their brokerage firm in debt. Smith was even erroneously reported by the British newspapers as having died! He did recover after many months, managed to get the business debts paid off, and with the help of friends, was able to sail back to England.
Now what to do to earn a living? The Sussex Cricket Club let him back in but after a year, let him go due to the team’s poor performances that year. The London Stock Exchange wouldn’t let him join due to the debts that had happened in South Africa. Fortunately, Smith and his two younger sisters had kept active with amateur theatrical productions and Smith caught the attention of professional theater producer August B. Tapping, who hired Smith to join his Acting Company. As Smith’s acting chops were developed and a very successful stage career began, so did a long-lasting marriage, to Isobel Mary Scott Wood.
Smith appeared in a lot of London stage plays that were also sent across the pond to Broadway, and he became a well-known stage actor in America, too. In 1915, through his having worked with the American producer Charles Froman, he agreed to appear in the Froman backed movie, The Builder of Bridges, and thus, Sir C. Aubrey Smith’s film career began.
I’ve listed the filmography of Sir C. Aubrey Smith, and as I perused it, I deduced that he certainly was cast as a very definitive type in films: the responsible, elder statesman, often with an impressive military background, or patriarch of a wealthy family. I decided to list the roles that I have seen Smith perform.
1931: The Bachelor Father-Smith is a wealthy man, but lonely. He has 3 illegitimate adult children who he wants to get to know, and to help financially. An interesting pre-code film due to the topic it tackles, and Smith is good as the grouchy old man who finally decides to become a real father, something he realizes he was wrong not to have done or aknowledge years ago.
1932: Tarzan the Ape Man-Smith is Jane’s father, James Parker, explorer and trader, in this, the first Tarzan film produced by MGM. He’s the strong father-figure one would expect for this story.
1937: The Prisoner of Zenda-Smith plays Col. Zapt, who discovers that a visiting Englishman looks exactly like the prince that is soon to take the throne and then is kidnapped. Zapt comes up with the plan to get the Englishman to pretend to be the prince and to take the throne, so that Zapt and his men can rescue the real prince, and quietly have the prince and Englishman trade places.
1937-The Hurricane-Smith is Father Paul, and one of the few films where Smith appeared without his trademark bushy moustache. John Ford directed this action/romance film. Smith is good as the priest who has dedicated his life to serving the natives of a small, Polynesian island.
1939-Often known as Hollywood’s Golden Year due to so many excellent movies produced that year, this one, from Britain, is also excellent, The Four Feathers-Smith in one of his many military roles, as General Burroughs, who’s lovely daughter is engaged to a young officer, who resigns his commission the day before his regiment will be ordered to fight an uprising in North Africa, led by a militant Egyptian rebel leader.
1939- Five Came Back: A small film with a simple plot: 12 people survive when their plane crashes in the wild’s of South America, where a cannibalistic tribe is lurking nearby. There is only enough gas to fly out 5 survivors. Smith is wonderful as Professor Stenger, who along with his elderly wife, keep that stiff upper lip going despite the dangerous situation all find themselves in.
1940- Rebecca: Alfred Hitchcock’s first American directorial debut, Joan Fontaine won Best Actress for her role. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s best selling book. Smith is Captain Julyan, Chief Constable of the County and it’s his job to find out how Maxim de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, died. Smith is the capable and logical government servant in this outstanding film.
1940-Beyond Tomorrow: A fantasy film set at Christmas time. Smith is one of 3 bachelor engineers/industrialists who is killed in a plane crash. Their 3 ghosts return to their NYC home, determined to help out a young couple who they believe love each other. A sweet, gentle film.
1945-And Then There Were None: The film version of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Smith is General Sir John Mandrake, one of ten guests at an isolated island estate, each guest having a secret to hide:each guest inadvertently caused another human being’s death. Now someone in the house is picking them off, one by one!
1949-Little Women: Smith plays Mr. Laurence, the wealthy neighbor and family friend to the March family. This was Smith’s last role as he passed away in 1948 and this film was released posthumously. He is wonderful as the neighbor the March girls assume is a grouch, but they all learn that he’s not. He grows especially close to third March daughter Beth, as she reminds him of his own daughter who died young. It’s a lovely scene when he bestows on Beth his late daughter’s piano.
Those are the films of Smith’s that I have seen and enjoyed. When I see his name listed in a movie’s cast, I always know that he’ll provide an excellent character portrayal. I also think it a fine thing that he carried his love of cricket to Hollywood and founded the Hollywood Cricket Club, where fellow Britains in the film industry could join him for weekend cricket matches. Here are a few photos of Smith with some of his fellow cricket players.
Of the films of Smith’s that I’ve seen, only Little Women will be airing in the near future-on Dec. 4th at 4:30 am EST/3:30 am CST and again on Dec. 24th, Christmas Eve, at 4:30 am EST/3:30 am CST, all courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, so set that dvr if you want to catch Sir C. Aubrey Smith at his finest!
I want to acknowledge Mr. Ken Robichaux, at The Picture Show Man website, and his wonderful article: “C.Aubrey Smith-Hollywood’s Resident Englishman”. I’ve included a link to Mr. Robichaux’s article as I found it a rich resource in writing my blog, and he also lists the resources he used to write his piece. Plus, he has some more wonderful pictures of Sir C. Aubrey Smith for all to see.