GENERAL ARTICLES

"THE OLD BOY"

He’s 81 and as English as cricket but Hollywood rates Sir Aubrey Smith as competition for any glamour boy

ELIZABETH WILSON December 15 1944
GENERAL ARTICLES

"THE OLD BOY"

He’s 81 and as English as cricket but Hollywood rates Sir Aubrey Smith as competition for any glamour boy

ELIZABETH WILSON December 15 1944

"THE OLD BOY"

GENERAL ARTICLES

ELIZABETH WILSON

He’s 81 and as English as cricket but Hollywood rates Sir Aubrey Smith as competition for any glamour boy

BEFORE a picture is shown to the Hollywood press the producer takes it to a town far enough, but not too far, from Hollywood to get what he calls “an audience reaction.” This is known as the “sneak” preview. It is held in such outlying towns as Pomona, Glendale, Pasadena, Huntington Park and Westwood Village, where the audiences have become more than a little picture-wise. They are in the habit of indicating their affection for the actors, or lack of it, by applauding loudly when they make their entrance on the screen, or not at all. This is the best barometer of popularity that Hollywood knows. Invariably, when he is in the picture, 81-year-old C. Aubrey Smith, now Sir Aubrey Smith, gets the greatest applause, even though he often doesn’t apjH*ar until the third reel.

When the studio previewed “White Cliffs of Dover” he received twice the applause given its stars, Irene Dunne and Alan Marshall. When the studio previewed “Mark Twain” a riotous audience let it be clearly understood that Frederic March and Alexis Smith, the stars of the picture, wert» all right but that their favorite in the cast was C. Aubrey Smith. This has been going on for years.

“I’m much better known in England,” says Sir Aubrey, who never goes to his previews, “80% better known.”

Well, Cary Grant may have a deeper cleft in his chin, Charles Boyer may have more seductive eyes, and Bing Crosby may have a better voice, but Sir Aubrey can hold his own with the glamour boys of Hollywood. He usually has three or four pictures waiting for him and he is lucky if he has three weeks off between pictures. Lady Smit h might be concerned about his heavy schedule if it were not for the fact that he is well and happy.

Lady Smith is 72, and calls her distinguished-looking husband “the old boy.” She is his business manager as well as his wife, she reminds him, and watches him with an eagle eye. “But every time l turn my back, even for a moment,” she says, “the old boy bounces off somewhere Bond rallies and camp shows and that sort of thing.”

Not only is Sir Aubrey a favorite with the fans but

he is also a great favorite with his fellow actors in Hollywood. Most of movie Hollywood suffers from acute egomania, which is a polite way of saying that we’re a bunch of hams, but when it was announced a few months ago that C. Aubrey Smith had been knighted by King George VI everyone was as pleased as Punch. “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” said the electricians and property men on the sets (Sir Aubrey calls them “stage hands”).

Although the actual ritual has not yet been performed, the letters patent of knighthood have arrived from London. At the “old boy’s” request the official presentation was made quietly by the Consul General at a small dinner party. When the war is over he intends to return to England (he wanted to return last winter on a battleship but the doctor wouldn’t let him), where he will kneel before the King, who will tap him on the shoulder with his sword and say, “Arise, Sir Aubrey Smith.” This is not the first of such honors. In 1938, when he was in England making several pictures, he was asked whether he would accept the C.B.E.

Sir Aubrey, who was 81 on July 21, has been active in the theatre for 52 years. He is six feet four inches tall, straight as a ramrod, and weighs 184 pounds. He has a perpetual twinkle in his blue-grev eyes under his bushy brows; and his two great loves, you discover after five minutes of conversation with him, are the stage and cricket. He can hold you spellbound by the hour relating one stage anecdote after another, all of which he insists upon acting out.

Not long ago, w hile puttering around in his den, he unearthed an old album of photographs which were taken of him and his classmates when he was a lad at Cambridge. There was one picture that especially

delighted him. In an amateur production, “The Sceptre Bridegroom,” he played the part of a man of 80. The picture, which sent him into roars of laughter, was one of himself made up in youth’s conception of old age, bent, broken, tottering—you could almost see him shaking with palsy. “Overplayed a bit,” said Sir Aubrey, while his wife, who has been married to him for 48 years, calmly commented, “The old boy was always stage-struck.”

He started his professional stage career in Hastings, England, in 1892. And he has played with practically every big stage star in theatrical history, including Forbes-Robertson, Mrs. Pat Campbell, Ellen Terry and Ethel Barrymore. He particularly likes to recall the time—it was in 1905—that he and Ellen Terry were doing Sir James Barrie’s “Alice Sit by the Fire.” *

“Ellen,” says Sir Aubrey, “was a notoriously slow study.” It seems she was given the script by Sir James at Christmas time, but she didn’t get around to studying it until February. “In the last weeks of rehearsal Ellen still knew nothing of her part,” he continues. “During a rehearsal one day she turned to Sir James Barrie and said, ‘May I say “yes” on this cue?’ T don’t care what you say,’ replied the harassed Barrie, ‘but for God’s sake say something!’ ”

On opening night young Smith had to give her her lines 15 or more times. “But she had such personality it didn’t matter,” he added with a chuckle. On another occasion, during the run of the play, he was supposed to be standing with his back to her, arranging a handkerchief over his fingers . . . then turn around slowly and show it to her. But when he turned around, talking to her, he discovered to his horror that she was

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way over on the far side of the stage, looking for her cues on a sheet of paper she had hidden on a table—“A wonderful woman,” says Sir Aubrey.

He likes best, however, to recall his associations with George Bernard Shaw and recalls particularly the time they were putting on Shaw’s “The Admirable Bash ville.” He asked Shaw’s permission to play Bashville as an Irishman. Then he hied himself to Clarkson, the famous wigmaker, to have himself transformed into a facsimile of Shaw.

“When I appeared on the stage,” he remembers, “I received a veritable earthquake of an ovation. The audience thought they were seeing the author himself. No one enjoyed the joke as much as GBS.”

During a revival of “Pygmalion” Shaw had a terrific row with Mrs. Pat Campbell, and he insisted upon reading her part at rehearsals. Every afternoon at four o’clock, while the company was taking time out for tea, Mrs. Pat Campbell would open the door, stick her head inside and thumb her nose at Shaw. The last days of rehearsal, when he allowed her to rejoin the company, she completely changed all the lines around to suit herself. “Neither you nor I was meant to keep the lid on hell,” Shaw apologized to Smith.

Sir Aubrey played in his first American motion picture in 1915. It was “The Lie,” and it was filmed in New York City. This was followed by leads in “Builder of Bridges,” “John Gay’s Honor,” “Jeffrey” and “The Witching Hour.” Then Hollywood beckoned, with a nice fat contract.

But his England was at war, so he tossed over everything and against everybody’s wishes returned home to enlist—at the age of 53. He joined the Artists Rifles and for a good part of a year served in the ranks. He half killed himself with the exceedingly strenuous training that was not designed for a man of 53, and finally he had to quit. It was a bitter disappointment.

After the war he appeared on the English stage, then returned to New

is in itself a huge problem, much larger than the problems which have occupied all the time of most former administrations, but it is only a segment of the much larger problem with which Roosevelt is already grappling—the problem of creating a new society among nations and a new society at home.

This, in all its bewildering aspects, is revolution. The President, at heart a conservative squire from Hyde Park, is one of the supreme revolutionists of history and only differs from most others in using the ballot box instead of the bomb and the machine gun.

This fabulous adventurer, this crippled man who yet bestrides the world like a colossus, this shining image of America’s inward life, this sentimental lover of all human creatures, this hardened and cynical politician, this incomparable actor, this anxious father of soldier sons, this tree planter, warrior and political hatchet man is making his revolution by every aspect of his character, but he does not know where it leads. He knows the general direction and he moves in it, often in breath-taking spirals, but he cannot tell what lies at the edge of his world or at the end of his own life. He does know, however, better than any man of his time, that life for every human being on this planet will be a hazard, an adventure and a constant unfolding of new things, terrible risks and brave hopes, so long as our generation lives.

York, where he was starred in “Bachelor Father,” which had a long run. When M.G.M. bought the play to make it into a movie they signed Sir Aubrey to play his original role. Hollywood has claimed most of his time ever since, although there have been a number of trips to England, and several New York stage plays.

Cricketer Smith

Besides his stage memories Sir Aubrey delights in telling about his championship cricket days. As a student at Charterhouse and Cambridge he earned a great reputation as a cricketer. He captained the Sussex team, was in command of British teams sent to Australia and South Africa.

Even yet he never misses the Sunday cricket games during the southern California season, which lasts from April to October.

While out driving on Saturday and Sunday afternoons some years ago, he noticed that the UCLA campus was never used over the week end. He made a formal call on the Dean and obtained permission to play cricket there. Gradually the college boys became interested in the game and asked him if they might play too. This pleased him very much. He believes that the game isn’t popular in the United States because it is too slow. “I can see that,” he says seriously. “It is a slow game . . . it could be shortened . . . yet it is much more complicated than baseball or football. American boys don’t seem to have the patience for it. But those UCLA boys liked it.”

Thanks to Sir Aubrey’s enthusiasm the English colony now has two fields in Burbank, a few miles from Hollywood. One is called the C. Aubrey Smith Field, and the other is called the West Field.

Cricket is by no means his only hobby, though certainly his most passionate. He likes to sketch and paint in oils. He likes to garden and do any kind of carpentry at home. He likes to play the piano, and he has put Kipling’s Ballads to music, his wife tells you with pride.

There’s never a dull moment when Sir Aubrey has a day at home. Home is the rambling white house that he

built high on a Hollywood hilltop. When Sir Aubrey arrives at breakfast there is a mass of cats and dogs waiting at his end of the table. His idea of kindness to animals is to feed them. Therefore he overfeeds all of them. He muses over the papers and goes into his den to overfeed his canary. He lets “Chirrup” out of his cage for a fling around the room and looks at his mail with “Chirrup” sitting on his desk. Then he goes outside to overfeed the wild birds with the large quantities of grain of many varieties he keeps at hand for them. He usually upsets the grain in the house, much to his wife’s disgust, and has long discussions with Bavario, the gardener, whose English is atrocious and Spanish even worse. Sir Aubrey says he is the only one who can understand him.

Then he starts working at one thing or another . . . painting the fence, making a trellis, or mending odds and ends in the garden. If there isn’t a British War Relief meeting after lunch he might go into Beverly Hills to see if some cricket balls have arrived, or to find a screw that’s exactly an inch long. He likes to read for about three hours every day, and he answers all his mail in longhand, paying particular attention to letters from servicemen.

A Homebody Too

He’s always interested in things about him. He likes to answer the telephone and often rushes to answer the doorbell before the maid can get there. If Lady Smith disappears in the garden or is out with their 16 chickens, 26 rabbits and one goat, he goes out to see what she is doing. If she goes to town and returns with packages she has to tell him all about her shopping tour.

Mention of their chickens recalls an incident that Sir Aubrey relates with relish. He likes to call them by the names of his favorite stars of stage and screen and each has a name famous in the past or present, from Eva Moore and Maude Adams to Tallulah Bankhead and Joan Blondell. All the hens had a splendid egg laying record with the exception of one and about that one he had been rather concerned. When the reluctant one finally came through one afternoon, he burst into a tea party Lady Smith was giving and startled her guests with the exciting announcement: “At last! Tallulah has laid an egg.”

He rarely goes to the movies. He always intends going but somehow or other he never gets around to it. For months now he has definitely wanted to see “The Song of Bernadette.” At least six times he has looked it up in the newspapers to see where it was playing, then he calls the theatre to see what time it goes on. “He gets all the information about it,” says Lady Smith, “and then he decides he’ll wait and go tomorrow night.”

He hasn’t seen many of his own pictures, but of the ones he has seen he believes he likes “Little Lord Fauntleroy” best. Though he rather fancied “The Prisoner of Zenda” and “The Crusaders” too. He is, by the way, what is called a “quick study.” He has a fine memory for lines. Clarence Brown, who directed him in “White Cliffs of Dover,” nicknamed him “Mr. One-Take.” And said of him, “Working with an actor of Mr. Smith’s charm, humor and ability is indeed a great pleasure.”

Republic Studio is quite near his home, and if Sir. Aubrey happens to make a picture there he can frequently go home for lunch. One day the director told him he wouldn’t be needed that afternoon, but the shooting schedule was changed and about 5.45 he called Sir Aubrey and asked whether he could come in right away. He was at the studio in 15 minutes and they worked until 7 p.m. The director apologized

for the inconvenience but Sir Aubrey just tossed it off with, “Oh, it’s all in a day’s work.”

Some days he carries his lunch to work with him, and once he brought a big fish net that he was making to protect a certain tree in his garden. Between scenes he went to his dressing room and worked industriously on the net.

His niece, Mrs. Tisdale, who is living with Sir Aubrey and Lady Smith while her husband is in the services overseas, drives him to work. Sometimes she stays on the set for a while. “I’m going | to be your secretary today,” she says. But she can’t make him act like a movie actor with a secretary. He wouldn’t dream of letting her carry anything for him, “Oh no, kid, you can’t carry that,” he roars.

He startled her the first day she was with him on a set. They were sitting backstage when suddenly Sir Aubrey said, “Sing,” in tones that were sharp and clear. She looked at him and he did it again. She looked around her and other newcomers on the set were looking at him in surprise. But he was entirely oblivious of the glances. It’s merely his way of clearing his throat before going into a scene.

When last-minute changes are made in dialogue, his suggestions are valuable to the script. He thinks of his own role last. He rarely misses a cue and if he “blows a line,” he is likely to say “Oh, damn” and apologize immediately. He is never satisfied with a passable performance and often offers to do a scene over, even if the director has accepted it. “I can do it better,” he says. He is always glad to put himself out to help someone else.

When “Forever and a Day” was finally finished, about two years ago,

Sir Aubrey and several members of the British colony were chosen to present it to the President of the United States in Washington and to the Earl of Athlone in Canada. “Forever and a Day” was made by the British actors in Hollywood as a contribution to the King’s Fund in England, the Red Cross in Canada, and the Community Chest and Infantile Paralysis Funds in America. That was the last time Sir Aubrey was in Canada, though he was in Toronto in 1941 with Grace George, when they took “Spring Again” on tour. “The Toronto audiences,” he says, “were so affectionate, nice and enthusiastic.” He recalls a delightful golf game there, and a visit to a Norwegian Air Force training camp, ! where he had lunch. He is proud of the j fact that he is an honorary member of the Toronto Cricket Club.

He gleefully reminds you that he has j seen more of America than most Amerij cans. He has travelled over the entire | country three times, and has had nine months of one-night stands, but he ¡ liked the hustling and bustling of touring. It was hard but it was fun. He would like to do another play and he’s still sorry because Lady Smith, in cahoots with his doctor, wouldn’t let him go to New York last summer to play in “Ten Little Indians.” “And it’s a hit too,” he sighs.

Characteristic of him is an anecdote that’s told about one of his pictures in • which the scene in a rooming house called for Sir Aubrey to climb up a flight of stairs with the cameras panning on him. The grips were slow getting the lights to function correctly, I Sir Aubrey had climbed the stairs I several times and the assistant director was getting worried. “Hey, boys,” he whispered, “get things going there. We have an old man to think about.”

Sir Aubrey’s ears are sharp. “Old man indeed,” he bristled, “you have no old man to worry about.” Then, with his delightful smile, “Perhaps ‘old boy,’ but not ‘old man.’ ”