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Monday, 19 July 2010

Sir Charles Aubrey Smith and the Hollywood Raj

C. Aubrey Smith, Boris Karloff and Henry Stephenson.

C. Aubrey Smith, moustache, bushy eyebrows, pipe, loveably cranky disposition. He supported all the top stars throughout the 30's and 40's. Probably no other actor portrayed quite as many Colonels, Majors or Generals in the history of film (I'm sure he snuck an Admiral in too for good measure). His most enduring acheivment though was the Hollywood Cricket Club and it's closely related social scene. The Hollywood Raj or British colony built up around Smith's HCC and he became it's uncrowned king. All the great, and not so great, Hollywood based british actors of the period were part of it. David Niven, who was something of a favourite with Smith, Nigel Bruce (aka Watson) and his very own Holmes Basil Rathbone, Ronald Coleman, Boris Karloff, Patrick Knowles, Merle Oberon, Joan Fontaine, Olivia De Havilland, HB Warner not to mention screenwriter PG Wodehouse (also a well known novelist I believe...)all united by their ties to England and a little love for cricket, though maybe it was just the fear of upsetting the imposing CA Smith that got them all to so many matches.
They created under Smith's leadership a beautiful Little England in Hollywood that resembled nothing that they or most other English people had ever known or could even recognise. The stories of their quaint Englishness fill me with pride despite my knowledge of the fraudulence of much of the exercise. Cricket was played and watched in the manner of legend, everything stopped for tiffin and those who didn't do their bit at the outbreak of war in Europe were frowned upon.
Sheridan Morley tells my favourite story of this period involving a Sunday afternoon party at the home of the actress Gladys Cooper, George Cukor was wandering across the lawn when that underrated actor Robert Coote called to Gladys Cooper "Darling, there seems to be an American on your lawn". I like to think Cukor fumed a little.
Aubrey Smith had a little bit of form with regards the great game of cricket. He had played for Sussex for 4 years before leaving for South Africa to make his fortune, he also turned out for the MCC and while in South Africa captained an England team in one match which was later given test match status (which actually means he must rank as one of the most successful ever England captains with a 100% win record).
Once while feilding in the slips for HCC he dropped a tricky catch and called to his butler to bring on his spectacles, a few minutes later he dropped an even easier catch, took off his specs, looked at them and said "silly bugger brought me my reading Spectacles".
It's difficult to believe that someone who played cricket with and against the great WG Grace could also have starred alongside the likes of Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor, Spencer Tracy, Lucille Ball, Elizabeth Taylor and countless others, but it's true, his cricketing life was a relatively short lasting for just about ten years from 1880,his acting career much longer.
One final story, many years after his cricket career, and long in to his acting career Smith visited Lords, the home of cricket to watch a match. One of the members reportedly spotted Smith and asked his chum "Who's that, looks familiar". His friend replied "Names Smith, used to play for Sussex". I think that story, true or not, illustrates the nature of cricket in England better than any other.

CA Smith is sitting middle row far left and I don't think he has any idea just where he'll be in 40 odd years time.