C. Aubrey Smith — Three Score Years and Ten (1935) 🇺🇸
What do you really know about that superb actor, C. Aubrey Smith?
C. Aubrey Smith looks back on a full and dramatic life.
by Faith Service
You know that in almost every good picture you see. “Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back,” Lives of a Bengal Lancer, “The Crusades,” China Seas, dozens of them, there is a tall, virile, kindly Britisher who looks as though Galsworthy might have written him into “The Forsyte Saga” (he could be old Jolyon to the life). You know that you are always glad to see him, that he adds richness and authenticity of character to every part he plays and that you carry away with you, invariably, a warm and grateful memory of him.
But isn’t that about all you know of C. Aubrey?
Did you realize that he is seventy-two years old and that almost fifty of those years have been spent on the stage and that these three score years and ten constitute a stage in themselves — a stage upon which have walked the greatest beauties, the most famous men and women of his colorful generation? Ellen Terry and Lily Langtry, our own Maude Adams, Mrs. Pat Campbell, Charles Frohman, Sir James Barrie, George Bernard Shaw, and Victoria, Queen of England. No wonder he says, politely, that the theatre is not what it used to be, nor great artists what they were in the days when Ellen Terry rehearsed some six and eight weeks before she spoke a line before an audience.
Did you know that he has been married, and to the same wife, for over forty years and that he has a married daughter and that before the summer wanes there will be a first grandchild.
It is going to be hard to get three-quarters of a century of rich and robust living into the confines of one short story, but I’ll do my best. For it’s a long, long way C. Aubrey Smith has come from his father’s surgery in London to the studios of Hollywood. A long way and a good way and as he enters his three score years and ten he says, “The most and the best of life is to love what you are doing, and to be kind,”
Some seventy odd years ago, a small boy was born in London to a proud young doctor and his wife. He was christened C. Aubrey Smith. Then two sisters come to the Smith home and they grew up in the Victorian Era when the widowed Queen ruled the realm with a child-sized hand and influenced her time and time to come with Victorian virtue. An age when all things gaudy and theatrical and gay were frowned upon by the little prim lady in Balmoral Castle and so by her subjects.
C. Aubrey Smith remembers the funeral of Victoria — sees in his memory that tiny coffin, flag-draped on the gun-carriage, while all of England mourned and the whole world was at half-mast. He wonders why they didn’t show that scene in the picture “Cavalcade.”
Such are the memories of C. Aubrey Smith, and perhaps it is having lived in such an age that gives him, today, that fine old-world gallantry, that soldierly bearing, that substantial grip on life. For he lived in a time when the world knew dignity and decorum, when men were brave men or cowards, when women were good or bad.
And so the small C. Aubrey went to school at Charter House in London and, later, to Cambridge. And he was familiar with his father’s surgery, to which came, as to an altar of healing, the lame, the halt and the blind, the rich and the poor. To the kindly doctor in his old-fashioned surgery they came, bringing their bruised bodies and their bruised hearts, sure of help and healing. And the tall young C. Aubrey watched and listened and decided that he could never become a doctor — pain was too painful.
Today, he will pause to care for a bird if he finds one wounded. He gives of his time, his purse, his heart to all who come to him for aid. He never leaves his house in the morning that he does not stop to feed with his own hand his birds and cats and dogs.
And this seems as good a place as any to tell you about a very poignant experience I had in connection with C. Aubrey Smith. The day after I’d lunched with him in his dressing-room on the M-G-M lot I was in the studio again and was told that his valet was very anxious to see me. He did see me. His face was eager. We went into an empty office on the lot and he sat on the edge of his chair, a German, his heart in his eyes, and said:’ “Please, Madam, I wanted to tell you how wonderful he is. People don’t know. I was there, in the next room, while you were interviewing him yesterday. I knew that he wasn’t really talking about himself. He never does. He can’t.
“He is a very great gentleman, a real gentleman. I have worked for other people, picture people, too, who pretend to be ladies and gentlemen, but Mr. and Mrs. Smith really are. I wish you could know, I wish the world could know, how kind they are. When I had influenza last winter I would wake up out of a fever three or four times a night and find Mr. Smith bending over me, rubbing my chest and back. And he was working at the time, too. He is so kind — and kindness to a servant in your house is the truest kindness of all. Believe me, Madam, I know. I am not married myself, but I often pray to my God that if ever I am, my marriage may be like Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s. I have been with them for four years and I have never heard one word in that house that wasn’t kind and affectionate. And she always must know when we leave the studio, so that she may have his Scotch and soda for him by the open fire. She is a real wife and he is a real husband. I hope you will forgive me, Madam, and I hope he will, but I had to tell you, so that you could tell the world what a great gentleman he is.”
And I do want to tell the world. I also want to add that my eyes were pretty dim when this earnest young German left me, after paying his nervous, secret, painfully sincere tribute to an English gentleman.
And so, as a young lad in his father’s surgery, C. Aubrey knew that he could never endure the sight of constant pain. But he also knew that he would like to minister in some way to the human race, so badly in need of being ministered to. And somehow, curiously, the thought of the theatre came to him, there in that non-theatrical family atmosphere. He doesn’t, today, know how or why the idea came to him. Certainly he does not think of it as a “mission in life.” He is far too typically and reticently British for anything so florid.
While at Cambridge he became a cricket champion and, later, toured South Africa and Australia with his championship team. And with the tenacity of the man, which shows in every deeply graven line on that fine face, he still plays cricket, here in Hollywood, at the age of seventy-two. He not only plays himself but he has organized teams and clubs, conditioned and reconditioned cricket fields so that Boris Karloff (a friend of his) and Clive Brook and other Englishmen may still know spots “that are forever England.”
Also while in Cambridge he went in extensively for amateur theatricals and became a member of the Brighton Greenroom Club. It was to this club that a London manager came one day in the year 1892 and, as C. Aubrey quaintly phrases it, “invited me to go on the stage.”
He said: “One of my most vivid recollections is of the night in my father’s surgery when I told him I had accepted that invitation. There was the silence of death in the room where, so often, my father had pronounced sentence of death. And now I was pronouncing it, the death of tradition, of all the things the crusading, doctoring Smiths had stood for. I still recall vividly my father’s set face, my mother’s shocked eyes, and hear, as though it were yesterday, her voice cry out tremulously, ‘But, my boy, what will your sisters do?’ The mere thought of two young Victorian maidens having to acknowledge a brother on the stage threatened dire disgrace. But life moves in a mysterious way,” laughed C. Aubrey, “because my sisters preceded me on the stage, both of them! At any rate, my parents were, perforce, reconciled to this eccentric exodus of all their children, and I lived to see the day when my father sat in a theatre stall, applauding me and enjoying it hugely.”
Most of the great plays of the past generation have carried the name of C. Aubrey Smith on their programs. He used, he says with a quizzical smile, to play the part of “the strong, silent man” a great deal. There were such immortal works as “Booties’ Baby,” “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “Lady Windemere’s Fan,” “The Notorious Mrs. Ebbesmith,” “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray,” “The Light That Failed,” “Alice Sit By the Fire,” with Ellen Terry; “Legend of Leonora,” with Maude Adams; “Morals of Marcus,” “Hamlet,” “The Runaway,” with Billie Burke; “The Lie”— plays which cover half a century and call the roll of the most glamorous names in the theatre world.
He first came to “The States” in 1895 with Sir John Hare in “The Notorious Mrs. Ebbesmith.” Then again in 1904 with Forbes-Roberton, playing the Ghost in “Hamlet” and Torpenhow in “The Light That Failed.” He loved Boston in those early days, but was homesick in New York. He made his first picture in England in 1915, starring in “Builder of Bridges.” Then, after several other English talkies, he came to Hollywood in 1930, under contract to M-G-M, where he repeated his stage role in Marion Davies’ picturization of the play, “The Bachelor Father.” And he has been here ever since, free-lancing and moving his makeup box from one studio to another.
C. Aubrey Smith today at seventy lives a busy, fruitful life. His next picture role will be in “China Seas.”
Beautiful Lily Langtry is one of the many famous women C. Aubrey recalls.
And prim little Queen Victoria set the tempo of his early years.
Jan Kiepura, of “Be Mine Tonight,” will thrill you again with his delightful singing in “My Song for You.” Aileen Marson is with him in this Gaumont-British production.
Source: Modern Screen, August 1935