Charles Aubrey Smith (right) was arguably the greatest cricketer-actor ever and is the only England cricketer to have a star named after him in the Hollywood Walk of Fame © Getty Images
Charles Aubrey Smith (right) was arguably the greatest cricketer-actor ever and is the only England cricketer to have a star named after him in the Hollywood Walk of Fame © Getty Images

Charles Aubrey Smith, born July 21, 1863, was a hugely respected character-actor in Hollywood who was also a useful medium pacer, and the captain of England in the only Test he played. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life of the man who created the Hollywood Cricket Club and is undoubtedly the greatest cricketer-actor ever.

The match was being played at Griffith Park, Los Angeles City. The flannelled cricketers in the middle were all members of the Hollywood Cricket Club, men more at home writing scripts, shooting scenes and partying in the Beverly Hills than toiling out under the sun with bat and ball.

A fairly useful medium pacer was in operation and the ball kissed the outside edge of the bat and went sharply to the slip. Standing there was an imposing elderly man in his seventies, towering at six foot four and still erect at the advanced age. However, his hands did not move sharply enough. The chance was grassed.

The gentleman with the handlebar moustache signalled to the dressing room. Out came his butler, carrying his spectacles on a sparkling silver salver. Sir Charles Aubrey Smith put them on and got ready for the next ball. It was an out-swinger that struck the shoulder of the bat and looped ever so gently in his direction. It was a kind of catch that RC Robertson Glasgow describes — and Wisden repeats while retelling the incident — as “a child would take at midnight with no moon.” And the venerable gentleman dropped it again. He snatched at his spectacles and remarked, “Damned fool brought my reading glasses.”

In spite of this oft repeated anecdote, Smith was by far the most accomplished cricketer on that ground — and on most grounds where film personalities try their hand at the noble game. While the English cricket team was embarking on their quest for the Ashes with questionable Bodyline tactics, Smith, 69-years-old at that time, was busy establishing the Hollywood Cricket Club. He was by then known as a major thespian on the silver screen, but decades earlier he had been a cricketer of the highest quality.

Round the Corner Smith

A fast-medium bowler with a curious run-up, Smith played First-Class cricket for 14 years from 1882. He also led England in the only Test match he ever played in. In his day, with his endless arms stretching out to infinity, he was a sharp slip catcher as well.

Aubrey Smith remains the only England captain to star in a film with Elizabeth Taylor. He is also perhaps the only England cricketer to find Greta Garbo to be ‘a rippin’ gel from close quarters.

Smith was coached by Julius Caesar — the name somewhat prophetically merging the worlds of stage and pitch. The instruction took place at the Charterhouse public school that Smith attended, sponsored by money borrowed from his uncle. The former Surrey and All England batsman taught him the basics of the game and when Smith made his way to Cambridge University, he won his Blue.

On the cricket field, Smith was a fast medium bowler with a high action and well-developed leg-cutter. How fast he was is subject to doubt and debate. Wisden classifies him as fast-medium whereas AA Thomson says he was a slow bowler, slow to the point of slow motion.

Where they both agree is the weirdness of his approach to the wicket.  He supposedly started near mid-off, and then almost as an afterthought emerged from behind the wicket to send down his offerings from round the wicket. It earned him the unique nickname ‘Round the Corner Smith.’ WG Grace confessed: “It is rather startling when he suddenly appears at the bowling crease.”

Smith enjoyed a successful First-Class career, playing mainly for Sussex, capturing 346 wickets at an average of 22.34. In 1888-89, he captained a second-string England side on the country’s first tour to South Africa. In the Port Elizabeth Test, the only one of his career, he led the inexperienced team to a win, with figures of 5 for 19 and 2 for 42.

He stayed back in South Africa after the tour, setting up a gold-prospecting company with Surrey and England wicketkeeper Monty Bowden. In October 1889, he fell ill and the Graff-Reinet Advertiser announced that he had “succumbed to that fell disease, inflammation of the lungs. Much regret will be felt at his decease. He made many friends by his kindly disposition.” However, Smith recovered from both the ailment and the shock of the obituary, and four months later led Transvaal in the Currie Cup match against Kimberley, capturing seven wickets in the game.

Hollywood calling

In 1896, having returned to London, Smith made his debut on the West End stage as the villain Black Michael in The Prisoner of Zenda.

And 41 years later, he appeared in the film version of the novel, this time as the wise old advisor. That was the occasion when Douglas Fairbanks, Jr asked him whether playing the villain Rupert of Hentzau might damage his career as a romantic lead. Smith famously answered “Young man, I have played every part in The Prisoner of Zenda except Lady Flavia, and I can assure you that nobody ever damaged his career by playing Rupert of Hentzau.”

Smith acted in a few early British movies and later made his successful move to Hollywood. He also made his Broadway debut in a revival of George Bernard Shaw‘s Pygmalion, starring in the role of Henry Higgins.

However, it was as a character actor — typecast as a British officer or gentleman — that Smith soon became popular and recognisable.

Within bounds, though. He did act in major hits of the time and starred alongside leading ladies such as Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh and actors Clark Gable, Laurence Olivier, Ronald Colman, Maurice Chevalier and Gary Cooper. He portrayed the ‘Duke of Wellington’ in three different films. Yet, there is the story of his being spotted sitting in the pavilion of Lord’s many years later. One MCC member had supposedly nudged another saying, “That man over there seems familiar.”  The response was “Yes. Chap called Smith. Used to play for Sussex.”

Smith was also considered the unofficial leader of the British film industry colony in Hollywood, sometimes called the Hollywood Raj. This was identified as a select group of British actors who were supposedly colonising the capital of the film business in the 1930s. This group included David Niven, Ronald Colman, Rex Harrison, Robert Coote, Nigel Bruce, Leslie Howard and Patric Knowles.

Hollywood Cricket Club, was, of course, much closer to his heart. The field and pavilion at Griffith Park took a lot of sweat and passion to be built, and involved the planting of five cartloads of English grass seed. During shooting, Smith could be seen coaxing Niven and Colman to turn out for his cricket team. The side never lacked star quality, even if sometimes short of cricketing talent. The team lists boasted the likes of Nigel Bruce, PG Wodehouse, Laurence Olivier and Basil Rathborne. Niven recalled that Smith once duped him into net practice on an evening he had firmly resolved to devote to ‘chasing some skirt.’

Half a decade after the club became operational, Smith was delighted to find Gubby Allen and his troupe docking in Los Angeles on their way home from the 1936-37 Ashes series. He revelled in providing glimpses of on-going work on the sets of Prisoner of Zenda and other such educational snippets pertaining to the movie world to the likes of Allen, Hedly Verity and CB Fry.

Two years later, while Four Feathers was being filmed, Archie MacLaren turned up in the town. Smith found him as hard up as ever. He arranged for the former Lancashire and England skipper to earn some money as an extra. However, many aficionados have watched the movie over and over again and have not been able to spot MacLaren in any of the footage. Perhaps the chores allocated to him dealt with activities behind the scenes.

Smith passed away after a bout of pneumonia in 1948, and is the only England cricketer to have a star named after him in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was heart-breaking for the lovers of the game when the cricket-ignorant Los Angeles City Council bulldozed the Griffith Park and Pavilion to convert it to an equestrian centre for the 1984 Olympics.

Charles Aubrey Smith remains the greatest cricketer to have effortlessly made the transition from sight-screen to silver-screen. And it was due to his passion for the game that the British stars in the American West Coast still managed to hear the sweet sound of willow hitting leather over all the sound and fury of Hollywood productions.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)