Stoic Colonel’s & Stiff Upper Lips – C. Aubrey Smith (1863 – 1948)

Posted in Rewind by - September 10, 2015
Stoic Colonel’s & Stiff Upper Lips – C. Aubrey Smith (1863 – 1948)

Tall, imposing, with a heavy moustache and wild eyebrows, the wonderful British actor C. Aubrey Smith was Hollywood’s go-to guy for the esteemed English gentleman. Sometimes barnstorming and often eccentric, he gave gravitas to many of cinema’s greatest movies of the day.

Born in London on July 21st 1863, Smith had been a successful test cricketer, and then a stage actor for 20 years before making his movie debut in 1915, at the grand age of 52. It wasn’t until he was around 69 though, that he had his first notable roles. In 1932 Smith had the small but important part of Maureen O’Sullivan’s father in ‘Tarzan the Ape Man’, the first of the excellent Johnny Weissmuller ape pictures. That same year he was memorable as Monsieur Giron, the boss of a perfume company, in Ernst Lubitsch’s superb comedy ‘Trouble in Paradise’. The following year saw him as Greta Garbo’s devoted valet in ‘Queen Christina’ (’33) and a Roman general in Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘Cleopatra’ (’34). After playing a quintessential British officer in ‘The Lives of a Bengal Lancer’ (’35) Smith had one of his best roles, in John Cromwell’s timeless family drama ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ (’36), playing Freddie Bartholomew’s grandfather; the Earl of Dorincourt. For Cromwell again, Smith had another good role, in ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’ (’37) where he was endearing as the Prince’s loyal aide.

After having earlier played a memorable Duke of Wellington in 1934’s ‘The House of Rothschild’, Smith portrayed him once again four years later in ‘Sixty Glorious Years’ (’38), which had Anna Neagle also reprising her role of Queen Victoria from 1937’s ‘Victoria the Great’. A fun comedy-mystery followed, playing a flustered retired colonel (and ultimate victim), in the exciting sequel ‘Another Thin Man’, and was particularly good as a retired General in Zolton Korda’s excellent stiff-upper-lip adventure ‘The Four Feathers’ (both ’39).

The Forties began with a couple of good supporting parts in two terrific pictures. In the first; ‘Waterloo Bridge’, he was Robert Taylor’s elderly uncle, and then an investigating colonel in Alfred Hitchcock’s superb romancer ‘Rebecca’ (both ’40). Next, his bishop is murdered by Spencer Tracy’s Mr Hyde in Victor Fleming’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (’41), which also starred Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner. A couple of biopics came next, with the Greer Garson picture ‘Madam Curie’ (’43), as renowned physicist Lord Kelvin, and ‘The Adventures of Mark Twain’ (’44) as Twain’s first publisher. One of my favourite Smith performances came late in his career when he played Sir John Mandrake, the third person to die, in René Clair’s superb murder-mystery ‘And Then There Were None’ (’45). After playing the Earl of Caversham in Alexander Korda’s ‘An Ideal Husband’ (’37) Smith’s final movie was the Elizabeth Taylor version of ‘Little Women’ (’49), as the March sister’s kindly neighbour Mr Laurence. It was a gentle performance and a nice role to end his career on.

Aged 85, Smith died of pneumonia in California, on 20th December 1948. A prolific performer with over 100 movie credits, C. Aubrey Smith had the type of face that appeared to be carved out of stone, but he could easily play warm when called for. Starring with everyone from Garbo to Dietrich, and Gable to Cooper, Smith could enliven any picture, and he left an everlasting imprint in some classic pictures from Hollywood’s golden era.

Favourite Movie: Waterloo Bridge
Favourite Performance: And Then There Were None

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