Blog Archive

10 July 2018

A Little Touch of Blighty: The Hollywood Cricket Club

Sir C. Aubrey Smith

Most classic film buffs will recognize this craggy, elderly face. Sir C. Aubrey Smith was a stalwart character actor, a pillar of traditional Englishness, who played a host of characters from churchmen to generals to gruff older men of all types. Among my favorites are the March family's neighbor Mr. Laurence in Little Women and the stiff backed Duke in Little Lord Fauntleroy.

But most Americans have no idea that acting was a second career for Smith. In England, he is still revered as an important figure in the history of cricket, the national game. He was considered a great athlete, both as an amateur and later as a professional.
Smith at the height of his fame as an athlete

Born in 1863, Smith played for Cambridge University, for the county of Sussex, and in various professional positions before retiring (sort of) and turning his talents to acting in 1895. (Yes, 1895.)

Eventually, after decades of stage success, he found his way to Hollywood. But in the midst of his very busy filmmaking schedule, he had time to found the Hollywood Cricket Club with his fellow devoted cricketer Boris Karloff. This club was no joke; the English took cricket at least as seriously as Americans take baseball. Smith took responsibility for building the team. Every British (or Australian or New Zealander) actor or anyone else involved in the motion picture business arriving in Hollywood could expect to find a note from C. Aubrey Smith inviting him to come and try out at his earliest convenience. The possibility of an Englishman not liking cricket, or not being able to play cricket, was too absurd to contemplate. For an American, this would be like getting a note from Babe Ruth. Very few did not appear.

Dedicated cricketer Boris Karloff with tea

They practiced and played seriously. Among the early players were Nigel Bruce (who looks startlingly athletic in team photos), Basil Rathbone, H.B. Warner, playwright and screenwriter R.C. Sheriff, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.(who went to school in England), and Ronald Colman (who had to overcome a wartime injury to be able to play). P.G. Wodehouse, the author of the immensely popular Jeeves comic novels, was the first club secretary.

Others who played with the team were David Niven, Errol Flynn, Hugh Williams, John Loder, Clive Brook, Reginald Gardiner. Reginald Denny, Edmund Gwenn. Anthony Bushell. and Cary Grant.
Errol Flynn, c, and David Niven, r

Smith's involvement meant that the club was taken seriously by other cricketers. The HCC achieved quite an honor when they played a match against the touring Australian team, which was considered the best in the world at that point, captained by Vic Richardson and featuring Don Bradman, two of the most famous players of all time. The HCC scored very respectably with Smith batting. (Cricket is a very statistical game; it doesn't only matter how many runs a player makes; it also matters where and when.) To Americans, cricket seems slow, and the multi-day matches inexplicably drawn out, but it is actually tough and strategic.                        

Nigel Bruce, left; C. Aubrey Smith, right
The club provided a touch of home to the movie capitol's large British expatriate community. It also provided a welcome diversion from the motion picture business. Few things bore less resemblance to the brash, fame and money obsessed daily life of studio denizens than cricket.

Most Brits with any athletic interest or ability at all had played cricket since boyhood in cool, green England, where matches were not infrequently suspended because of rain.  It must have seemed odd to don the traditional white flannel trousers and striped blazers to play under the blazing California sun. The HCC built a traditional "pavilion," which included seating and facilities for the all-importanat tea break. Cricket matches are not just all-day but multi-day affairs, and include morning play, a lunch break, afternoon play, and a tea break.

Smith at bat

Yes, the tea break. Whatever they were doing, British expatriates seemed to feel a certain longing coming over them at about four in the afternoon, and this was and is still a cricket tradition. Having this lifelong habit catered to in a foreign land must have been very soothing at times.
David Niven in whites

The HCC was important to Hollywood's British community, which was quite large. The reminders of home -- especially with the approach of World War 2 -- made it more than an athletic institution; it was also a social center.

The club flourished over the decades, and is still in existence today. The club's website pays tribute to the founder, C. Aubrey Smith.