“It started when Sir Walter Raleigh first brought back the weed,” remarked the famous M-G-M character actor, as he puffed away between scenes on the studio floor.
“Smokers began flavouring it, sometimes with rum, and blending different varieties, ageing it, and so on, until they found the secret. As soon as a Britisher goes to college, he forms his own particular taste in tobacco — just as a writer forms a style in writing.”
Aubrey’s pipe is a great solace to him. It helps him think and relax. A typical Britisher is Smith, tall, athletic, with piercing grey eyes, bushy eyebrows, his London accent intact, as well as his British outlook and loyalty. He might have stepped out of Kipling. He could have been the actor member of the group of pals in the Sir James Barne book on the delights of smoking.
A Londoner, he attended Charterhouse school, and graduated from Cambridge, where he first won fame, not as an actor, but as a cricketer. He later captained Sussex and was also in command of English teams in Australia and South Africa.
|Playing for the Sussex County Cricket Club|
“American baseball,” he remarked, " has some of the thrills of cricket — it’s an interesting game and I like it — but an old hand like me would never be bothered to get the hang of the American pitching.”
It was his prowess in cricket, doubtless, that gave Smith that strong, athletic figure he carries to this day. As an officer in Daybreak he was superb. Six feet two in his stockinged feet, he weighs 184 pounds — solid bone and muscle.
He still is devoted to cricket and golf. Amateur photography is another of his hobbies. He reads avidly, and knows almost every play ever produced.
He is staunchly loyal to the land of his birth. He still maintains his home in Middlesex, though with the great success he has achieved in Hollywood it may be a long time before he sees it again.
It was in 1892, after his cricket tours, that Smith first took up the stage — not in any great theatre in London, but in a provincial stock company at Hastings. “I think we take a greater pride in our profession in England, and I know that the public is more loyal to its favourites,” he told me.
|In The Flag Lieutenant with Cyril Maude|
“It is an almost everyday occurrence to see a London audience give an ovation to some player who has been a favourite for years and years.
“In America favourites pass more quickly. Life is faster in the States. Britishers don't like to be hurried in the American manner.”
This respect for the profession in England, Smith believes, is largely due to the fact that there is more tradition behind the stage — from the days when the Bard of Avon wrote and directed his plays. Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Sir George Alexander, Sir John Hare — such names and names like those of Garrick, Keane, Mansfield — these cast a lustre about the traditions of the stage in England.
Smith played with Sir George Alexander in a number of plays in London — "As You Like It", "The Prisoner of Zenda", "A Man of Forty", "The Wilderness".
He played in New York in "Hamlet" and "The Light that Failed". "The Morals of Marcus", "The Legend of Lenora", and others are among his successes. His last stage appearance was in "The Way to Treat a Woman".
One of these stage plays incidentally led to the talkies — "The Bachelor Father". Smith was brought to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios to play his stage role in the talkie version, starring Marion Davies. Then followed Daybreak, Never the Twain Shall Meet, The Man in Possession, Just a Gigolo, and Son of India.
|With Robert Montgomery in The Man in Possession|
He was no stranger to the camera. In 1915, early days of even the silent pictures, he appeared in Builder of Bridges, when Frohman, the theatrical magnate, was trying to become a film producer. He made several other pictures in England.
“There is a vast difference between American picture methods and those in England,” Smith said. “ In America it's so much more organized. You have your producer, your director, production managers, assistants, all working in a well-oiled machine.
“In England the director is the centre of things, as on the stage— and of course much more of the atmosphere of the stage pervades, as the players are practically all stage people. In fact, we haven't got away from simply filming stage plays entirely yet. The hugeness of the organization in Holly- wood always astounds me.”
Audiences are different, too, Smith believes.
"A London audience has a certain psychology, and a certain loyalty to players — yet it is a harsh audience if you give it something it doesn't like. Its likes and dislikes are often more positive than those of audiences in America. American audiences have a greater capacity for enthusiasm.
“The first thing the British actor learns is clear enunciation and correct speech," the actor declared, in outlining his early career. "Pure speech has been one of the traditions of the stage since the days of Shakespeare. It is a good thing because it fosters the love of pure speech in the public at large. I hope the talkies will do the same thing from the screen.”
After all, he believes, the actor is something of an educator — another thing to be proud of in a profession in which he takes a very intense pride.