SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
September 23, 1968
The rarest golf films ever made are 18 classic shorts of Bobby Jones instruction—only one set still exists—in which an astonishing cast of Hollywood celebrities took part. Completely unrehearsed and often ad-libbed to the point that their slapstick plots were a shambles, these 10-minute serials included such bizarre scenes as W. C. Fields lazily juggling golf balls for Warner Oland, Jones and Bill Davidson
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 23, 1968

The Reel Life Of Bobby Jones

The rarest golf films ever made are 18 classic shorts of Bobby Jones instruction—only one set still exists—in which an astonishing cast of Hollywood celebrities took part. Completely unrehearsed and often ad-libbed to the point that their slapstick plots were a shambles, these 10-minute serials included such bizarre scenes as W. C. Fields lazily juggling golf balls for Warner Oland, Jones and Bill Davidson

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

Warner Bros., who produced the series, had its artists under contract, and in the first episodes they were the only ones to appear. But presently the stars of other studios began to get releases from their companies so that they could play golf with Jones, too.

The actors all took the sort of roles in the golf instructionals that moviegoers of the time were accustomed to seeing them play in their feature appearances: Cagney and Robinson were Chicago-gangster types inexplicably interested in golf; Oland as Fu Manchu looked like that untrustworthy Oriental somehow transported to a golf course; Walter Huston, who had recently starred in Abraham Lincoln and who in fact looked somewhat like Lincoln, took part in the lesson on the use of the niblick with an earnest and rather melancholy air, which led to the startling illusion that Honest Abe had been trying the game for a few score and 20 years without much success. Improvised, unstudied, casual, the episodes suggested in part the spur-of-the-moment lunacy of a Mack Sennett comedy. But only in part, for Jones's interesting demonstrations of how golf should be played, coupled with the expert performances of actors and actresses at the peak of their careers, resulted in smooth productions.

To understand how such a series could have come about, it is necessary to appreciate the role that Jones himself played in the American scene at the time. By 1931 he had become more like the hero of a Hollywood movie than any sports figure in memory. He was 29 years old, handsome and self-possessed. He was an extraordinary golfer, but also a popular idol and a living symbol of the ideal sportsman. He suggested the hero of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel—one of those high-spirited and engaging characters Fitzgerald liked to write about who knew everyone and went everywhere. When Jones reached New York after winning the British Open in 1926 the welcome given him was greater than that given General Pershing at the end of World War I. He was marched up Broadway amid rebel yells and flying confetti and ticker tape, with bands playing Glory, Glory to Old Georgia . "Nothing like yesterday's demonstration ever took place in the realm of sport," wrote one enthusiastic New York newspaperman the next day.

Senators joined in the praise of Jones, adding a certain class to the proceedings that Hollywood's image-conscious moviemakers often found lacking in their own publicity. Senator George of Georgia wound up a speech on Bobby's golfing triumphs by saying solemnly, "He has represented the very best in our life." Eminent public figures never said such things about movie stars lounging around their yachts and swimming pools. Moreover, Jones managed to retain his natural, matter-of-fact air, which was even more surprising in Hollywood's eyes. He retired near the end of 1930 after his wondrous Grand Slam: winning the British Open, British Amateur, U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur championships in the same year. He lived quietly with his wife and three children in Atlanta, where, as the son of a distinguished lawyer, his position would have been assured had he never won a golf match. He was practicing law and had recently argued his first case before a federal judge.

Hollywood decided it had to have Jones, and George Marshall, the reliable craftsman who could be depended on to come up with a picture no matter what the story or the cast, was dispatched to Atlanta to settle the details with Bobby. A thin, nervous, enthusiastic man, Marshall was well known for having made Mack Sennett comedies. Those were the days of serials like The Perils of Pauline, for which directors invented each sequence as they went along and contrived to have every episode end with such suspense that moviegoers had to go back the next week to see how it all turned out.

In this venture, Marshall had an advantage over other directors of the time—he could play golf. He was a low-handicapper at the Lakeside Golf Club (a three or an eight depending on which publicity release you read). Probably with The Perils of Pauline fresh in his mind, he visualized a series of short films that would be so compelling the moviegoer would have to come back next week to continue his golf lesson with Jones. Eventually, he hired O. B. Keeler, the Atlanta newspaperman, ghostwriter and golf authority who became Jones's Boswell, to narrate the series and provide for the end of each reel the stentorian announcement: "Watch for the next episode of Bobby Jones's How I Play Golf coming soon to your theater!"

An agreement was worked out with Jones calling for him to receive $101,000 for How I Play Golf (the money went into a trust fund for his children, with his father as trustee) and soon he boarded a train for the four-day trip to Los Angeles. He was ready for work almost immediately upon arrival, and early on the first Monday morning of his stay he appeared at Flintridge Country Club, along with the attendant celebrities, camera crews, electricians and George Marshall, who was overseeing all. Flintridge was used for most of the shooting because it was more remote and not so well known as Lakeside, and it was felt that less of a crowd would be likely to gather to bother Jones or make him self-conscious. But, as it turned out, Jones was probably the most assured man involved in the venture. Any difficulty that arose came not from movie fans gawking at stars, but from movie stars gawking at Jones.

The first episode was to deal with the putter. "Bobby's idea," remembers Marshall, "was to start with the putter and work up through the short irons to the long shots." Jones did not want the series to be a pretentious lecture on how golf should be played. It was he who chose the title—How I Play Golf—to avoid any notion that there was some one way to play or some formula to use. "While I am frying to explain the methods which I employ in playing various shots," he said in his summation for the series, "I do not mean to insist that these methods are the only ones, or even that they are the best. But I do think there are certain fundamentals which are the same for all golfers, and in making my explanations I have tried to separate these fundamentals from mannerisms that might be peculiar to my own individual style. The average golfer is not interested in winning championships. The chief benefits of the game for him must be recreation and the companionship of congenial friends. But I've always thought that if the game was worth playing at all it was worth making some effort to play correctly."

The first scene of the series began well. Jones was filmed on the practice tee. He made a few shots with his effortless swing and then said, "Well, I guess that's enough for today." He had a pleasant, unstrained voice and the stage presence of someone who had been accustomed for a long time to being in the public eye. " Jones's voice records perfectly," exulted Film Daily.

At this point in the film Jones was greeted by Tol'able David, otherwise Richard Barthelmess, in those days still a highly important Hollywood figure. The movie colony, awed by having the world's best golfer and a friend of the Prince of Wales with it, was trying to make Jones welcome by bringing forward its most distinguished members first. Barthelmess, who went directly into the movies while he was in his third year at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., was considered a man of the world, well educated and widely traveled. His frail features and his expression of stricken pathos made him a star in such early D. W, Griffith silent classics as Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, but it was Tol'able David, in which he played a wistful mountain boy, hair growing over his ears and trousers upheld by one suspender, that fixed his image in the minds of the American public and made him one of the most valuable of all film properties. Sound films did him no good, and he was now playing character parts—villains, as a rule, in a remarkable change from his previous embodiments of masculine virtue—though he was still a box-office attraction.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6