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THE REEL LIFE OF BOBBY JONES
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
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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

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"Hello, Loretta," Jones says.

"You came close to putting a golf ball through Mr. Gillingwater's windshield," says Lane, in a transparent attempt to curry favor with his future father-in-law.

"I'm sorry," Jones says. "I hope I didn't hurt anyone."

Gillingwater is so impressed at meeting Jones that he asks if he can watch him practice. "I'd be delighted," Jones says. "Are you sure your car is safe? I might hook another one." Meanwhile, using sign language, Jones agrees with Loretta to keep Gillingwater occupied so the lovers can sneak away safely. As a result he has one of his longest uninterrupted discourses and his clearest demonstration of his own swing.

But such opportunities were rare. In the episode devoted to advice on how to practice, Jones had in the scene with him Evalyn Knapp, a tall, thin blonde, James Cagney, Donald Cook, another familiar figure in gangster movies, Joan Blondell and Louise Fazenda, a onetime Mack Sennett bathing beauty who had become a popular comedienne. As Jones began his demonstration of good practice technique, Louise arrived at the course, lugging her golf bag and giggling excitedly. There seems to be a misunderstanding and she cannot appreciate that Jones is supposed to be the one doing the practicing. She had somehow gotten the impression that the movie is to be of her practicing with Jones. She interrupts so often that at last Cagney and Cook, in the best movie tough-guy tradition, clamp their hands firmly over her mouth and drag her away. But even that does not discourage her, and at last, when Jones's lesson is over, she comes back and is permitted to try one shot in front of the camera. She takes a terrific swing in which she smacks the ball, leaps clear off the ground in her follow-through, makes a complete revolution in the air and winds up triumphantly with a pratfall to end the reel.

The nonsense and slapstick and fast ad-libbing of the stars sometimes jarred against Jones's serious feeling about golf. Even more, the byplay clashed with his desire to make golf interesting and intelligible to the average moviegoer. But his natural dignity and his mastery of the game made most of the story episodes seem so outlandish and irrelevant that they did not interfere with his essential message. The message was summed up in his words to the disconsolate Frank Craven: "The whole idea, it seems to me, is to do the thing in the simplest and most natural way."

Jones managed to work this concept into every reel. "Stand up, be comfortable," he said to Charles Winninger, who was crouching over the ball as though he intended to play marbles. "Get yourself in a comfortable position where you can swing easily," he said to Leon Errol. In his reel with the child stars, he told them, "I don't know a better way to start learning the game than to get a mashie like this, or a midiron, and start knocking the ball around until you get the feel of the clubs."

Jones was always candid, which proved interesting under the unrehearsed conditions. When Cagney asked him what difficulties he had with his own golf game, Jones said, "Well, with the medium irons and short irons, the trouble I have most often is failing to cock my wrists at the top of the backswing. I'm inclined sometimes to hang onto the club a little bit too tight, so I don't get that nice rhythm." And he demonstrated his own failings with the same detail he gave to everything else.

Naturalness and ease were the theme of his instruction, and he illustrated it in his manner as well as in his game. One episode revolved around a gag also unrehearsed. Joe E. Brown bet that he could beat Jones if he played Jones's ball and Jones played Brown's after the tee shots, because Brown was always in trouble off the tee and Jones, who never was, had little experience in getting out of trouble. In the succeeding scenes Jones had to hit out of deep gullies, off cliffs and from ponds and streams, but he still managed to get across his argument on the need for ease in golf. "The success of this shot," Jones calmly explained once, as he straddled a deep ditch on a sloping hillside to hit Brown's ball, "depends upon the player's ability to swing accurately from a strained position. I find this is a severe test of concentration and of one's ability to relax under stress."

Those words could have served as a commentary on Jones's entire experience in Hollywood. In effect there was a contest going on: Jones trying to explain and to demonstrate how much golf meant to him and its worthiness as an art and a sport; the stars being themselves. " Bobby Jones was one of the most impressive individuals I've ever known," says Joan Blondell. Unable to play golf, she regarded the Jones movie as a picnic, a release from the rigors of shooting schedules indoors. "I remember going out one day to shoot with Jones," she says. "It was a bright, sunny, warm day and the grass looked so inviting I lay down to rest. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, here was Jones hitting golf balls over me that landed just inches away. It was impressive."

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