The year is 1930, and Bobby Jones is on top of the world. His victory in the United States Amateur golf tournament in September makes him the first player to win golf’s calendar-year grand slam (victory in all four “major” events), a feat not since duplicated. He has already been celebrated with a ticker-tape parade in New York City (his second) in July, having cruised to victory in both the British Amateur and British Open Championships. Jones, despite retaining his amateur status, is the best golfer in the world, full stop. His swing is blissful, his ascent meteoric. But there will be no corresponding descent for Bobby Jones. Firmly in his prime at the age of 28, he retires from golf and does what any self-respecting ex-athlete would do: he goes to Hollywood.
The front page of The New York Times, 18 November 1930, puts it plainly: “JONES QUITS GOLF; ACCEPTS FILM OFFER.” What happened next would result in a boon for film lovers and struggling golf enthusiasts alike, but for much of the 20th century—and the first decade of the 21st—Jones’s Hollywood productions would be largely inaccessible to the public, stashed away and forgotten. In the mid-1960s, it was reported that Warner Bros. “[had] no copies” of the Jones prints (or negatives), and that “the reels that were deposited in the Library of Congress [had] vanished.” In an extension of this archival mystery that may evoke Citizen Kane’s vault sequence, it appears that the owner of a “complete set” of the films had given them over to Jones himself, who then moved them to an Atlanta golf course, before they ended up “in a safe deposit vault of the Trust Company of Georgia.” Luckily for those of us with an interest in lowering our scoring differentials, hanging around with silver screen stars such as Jimmy Cagney and Loretta Young, or both of these pursuits, Warner Bros. in 2012 released the complete Bobby Jones film series (comprised of How I Play Golf and How to Break 90) through their Archive Collection imprint. What took them so long to come to their senses—or to convince the Trust Co. to release the reels—we might never know, but we can nonetheless celebrate the preservation efforts of numerous parties, efforts that ensured these unique films would not be lost to time.
Jones’s Hollywood sojourn kicked off with the inking of a Warner Bros. contract, which, according to the 6 December 1930 Exhibitors Herald-World, “calls for 12 pictures to be made for Vitaphone Varieties. The series will be entitled, ‘How I Play Golf,’ and thus an admiring nation will be able to see the ‘skill’ which won all those trophies.” Accompanying the blurb is a photograph of the golfer posing with the Warner Bros. brass. Flanked by Lewis, Jack, H.M., and “Major” Albert Warner, Jones could have been mistaken for a future leading man. So long—for the moment—billowy golf slacks, sweater over shirt and tie, argyle socks, and newsboy cap; hello three-piece suit, gold pocket-watch sheen, and pomade over a closely-cropped ‘do. As Robert Cantwell observed in a 1968 piece for Sports Illustrated (bemoaning the “unobtainable” and “almost forgotten” status of the film series), “By 1931 [Jones] 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.” Jones’s gaze toward the camera seems at once self-possessed and, perhaps, mercurial. A slightly upturned lip, a raised eyebrow—it strikes me that the handsome, all-American sportsman Jones may have also been a bit anxious in this moment of rather drastic career change. Or did he hold a secret the public wasn’t yet privy to, one ever so furtively registering across his features?
$101,000 certainly could not have hurt.1 According to Cantwell, Jones routed this sizable contract “into a trust fund for his children.” (In the following years, Cagney would bristle at his $1,000-per-week Warner Bros. contract, push for a raise to a weekly $4,000, and ultimately end up with $4,500 by 1935.) But I prefer to read the golfer’s knowing grin as an index of how he wasn’t simply going to Hollywood; rather, Hollywood would be coming to him. Left out of the press release is any real clarification of who else would take part in the film series. As things stood, the public may have been prepared for a sequence of instructional “how-to” entries, with Jones, unaccompanied, walking them through the steps. And although such an approach would form the spine of How I Play Golf, the series’s allure would be due as much, if not more, to its supporting cast and crew.
George Marshall had spent much of the 1920s at Fox, directing or supervising short films. Per Cantwell, the decision to hire Marshall to helm the Jones enterprise was as much a result of the director’s flexibility and comedic chops (notably in one- and two-reel pictures with Mack Sennett) as his considerable skill on the golf course. As such, Marshall was well-positioned to understand Jones’s designs for the individual lessons, and his familiarity with the sport ensured that the films’ visual approach would be informed by someone with a real feel for the game. No matter how skilled or charismatic the golfer, it is an uphill battle to structure a 12-entry series around the use of different clubs. Marshall and the Warner Bros. producers must have sensed, however, that How I Play Golf would need to expand from a restricted focus on Jones and his on-course wizardry.
Thus the sizable role in these films of various Warner Bros. players, who flit in and out of the stories and shift How I Play Golf into a frequently comedic rendition of “how we play golf.” The series’s first episode, “The Putter,” finds Frank Craven (State Fair, Our Town) and Joe E. Brown (Song of the West, Some Like It Hot) having a bit of an on-course tête-à-tête. While Jones lingers in the distance, waiting for the duo to play out their match (“Oh I know that pair, they play their own private championship every day…”), Craven and Brown offer each other dubious pointers and pointed barbs. After some golf shots of varying success and plenty more ribaldry, the two finish out their match (Brown leaves a short putt on the rim of the cup, prompting another set of jabs from the victorious Craven). The rather dejected Brown is then introduced to Jones, initiating a dissertation by the master on the finer points of putting. This is the conceit that will structure nearly all of the series’s episodes: Jones remains at the top of his game, but someone from the Warner Bros. stable always needs a tip or two. Camaraderie—or hijinks—occasions the lessons, offering both a narrative lead-in to instruction and a viewer surrogate for the delivery of information. Hollywood has plenty of duffers, it seems.
“The Putter” actually begins with a voiceover narration laying out this dual objective of How I Play Golf. After a montage of newspaper headlines recounting Jones’s grand slam achievements, Marshall and his cinematographer, Frank Kesson, offer some static long shots of the golfer as he swings away on the practice tee. We move back and forth from a frontal image of Jones, the framing adjusted to account for the arc of his club, to a down-the-line shot that captures a series of perfect right-to-left draws, the ball fading into the distance wherein lie the surrounding California hillsides. The closing narration of this sequence is telling: “And in making this series of pictures, Bobby’s ambition is not only to bestow useful hints on the experts, and explain the fundamentals of good golf to the average player and the duffer, but also—and most particularly—to arouse interest in this greatest of all individual sports among those who never have played golf and are unaware of its charms and benefits.” Jones will supply the hints and fundamentals; he can even, at times, act. Arousing interest and providing charm will remain the purview of Hollywood’s established stars.
This relationship is on display pointedly in the series’s most delightful entry, “Practice Shots.” From the start, Marshall seems to recognize the value of the films’ occasionally slapdash narratives. The episode’s opening shot is a slow dolly-in, rather a rarity in How I Play Golf. Curiously, camera and sound teams are placed firmly within the frame, along with microphone accouterments and bustling crew members. Marshall’s director chair, we note, is conspicuously vacant. When Jones enters the frame, an assistant introduces him to “the folks who are gonna’ work with us on this picture”: Evalyn Knapp, James Cagney, Donald Cook, and Tony Bushell. These introductions made, Jones asks the question on everyone’s mind: “Where’s our director?” It turns out that Mr. Marshall is late (typical!). Jones and co. plan to turn this delay into an opportunity for some practice work, but the director of the picture is not the only one behind schedule. Enter Louise Fazenda, only a year removed from her role as Sarah Harper in Loose Ankles, where she played alongside Loretta Young and Douglas Fairbanks, both of whom have already received onscreen lessons from Jones in previous How I Play Golf entries.
Fazenda is an immediate threat to the calm and collected nature of the golf enterprise, practice session or no. Exiting her car, she gives a giggle and a yoohoo!, imploring the rest of the cast to “wait for me!” Confused glances and a hesitant question from Jones (“Who is that?”) are quickly punctuated by the newest member of the gang dragging her bag of clubs onto the practice tee, arriving with a cacophonous mixture of laughter and the sound of irons banging into each other. While she holds a conversation with a stunned Jones, the fedora-clad Cagney turns to Bushell and remarks, “We’ve gotta do something about that.” The two men attempt to quiet “Louise” down by making clear that the reason for the gathering here is to observe and learn from the world’s greatest golfer, no matter how much she may believe herself the center of events. This becomes the ostensible lesson of “Practice Shots,” albeit one never formally announced: one must always be quiet on the golf course when a fellow player is addressing the ball. Etiquette is everything, after all.
This isn’t to say that Cagney, Bushell and Cook keep silent. They continue to probe, asking Jones questions about the flight of his shots, the difference between clubs, and the things he himself struggles with on the course. The three men can get these inquiries in because, since Fazenda’s opening volley of noise, Cagney has kept his hand firmly over her mouth. The bit is played wonderfully, with Fazenda doing enough with her eyes—and occasionally some haphazard hand signals—to make us almost hear the questions struggling to emerge from her now-sealed lips. When Cagney asks Jones to clarify the difference between directional flight in shots from the same club, he lets the hand slip from Fazenda’s mouth ever so briefly. Instantly, the spark is back. An energetic “Wellll—” escapes from the actress, but the hand returns to stifle expression. The rapid cut back to Jones, with an almost imperceptible beat before his response, is a thing of beauty.
Ultimately, we return to long shots of the practice tee, a reminder that everything we’ve seen thus far is a sort of extemporized mini-lesson generated to pass the time until the picture’s director arrives on set. An assistant, surrounded by dozens of crew members, asks “Bob” a question or two about head positioning before Marshall finally deigns to join them. Everyone snaps into action: “Alright, what’s the first setup?” “Long shot of Bob on the front of the tee there, hitting with the driver.” “Let’s go boys, work’s over here!” But there is still one problem. Louise. Jones and Marshall, after a whispered word or two, contrive to send the loudest member of the group off to hit practice shots all by herself—they’ll call her “when [they’re] ready.” Fazenda gets a few slapstick shots in (one makes contact with the ball, at least) and complains about “[her] hips,” this latter accompanied by a deliciously funny dance of sorts. As the crew begins to break down the set around a dejected Jones, the director admits that they will need to come up with a new story. Louise simply won’t cut it, no matter how much practice they let her get in. The episode ends with Fazenda in a medium shot, chastened, wondering where everyone is going. “Aren’t we gonna play anymore?” she asks, with a final high-pitched squeak.
There is something wonderfully disruptive about Fazenda’s presence amid the proceedings, an almost centrifugal energy that keeps the lesson, and by extension the film entry, from ever getting situated. Her limited skills on the course and habit of interrupting dialogue could be read as part and parcel of a type of sporting (or general) misogyny, as a foreign element that must be extricated or silenced for everything to proceed. Certainly, this quality is present. And yet, another reading of the entry, one that I find much closer to the mark, places Fazenda as the primary piece of the film; the energy, charm, and curiosity are hers, and thus, the rambunctious nature of this would-be fifth member of the episode’s playing group tells us something very simple about the sport of golf, a factor so often overlooked: it should be fun. It is a game chock-full of rules, concerns of respect, and codes of etiquette. So much for ‘arousing interest,’ as the series made clear was its primary aim. Often in sport, as in life, you need the Fool to point out the fundamentally constructed and provisional status of such strictures. If many entries in How I Play Golf utilize humor to achieve this effect, to hold the rudiments of the game in suspension with its more uninhibited opportunities, Fazenda most firmly crystallizes such an effort.
By all accounts, How I Play Golf was often provisional and ad-libbed in its very construction. According to Cantwell, this may have frustrated Jones some: “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.” Looking back at the original run of 12 instructional films, there does often seem to be a sort of imbalance in terms of the twin engagement. However, such an uneven and frequently surprising structure lends the episodes their particular charm without doing away with the more pointed sequences of Jones lecturing and sharing his expertise. When Marshall and Kesson present these moments of bona fide instruction, the visual language often suggests that the “story” of the entry has ceased to exist for the time being. We have moved from the contrived entry point to the very heart of the matter, and in a way it matters little how we got there. But the Hollywood stars of the day, some of whom “regarded the Jones [movies] as a picnic,” waited in the wings. As they ease us into each of the individual films, so too do they provide the narrative wrap-up before the concluding teasers for subsequent entries.
How I Play Golf appears to have satisfied Warner Bros.’ initial designs and recouped its expenditure. The Motion Picture Times of 23 June 1931 makes clear that the studio and various exhibitors were relying on “co-operative” ad campaigns such as tie-ins with golf programs, country clubs, and sporting goods stores. The star power certainly didn’t hurt. In any case, says the Times, “Few pictures have ever furnished so many opportunities for exploitation as has the Jones series.” Similar columns with titles like “‘Bobby Jones’ Shorts Breaking Par!” dot the 1931 trade publications, suggesting positive movement for a studio embroiled, like most of the Big 5 members, in the Great Depression fallout (Warner Bros. would report a net loss of nearly $8 million in 1931). In August of that year, Motion Picture Magazine stoked the rumors of tennis champion Helen Wills Moody considering a similar career change in the wake of “the Bobby Jones golf shorts…going like wildfire.” Wills would forgo the shift to Hollywood and continue to play professionally until 1938. Coincidentally, it was right around this time that former Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie traded in her skates for a lucrative contract with 20th Century Fox. Over the next decade, Henie would find a way to balance her newfound screen fame with the production of ice revues, effectively straddling the athlete-actress divide.
The rest of the 20th century would see the athlete-to-actor pipeline take many different shapes. Esther Williams, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, O.J. Simpson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jordan…Some of these figures were given prominent feature roles in popular Hollywood films, while others became veritable “stars,” whether or not their screen personae ever fully eclipsed their sporting star power (need they have, we might ask?). Some, like Michael Jordan, were content to play (versions of) themselves, capitalizing on their already-iconic status. Others, like Chamberlain, are remembered for a single supporting role (1982’s Milius-helmed Conan the Barbarian, opposite Arnie). In addition to big-budget Hollywood feature work, Brown, still widely considered the greatest football player of all time, and Williamson, himself no slouch on the field, would be instrumental to the 1970s wave of Blaxploitation cinema. In today’s media landscape, seemingly the most frequented reservoir of sporting talent as far as Hollywood is concerned is that of combat sports and professional wrestling, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, John Cena, Dave Bautista, and Gina Carano, among others, making the leap to Tinseltown. The results, as well as the box-office returns, have of course been mixed.
Which brings us back to Bobby Jones, and his decision to leave the links for a career in front of the Warner Bros. cameras. It would be short-lived. By 1933, Warner Bros. was hemorrhaging money, but all things considered its productions were continuing apace (helped along by a personnel-wide pay cut in the middle of the year). Jones had inked a new contract extending him for five years, and the studio produced six more entries, which would take the title How to Break 90. A veritably surreal 1933 advertisement in the Motion Picture Herald shows the expressionless face of Jones sutured into a boldly-outlined golfer’s swing silhouette, gaudy red text splashed across the page announcing “Champions! Vitaphone and Bobby Jones.” At the very bottom, below already microscopic explanatory text, we see the names of the supporting cast (“AND THESE GREAT STARS…”). In other words, the second wave of Jones instructionals would more firmly place its Hollywood talent on the films’ fringes, opting rather to highlight the rudiments of each lesson. While players such as Guy Kibbee and W.C. Fields still appear and provide the series’s familiar levity, the actual lessons take place elsewhere, as it were. Cantwell rightly points out that How to Break 90 does not solely shift the focus back to Jones, it does so with an “emphasis…on striking pictorial effects.” Among these are costume and set decisions that rely on stark black-and-white visual reductions, in effect rendering Jones as an almost Mareysian chronophotographic subject. He is positioned in a void or non-place of sorts, his attire all black, all white, or split along bodily axes, the better to isolate and deconstruct the particulars of his movements.
This was not the only attempt to interpret the swing of the world’s greatest golfer in abstract terms. Legendary polymath and stroboscopic photographer Harold “Doc” Edgerton would, in the late-1930s, perform a set of studies with Jones as his “model” at MIT, with over 100 exposures per second generating striking images of the golfer’s blurred trunk, around which his rapidly moving clubhead pings. In a less exact but much more humorous vein, Universal Newsreel cameras in 1930 captured a rather large animatronic version of Jones “instructing” a number of women golf “novices,” with the “mechanical champ” “Iron Bobby” walking them through the steps. It must be seen to be believed. What these various attempts suggest, along with Marshall and Kesson’s different approaches to visually “tracing” Bobby Jones’s swing path, is that even if the golfing world can agree on what constitutes a perfect swing, there is always a question of how best to capture that sporting movement, to translate it. In other words, to aestheticize it. This much holds true today, in golf as well as other sports media coverage, where the datafication of athletic excellence meets increasingly sophisticated—and often experimental—visual approaches to motion capture.
Jones left Hollywood after How to Break 90, helping to design Augusta National Golf Club (one of golf’s great cathedrals) and found its home tournament, the Masters, for which he has the thanks of millions of sports fans. The lessons from these Warner Bros. shorts remain eminently useful—they are timeless, after all. A cursory glance at How I Play Golf YouTube clips turns up a bevy of comments on the genius of Jones. I continue to benefit from such instruction, even if my game still needs plenty of work. But I return to these series mostly to hang around with Hollywood stars from yesteryear, who often make it hard to tell if they’re playing a role or simply being “themselves,” as it were. They were a big deal, but Jones was on top of the world. All that remained was to have some fun. Isn’t that what golf is all about? Louise Fazenda knew the answer.
- Harper Cossar puts the figure at $250,000, and claims that Jones’s ultimate earnings from the films might have reached $600,000, but it is unclear what the actual figure was, and Cossar wisely adds that issues of multi-contract payment and “exhibition proceeds” raise further questions.