Posted by Moira Finnie on June 16, 2010
Quick! What could bring the talented, the powerful and the famous together in studio era Hollywood? Not a movie. Not a premiere. And not a high stakes poker game, though plenty of those went on regularly. What brought the likes of Jimmy Gleason, Walter Wanger, Spencer Tracy, Leslie Howard, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Walt Disney, Paul Kelly, Frank Borzage, Johnny Mack Brown, Hal Roach, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, George O’Brien, Darryl F. Zanuck and even Joan Crawford together in the same places week after week when their work was done?
If you readily answer “Polo, old sport!” to this question then you might be British royalty, a Will Rogers fan, or a person who has caught the international fever for the game of polo. Today, most of us probably associate polo, a game that is at least 2,000 years old, with products created by Ralph Lauren, or perhaps the “hunky” figure of Argentinian polo superstar Nacho Figueras, the most prominent international player of our day and a spokesmodel for Lauren’s wares.
The game reeks of history, class and competition, and between the First and Second World Wars it gave novice and experienced players in Hollywood a chance to chase a ball with a mallet while on horseback, which was as easy, according to one wag, as “trying to play golf during an earthquake.” Teams of Hollywood producers vs. actors, sprinkled with moneyed high society names like Whitney, Fleischmann, and Firestone played regularly against one another and on the same teams. Public games attracted gawkers and aficionados from the bleakest days of the Great Depression to Pearl Harbor on both coasts. Matches sprinkled with stars were often found weekly at such long gone spots as the Midwick Country Club in Alhambra, or the Uplifters Club near Santa Monica, or any of the 25 polo fields that once existed around Los Angeles in the 1930s.While some studios blanched at the thought of their valuable properties exposed to an often fierce and dangerous game, the fact that so many producers were involved in polo may have mitigated the censure of actors who participated in the game.
Living in a part of the country that boasted fair weather for most of the year, these Hollywood denizens found horseback riding–in a town where Rodeo drive was originally a path for equestrians–and playing the game of polo together, to be a bit addictive. In addition, the casually elegant clothes that were de rigueur for the game probably appealed to the stylish and theatrically-minded imagination of those attracted to the sport. The now ubiquitous polo shirt, according to some fashion historians, was popularized by Clark Gable, after he began to wear the comfy shirt in public beyond the polo field, adding to the easygoing look that Hollywood helped to create for Americans, beginning in that more formally dressed period.
The individuals involved sometimes played with skill and dedication, and a fiercely competitive spirit, and occasionally with disastrous results. The game may have been appealing to the newly rich in Hollywood in part because of the deep Anglophilia in the movie colony, increased by the many Canadian and British émigrés to California who brought an interest in the game to the Golden State from the 19th century on. Moving, as one observer said “From Poland to polo in one generation,” the moguls and newly arrived rough diamonds among the “lotus-eaters” also found themselves attracted to polo for the air of refinement it might give them. As can be seen in this clip from a short feature touting Hollywood’s sports-minded activities, being seen at a polo match was just one of the ways to show that one had arrived:
Other Hollywood types may have found that the vigorous sport helped them to stay in trim and out of trouble away from the camera and studio politics. For many of the actors, directors and producers that pursued the sport in Hollywood, perhaps the game was also a respite from their high pressure lives, engaging them completely in an activity that required their full attention in a real way; taking them out of themselves and the fictitious, dissembling worlds they were striving to survive in at the studio. Movies in the studio era with polo players were usually not of lasting significance, though films such as Neptune’s Daughter (1949-Edward Buzzell) and Arthur (1981-Steve Gordon) have occasionally tried to make it a plot device on screen.
My own curiosity about polo in the movie colony stems from seeing a late silent, The Smart Set (1928-Jack Conway) with William Haines in a light story emphasizing the comic aspects of the leading man as an annoyingly arrogant player (based, according to some on the famous Tommy Hitchcock, Jr.). The movie might have been funnier if the filmmakers had used Haines real life dislike of all athletic team sports! One good little movie incorporating polo in a “fish out of water” story is enhanced by Edward G. Robinson‘s deft comic touch and the equally appealing acting of Mary Astor in The Little Giant (1933-Roy Del Ruth). This pre-code brought out more genuine humor by contrasting the brash but likable former bootlegger together with society and its hypocrisies on and off the polo field. Usually presented as an elitist game with all followers in a negative light, perhaps my fondest memory of polo in the movies stems from the sight of Edna May Oliver in a minor motion picture called We’re Rich Again (1934-William Seiter). Playing the frisky matriarch of a family of once rich dead beats wiped out by the Depression and their own extravagance, “Granny” Edna cracks wise about their situation, in between hopping into convertibles to go off to play polo, usually accompanied by her own private entourage of young men, (with a very young Buster Crabbe in the briefest of trunks among the cast). The movie bogs down in the romance of youngsters and the travails of Grant Mitchell and Billie Burke as the parents, but the sight of Oliver in her jodhpurs, casting a cold eye on life, and swinging her mallet at the obstacles to her fun make those liabilities fade in memory.
My interest in this Hollywood sidelight deepened more significantly as I discovered the many images of all these men and women in their prime enjoying life, many of them beautifully dressed in an apparently unself-conscious way, full of life and health. The photos caught their nonchalant grace and vigor so well, I was interested in learning more about this seemingly more carefree moment in the California sun.
Among the real polo crowd in Hollywood the potential camaraderie between movers and shakers with mere contract players was a chance to schmooze and be seen. Some of those attracted to the sport were transplanted from the East or more distant places. Sometimes regarding their new home on the West Coast to be a cultural desert, devoid of the theater, art galleries and the familiar charms of their former creative lives in great cities of the world, it probably filled a void and allowed them to vent their frustrations over their sometimes constricted, anxious if well paid lives in the spotlight. While polo was never going to replace football and baseball in the hearts of the sports-mad Americans of the era, a significant portion of the general public on both coasts once followed the sport assiduously, while many spectators just enjoyed seeing the movie stars at play.
In the 1920s and 1930s, polo in the United States was quite popular, and was played by amateurs alongside then famous American players such as Eric Pedley, from a prominent California family of polo players, Tommy Hitchcock, Jr., a polo-playing stockbroker who was also a legendary aviator in WWI and WWII, and Cecil Smith, the “The Texas Cowboy” from the Lone Star State, who came to prominence initially without wealth of his own but great skill on horseback.
Such world class pros and the amateur celebrity crowd could draw as many as 45,000 people to matches. Competitive teams from different polo clubs and countries often had their clashes broadcast live on the radio. Army and Navy polo teams cropped up. Between 1900 and 1936, polo was an Olympic sport five times, with teams representing Britain, Mexico, Argentina and the U.S., among other nations, competing for the gold, silver and bronze medals.
Though there are variations in rules and the type of play throughout the world and over time, most of the time, basically polo required two teams of four players, competing on a field that is generally between 300 yards in length and 160 feet in width, with the object of the game to hit a ball through the goals at both ends of the field. These goals are usually 8 feet apart. Players, using a long mallet in their right hand may hook other players’ mallets to prevent them from scoring. The direction of the teams changes after each goal scored. Players, riding fully grown horses called “polo ponies” who are prized for their even temperament, speed, stamina, agility and responsiveness, need anywhere from 4 to 8 mounts during a game, since the chukkers (the seven minute periods of play, with six chukkers or chukkas comprising a game).
Strangely, at a time of the greatest economic hardship in the 1930s, interest in the competition and the players reached an all time peak among the public. Stables would rent out polo ponies (of sometimes indeterminate lineage) for a buck an hour, enabling even average people to have a taste of the sport. The WPA and PWA used public funds to build polo fields without a general outcry in the press. Already popular among the elite and increasingly of interest to middle class people in the East, the sport grew quickly in California, where the first polo club had begun in 1876. A “golden age” of the sport saw spectators and players brought together to enjoy what many today would regard as a rich man’s sport.
Much of the popularity of the sport in the West owed something to the long term efforts of an accomplished equestrian and a great entertainer, Will Rogers. To the world famous movie star, radio personality, newspaper columnist, and expert roper, it really didn’t matter who won the game. As his son Jim once said, “He was terribly competitive,” remembered the younger Rogers. “You did things one way, and that was full out….Dad never cared who had won the game.What mattered was that you played hard.”
Acquiring a taste for the oldest equine team sport known to man after he learned the fundamentals from friends on Long Island in 1915 when he was starring in the Ziegfeld Follies, Rogers promoted polo during the rest of his life, which was to end in 1935 pursuing another passion–aviation, during a flight with his friend, Wiley Post.
While Rogers‘ worldwide fame grew, the one quarter Cherokee, Oklahoma-born performer first learned to ride as a boy on his family land. His comfort in the saddle helped him to become adept at the game. Eventually he played the sport in Argentina, Britain the Philppines and even India with a Maharaja of Jaipur. Down-to-earth and approachable despite his fame, Will Rogers‘ venture into the movies increased his wealth as he made 50 silent films and 21 talkies, usually playing some variation on himself, with lots of ad libs tossed into the show. Since federal and state taxes were relatively low and land was cheaper, he was able to accumulate a vast fortune–none of which really changed him as a person, though he was far more canny than was evident.
Often playing a laid-back, even slow sorts in films such as Judge Priest (1934-John Ford), Rogers pursued his leisure time activities with the same intense commitment to having fun that he brought to his multi-faceted career. By 1926, the comedic performer had purchased extensive land in the Pacific Palisades area where he built his his family home, which included a polo field. (Today, the publicly owned polo field is the sole place left in the Los Angeles area where matches are still held regularly–and for free). Without Will Rogers appealing and unpretentious personality, would polo have caught on the way it did in Hollywood? (I doubt it).
In the late ’20s Rogers would write–rather disingenuously–to the IRS that had balked at his deduction of polo on his taxes that “I am no polo player, I am not even fond of the game. I could ride a bit and took it up solely for what there was in it from a publicity angle.” Claiming that the game just allowed him to keep his name in the paper and meet important people was hardly the whole truth. Soon a game would be played on his own field every Sunday, followed by a buffet brunch. Young Robert Stack, a Pasadena native who grew up around the polo crowd, described the formidable sight of the “wild” Rogers, wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt rather than the usual jodhpurs and more formal duds of a player. “He used to tear down the field twirling the polo mallet around his head like a cowboy about to rope a steer.” Others commented that “he missed all the easy shots and returned all the impossible ones.”
Some of the Players:
Wiry character actor James Gleason, (seen at left with Leslie Howard and polo legend Snowy Baker), is remembered by most of us as a lovably gruff New York type, in movies from the ’20s through the ’50s such as A Free Soul (1931), Meet John Doe (1941), Suddenly (1954), and The Last Hurrah (1956). In his spare time, he was also a fiercely devoted polo player in Hollywood. A performer, playwright, songwriter, and one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild, Gleason, who first appeared on screen in Polly of the Follies (1922), told a reporter in 1931 that his interest stemmed from his being “so lazy,” which hardly explains his devotion to the game, first acquired in the 1920s when he was appearing in, writing and producing several Broadway plays.
The energetic and surprisingly athletic actor continued to pursue his passion for the game throughout his life, telling another reporter in 1941 that he intended to embark on “a hegira…of polo playing to avail himself of standing invitations to visit polo-playing companions in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and India…barring unforeseen complications.” (I assume that World War II may have put a crimp in his travel plans). As late as 1949, the then 63-year-old Gleason was still active in polo circles, running a breeding farm for thoroughbreds, polo ponies and quarter horses in between his more than one hundred appearances on film. (Maybe he really did perform those skating scenes in The Bishop’s Wife??)
British actor Leslie Howard also had a string of polo ponies and played throughout his time in Hollywood. He was considered one of the best of the actor-players. He assessed the abilities of others with a highly critical eye. In 1935 he scoffed at his fellow celebrities’ efforts, calling Hollywood the home of “the worst and [yet] the most serious polo-players in the world, riding the worst polo ponies” declaring that “[h]ere in Hollywood a man who has never seen a horse before suddenly decides to be a polo player. He equips himself with some mallets and balls, rents or buys a horse, usually one that should be pulling a milk truck, and then proceeds to play the game as though his life depended on it. Under these conditions, injuries are inevitable.” Naming actor Will Rogers, producer Hal Roach and director Frank Borzage as “sane polo enthusiasts,” the actor most vehemently expressed his chagrin over the misplaced seriousness with which amateurs approached the game. Claiming that he was not a good player himself, Howard believed that his real advantages were his decent polo ponies and his awareness that “the game should be played just for fun.”
Spencer Tracy was one of the actors who was most active in polo in Hollywood in the ’30s. According to former stuntwoman Martha Crawford Cantarini, whose terrifically readable memoir, Fall Girl: My Life as a Western Stunt Double (McFarland) has recently been published, the talented, often mercurial actor, who struggled throughout his adult life with alcoholism, was “a favorite among all the players and a good sport.” Cantarini, whose stepfather Carl Crawford was a prominent polo player and horse trainer himself, moved his family to California while he worked at various times for Leslie Howard and Walter Wanger and Joan Bennett training their polo ponies. (Btw, Joan reportedly usually brought a book or her knitting during play and had to be told when her husband Walter had scored). Carl Crawford also oversaw the polo facilities at the Riviera Country Club (today no country clubs in the LA area now have any polo fields).
From the time she was six, Martha observed the famous as they played polo. She was particularly friendly with the Tracy family. Giving a different perspective on the family than most accounts, Cantarini described Spencer Tracy‘s interest in polo as “a family occasion with him, because his wife, Louise, was also an excellent polo player in an era when women polo players were almost unknown. I once heard that she was a better polo player than he was!” Young Martha was often a companion to their children as well since “Susie and Johnny were my riding companions almost daily. When Johnny was diagnosed with nerve deafness as a baby, [John Tracy suffered from a form of Usher's Syndrome], Louise had refused to allow it to hinder him and had set out to teach him to lip read and eventually to talk by constantly chattering and reading to him.” The boy often accompanied his father to polo matches, sometimes in the company of his mother and baby sister, but often just with him. While Spencer Tracy usually ignored or glared at photographers or autograph hounds who might intrude on their time together, father and son as a pair shared an interest in the sport and each other on or near the polo field.
Louise Tracy would eventually go on to found the world-famous John Tracy Clinic. In 1936, when a bout of polio struck their son, he “learned to cope with that too…and wore a brace because of a weakened leg.” Cantarini wrote that John Tracy had “begun riding horses at the age of nine and could play remarkable games of polo and tennis when I knew him. He could understand everything said to him because of his extraordinary lip-reading skills.” While they played polo, rode together or played tennis, the younger Tracy would tell Martha “‘Just talk as you normally do–don’t talk slow.”
John Tracy went on to study art and worked at the Disney studio for a time. Later, he would eventually have a family of his own. When he died at the age of 82 in 2007, his younger sister Louise Treadwell “Susie” Tracy remembered that her big brother “had one of the best dispositions of anyone I ever knew…” and recalled “days as a child when, sick in bed, I was entertained by John’s extemporaneous stories, which usually had something to do with a horse and ended with the words ‘to be continued … ‘,” she said. “I hung on every word.” Despite the fact that the Tracys may have had a somewhat turbulent marriage at times and their son had lifelong physical challenges, perhaps the time spent around a polo field and the care his devoted parents gave him helped nurture his confidence and the ability to go on to live a fuller life.
For Walt Disney, polo would prove to be a mixed blessing as a pastime that drew him away from work. He was first enticed to observe a few matches at the invitation of Will Rogers and Darryl F. Zanuck. The diminutive and ingenious Zanuck, who had helped to build Warner Brothers and then went on to shape 20th Century Fox for decades, was such a devotee of polo that he was well known for rarely appearing in his office without a polo mallet to toy with while making a point for one of his minions. I’ve often wondered if the presence of this potentially lethal accoutrement was intended as an overt way of making his wishes clear, though perhaps the mere presence of this piece of sports equipment was enough to make his decisions a reality. (Eventually, as he aged and polo became even more expensive as a hobby, his passion shifted to another, allegedly gentler, mallet-wielding sport–croquet, which guests at his home were usually expected to play by his rules, and until he called time on the hotly contested matches). Btw, it is generally acknowledged that Zanuck and Will Rogers were responsible for taking over the function room where guest’s children were formerly fed at the Beverly Hills Hotel and transforming it into the well known Polo Lounge that exists as a place where the powerful meet to this day. The polo players, playing in a field nearby, needed a casual place nearby to recuperate in peace after a vigorous day’s play.
Disney, a man whose devotion to his innovative studio had nearly worn him to a frazzle, decided that polo “was golf on horseback” and threw himself into the sport whole-heartedly by 1933. Never a man to do anything tentatively, Walt bought some polo ponies, recruited players at his studio (including his somewhat reluctant brother, Roy Disney). He hired polo expert Gil Proctor to lecture the lucky future players on the fine points of the game in the studio conference room. He even installed a polo cage at the studio so that players could practice shots during lunch breaks. At six in the morning in Spring and Summer, he and his team players would be found taking lessons in riding in the San Fernando Valley and practicing at actor Victor McLaglen’s nearby polo pitch as well. When he was home, Disney would also practice on his dummy horse in his back yard prior to those early bird equestrian sessions.
Calling themselves the “Mickey Mouse Team” (in part due to the fact that the trash-talking Will Rogers would often tease Disney on the course by calling him “Mickey”), they took to the field with other moguls and actors, often at the Riviera Country Club in Brentwood. Disney, who tended to be consumed with his demanding career, needed an outlet. Hoping that his acceptance among the Hollywood elite might be a sign of his status in the movie capital, he wrote to his mother that polo, he believed, “was my only sin. I don’t gamble or go out and spend my money on other people’s wives, or anything like that, so I guess it’s okay. Anyway, the wife approves of it.”
Lillian Disney, who realized that her driven spouse needed something more than work in his life, may also have hoped that he would find some friends, as well as be healthier by becoming involved in polo–especially since the couple had been told that exercise might help them to conceive a healthy baby, after Mrs. Disney suffered a traumatic miscarriage. Happily, by December of 1933, a healthy baby girl named Diane entered their lives. Still, Walt’s exuberant interest in polo grew along with his competitive spirit. His team began to recruit ringers occasionally and to play as far afield as Mexico and throughout California. Disney even helped his studio players pay for their polo ponies when they could not pay for them, and kept as many as 8 for his own use.
For a time, fellow polo maven Spencer Tracy became what Disney described as his “best friend,” but the often diffident Walt rarely invited others to his home. His organizational skills and ability to draw out the best work in his creative colleagues gave him considerable satisfaction, but the celebrity aspects of his position meant little to him in the end. “As far as I can remember,” he wrote, “being a celebrity has never helped me make a better picture, or a good shot in a polo game, or command the obedience of my daughter, or impress my wife. It doesn’t even keep the fleas off our dogs.”
As he became engrossed in the long production period of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) by the mid-thirties, involvement in the sport did yield some creative inspiration with the cartoon, Mickey’s Polo Team (1935), which featured Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, the Big Bad Wolf, and Goofy playing a madcap game against a caricatures of Laurel & Hardy, Harpo Marx, and Charlie Chaplin, among others. The stands were populated by Eddie Cantor, Harold Lloyd, Edna May Oliver (being vexed by Oswald the Rabbit), W.C. Fields, Greta Garbo, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Charles Laughton (in his Henry VIII gear). Conspicuous by his absence in the cartoon is Will Rogers, whose caricature was removed from the nearly completed cartoon after his death in an airplane crash in Alaska in August, 1935:
Disney‘s involvement with the rough and tumble yet exhilarating game eventually led to a serious injury to his neck that was to plague him for the rest of his life. His brother Roy urged him, according to several sources, to give up polo, especially since the future of so many people was dependent on him at the studio and in private life. Walt Disney was described by most as “a middling player” but the investment of his time and fortune led him to continue playing, even as his work life became more multi-faceted at the studio and it meant time away from his own growing family. Disney animator Bill Tylta‘s extended hospitalization due to a polo injury did not prevent the hard-driving Disney from assigning work to him for the Snow White feature length movie even though he was still bedridden. Everyone got hurt playing polo at some time or another. Actor Reginald Denny was badly hurt in the early ’30s during one smash-up on the field, and Walter Wanger was knocked cold during more than one match. In the 1920s, heir Julius Fleischmann, the 53-year-old president of the Fleischmann Yeast Company had been killed in a match.
A first class athlete such as Alabama’s All-American halfback turned actor Johnny Mack Brown told reporters that polo was hardly “the sissy sport” many supposed and he regarded it as far more demanding than football. Will Rogers himself had taken spills and smashed fingers. Finally, after playing in two matches in which players were accidentally killed, and enduring daily treatments for his injury while he worked at the office, Disney sold his polo ponies and never played the game again.
The event that triggered Walt Disney’s eventual step back from polo came during a game on October 28, 1935. During a match between MGM and Disney studio players, the horse being ridden by 31-year-old contract player Gordon Westcott collided with Disney and his mount, causing the actor to fall and be trampled under the hooves of the players’ ponies. According to one report mentioned in Neal Gabler’s recent biography of Disney, the actor may have been under Disney’s horse, who toppled onto the downed man.
After three days, an unconscious Westcott, who had appeared in films familiar to TCMers such as Heroes for Sale (1933) Footlight Parade (1933) and Fog Over Frisco (1934), died without awakening, leaving a wife and two children. Roy Disney quit the sport within a month of this tragedy, and Walt Disney played less and less until he wrote to the club where most of his time was spent that “pressing duties at the studio” had caused him to decide to leave the game entirely.
Other factors drove many of the most fanatical polo players in Hollywood away from the game. Age played a role, as did mounting injuries, and the ability of the Roosevelt administration to extract more taxes from the wealthy as the federal government geared up for the looming Second World War. The game all but died out during the war, though a few, still played. In recent decades, actors with exceptionally deep pockets such as Sylvester Stallone have been known to play the sport.
People who still play this elite and dangerous sport on horseback have three things–a high level of athletic conditioning, quite a bit of physical courage, and buckets of money. Perhaps not surprisingly, the newly wealthy in Hollywood’s heyday once went polo-mad. Part of the reason that it achieved popularity in California was also because it gave attendees a chance to dress up. Matches that were played for charity were especially popular, and in some instances actresses such as Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford sponsored teams to compete against one another, (and Crawford even participated in at least one match). The presence of beauties and the famous in the stands appealed to the hoi polloi, who often were admitted for free or for a donation to a designated charitable cause. Silliness in the name of charity also crept into the hubbub around the sport, such as polo on bicycles, motorbikes and donkey polo.
Most peasants such as myself have probably never given a moment’s thought to polo, the real sport of kings. The closest I came to involvement in this worldly pursuit was when I was involved in a match at summer camp that featured a polo game on bicycles. (My team lost, but I’m not bitter. Not much).
Btw, if you would like a taste of polo today, the UK’s own Prince Harry will be playing polo in a match sponsored by Veuve Cliquot Champagne at Governors Island in NYC on Sunday, June 27, 2010 for the most highly-anticipated events of the season featuring the glamour and excitement of “the sport of kings” to benefit children at risk for HIV/AIDS during his visit to the States this month. You can see more about this event here.
If you would like to see a slide show of people from the arts, letters and silver screen who filled the stands at the polo matches and the sidelines, please click here.
Cantarini, Martha Crawford, Spicer, Chrystopher J., Fall Girl: My Life as a Western Stunt Double, McFarland, 2010.
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