Master of Understatement (1935)

Master of Understatement

A Hollywood Observer Finds Leslie Howard a Far Cry From the Old-Time “Scenery-Chewer”
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 19, 1935

Hollywood, Nov. 19 — Understatement is a virtue practiced by few artists. The general attitude seems to be that if a thing is good a lot of it makes it better.
We have found that one can use too much garlic, too many adjectives, too many superlatives, too much good nature, too much charity. Still, we are not an artist—only a critic.
Which brings us to the subject of acting. There has been considerable scenery-chewing masquerading under the name of dramatic art these many years. True, the days when the villain showed his manliness and the heroine showed her virtue are departed from this earth. No more do wandering boys come home in time to lift the mortgage. No more—or very seldom—do father caution their careless or indiscreet daughters about darkening the door. And certainly no more do little children go down to the corner saloons to fetch their rum-soaked daddies.
But heroes are still pretty heroic and villains are still pretty villanous. Scenery chewing and chest beating are prevalent on the stage and screen.
For all we know, Leslie Howard in his salad days may have eaten his share of scenery. But if he did he lost his taste for it long ago. Not since we saw him first in “Her Cardboard Lover” on the New York stage have we noticed a single tooth mark in the scenery around him.
Howard, as far as we are concerned, is a master of understatement. Whether it be comedy or tragedy, he underplays it.
Howard the comedian is a gay, charming fellow—but not too gay or too charming or too witty or too wise. He seems to sense the fine line between real comedy and buffoonery, and then stays well on the right side of the line.
Howard the tragedian is one of Thomas Wolfe’s “lost, and by the wind-grieved ghosts.” By that we mean he has a wraithlike, out-of-nowhere quality that is the essence of all real tragedians. It seems to us that Howard understands the meaning of the word—understands that sudden death, for instance, is not its only ingredient; that futility and defeat are more tragic than awful calamity.
We have never seen Howard as Hamlet, but we feel that he will underplay the part of the melancholy prince as he underplayed the strange, almost ethereal Peter Standish in “Berkeley Square.”
The other day we went out to the First National studio to watch Howard work in “Petrified Forest.” We wanted to know if his role of the swashbuckling Scarlet Pimpernel had changed his acting technique.
If anything, we found, Howard paints the character of Alan Squier with even more delicate strokes than he did in making his notable portrait of the hero of “Berkeley Square.”
In the scene we watched Howard was sitting at a table in a desert barbecue stand and opposite him was Bette Davis. He was telling her the story of his life and of his quest for some reason for living and dying. There was little actual movement in the scene. Two people faced each other and talked. But there was no feeling that the scene was static. Howard’s voice, the light smile touching his lips now and again, the lost and lonely look that seized him when he looked into the future gave it sweep and breadth. Not once did he raise his voice or make a violent gesture. Every action was underplayed. Every thought was understated. The scene was a moving, beautiful thing, and you could put your finger on no one thing that made it so.
And when he scene was done, we went away feeling that, though understatement may not be the only reason for an actor’s greatness, it helps a lot.