The Luck of Leslie Howard, 1931
The Luck of Leslie Howard
who earned more than double the salary at Elstree that he was offered in Hollywood, and who was the first screen star to be paid £ 5oo a week in a British studio.
by Frank Shaw
Leslie Howard—the man who took the £’s out of Elstree at the rate of 500 a week—is not quite certain whether his success was due to hard work, ability, or a mascot in the form of a red dressing gown.
This red dressing gown seems to have played a big part in Leslie’s screen career. He bought it the first week he was in Hollywood and has worn it during rehearsals of every film in which he has since appeared hoth there and here.
Leslie Howard is a man who can hardly believe in his own luck. Ask him what he has done to deserve his picture prominence and, probably because he is a very modest young man, he will reverently finger the celebrated red gown.
As a matter of fact, however, it would have taken more than luck and a warehouse of red dressing gowns to place Leslie Howard where he is to-day.
It has taken more than a red dressing gown, or even a red dressing gown, red pants, and red pyjamas to secure him the salary of £500 a week which they were paying him at Elstree before his recent departure—complete with red dressing gown—for the New York stage.
There was nothing in Leslie’s early life to suggest that he would ever become an internationally famous actor. His father was a stockbroker who would probably have loathed the mere sight of a red dressing gown, and young Leslie spent his nursery years among toy bulls and teddy bears, or with whatever it is stockbrokers’ children play.
Leslie was schooled at Dulwich College, founded three hundred years ago by Edward Alleyn, an actor, and possibly something of his spirit infected young Howard with the desire to act.
When maiden aunts asked Leslie what he was ambitious to become when he left school he invariably suggested a Surrey and England cricketer and a great writer.
He did neither. Instead he went into a bank.
He doesn’t know why.
It’s rather interesting to notice the number of famous film stars who started as bank clerks.
There was Frederic March, Richard Dix, John Garrick, the great Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, and a crowd of lesser-known players.
After the war, like Ronald Colman and a hundred others, Leslie turned his thoughts to acting.
There was no reason at all why he should be any use on the stage—which is exactly what the theatrical agencies habitually told him.
Eventually, to keep him off the doorstep, an agent gave Leslie a tiny part in a Peg O’ My Hart company which was touring a small provincial market town.
Then he received only £5 a week —which is a long way from £500.
Howard soon developed an uncommon talent for acting—that talent which Douglas Fairbanks, senior, now declares is on the verge of greatness. And he soon returned to London. He began modestly in the West End, but his popularity quickly boomed to exceptional heights.
His best remembered English stage successes were Her Cardboard Love, Let Us Be Gay (both with Tallulah Bankhead) and Berkeley Square. He played in the same plays on Broadway, and the name of Leslie Howard soon became an institution there with his work in Galsworthy’s Escape, Just Suppose, By Candle–light, The Green Hat (in which he played with Ann Harding), and Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound.
It was his performance as Tom Prior in the unusual Outward Bound that brought him to the notice of the film executives.
It was the ideal part for Howard because it gave him an opportunity to “let himself go.”
When Warner decided to make Outward Bound for the screen, Howard was enticed to Hollywood to co-produce and play his original part. Douglas Fairbanks, junior, was starred with Helen Chandler, you remember, and the play was altered to make their minor parts more prominent.
It didn’t improve the story and it failed in its original purpose because Prior was inevitably the part that really mattered.
Anyway, this was the film that first brought Howard’s name really to the front.
Metro signed him for Never the Twain Shall Meet, the story of a young American who was fascinated by a passionate South Sea Island siren.
The part called for charm of manner and an easy adaptability when drink and the tropics had taken their toil of his culture. Howard played the part perfectly.
In the South Sea sequences he had played an unshaven, under-nourished soak. He didn’t like the dieting it necessitated.
“I have always been more or less worn down to my chassis,” he explains, “but that business of getting down to almost a hat rack for the beachcomber stuff was a bit tough on even my slender frame.” Slender he is; six feet high and only scaling a bare 10 st. 5 lb.
Metro featured him next in A Free Soul with Norma Shearer. The two ex-bank clerks struck the right balance first time. Then he played opposite Marion Davies in Daughter of Luxury, in which his calm and witty love-making was a joy to watch. P. D. C. put him opposite his former stage partner, Ann Harding, in Devotion, a tale of English life which has just been shown in London. Once again he scored. Leslie Howard has never had a flop.
When Devotion was completed a number of Hollywood companies fought each other for his services, but the best offer the actor could bear of was a mere £200 a week, so he told Hollywood a few home truths, packed his bags, and left the companies still engaged in argument and received an extra £300 a week for his courage.
Howard’s first English film for Paramount was The Head Waiter, adapted from Vajda’s novel of the same title. Now he has returned to Broadway and the stage.
That’s a fact of his, alternating between screen and stage, and between Broadway and the West End. He thinks there’s nothing like having plenty of markets. He infinitely prefers the stage to the studio. And he declares he couldn’t possibly stand a year of consecutive film acting without (in his own words) “going cuckoo.”
It’s the endless business of preparation that gets Mr. Howard down; the arrangement of lights and cameras, occupying a full three quarters of production time, and the interminable takes, re-takes, and yet more re-takes. That, and the topsy-turvy order in which sequences are shot, without any suggestion of relationship.
Howard has been accustomed to acting the beginning of a play first, the middle in the middle, and the end at the end, without re-takes! He wonders that any full-time screen player remains entirely sane.
And the strange thing is that Howard is tremendously interested in photography, kinematic and otherwise. He’s as mad on taking photos” as any kid with a new camera, and he does his own developing and printing.
He has some delightful pictures of little known beauty spots in California, but most of his home movie films are of holidays and pranks with his two kiddies.
Unlike many film stars, Howard is pleased and proud to talk about his offspring. Ronald is thirteen and is going to a famous public school next year. Leslie is a bright-eyed little girl of six, called after her father, and intended for the stage.
It was Leslie who objected vociferously to her father’s hirsute make-up in Never the Twain Shall Meet. and thought her mother should have had many of the embraces given to Conchita Montenegro. Her mother, incidentally, became Mrs. Howard during the war. She was not an actress.
Talking of make-up, Leslie Howard never has need of panchromatic paint. He is that rarity in filmdom, the man with the perfect camera complexion. When other players are uncomfortably smeared with heavy layers of paint, Howard is just his natural self. He has a deep pinkish tan, which shows on the screen as that ever-so-slight pallor so suitable to his roles.
His long, tapering face is uncommon. I must admit, with profound apologies to Mr. Howard, that it sometimes reminds me (quite illogically) of a good-looking, aristocratic horse.
At any rate, it’s thoroughbred, and in addition it makes him as different from other stars in appearance as his personality is different from theirs. No one else is quite like Leslie Howard.
And that, believe me or not, is why he was paid £500 a week by Paramount. There’s no one else with just that suave and certain touch which makes his acting so easy to enjoy and marks him out for the highest honours in his profession.
His acting is as crisp and perfectly ordered, shall I say, as his fair, wavy hair.
Will his luck hold? Will his salary continue to increase? Leslie thinks it may but he still refuses to part with his red dressing gown.
(Picturegoer, December 5, 1931)