A Rather Spiritual Young Man Returns to Comedy (1938)
A Rather Spiritual Young Man Returns to Comedy
Leslie Howard talks about his comic and tragic roles, and his part in the forthcoming film version of Pygmalion
by Thomas Baird
Just off Hollywood Boulevard is the Columbia Broadcasting Company’s Theatre. It was rehearsal time and on the bare stage was an orchestra, Eddie Cantor, Deanna Durbin, Bobby Breen and a host of technicians — and Leslie Howard. Behind a glass panel to the side were the engineers with headphones clamped to their ears and their eyes fixed on a large clock which dominated the untidy stage. To the extreme left with a microphone of his own sat an effects man surrounded by window frames, door frames, coconut shells, buckets of water, bells, cups and saucers ready to simulate any scene, or to imitate any sound.
Outside the Hollywood sun was blazing and inside it was stuffy and hot. Cantor was in his shirt sleeves, Howard in flannels mopped his brow while the others sagged in odd corners. Then Cantor jumped to life, and things began to happen. Little red lights flickered, the headphones were adjusted, the effects man grabbed a bucket, and Cantor began to rehearse. For the next three hours lines were read and re-read, gags were added and taken out again, and as the cast wilted into their seats, the script was sent back to the writers again. This was repeated at intervals for several days.
Cantor’s half-hour programme is due on the air at 4 p.m. on Sunday. At 12.30, he has a public rehearsal when hundreds of people flock into the theatre. The show runs through and takes about 40 minutes. Everything is done as it will be when the show goes on the air. About 1.20 the theatre is quiet again. The half-dozen who have clocked the laughs are sitting with Cantor re-editing the script. Only the gags which got 100 per cent laughs are left in. Slowly the 40 minutes show is trimmed down to 29 minutes 40 seconds. One of Cantor’s jokes is right out ; Howard has three new lines ; Deanna has to sing an extra chorus for some of her lines have been cut. At 4 p.m. the public streams in again and the final show goes on the air — every line a winner. It runs to within the 20 seconds time margin. At 8 o’clock the show is repeated for the West Coast. Over 20 hours rehearsal, and several re-writings of the script for a half-
hour on the air.
When I tracked Leslie Howard to his new office in the West End I reminded him of the day I had watched him rehearse with Cantor.
“Yes, we certainly did work hard.”
“Harder than you have to work at the B.B.C.?”
“Well, it is difficult to say that, because I have only played straight parts at the B.B.C.-— Hamlet, for example-— and then it was rather a matter of adaptation. We weren’t really making something new, we were making something old and proved fit the limits of radio. But I rather think that the American radio people do put more into their type of show than we do into ours, for they are doing a different thing really. They are making a new type of entertainment by exploiting their medium. They are not adapting old ideas to a new form ; they are creating a new idea out of the nature of their medium. They are not afraid of the studio or of the medium. They romp in and make the studio and the microphones do things — sometimes very novel and exciting things. They do not try to hide the fact that they are on the radio, but rather to make that part of the appeal.
“But it is interesting to see how formalised this new type of entertainment is becoming. This is best appreciated if you consider the audiences who come to watch these broadcasts. They have quite ceased to be astonished at the sight of an actor reading from a script, and to see the players, other than the principals, sitting in a straight line along the stage and only rising to say their lines. You will remember that practically no gestures are used, and there is absolutely no dramatic movement on the stage. The audiences have become accustomed to this. They no longer laugh at the effects man opening and shutting his windows. The actors feel this too. It is a new medium which has already conventions of its own. I think the Americans do more original work within these conventions, because they exploit the medium more, because they rehearse more, and probably harder-— and because they have more money to spend. The last is perhaps the most important. They can afford the best of everybody — directors, actors, writers — all the time.”
“Did you do Shakespeare on the American radio?”
“Yes, I did Benedick in Much Ado in Columbia’s Shakespeare series, but except for the fact that the play was cut to fit the hour, the technique was pretty much as it would have been at the B.B.C. It is in the new kinds of entertainment that American radio is most significant, and they seem to do more with new material than we do here.”
And now, Mr. Howard, I’m going to ask you the question that everybody is asking you?”
“Yes, I know, you are going to ask me what made me become a comedian : you are going to ask me, have I suffered a spiritual change? Or are you going to suggest that I am now back again in the fold doing the things we all like, after letting the side down rather badly by trying to be a highbrow? One paper really did say that, you know.”
“Well, my question was going to be something like that.”
“It’s very funny really. Everybody is talking about me ‘switching’ from drama to comedy. All the critics made the point. It just shows, I suppose, how short the public memory is. A few years ago I was known only as a comedian. My first stage successes were in comedies. I was playing in Her Cardboard Lover when I read Berkeley Square. I liked it very much and wanted to play it. But no one would believe I could be anything but a comedian. But we wangled it somehow, and the play, as you know, became very popular. I played it on the screen, and there followed a series of parts which transformed a one-time comedian into a rather spiritual young man. The Petrified Forest, Of Human Bondage and Romeo and Juliet completed the transformation and the comedian was forgotten.
“When Warner Bros, proposed another film there was not a suitable story available, at least not a drama requiring a soulful young man. I suggested a comedy, and the old situation came up the other way round. Once again I had been fitted into a nice little water-tight compartment and typed as a romantic actor. No one could imagine me as a comedian. But I liked one story particularly, so It’s Love I’m After was made. It was, as you know, a success, so we followed on with Stand-In. This story was originally not a comedy at all, but Warner Bros, were now quite happy in the idea that I could be a comedian, so the script was re-written and cast as a comedy. It so happened that Stand-In reached London before It’s Love I’m After, but actually it came into being as I have said.”
“And the next venture is Pygmalion?”
“Yes, and this time I am going to have a hand in the direction. Anthony Asquith and I will co-direct, and I will play Professor Higgins. It is still difficult for an actor in Hollywood to take any real part in the production. Every aspect of production is so self-contained, and there is so little come and go between writers, directors, and editors, that the best they can do is to become as expert as they can in their own limited field. It is the only way they can make any impression on the finished picture. And the same is true of the actor. The only impression he can make on a film is through his acting. He can have little effect on the people who work in these other air-tight compartments. But in England production is not so rigid, and I am going to try to contribute somethingmore than I can throughjust acting.”
“And who else is in the cast with you?”
“There’s Wendy Hiller who did such good work in the original cast of Love on the Dole. She will, of course, play Eliza, and Wilfred Lawson will play Alfred Dolittle. Lawson has been getting great praise for his work in _I Have Been Here Before_, and I am sure he will be grand as the dustman.”
I know he will, for the first time I saw Pygmalion about 15 years ago — Wilfred Lawson was Alfred Dolittle. I look forward to seeing what 15 years have done to Mr. Lawson’s Dolittle, what Leslie Howard will do to Professor Higgins, and what time and the cinema will have done to Pygmalion.
(World Film News, February 1938)