A Very Quiet Actor (1935)
A Very Quiet Actor
By Kyle Crichton
One day Mr. Leslie Howard, of England and Hollywood and, occasionally, Broadway, found out that what he had been doing all his life, if you did it on a stage, was called acting. He has been on a stage or in front of a camera almost ever since
It has been rather well established that the English are a funny race. They speak a dialect which can only be described as unbelievable, and in addition they are addicted to punting on the Thames. More than that, they are invariably embarking on walking tours in a pair of hobnailed boots and a knapsack, and on the slightest provocation will organize an amateur dramatic company to produce Charley’s Aunt. The mania for home talent shows has reached such proportions in the thick little isle that no set of drapes in a drawing-room is safe from a harrowing death as robes of Cleopatra.
When it is said that Leslie Howard got his start as an actor in such circumstances, it is no signal for surprise. If every English gentleman who acted in Charley’s Aunt were to gain a place on the professional stage, London audiences would of necessity be confined to females. Mr. Howard lived at Norwood and went to school at Dulwich and spent his time, when not playing cricket or punting on the Thames, in painting scenery, fooling with lights and trying to screw up his courage to tackle acting.
At that time he was primarily concerned with writing for the theater, and suffered from an excess of self-consciousness which rendered his acting painful to himself and to the countryside. It is a falling which still besets him. When he wanders out on to the stage in his present stage success, The Petrified Forest, by Robert Sherwood, he looks like a man who had strolled on by mistake and regrets the whole incident. He looks that way because he feels that way.
A Bit of Rushing About
The rehearsals for The Petrified Forest had been on for two weeks before Mr. Howard arrived from London via Hollywood. He took the boat at Southampton on Thursday of one week, landed in New York four and a half days later, took a plane for Hollywood on the Thursday following. After settling up some affairs which had to do with doing another picture, he was back in New York on the following Monday. Mr. Howard was impressed by the progress of science but was not at a loss. This was on the theory that no Englishman can ever be surprised.
“Oh, indeed,” he said, agreeably enough, when asked if he didn’t think things were going at rather a pace.
When he began rehearsals, the rest of the cast went through their lines and Mr. Howard read his from the script.
He sat by a table in the center of the bare stage and read his lines in the flat, subdued way in which he later acted them. He wore a hat and an overcoat, and when it came time for him to speak, he stuck his horn-rim glasses on his nose and did his work. The glasses are an integral part of Leslie Howard. Just as Harold Lloyd is disguised by taking his glasses off, Howard can wander around in comfort because he wears them. It happens to be his best defence because he is the outstanding matinée idol of the new day and ladies have been known to simulate the panther when coming within range of him.
What really got him into acting was the war. He had left Dulwich and was working in a bank as a clerk when he went to the front with a company of the Yeomanry. The Yeomanry was a cavalry unit and rather like the militia of this country. Each county had a company and it was the doggy thing to belong. It was found that the cavalry had little success against a German army entrenched behind a series of machine-gun nests, and Howard found himself attached to G.H.Q., where the presence of the horse gentlemen was considered excellent for the morale of a British army, which had previously won its laurels in places where the horse was considered an excellent invention. Even at General Headquarters there was danger, and Howard was wounded and invalided out of the army about six months before the Armistice.
His place in the bank had been filled, but a kind friend informed him that there was a scarcity of leading men in the theater. It was not so much a question of acting like Sir Henry Irving as being able to go on and utter a few words without either falling over the furniture or being brained from the front by audiences who were not only war-weary but sick of juveniles who looked like Primo Carnera. The business was ideal from the manager’s viewpoint, because he could get young Howard cheaply and nobody expected much in any event. He signed with a touring company of Peg o’ My Heart for four pounds a week (twenty dollars).
His first American appearance was in Just Suppose, in which he was regarded as another young Englishman who needed to work. It was only when he played in Her Cardboard Lover with Jeanne Eagels, in 1927, that he became established on Broadway. His acting created a new style, which shows no waning in popularity. To the old-time critics, Howard’s playing would be considered flat and dull. He speaks conversationally, even in the tensest scenes, and there seems a deliberate purpose to underact.
As a matter of truth, Mr. Howard is not insane about the theatre.
“It’s all right, but I don’t think it’s an end in itself. There is something rather awful about going on in the same part for years. I do it because I can make money that way and get a chance to live a bit between shows. That’s why the movies are so attractive to me. By doing a picture or two a year, I can get free to do what I want to do.”
Playing the Hollywood Game
What he wants to do is ride a horse and live like an English gentleman on his country place in Surrey and write a bit for the stage. His articles have appeared in magazines here and abroad; and he gets checks fo such odd sums as $18.37 for royalties on his two one-act plays, Murray Hill and Elizabeth Sleeps Out, which are still popping up to annoy members of Elks lodges who have no way of curbing the entertainment committee.
When he took his first flyer in Hollywood he got into a strange life.
Whether he liked it or not, the studio insisted on considering him a star, which meant that he was expected to live like one. If a friend arrived in town and called from the hotel, Mr. Howard would show up in due course in a blue limousine and a sheepish grin on his face. The limousine would look like a transcontinental bus cut down slightly for touring purposes, and Mr. Howard would not seem to be the man who belonged in it.
He played the game in other ways, among them being a trip to an exclusive club in Cahuenga Canyon. Upon getting there Mr. Howard and his friend would stand in the entrance while a gentleman with a hard eye surveyed them through a peep hole. The inside man would then close the aperture and the guests would remain standing a bit embarrassedly on one foot.
“If they don’t want us, why do we stick around here?” the friend would want to know, but Mr. Howard would just wave a light hand as if to ask for less conversation. At the end of what seemed to be ten or fifteen minutes, the door would open and they would be ushered in as if entering the presence of the Gaekwar of Glunk. once inside, they could see it was a system. The doorman looked out and then sat down to read a paper until the necessary time had elapsed to show the paying guests that they were being favored by being admitted. The success of this was revealed by the price of drinks, which was $1.50 each.
“They tell me it’s the thing to do,” Mr. Howard would say, looking a great deal like the man who is holding the plate of apples for the magician.
His first Hollywood picture was Outward Bound, which was an artistic success and a financial failure. His newest picture is The Scarlet Pimpernel, made in England by Alexander Korda, who directed Henry the Eighth. His screen success was crowned by his performance as the clubfooted hero in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. There was no little weeping on the American continent over the way Bette Davis treated the poor fellow, and if sex appeal may be considered half maternal instinct, it was clear that Mr. Howard would suffer no lack of comforting if he gave the signal of distress.
He happens to be one of the best situated of actors. He not only shares in the profits of his plays but he gets his salary as a performer and generally directs the production. Starting with Berkeley Square, which he was sponsoring even before John L. Balderston finished writing it and which he produced, directed and later played in, both on the stage and in the movies, he has become a small corporation of his own. Just now he is under contract to M-G-M for nine pictures.
“Only eight more to go,” he says ruefully.
He will be tied up with the Petrified Forest for at least a year and could probably go on acting in it for years to come, but it will probably be his last stage show. More than that, he is likely to drop it long before its run is completed. He has done that with other successes and considers it good business. It follows the old vaudeville dictum that you should always leave them unsatisfied. The time to depart is when they are crying for more, not for gore.
Whether he makes up before he goes on the stage is debatable, and it is better not to ask it for fear you’ll find out. It is certainly true that in Petrified Forest he is dressed exactly as he is on the street, with the same nondescript hat, the same light topcoat and suit. But even this is no protection for him. The ladies would accept him in overalls and gum boots. At a recent tea in New York given in honor of the opening of The Scarlet Pimpernel, the lady guests might have been seen leaving soon after they arrived. Miss Merle Oberon was there in all her beauty, but Mr. Howard was in the hospital suffering from nothing more dignified than boils. The exodus seemed equally divided between those who were heartbroken at the absence of Mr. Howard and of others who were headed for the hospital with offers of service.
On the personal side, Howard likes Dubonnet cocktails with brandy instead of gin. He also likes Scotch and soda, polo and long-distance phone calls. He does not like jokes about the king. He is very English and the darkest moment of his life have come when London papers have referred to him as “Leslie Howard, the young American actor.” This is sometimes known as poetic justice, but it may also be set down to the ineptness of the British. They don’t know a good thing when they have it.
(Collier’s, May 4, 1935)