Always for England (1943)
Leslie Howard the Patriot
By CHARLES BUTTROSE
If historians ever compile a list of Englishmen who helped save their country from going under when the full force of Hitler’s might weighed down upon her, they surely will include in it the name of Leslie Howard, actor, writer, and patriot – now posted missing.
Had he been less of an Englishman Leslie Howard could have spent the years of the war living in comfort and peace in the United States. He could have sopped his conscience with the fact that he had served in the Army in the last war and that he was well over military age.
Life in America must have been pleasant for him. Americans liked his acting: on stage or screen. They liked his writing, too, and magazines like the “New Yorker” and “Vanity Fair” were ready publishers for anything he wrote. In Hollywood, he commanded the respect of his fellow workers and film executives.
And, quite important, he also commanded a large salary, which, from about 1936 on, was always round the £50,000 a year mark.
But, when war came, Leslie Howard gave up these things he had struggled to attain, to live in bomb-drenched England and devote his talents to helping his countrymen withstand their time of great testing.
Even when Hollywood was laying its most sought-after roles at his feet and America had taken him to her heart, Leslie Howard is said always to have nursed a resentment that the English film industry, for all England’s theatrical tradition, had to play second fiddle to Hollywood.
He frequently let it be known that it was his ambition to have his own production unit in England and produce films there that would offer the most rugged competition to Hollywood in winning world acclaim. He achieved this ambition but recently.
Soon to be screened in Sydney is the first film to be made by the founder of Leslie Howard Productions, “The First of the Few,” the screen story of the life of R. J. Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire. Leslie Howard plays the role of Mitchell. His daughter Lesley (there is also a son) makes her first and very brief screen appearance as a nurse in the film.
With Europe setting the stage for her grimmest and bloodiest drama, the British film industry was at a very low ebb in 1938, when Leslie Howard and Gabriel Pascal went into partnership with the idea of making a film to help revive it.
Made Shaw Happy
The bombs already had begun to fall on England by the time that film was ended. But even the highly-exacting author of “Pygmalion” joined film critics in the United States and the Empire in acclaiming Howard, Pascal, and their colleagues for the job they made of it.
See and hear Leslie Howard in “Pygmalion” and you might imagine him an exclusively Shavian player; surely the talent of an actor who could play Shaw so much in the Shaw “manner” and with such authority could not take in other dramatists.
See and hear him in “Romeo and Juliet” and you will lose all those ideas. Some who played with him in the Hollywood version of the Shakespearean tragedy must have been selected for their American box-office appeal rather than their Shakespearean skill.
But Leslie spoke the lines of Shakespeare’s unhappy hero with a sublime beauty; he always sounded the perfect lover even if he did not always look like him.
All his film work since the war began, like his weekly broadcasts from the B.B.C., have been directed towards rallying British people to their nation’s cause and ensuring that British pride in being British did not diminish.
He had a hand in planning and also an important role in that magnificent British Government propaganda film, “49th Parallel,” and under the auspices of the British Department of Information he made and acted in a number of “shorts,” including “From the Four Corners,” which has been seen in Sydney.
Since the war, too, he directed and played the name part in “Pimpernel Smith.” As in “49th Parallel,” he preaches the moral in this film that the quiet, polite, easy-going Englishman can be something to be reckoned with even by the toughest bullies Nazism can produce.
Unlike many Hollywood leading men, Leslie Howard was never a puppet, jerked into saying and doing things by some director. He had his way of doing things, and generally did them that way. But, despite this he brought a completely new character to each role, and, for the time being, Leslie Howard was submerged by that character.
Just think back on some of his films and be amazed at Leslie Howard’s versatility. It was in 1930 he first went into pictures after stage successes in London and New York. His first film was “Outward Bound.” Some that have followed it are: “Service For Ladles,” “Smilin’ Through,” “Berkeley Square,” “Of Human Bondage,” “British Agent,” “Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Petrified Forest,” “Gone With the Wind.” and “Intermezzo.”
He was a delightful comedian: deft and smooth and with flawless good taste. He had the capacity, too, for making even the most banal and commonplace lines effective: an asset he doubtless found a godsend during his Hollywood years.
Before he joined the Army very early in the last war, Leslie Howard was a bank clerk. He went on the stage soon after he was discharged in 1917, and London war-time audiences saw him as Jerry in “Peg o’ My Heart.” He wrote a couple of plays, produced in London and New York, and adapted “The Late Christopher Bean,” and “Dodsworth” for the screen. *
Wherever actors, and those who go to see them play, gather together, there will always be a devout recognition of his sincerity and artistry.
(The Sydney Morning Herald, June 5, 1943)
* “The Late Christopher Bean” (1932) and “Dodsworth” (1936) were adapted by Sidney Howard.