A Nervous Wreck! (1931)

A Nervous Wreck!

by Michael Woodward

Don’t be fooled by Leslie Howard’s famous suavity– he’s really as jittery as a stampeded herd of jumping beans

Here’s a secret–
That calm suavity for which you admire Leslie Howard is just a “front.” It’s part of his splendid stock-in-trade, but it’s 100 per cent fake. Leslie Howard himself is as nervous as a couple of hundred Mexican jumping beans.
After a day’s work on the set, for instance, he has to go home and lock himself in. He doesn’t dare go out among people, he confesses, because he’s afraid he’d make a fool of himself by suddenly letting go, shrieking and bashing a grand piano over some bore’s head.
It seems that ever since his war experience– he went through four years of that hell as an English soldier– he’s been more or less jittery. Because of the type of stage and screen characterization he has done, his day’s work consist mainly of repression of his naturally nervous temperament– repression, restraint, repression, restraint, all day long. So by the time the end of the day’s work arrives, he’s just all bottled up inside, and sometimes feels as though he’d like to sort of explode alla over the surrounding scenery.
If he ever did let go, he realize, people would think he was this and that kind of nut. So he just goes home and behaves. He’s got a nice wife– and as she’s neither stage nor screen, they don’t talk shop.
Leslie can’t undersatand how screen stars go on working continuously without going cuckoo. His own contract calls for getting away from pictures at least one a year– to do a stage play. Picture-making and its mechanics harass and confuse and bewilder him.
The interminable business of adjusting lights, setting cameras, rehearsing, and the innumerable takes and retakes and re-retakes are not Leslie Howard’s meat. He prefers the stage– where a man learns his part, then goes on and does the play consecutively from one end to the other. Then at the end of the performance, his work is done for the day and he can forget it until, next day, he starts it over again.
But in pictures– well, the hubbub and the illogical lack of consecutiveness in the way they shoot a story, are just too much for him. He stood four straight years of war, but he’s quite sure he couldn’t stand a consecutive year of picture-making without being quite mad at the end of it. Right now he’s planning to appear in a Broadway stage play during the winter.

Howard’s a quite unobtrusive person off-stage, or off-screen. You’d probably not recognize him if you met him “as is.” For one thing, he wear glasses– not those phony dark glasses so many stars wear because they, like ostriches, think people won’t see the star behind the specs. Leslie Howard’s glasses are horn-rimmed lenses, and he wears them all the time off-set.
Too, in contrast with his screen characterization, he’s a bit careless about his clothes. Anything but a sartorial fop. And you’re as like as not to find him puttering around somewhere with a camera, taking snapshots or amateur movies. He’s more of a camera addict than a Japanese tourist is, and does his own developing and printing. He likes to get behind his home movie projector and show his friends films he took of his homeland– England, of course.
Offhand, you’d hardly know he was English. He has no more of that “Oxford accent” than your corner grocer. In fact, he has much less of it than most American-born stars who think a broad-A and a rising inflection constitute good English. Which reminds one of the platinum blonde, who convulsed Hollywood by referring to “rocketeers.”
Mentioning blondes reminds one that Leslie Howard himself is fair. He’s blu-eyed, too. And as long as we’re at that sort of thing, he’s five feet, ten and a half inches tall; weighs 145 pounds, and is thirty-eight years old. Born in London.
If it hadn’t been for the war, you’d probably never have heard of Leslie Howard, much less seen him at your favorite theater. For, after finishing private education, he went into the commercial world with no more idea of the stage than any other bank clerk, which was what he was when the war broke out.
Of course, he enlisted. Four years of it, and then he found himself contending with a few million other men for hobs. Business, after war, was too prosaic. He decided, for no reason except that he’d done a few bits in school theatricals, to be an actor. So he bothered agents until one of them got so annoyed that he hired Howard out to an English road show for about twenty dollars a week, in your money.
After playing in towns so small they didn’t bother to put a dot on a map for them, Howard decided he’d rather be a metropolitan star, so he went back to London and bothered agents again until he got a small part in a London production.

After that, his personality and natural ability lifted him out of the ruck and made him, today, one of the most sought-after leading men on both the stage and the screen.
Ask him his recipe for success, ask him why he is where he is profesionnally, and he’ll tell you very honestly that he’ll be damned if he knows.
He doesn’t profess to understand it, but is content that it is.
He talks a lot, but quietly, and with a droll, dry humor that is frenquently Rabelaisian but never goes over that faint border-line between what’s funny and what isn’t.
He hates to eat in restaurants, always shaves himself, and laments the fact that he’s got a reputation for being a big high-hat and up-stage.
He insists he’s merely timid.

Leslie Howard in A Free Soul

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in A Free Soul, in which he made a minor part important  by the sincerity of his playing

(Photoplay, October 1931)