A Symbol of England (1943)

A Symbol of England

by C.A. Lejeune

London, June 12.
The loss of Leslie Howard on his way home from Lisbon overshadows every other topic in British film circles this month. It is ten days now since the airliner was shot down over the Atlantic, and the chances of survival seem infinitely remote. All the same, the studio people, notorious wishful thinkers, refuse to abandon hope altogether. A Howard memorial service, repeatedly mooted, is still repeatedly postponed, although from the beginning there has been a tendency to use the past tense in speaking of him.
Probably no single war casualty has induced in the publec of these islands such an acute sense of personal loss. Howard was something more than just a popular actor. Since the war he had become something of a symbol to the British people. He stood, in an odd way, for all that is most deeply rooted in the British character. He was “typical”–typical of our ideal of ourselves. He was a gentleman, with guts. He came from Hollywood to make films at a time when certain other British gentry were hurrying very fast in the opposite direction.

His Films in Demand

Howard’s “Pimpernel Smith” (“Mister V”), “The First of the Few” (“Spitfire”), and “The Gentle Sex” (the story of British girls in khaki) are easily the most popular pictures made in this country during the war. Since the news of his loss, the press here has been flooded with demands for reissues of his old films. “The Petrified Forest,” “Escape to Happiness,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and even “Of Human Bondage,” have been asked for again and again. Of recent years he had become, not only our best-loved native film-star, but a familiar voice on the air. Nearly all the letters speak with affection of the informality and charm of his broadcasts.
Howard himself was increasingly aware of the importance of the broadcast medium. He valued his half-hours on the air, and especially the transatlantic broadcasts on short wave. He loved America, and the American way of life. The BBC could always count on him for any program that would help explain the common folk of our two countries to each other.
He was a natural ambassador, and from all accounts his last mission, that good-will tour in Spain and Portugal, was one of the most successful he ever undertook.
We have sometimes wondered what Leslie Hooward would have done had he come back safely from that trip. He was eager to get home, out he had no fixed program. Contrary to rumor, he was not planning to make “Christopher Columbus,” either in Spain or anywhere at all. You can have that hard. Preparations for a Columbus film, to be made in Spain by a British company, have been going on for many months.It is nearly two years since we heard the first whisper of it, and at that time the leading roles were to go to Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Some time last Autumn the script was given to Mr. Howard to read. He was ill at the time, and took no avid interest in it. So far as we can ascertain, his attitude had not changed at the time of his ill-fated Lisbon trip. Confusion has probably arisen because his friend and companion on the trip, the accountant A. T. Chenhalls, was a director of the company that owned the film, and immediately interested in the Columbus project.
We had a long talk with Howard the day before he left for Lisbon. He was in a strange mood. He was over-tired. He had had troubles and minor illnesses during the winter. He had just turned 50, and was acutely aware of it. He had lately grown interested in spiritualism. He talked constantly of youth and youth’s right to leadership.

Last Work

He had practically finished the supervision of his current film, the nursing story called “The Lamp Still Burns.” Beyond directing a couple of love scenes between Stewart Granger and Rosamund John, Howard had taken little active share in production, leaving the details to Maurice Elvey, the director on floor. His future plans were vague. He had writers working on various projects. One was the story of the Liberty Ship One Thousand and One, built in the Rockies and sailing in convoy to Murmansk. Another was an epic of the RAF. A third was a historical subject about the seventeenth century architect of St.Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren. He had never entirely abandoned the idea of screening “Hamlet” exactly as he played it on the stage and was planning a new adventure for Pimpernel Smith.
He would have been persuaded to appear in one or other of these films, we don’t doubt. At the back of his mind, however, was the conviction that it was time for him to stand aside as an actor, The public, he said, wanted young faces and new voices. His thoughts were turning more and more toward direction and the production side of films. He always esteemed himself a better director than actor, a fancy in which he showed more modesty than judgment. He never was a great director, although he was a sensitive and human one. He had taste and humor, and a Shakespearian feeling for England in his bones. At a time when our film industry had fallen largely into the hands of talented foreigners, Howard was one of thew film-maker of quality whose thought and language were were indigenous.

(The New York Times, June 27, 1943