Charm Comes First (1937)


Here is what the British star thinks of American women…

by Charles Darnton

Women know what they think of Leslie Howard. But do they know what he thinks of them?
This being the doubtful case, it’s high time they did. And surely there could not be a better time. For, naturally enough, the throbbing question comes up as you find the warmly admired English actor even more than ordinarily sensitive to feminine charms in his latest picture, It’s Love I’m After, in which he plays an amorous actor.
Here he is, then making frantic love first to one girl then another, not in his own words but by quoting from parts he has played.
“It’s a burlesque of the matinee idol,” the disarming Mr. Howard smiling assures you. “In the second place, it’s a bit of fun at the expense of the worshipful girl who works herself into a soulful state and gets dizzy looking up at her idol without ever suspecting he is quite capable of letting her down with a hard bump. It’s really a lesson to her.”
Serene in his corrective frame of mind, Mr. Howard lets himself down into a chair, comfortably fills and lights his pipe, then complacently stretches out his slender length.
“In a sense,” whiffs this amiable iconoclast, “it’s debunking of the film idol to feminine fans. It is said, let us hope not in vain,  that pictures aim always to be educational. Of course, the matinée idol no longer exists. Droves of people don’t wait outside stage doors for him. Today is only for the film star they endure similar hardship. What induces this cheerful strain on the patience and the feet I am unable to explain. It may be a particular actor’s genius for exhibitionism which, unfortunately, is hopelessly lacking in me. I haven’t the gift. But there are certain people who are definitely actors, born to be exhibitionists. They no doubt get great pleasure out of it. I’ve never got any particular pleasure out of films, merely an occasionally vicarious satisfaction through audiences accepting one of mine, and that’s only second-hand, isn’t it? I got into the profession by accident, and now I am anxious to get out.”
Hardly able to believe your ears, you exclaim at this unexpected revelation.
“It was simply that, as a youngster,” he explains, “I ran a dramatic society and was interested in various details of producing plays. I never saw myself as an actor then, and never think of myself as one now. I’ve had a sort of success, within limitations. I’ll probably go on acting, but I’d prefer to produce. The trouble is that people are skeptical about a person’s breaking out of one department into another. I expect to play again on the New York stage, but not this autumn. I’ve got one thing arranged for, the film production of Bonnie Prince Charlie, in England, and I shall go there, as I am financially interested in the venture. If it turns out well I will continue to produce pictures there from time to time and, I suppose, play in them. But I shall act in Hollywood pictures pretty much as I have been doing. For the present, at least, acting is all I have to sell.”

Leslie Howard, publicity photo for It's Love I'm After

In your artless way you ask Mr. Howard whether he considers the actor he now is playing to be typical.
“I should hate to think it!” he desperately protests. “I hardly believe he could be regarded as a truthful portrait. While some actors may possibly be capable of paraphrasing their lines in making love to women off the stage I shouldn’t imagine it would work very well. In such case the woman would be too clever for him and quickly detect the actor behind the lover. But I think women fall in love with the character they see rather than with the actor. They think it’s the actor, but it’s really the character. If the same actor should later play a perfectly revolting part they’d hate him. A woman follows him from part to part with passionate devotion, then regretfully  says, ‘I guess I made a mistake,’ when he plays an unsympathetic part. If we all had to rely on that sort of thing, most of us wouldn’t be working.”
When you wonder if “that sort of thing” ever has happened to Mr. Howard, he takes a contemplative pull at his pipe and relates:
“Strangely enough, I’ve been getting letters at regular intervals from a woman in Massachusetts for the past three years or more. They are signed only with her first name and do not give her address. Always she evinces a great interest in my welfare, but says nothing about her own. I’ve no idea whether she’s married or single, though I imagine her to be a spinster. Or it may be she takes a maternal interest in me. Whatever her reason for writing, it is apparently her only means of self-expression, the one outlet for her emotions. I take it she is that most forlorn of creatures, a lonely soul, one who has nothing in life.
“Women of that kind must fasten on someone. But it’s usually a very young girl who writes letters to actors out of her incorrigible sentimentality. Yet there’s no doubt that the big draw of pictures is based on the emotional appeal they make to women.
“Curiously, it is women who create both male and female screen idols. This doesn’t mean any morbid, unnatural attitude to the actress. It’s simply that women see themselves embodied in her. But we mustn’t forget, aside from this essentially personal attitude, that there is a vast legitimate audience which finds the main thing, the real value, not in mere personality, but in the picture as a whole. There are only a few actors who have mass appeal– which has nothing whatever to do with artistry. Personality is no more than an individual quality to be found in any walk of life.”
As Mr. Howard, warm to his subject, throws off any slightest suggestion of cold British reserve, you are emboldened to throw discretion to the winds by asking what quality in a woman most appeal to him.
“With me,” he doesn’t hesitate to say, “charm in a woman comes first, is most appealing. Of course, every man is affected by beauty. But as men get older they grow blase to it. It becomes a matter of weariness. No man can go on with just a succession of beautiful faces– the optic nerve wears out! I imagine there is a certain curve in the ratio of beauty which, to the masculine eye, dwindles down to drop and abiding boredom. At first sight, to be sure, beauty is a terrific thing. It hits a man right between the eyes, leaving him stunned with admiration. ‘Gad,’ he’ll marvel, ‘that’s a lovely girl!’ But next day, seeing her again, he turns away with perplexed thoughts, ‘Odd what an empty face that girl has, perhaps in keeping with her vacuous mind.’ He easily may be wrong, but there you are!”
And there you are, or will be, my proud beauty, should you by any chance repeat your attempt to dazzle Leslie Howard with a brilliant façade beneath a moron roof.

“America has more extremely exciting females than England,” he continues. “The American girl, if you find the right kind, is a very lively person, an amusing companion with a stimulating sense of humor. She has a wonderful personality. Here men do not have to look so far for beauty as they do in England. There pulchritude is not on so high a scale, so men have to seek other attractive qualities in their women. Mere beauty is very deceptive and probably explains a great many hasty marriages. But I think the women of both countries have the same serious faults. These,” he chivalrously adds, “are mostly created by men. They demand certain things of their women to enhance, as they fondly believe, their attractiveness. Everyone says America is a woman’s country. If so, the American man has made it so, deliberately done what the Englishman would not do.”
In the name of your fellow-countrymen, you stoutly demand the reason.
“The American man,” he answers, “wants to do all the work, so the American girl lets him do it. What the English girl lacks in smartness she has to make up in efficiency. She takes a much larger share in the work. There’s more a team work. An Englishman,” grins the immediate representative of his practical race, “suspects his wife if she’s just pretty. He wants her also to be useful. This, of course, is not true of the leisured class. A woman belonging to it is almost a type of her own, arresting, distinguished, the tall, slim, aristocratic sort.
“It always has been considered vulgar by a certain English society woman to be too dolled up. She can be dowdy without losing caste. But in America no woman dares be dowdy. The American man wouldn’t stand for it.
“It may be that in England name and position have something to do with it. If a woman is the daughter of a duke it doesn’t matter how she looks, unless she happens to be part of the international group in which our late lamented King moved. As for him, every Englishman feels that what has happened was for the best under a system which cannot be changed, and this feeling is coupled with sympathy. A great man condemned the whole affair at the time, but I didn’t feel that way about it, nor do I now. Duty is placed very high in England, and any departure from it is likely to be held inexcusable. But I am a little more broad-minded. After all, no matter how customs may differ, there is in every country one thing that is the same– the right to love.”

Leslie Howard

Screenplay, August 1937)