Frankly Forty (1939)
Leslie Howard speaks his piece about those grown-up perennial juveniles!
by Julia Shawell
“Thirty-five-year-old juveniles and screen actors who try to go through the throes of passionate love scenes to thrill their audiences are disgusting to me,” said Leslie Howard as he sipped a glass of milk and meditated on his return to Hollywood to play Ashley Wilkes in “Gone With the Wind.”
While the blonde Britisher delivered his arraignment against actors who believe that they’re always as young as the make-up can “pretty them”– to use Mr. Howard’s won term– he relaxed in a chair and through those narrow half-closed eyes of his seemed to me looking out on a world of women who still consider him in an emotionally romantic light. But he no longer desires to appear that way.
Something definite has happened to Leslie Howard, not only in his attitude toward his work, but in his analysis of himself. There’s no getting him to admit whether the change came suddenly one morning as he rose, looked at himself in the mirror and said regretfully, “I am no longer young,” or whether it was a thought that developed in his mind and grew to a conviction where there was no further denying it.
It was almost midnight when we had our serious talk about this matter of age and its influence on his professional life, a matter that seems to have beset the star so absorbingly. He’d had a long busy day working and then there had been a series of business conferences that had to do with contracts and things. But, even in the small room under an unflattering light that threw a ribbon of white glare across his thin face and exaggerated the shadow under his eyes there was an ageless quality about this distinguished Britisher outlined there in his chair.
Ghosts of some of the popular characters he has portrayed on the screen seemed to intrude as we reviewed his film record– the frustrated suitor of Norma Shearer in “A Free Soul,” right down to his part with the same Miss Shearer in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Tragedy and frustration, that’s what the record was for all the men he brought to life before the cameras. He’s talking like a conglomerate wraith of all his characterizations, I thought, and watched him as he had his say. Being miserable through love for a good Hollywood salary doesn’t appeal to Mr. Howard’s screen sensibilities any longer because he feels he can get the salary without the emotional upheavals before the cameras. He did suggests that “Smilin’ Throu” was an exception because in that dramatic film he grew older as the film unreeled and, while he did create an illusion of youth in the opening sequences, he left his audiences in the twilight of the character’s life and the youth part could be regarded as artistic aptitude. When he has had time for Hollywood there has been no actor more in demand to play opposite the most glamorous women stars.
While he is convinced that there are certain types of films, notably comedies and melodramas, which Hollywood does better by than any other production center in the world, the English actor is not sold on the west coast colony as a permanent abiding place. He prefers his country home in England where, when he has retired from all his stage and movie activities, he plans to find peace. There was that one Christmas a few years ago when he went home to spend the holiday with his family. He had a telephone call in England from a California studio telling him to take a boat immediately– the boat left England on Christmas Eve. Mr. Howard argued that he had to be with his family on that one day of all the year but orders were orders and he sailed a miserable man, among the tearful farewells of his children and friends. He arrived in Hollywood and waited three months before the production was started.
Mr. Howard doesn’t look his age. That voice which has thrilled millions, which has spoken so many passages of convincing ardor, so intimate that they seemed a personal message to every woman who heard them, on this particular occasion was saying things like this,
“Good actors to be successful at forty ought to have brains and if they have brains they ought to know that the mantle of a youthful Romeo ill-befits them. Of course, I realize a film product must have his touch of romance, but with actors of my age, it ought to be adult romance and not the most important thing in the picture’s story. Even actors ought to be their age and there’s something pathetic about men in their middle years, fixing their faces with grease-paint to make them look younger, and playing situations they could have experienced in real life twenty years earlier.”
But many actors of the years about which the popular English star is most concerned do have hectic experiences in their private lives over that emotion called love– a fact I suggested at this point in the discussion.
“And what do people say of them?” queried Mr. Howard with sudden vehemence. Hurriedly he went on to explain that what people say is that these men are fools after their fashion and old enough to know better. To Mr. Howard, right now, there is nothing convincingly romantic about a man of forty making a fool of himself and while he has no control of his contemporaries’ feelings in the matter, he proposes to do what he can about his own case.
If he has his way, love will not be the motivating force of his screen efforts. He has a hangoverish feeling of maturity from that fortieth birthday he will not see again. Perhaps his attitude had its inception when a friend some months ago, remarking about the stage of the world, said,
“Do you realize it’s twenty-for years since the World War started and that’s the whole span of youth?” Howard couldn’t help remembering that before the war ended he was a soldier-bridegroom with family responsibilities, sent back after the armistice to resume a peacetime life as an underpaid bank clerk. Ever sensitive to the lasting effect of his own experiences, the fighting years impressed themselves too dramatically on his consciousness to leave him content at a desk. That was the beginning of his acting career, a profession that shunted him around the English provinces, that often left him jobless and made those early years a hazardous existence. With success in London came his migration to New York under Gilbert Miller’s guidance and he burst upon the Manhattan theatrical scene as one of the most brilliantly talented newcomers in several seasons. Hollywood was a logical follow-up and in his successful career he widened his audience to the four corners of the globe. His was the art of gentle persuasion and women of all types fell for it completely. Strangely enough, the women haven’t changed– only Mr. Howard.
The fact that a dozen women of various ages and interests to whom I experimentally put Mr. Howard’s pertinent remarks about himself were horrified he should consider himself too old for flicker love doesn’t influence him at all. Apparently he isn’t interested in this cross-section of female reactions nor in the indignantly expressed general opinion, “You never think of Leslie Howard’s age– but, oh, isn’t he wonderful?” The ladies will have only their memories of Screen Lover Howard and will have to be satisfied with their favorite in more mature roles, if he has his way.
“Life begins at forty,” I offered platitudinously to bring Mr. Howard back to the important subject. He had another sip of milk, lighted a cigarette, blew smoke clouds toward the ceiling and as though ruminating on what lies before him, answered, “Yes, but it ought to be a different kind of life than that which belongs to the earlier years.”
“Well, look at so many of the popular men players in Hollywood today, the ones who are still glamor exponents tho the feminine fans. They’re either approaching forty or they’ve past it and yet they are anything but ludicrous as lovers on the screen. Look at Fredric March, Herbert Marshall, Clark Gable–”
“Gable’s a few years younger,” interrupted the lord of the dressing room. “And I do admit that the attitude of the world has changed in the past several years. Where once young boys were the films’ romantic figures, the popular ones today– to a large extent– seem to be older.
“Don’t misunderstand me. There is a definite place for mature stars in the motion pictures. The thing is that the part should be suited to the man; they shouldn’t try to make him some personality he cannot feel.
“An actor who can really act bring himself to every part he accepts and his interpretation of that character must necessarily be tempered by how he feels, what he thinks in his own personal life. And he cannot satisfy himself if he feels in his heart that he is being ridiculous for his years. Even if he fools his audience, he can’t fool himself.”
Well, maybe, Leslie Howard is tired of feminine adulation. But, there’s still a question on that score. Goodness knows there have been enough women in the past decade who have sighed over him en masse and individually; abstractly and quite personally. They’ve followed him in crowds, they’ve written him love letters, they’ve sent him gifts, they’ve manipulated a meeting with him and schemed to arouse his interest. Where is the human being who wouldn’t be influenced by this sort of things continuously for ten years?
It looks as though Leslie Howard has hit the rebound. Whether it’s temporary or permanent remains to be seen. Through it all there has been the figure of Mrs. Howard, the bride of his war years and the important thing is that when Leslie Howard has at last arrived at that mental reasoning where he says, “I am no longer young,” she is Mrs. Howard and they are together, interested mutually in the future careers of their two children.
(Modern Screen, May 1939)