His First Picture, 1935

His First Picture

Leslie Howard through the eyes of Robert Milton, the director who first brought him to Hollywood

By Patricia Reilly

Leslie Howard

“I met him at the train and I looked at Leslie and laughed. He laughed back. He was in Hollywood and he thought it funny. We both thought it was funny.” The little red-haired Russian director, Robert Milton, who asked for Leslie Howard for the lead in “Outward Bound” crinkled up his face and laughed at the memory of that Reunion in Hollywood.
“Warner Brothers wanted Alfred Lunt for the part because he had done it so splendidly on Broadway in the play that I had directed, but I said that though Lunt was a great actor he wouldn’t have the appeal of Leslie. I knew Leslie’s charm, and his pathetic quality crying to be mothered, would go over with the motion picture public. They let me have everyone I wanted–Beryl Mercer, Dudley Digges, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Helen Chandler, and Hal Mohr, the artist who happens to be a cameraman and who is now shooting ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ I wanted Leslie most of all,” said Mr. Milton, “because I knew the public would like him although he had never been in pictures before.”
“How did you teach him to act before the camera–what did you tell him to do?” I wanted to know.
Robert Milton looked surprised that I should ask that.
“Nothing,” he said. “I just told him to go ahead as he would on the stage. There isn’t any mystery to anything, and acting to Leslie is play. When you are an artist–know what you are doing, understanding a character you are portraying–it’s fun. You rehearse him, of course, but you don’t have to tell him what to do. He is happy every moment he is acting. He is keen, too, the keenest actor I know. He realizes just how far to go. He is not only the handsome Englishman people feel he is–his face is full of expression and intelligence. But I think his charm lies in the fact that to him acting and living are fun. When I would see that he was tightening up, I would stop a scene and send him out to play ball with stage-hands. He and Doug Fairbanks, Jr., became good friends. They criticized each other’s acting and helped each other. He did a lot for young Doug, by instructing him to be simple.
“Hal Mohr didn’t want to work on that picture but we finally won him over. We used no make-up on the men because we wanted them to have the deep lines in their faces, character-personality we engaged them for, and to look fairly gaunt. Leslie’s first motion picture was taken without make-up. Mohr loved music, so when he was setting his lights I had music played for him. He is a great man and will do wonderful things with ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
I myself had talked with Leslie Howard in his dressing room after a rehearsal of “The Petrified Forest” and just before a private preview of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” which he had requested for his family–Mrs. Howard and himself, his son and his daughter. He is slight and fair, with really burning dark eyes, but what I wanted was an impression of him by the first man to bring him to Hollywood.
“I don’t know what more to say,” Bob shrugged. “He’s just Leslie, charming, and as I told you, acting is fun for him.”

Leslie Howard

(Motion Picture, May 1935)