Honest Admission (1935)
Thorough-going Briton though he is, Leslie Howard surprises by saying that England can’t compete with Hollywood in picture-making and probably never will. Then he explains why, frankly and sincerely.
In everything that Mr. Howard says, and in the way he says it, there is the same honesty and sincerity, the same intelligence, which characterize his work, and which has captured, more than any physical good looks, the admiration of thousands.
by Dan Wheeler
Is Hollywood’s position as world center of the picture industry threatened by London? Will England ever become a serious competitor of America in making pictures?
Leslie Howard, thorough-going Briton though he is, says no to both questions. I talked to him just after he had returned to America from England, where he had made “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and in his incisive, clipped manner he told me just why Hollywood is, and will remain, cock of the picture walk. And you can’t accuse Leslie of disloyalty to his native land, either, because he has excellent reasons for everything he says. He’s that kind of man.
He takes himself and his work seriously. You can tell that by looking at him, even before you hear what he has to say. He looks older off the screen than he does on it, and when I saw him he was tired, too, after the intensive work of a day’s rehearsal on his play, “The Petrified Forest,” which has since become a Broadway hit.
Yet in spite of weariness, he was alertly willing and eager to discuss pictures and the stage. In everything he said, and in the way he said it, there was the same honesty and sincerity, the same intelligence, which characterize his work, and which has captured, more than any physical good looks, the admiration of thousands of fans.
Although Leslie would like to make more pictures in England, it’s my guess that he will continue for some time to make most of them in Hollywood. For one thing, there’s his contract with Warners, a very pleasant document which allows him time for frequent stage appearances. For another thing– well, if you are going to make pictures, Hollywood is the best place in the world in which to make them, that’s all.
“I like London,” he said. “My home is there. When I act in an English picture I can be at home, and at the same time be working. Some day, Heaven knows, I may have more leisure than I want, but right now if I’m not working either in a picture or a play, I feel that I’m lazy.”
“But as far as personal comfort goes, Hollywood is a much easier and more pleasant place to work in. We have short summer in England- only a few weeks of sun and warmth. In the winter the long trip through the fog and cold from London to Elstree is unpleasant and sometimes difficult. In Hollywood one lives ten minutes from the studio, and can drive there in an open car. Life is much less stern in Hollywood than in London or New York.”
“But isn’t that an advantage on the side of London?” I asked. “I’ve always understood that the best creative work was done in a harsh climate, where living wasn’t too easy.”
Leslie’s lean, sensitive face broke into a grin, and he chuckled. “Oh, but the movies aren’t creative!” he said. “They can’t be. Who’s to do the creating? There are too many people involved in making one of them. The director–”
He broke off, and removed the horn-rimmed spectacles which he wears away from the screen and stage. Thoughtfully massaging the spot on the bridge of his nose where the spectacles had rested, he continued:
“The director is far more important in the making of a picture than any other one person, but a great deal depends on the writer as well.
“I suppose the nearest thing to real creative work is done in the few cases in which the director writes his own scripts, or at least works in close co-operation with his writer.
“Alexander Korda, who directed “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” and “the Private Life of Don Juan,” works that way. He does a good deal of the writing himself, and confers constantly with his scenario writer. His head man, incidentally, can’t write in English, although he is a wonderful writer in his own language.
“Several Hollywood directors, those who are successful enough to demand and get a free hand, follow the same plan, but most pictures are the result of dozens of varied talents and personalities.
“Of course, the same thing is true of the stage, but not to as great an extent. The individual actor can be important as an artist on the stage, if he is good enough: on the screen it is difficult for him to be important except as a personality— a medium for the director, the writer, and the technical men to work with.”
Having disposed of the question of why movies are not really creative work, Leslie told me why he doesn’t think England ever will be able to compete with Hollywood.
“Elstree has neither the general standards nor the output of Hollywood. That’s the really important thing, the output. Only a certain percentage of the pictures made by any company or country in any given year can be good pictures. That is, if Hollywood makes six hundred pictures in one year, one hundred of them, say, will be good ones. If England makes only sixty pictures in the same year, the same percentage applies, and only about ten of them will be good.
“In England they are beginning to realize the possibilities of pictures, but I should say that it would be years and years before they will have exploited them as much as Hollywood has already. And in the meantime, naturally, things won’t be at a standstill in Hollywood. They will be making progress there, too.
“Making pictures is a haphazard job, of course. Haphazardness is more or less inherent in it. You can’t avoid it. But in England it is less systematized, less a business, than in America.
“For instance, one day while we were making “The Scarlet Pimpernel” the company was called for some exterior scenes. It rained, and after we had stood around for a while waiting for it to stop, Korda told us all we could go home. In Hollywood that could’t have happened. They would have had an alternative schedule all ready for interior scenes. That sort of thing makes it a little harder on the actor, and, what is more important, it sends production costs up.
“At one time”– and here Leslie smiled ruefully — “it looked as though we never would finish “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” But Korda argues that it is not a waste of money to spend a great deal of it in getting things just right, because to do so makes money in the long run. He takes life easily, and since he is his own producer he is responsible only to himself for the expenses.”
Another reason for Leslie’s belief in the continued dominance of Hollywood is the purely physical one of climate and surroundings.
“Even if England should suddenly decide to take the picture industry as seriously as Hollywood takes it,” he pointed out, “nobody would be able to change the English climate, or to bring certain locations as close to London as they are to Hollywood.
“No, England has turned out some fine pictures in the last year or so, and will turn out more, I expect, but it can’t compete with Hollywood– not for a long time, and more likely never.”
Leslie is till faithful to his earliest love, the stage, and he will never say good-by to it permanently for the screen, even though he will be back in Hollywood as soon as his present engagement on Broadway is completed. Right now, preparations are going forward at the Warner studio on “Anthony Adverse,” in which Leslie may play the title rôle. After that– well, it’s a safe bet that Hollywood can be trusted to keep as good an actor as he is busy for as long as he’ll stay.
Picture Play, April 1935