Is Leslie Giving Us the Run-Around? (1937)
Is Leslie Giving Us the Run-Around?
Between spots of tea Leslie Howard likes to spoof about giving up acting. But don’t believe him!
By Dan Camp
It’s my honest suspicion–aye, belief!–that there are few things Leslie Howard enjoys more than looking down that long nose of his, cocking a quizzical eye at us Yankees, and having a spot of spoofing at our expense. Just as he’d have his 4 o’clock spot of tea, you know…
And that’s why I don’t feel a bit depressed over Leslie’s all-too-serious assertions that he’s about to leave the screen forever–that is, as an actor. Oh, yes–forever and ever and ever and ever and be hanged to it! That’s what he says, you know.
If I believed the man, I’d be devastated. Like several million other movie fans who admire him, enjoy him and delight in his performances. But I think he’s giving us the run-around–and that for your criticism, Leslie!!
As a matter of fact, Leslie, I much prefer to believe you were being really honest the other day, when you told a friend: “–I imagine that I will grow older and older and older, and finally I will be playing old men with long, white beards. Maybe by then I will be a great playwright. I still want to be, but somehow, that ambition has been sidetracked all along the way.”
You see, that’s what all the trouble has always been about, and that’s what the trouble is about right now, that Leslie Howard has come back to Hollywood to make some more movies. Oh, he’s making then with right-enough spirit. Say this for the lad, bellyache as he may about how little he likes his job, yet he turns to with a do-or-die spirit and works like the very devil!–that is, when they can catch him (but more about that later.)
But over on the Warner lot, where he’s teamed up with Bette Davis again, this time making It’s Love I’m After, Howard is up to his old tricks of telling the boys and all who want to listen that film-acting is the very twaddle and piffle for serious thespians and that by this-and-that, he’s done with it! Done for good!
As a matter of fact, this time he’s giving Hollywood a particularly Hail-Britannia! This time, you see, he’s telling us that he’s got it all set, and when he holly well gets done with It’s Love I’m After (and maybe another film or so) he’ll shake the galare of the sun-arcs out of those twinkling eyes of his, and never again set foot before the camera. He’s going to produce. And direct. And WRITE, by heaven, WRITE!!!
I could have told you that, amd made it a news story for you. I mean, good old MOTION PICTURE could have gone screaming, under my by-line, that Leslie Howard was doing his farewell appearance, and called it news. But it really isn’t. It’s piffle.
Twenty years ago, Leslie Stainer–a skinny Tommy with a monthly mustache and a newish war wife, came back from the trenches to London and contemplated, with vast distaste, the prospect of going back to his job in a bank and adding up figures. He envisioned endless columns of figures–guineas and pounds, shillings and pence…
And he shuddered. And out of the bravery born in the trenches, the one time meek bank clerk stuck out his funny little chest and shrieked: “No, no! A thousand times no. I’m going to be a writer. A playwright. A GREAT playwright…!” Then, in sudden realization that he had to cat, and so did his wife, he added, in a tiny voice: “–and in the meantime, I can live by acting.”
That was 20 years ago, and his name was Leslie Stainer then. He’s been saying that very same blankety-blank thing for every one of those 20 years in between, as Leslie Howard… And somewhere around 1960 or so, I rather imagine some brash young interviewer will step up to Leslie Howard as he comes off the set and ask: “Have you anything new to say, Sir Leslie?” And old Leslie, with that white beard he talks about, will quaver:
“Look here, my lad. I have a very great news announcement to make to you. I’ve always wanted to write, not act, understand? Well, this picture is the very lahst (he’ll say lahst!) I shall ever make before the camera! There, now–is that NEWS for you!”
And the young man will utter a razzberry or whatever the 1960 equivalent thereof may be. And Leslie will totter away, muttering in his long white beard: “Oh, hell–I never could get away with that gag, could I?”
Enough of that, now. I’d rather tell you the kind of fellow Leslie Howard is, and what Hollywood thinks of him, and what he does there, and all that sort of thing. But first I’ll concede him this: he really is going back to England with his family, after another picture, and begin producing. He’s going to produce a spectacular film called Bonnie Prince Charlie. right in the historic Scottish backgrounds.
“Oh, yes,” he admits, “I shall probably act in it.” He gives you that down-the-nose look and says, “Mind you, I’d much rather not.” But ten-to-one, when you see Bonnie Prince Charlie, Charlie’ll just be Leslie, all dressed up. Later on, he has the plan to make a picture of the life of William Shakespeare. For that, you can even bet he’ll put on whiskers and tights and be the Bard, himself. He really did it once on the stage, anyway, so he’ll be used to it.
But quit acting? Not Leslie Howard. EVER!!!!
Howard isn’t really serious as he’d have you believe he is. In general, I mean. Good lord, if he were, he’d have to be going around all the time, posturing and being the big shot. He doesn’t. There are few things Leslie Howard more enjoys than just having fun. Plain ordinary fun. He isn’t perpetually stalking about, spouting about Art and acting and that sort of thing. No, no–ask any pretty lady in Hollywood and they’ll tell you no, no. He sounds pompous, on the character surface. He’s anything but.
To his studio, he’s a trial. Not as a box-office asset, but as somebody they have to work with. When they catch him, he works beautifully and hard and well, as you know. But what a job they have catching him…
There was the time they hundred high and low for him, because everything was ready for a “take.” Assistant directors (he gives three of them nervous breakdown every picture!) scampered hither and thither. Finally they found him asleep in an automobile with his head on Genevieve Tobin’s lap. Seems he’d been talking with her, there, between shots, and just got tired–“and what could I do about it?” she wanted to know.
Another time, he was pedalling gaily around the vast domains of the Warner back-lot on a mechanic’s bicycle, while they screamed for him to come to make love to Bette Davis for the camera. When not only the director, but the mechanic upbraided him, too, because he hadn’t been able to find his bike, Leslie tush-tushed them both and said: “My deah fellows–y’know, you really take life too, too seriously…”
They catch him in Peter-Pannish postures, watching the goldfish in the studio pool. They discover him striding back and forth across the studio lawns, being Hamlet. (They haven’t caught him doing this, however, since last season on Broadway. He’s BEEN Hamlet!) They wait for him to show up for carefully-arranged conferences, and then, after an hour or so, find out he’s forgotten–so he says–and is out walking in woods somewhere.
Leslie is as independent as a 98-cent watch. Won’t play a role he doesn’t believe in. Even turned down a chance to play opposite Garbo with that famous: “Why, it wouldn’t be fair to her. What’s more, it wouldn’t be fair to ME!”
Hobbies he has a-plenty. Candid photography. He’s always scrambling around the catwalks of the set, risking his million dollar neck to get a three-cent picture. Has almost as many cameras as Wally Beery. Probably, if he leally ever meant that he was sick of acting he could make a pretty good living taking portraits.
He thinks he can sing. But not militantly. He’s always had a sneaking wish to sing in public, but valiantly downs it. Some day, though, he might break out like Joan Crawford–all of a sudden let them bring the microphone to his table at a nite club, and start crooning something about woo-woo-woo-when did you-ooo-ooo-leave heavunnnn! I mean, that repressed desire to sing out loud in public is dangerous. And then we’d have just another Bing Crosby instead of only one Leslie Howard.
Nevertheless, he doesn’t let modesty interfere, with bathtub crooning. Or rather vocalizing. His tub ditties are the delight of his neighbors, so I’ve heard.
As for dancing, he’d rather not. He’s not a good dancer at all, doesn’t have any aspiration to be, and thinks it’s much more comfortable to stay seated at the table and let somebody else do it.
Few things he enjoys more than pretty ladies, yet he is the soul of domesticity. In that, he’s so essentially British! Domesticity is a great English virtue: Leslie Howard has it in its most fully developed form. He’s always had the same wife, and is still delighted about it, which is rather odd to Hollywood. She’s a very good wife. She knows all his little habits, his weaknesses, his strong points. She loves him. One of her greater tasks is to keep Leslie Howard dressed like Leslie Howard. Otherwise he’d be dressed like Buddy Ebsen. His own ideas of clothes are compressed within the word “comfort.” If he’s got a pair of comfortable pants on, a comfortable jacket, a beret, he’s happy. It’s up to Mama Howard to see that he keeps his things matched up, spruced up, otherwise in order.
He has two pets. That’s what he calls them, anyway–one’s name is Ronald the other’s name is Leslie, Junior. They’re his children. And not, as you might expect, both boys–Leslie, Junior, is a girl. She’s the apple of his eye. Nothing is too good for her. Ronald, who’s going on 20 now (did you know Leslie was 44?) now and then doubles for papa when autograph hunters swarm. There is resemblance enough between the two so that, frequently, Ronald gets away with it, and papa doesn’t have to sign the books.
With those who work with him, Leslie is simply tops. That goes even for the director, Archie Mayo is his favorite director. Archie Mayo is as rotund as Leslie is slim. They get along famously together. Mayo knows just how much to expect from Howard, and gets it. Howard knows just how much he can put over on Mayo, and does it…
One of the things he can (and does) put over, is just about being worthless after 4 o’clock, any afternoon. It’s axiomatic, by now, that anything shot with Leslie Howard in it after 4 p.m. has to be retaken the next day, any way, so they don’t bother much about shooting him after 4 p.m.
Anyway, as 4 approaches, Leslie begins announcing that it’s rather well time for a spot of tea, isn’t it? Sagely, Mayo agrees, and Leslie wanders away over to the studio cafe and has his spot of tea. Very often, he wanders home and has it. But Mayo is a smartish lad. One has to be to have stayed a tops director as long as Archie. You can depend on it that Archie has the rest of the afternoon pretty well set for shots that don’t really require Leslie Howard’s artistry to carry. Mayo is never surprised when Leslie doesn’t come back. He often is IF Leslie does come back.
They do a lot of clowning on the Howard set. It isn’t like the Muni set, for instance. You’d rather imagine, superficially, that there might be a parallel–after all, Howard, like Muni, is spouting incessantly for publication about Art and Acting, and you might, if you didn’t know better, get the idea he was very serious about it. On a Muni set, for instance, all must be serious and earnest. Especially if it’s a heavy scene.
But on a Howard set, you can depend on clowning and tomfoolery–so long as it doesn’t interfere with the shooting. Leslie Howard does his acting when there’s acting to be done. When there isn’t, he wants to be let alone to do the thing wherein he once summoned up his most definite, most motivating ambition in life:
“–to do what I wish!”
In this It’s Love I’m After, Leslie Howard is, today, fulfilling at least one wish. He’s getting away from heavier roles and doing a light, humorous thing. He’s a matinee idol who acts 24 hours a day. He likes the role. Incidentally, at the very opening, you’ll see him being Romeo again–for the action opens with him on the stage on a scene from Romeo and Juliet. But from there on, the action is modern, fast and funny. Yet, with the role to his liking, Howard still sticks to his “I don’ wanna act” song.
“Although I’m playing a matinee idol,” he told me, “–a role that presents plenty of opportunities for ‘having fun’ as you might call it–the role of an actor who revels in putting on a show during every waking moment, yet I can truthfully say that I do not enjoy the actual acting of a picture. Pictures can, in my opinion, provide for the actor only a vicarious sort of pleasure.
“I really would like to produce, direct, write, and quit acting altogether. However, the world is always suspicious of a change of front, isn’t it? So many people of the motion picture industry seem to feel that one an actor, always an actor. They seem to believe that because he has been a successful actor, he cannot become successful at anything else.”
That’s the way he talks. And he looks down that long nose at you, as I told you, and there’s a twinkle in his eye. And he says he’s going to quit acting. And you look down at your foot, because you have an odd sort of sensation of your leg being pulled…
(Motion Picture, September 1937)