Leslie Howard: An Appreciation, 1943

Leslie Howard: An Appreciation

by C.A. Lejeune

Leslie Howard, who was lost in the air liner shot down by Nazi fighters on its way to England from Lisbon last week, closed his career in the informal way he would have wished, giving no farewell performance, leaving no message, and bothering nobody.
His whole life was a series of dim comings and goings. His plans were always vague, his movements uncertain. He left business to his agents, and appointments to anyone who chose to remind him of them. Only in the technicalities of his work was he precise and fastidious.
He was the most modest actor I have ever known. He undertook public engagements, and since the war, very many public engagements, as a matter of course. But he never sought nor avoided publicity. He simply didn’t think about it.
Howard was a man of great personal charm, which increased with the years as his vitality ebbed. The character of the vague dreamy gently humorous Englishman he played in “Pimpernel Smith,” “Pygmalion,” “49th Parallel,” and “The First of the Few” was not assumed. Howard never tried to be anything he was not.
Except that of late years he always wore horn-rimmed glasses off the screen, he looked in life exactly as millions of picturegoers know him–slight and a little stooped, fair hair just turning grey, unlit pipe between his teeth, rather tired flannels, and an old tweed coat. He loved the country, dogs and riding. He got on well with young people and listened to them. His mind was always full of the films he would make some day, he liked to think them out as he talked, he talked most happily of “Hamlet.”

Public Loved Him

These small things come into my mind as I think of him, for to anyone who knew Howard, and to many who did not, his death strikes first as a sharp personal loss. He had a rare and quite unconscious faculty for absorbing affection. The public really loved him. I shall never forget the electric thrill that ran through the crowd outside St. Paul’s when he appeared as Nelson in the pageant of  “The Cathedral Steps.” That brief moment stopped the show.
He had many friends, both in England and America, known and unknown, and all his friends were good ones.
He was a better actor than director but thought himself a better director than an actor. He used to say that the most positive things he ever did were to reject a part with Garbo and to refuse Orson Welles the role of King Claudius in his New York stage production of “Hamlet.” His reputation stood high in the American theatre, and his short-wave broadcasts from London were a regular feature of American wartime listening.
He made many films in Hollywood before the war, including the fabulous “Gone With the Wind,” but only four of them, I believe, really satisfied him: “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Petrified Forest,” “Berkeley Square,” and “Escape to Happiness.” He loved America and the Americans but refused every offer to go back to Hollywood until the war was over. He had a passion for England and the English idea that was almost Shakespearian.
To me the most felicitous memory of Howard is a moment of his own devising in “The Scarlet Pimpernel”–the John of Gaunt speech which beats every actor who hasn’t the roots of the thing in his heart.
(The Observer, June 6, 1943)