Leslie Howard, Anglo-American Interpreter (1941)

Leslie Howard, Anglo-American Interpreter

By Harold Hobson

Alexei Tolstoi, a grandson of the Russian novelist, has sent a message to English writers on behalf of Soviet intellectuals. The novelists, poets, and essayists of Russia greet the anti-Fascist writers of Britain in words that express a determination to resist aggression to the limit. This message has been sent through the medium of a British literary monthly magazine, Horizon, which is edited by Cyril Connolly, critic, and Stephen spender, poet, to both of whom it is specifically addressed.
Meanwhile, from the West as well as from the East, there comes evidence that the forces of culture are united in the struggle for freedom. Thomas Mann, now in the United States, has sent a radio message to the German people, with the BBC supplying the facilities. These are only two examples of the working of the broad cultural front that events have established, stretching from Vladivostok to San Francisco.

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There is indeed far closer intellectual co-operation between the forces of freedom in this way than there was in the past. Partly this is the result of mechanical progress, provided by the radio. A few weeks ago a film made by John Gielgud, called “The Prime Minister”–a biography of Disraeli–had its premiere in Ottawa. Now, even in 1924, had Mr. Gielgud made this film–which he could hardly have done, since he was then a schoolboy at Westminster–it could have been carried across the Atlantic. It could have been shown in Ottawa. It could have been shown all over the United States. But what could not have happened is what actually did happen on this occasion. Mr. Gielgud, on the eve of the presentation of his picture, could not have made a personal address from England to the people of North America as he did on the occasion of the Ottawa premiere, bu means of a recorded speech made for the BBC in England.
Americans in Britain have recently devised a scheme to bring the cultural relations of the democracies even closer than they are already. By means of a newly formed Book Section of the American Outpost in britain they seek to make known in America those English books which best explain the British character and way of life, and to make known in Britain corresponding works form the United States.
The other day I went over to the film studios at Denham, where I found considerable activity in progress. Leslie Howard was making final arrangements for his next film, “One of the Few,” which is to be a biography of R.J. Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire.
Mr Howard’s latest completed picture is “Pimpernel Smith,” the story of how an apparently vague and absent-minded Cambridge professor on vacation in Germany, shortly before the war broke out, brought off a number of daring rescues of prisoners in concentration camps. Some criticisms have been made against this film on the ground that, though everyone admits it to be highly entertaining and intelligent, the actual methods of escape were neither very clear nor convincing. But Mr. Howard deprecated this attitude. He said that he knew personally of many escapes from Germany brought about as the result of mysterious interventions by unknown and unnamed people. Several of these stories made what happened in the film seem quite restrained and reasonable.
This, however, is by the way. What we got down to discussing seriously was British and American humor, and the interplay between the two varieties. It is Mr. Howard’s impression that America threw over its traditional Mark Twainish sort of humor, which was based essentially on European models, about 15 or 20 years ago, when people like Ben Hecht and Kaufman began to write. Then started that era of American humor whose principal characteristic was its efforts to debunk shams and abuses. In one sense it was almost a return to Dickens, who used humor to sweep away social and political abuses.
In another sense–in style, in speed, in a certain ruthless cynicism, and in its intellectual nature–it was entirely different from Dickens. But it was also entirely different from the characteristic type of English humor which reaches its most notable expression in the pages of such a publication as Punch. For Punch makes jokes against things that it likes, friendly jokes against clergymen and Poons and retired colonels. But, says Mr. Howard, the new American humor makes joke against things that it does not like, against things that it wants to sweep away into oblivion.
Mr. Howard has had a great experience both as a stage and a film actor in England and America. He is a wholehearted admirer of the American way of life, and approves of American political institutions. His broadcasts in Britain have been praised by educational authorities for their intellectual content, and he shares the widespread conviction held among all classes in the British Isles that the future peace of the world can be secured only by the closest possible co-operation between the United Kingdom and the United States.
That co-operation, as he says, can be founded firmly only upon mutual understanding. At present that mutual understanding is not as apparent as it ought to be. Millions of people in England think that the President has the power to declare war. Millions more habitually consicder America to be a young country, unaware that its history stretches back beyond the days of the English Civil War. No doubt many features of British life are equally misunderstood in the United States.

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“I feel strongly about removing as many of these misunderstandings as possible,” said Mr. Howard. “That is why I’m going on a lecture tour to Canada immediately for a short stay. I shall come back and finish “One of the Few,” and then fly back to the United States for a longer spell, giving talks in all parts of the country. And then perhaps I shall be able to get down to something I’ve been wanting to do for 15 years, to make a film that will try to explain England and America to each other.”
“That’s surely a difficult business?”
“It may be, but I’d like to have a shot at it. My idea is to show members of the same family divided during the American War of Independence, fighting on opposite sides, holding different ideals. Then I should like to trace the history of their descendants, right down to a True Blue Tory and an Isolationist of the present day, who would–I don’t quite know how yet, but they would–come to understand each other in their common devotion to democracy threatened by Fascist domination. If it succeeded in its aim, I think that would be a film worth making.”

Leslie Howard in Pimpernel Smith

Leslie Howard in Pimpernel Smith

(The Christian Science Monitor, October 18, 1941)

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