Leslie Howard Breaks the Rules (1936)
Leslie Howard Breaks the Rules
He doesn’t do things that Hollywood expect of stars. But he enjoys life!
by William Anthony
Leslie Howard is the suppressed desire of at least ten million women. Maybe fifty million. He has a subtle something that other screen heroes lack– or did lack, until he appeared on the screen. He broke a rule and became something new in screen lovers. He made the caveman type of love-making look coarse, shallow and common. Without any obvious effort, he could approach a delicate situation delicately, not demonstrating every romantic impulse he was supposed to feel, but giving every woman who saw him the sensation of seeing a man heart-breakingly in love.
Women wanted to know more about this sensitive, fine-featured, blond chap who spoke the King’s English. And the very discovery that he was from far-off England gave him added allure. There are legends in America to the effect that every Englishman is a gentleman. And when one Englishman after another came to the American screen, and their love-making was in the Howard pattern, the suspicion grew that Leslie must be the epitome of the typical Englishman.
But in his latest picture, The Petrified Forest, he plays a modern American– a world-weary Easterner who has to wander all the way to Arizona to find a girl like Bette Davis and to live one of the strangest (and strongest) love stories ever filmed. Next he is to play Romeo on the screen– to Norma Shearer’s Juliet. And Romeo is not one specific kind of lover; he is a combination of all sensitive lovers, the world over, as long as the world lasts. So, obviously, Leslie can’t be the typical Englishman. In fact, he denies that any such type exists. He probably wouldn’t go out of his way to deny it, but put him on the spot and pin him down, as I did at a recent dressing-room luncheon, and he will deliver.
He told me: “There is no such being as a typical Englishman. Or a typical American, either. I’ve played in every major town of the States, I think, but I’ve never yet met the chap that I could point to with pride and say, ‘Ah! Eureka! The typical homo Americanus!’ I’ve met the New England Yankee who would have drawn blood in Georgia, had he been proposed for the title of representing the American male– and vice versa!
“Now we Britons,” he continued, “are a singularly unconventional lot, in a manner of speaking. We don’t conform to any pattern. We have as many distinct types as you’d find here. Moreover, our colonials are as different, say, form a Yorkshire man as a tabby cat differs from a cheetah. I suppose we’re susceptible to the influence of whatever region we’re living in. They’ve always been great colonizers, the British. Look at the ‘English colony’ in Hollywood!”
“By the way, what do you think of this town?”
“Eh?” commented Mr. Howard as a great apathy descended upon him. Leslie Howard has a reputation hereabouts for wandering. He likes people and is prone to wander about amongst them like Hamlet’s ghost (he’s about to play Hamlet on Broadway, by the way) or wander far away from them and contemplating the whole lot– either mentally or with a pocket-sized camera. I had a feeling that he was about to wander again. People do that when you ask them about Hollywood. But Leslie broke the rule.
“Well, let’s have on with it,” he sighed, “I do like Hollywood– sincerely. But the trouble with it is that it’s completely bound and barred in with celluloid. You know, in other small cities where there’s only one industry, like a steel mill, you hear people talking about nothing but steel and steel-mill politics… They lose their perspective. The steel mill becomes the biggest thing in the world to them. The same thing is true of Hollywood. People don’t talk about anything else. Of course, it is interesting, but one can get fed up with it– like kidney pie.
“I don’t like rules like that. If I feel a sudden and overwhelming yearning to discuss the love-life of an Argentine beetle or the effect of Negro spirituals on modern dance music, I want to discuss it and not have people edge away to another group where the topic of conversation is what that producer said to this star about–” he poked at his salad suspiciously– “gaining weight.”
“I suppose I break a lot of Hollywood rules. I don’t go out places to see people and be seen– and, and– hang it all! give autographs and pose for news photos and all that sort of thing. But,” He looked up brightly, a man whose deep soul-inspection had brought to light one great redeeming feature, “I have been to the Trocadero once, and found it great fun, too.”
Howard utterly refuses to be typed. He’s as much an American as a Briton, as much a New Yorker or Hollywoodian as a Londoner, and he reviles the thought of having anyone point him out as the net result of a local civilization. He’s not aloof. Far from it! He’s one of the most sought-after men wherever he happens to be domiciled. One reason for that is his sense of humor– a Dry Martini brand of humor, pungent, dry and guaranteed inoffensive to any taste. This occurrence during the filming of The Petrified Forest will show you what I mean:
In a scene in a roadside hamburger stand, he was supposed to be getting around a plate of soup with a certain amount of verve. In so doing, he demonstrated himself to be one of the world’s most silent consumers of soup. His soup eating was so silent that it was almost weird. Not a slup in a plateful. Archie Mayo, the director, looked pained.
“I think we ought to hear it just a little,” Mayo interrupted. “Not much, you understand. Just a suggestion of a slup. Remember, you’re hungry.”
Leslie Howard put down his soup-spoon caressingly. “I think not,” he said, “You see, although the chap I’m playing is hungry, he is essentially well-bred. It would distress him to eat soup with a perceptible slup. It would distress him no end. Slupping, or blibbing, as it is referred to in some countries, would be quite foreign to his nature and…”
He continued. The whole vast subject of slupping was gravely, learnedly brought forth until Mayo suddenly realized that all was not as it seemed on the surface. In fact, he was being ribbed. He snorted, then grinned.
“Okay! You win! Play it– or slup it– any way you like!” He turned to the sound man. “Hey, Lou! You might as well take your mike and go for a walk– this is a silent take!”
The lights went on and the camera turned over. Leslie picked up his spoon caressingly. Mayo called, “Action!” In the cathedral stillness of the set, the actor proceeded with his soup– and the careful, studied slupping could be heard to the rafters. But the sound man was far, far away and Mayo was slumped disgustedly in his chair.
Leslie Howard just likes to break rules for the fun of it when it begins to look as though life and the pursuit of art were being taken too seriously. He has two simple systems that work in Hollywood. The foregoing is a fair example of one of them, but his best method is wandering.
As a wanderer, he has no equal. Non but a genius can figure out the places to wander to and go to sleep in that Leslie can with no apparent effort. One of the favorite spots– and all assistant directors can herewith take notice– is the cat-walk high above the stage. While people course about below like maddened hounds in pursuit of a fox, the missing star is having himself a quiet time with a small camera, taking intimate shots of his pursuers looking under divans and into bins, calling plaintively, “Oh, Mr. Howard!”
But if he’s feeling a bit wan and tired and a bit annoyed over the fact that Hollywood companies don’t always stop for a spot of reviving tea at 4 p.m., he has, very likely, gone in search of cars parked about the stage entrance. He eschews his own super-sports model– because pursuers are apt to look there first. So he usually picks a handy limousine and curls up in the front seat. He picks the front seat nowadays because once a careless chauffeur didn’t see him and drove off with him reclining in blissful slumber in back.
Leslie Howard, I’m afraid, is typical of no man but Leslie Howard. And more power to him! say I. He lives life with lively interest, a tongue in cheek and a quiet understanding of human nature– including the feminine of the species.
(Movie Classic, March 1936)