Leslie Howard Lays His Plans (1937)
Leslie Howard Lays His Plans
The famous British actor, resting at his Surrey home, talk about his probable future activities
to Max Breen
This is a Full-length Portrait of a Country Gentleman on Holiday.
But, knowing Leslie Howard tolerably well, I can foresee its being one of the most active holidays of modern times.
He recently arrived back from America, and being aware that what Leslie Howard plans to do to-day will be news to-morrow, I called at his country house in Surrey in the cool of the evening, partly to say “Howdy” because I hadn’t seen him for a year or so, and is definitely one of the people one likes to meet, and partly to discover what he is going to do.
“First,” he said, “I’m going to have a rest.”
“What do you call a rest?” I demanded, knowing full well that his air of graceful indolence is entirely deceptive; in fact, in that respect his resemblance to Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, is most marked.
“Well, actually,” he admitted, “I’m going to be fairly busy for a while.”
“I thought so,” I murmured.
“I’ve been working, on and off, for years, scrappily and at odd moments, at a play, which now I propose to knock into final shape.
“You saw that chap who was going out as you came in? He runs the Bristol Repertory Theatre, and that’s where this play of mine is going to be tried out.”
“You’re going to play in it yourself?”
“No. There’s no part for me.”
“It always seems to me,” I remarked, “that you’re more interested in standing behind and pulling the strings than you are in acting.”
“Oh, stage acting’s all right,” he hastened to assure me. “There’s something constructive and generally satisfactory in that. But acting for the screen–that’s another matter. It isn’t acting any more, as we always understood the term.
“Anyone can be a film actor. A horse can be a very good film actor. It depends upon the skill of the producer, the director, the cameraman, the sound engineer, the cutter, the publicity man– and upon the imagination of the audience.
“I am not satisfied to be merely a ‘prop,’ to be moved about and photographed doing odd disjointed things. I’m perfectly willing to have all that happen to me, because there’s no denying that one is prodigiously well paid for it. But I want a hand in the moving about.”
“Ah!” I pounced. “That brings me to an important leading question. Are you thinking of forming your own production unit over here?”
“Oh, I’ve been thinking of it for a long time. I’ve discussed a large-scale project with a number of people in Hollywood, but we couldn’t see eye to eye about it. Meanwhile, my first efforts at independent production will probably be with Korda at Denham.”
“You think that would give you sufficient scope?”
“Korda’s a liberal-minded man,” Leslie Howard replied, “and moreover he has a very acute understanding of the independent producer’s needs and problems. Besides, he has a magnificent studio, with every facility for making good films.”
“Hollywood studios have that,” I pointed out, “but you’d rather make your films here?”
“I have a feeling,” he said slowly, “quite apart from my natural satisfaction as an Englishman, that British production should be fostered, because it seems to me entirely wrong that practically the whole world’s film production should be concentrated in Hollywood in one enormous monopoly, and I think it’s up to the British players here and abroad to do that fostering as far as we’re capable.
“Not, mind you, that I am one of those who have any quarrel with Hollywood. I have been very well treated indeed. It’s simply that I consider competition a healthy thing, and that, combined with a love of England as a place to live, and the feeling that I can obtain greater independence of action here than in Hollywood, makes me plump for Britain.”
“Do you propose to direct films yourself?”
“I’ve wanted for a long time to try my hand at direction,” he admitted.
“And you would play in your own films?”
“But not if I were directing,” he assured me. “I don’t think that’s practicable–at any rate, not for me. But a producer is in a different position, because his work as such is practically completed–or should be–before the production goes on the floor.”
“And what about stage work here?” I asked him. “Do you intend to do a show in the West End while you’re here?”
“Frankly, I’m not very keen,” he replied. “You see, in the West End, if one gets a success it runs for a year, and one plays the part four hundred times, which isn’t much fun. And if it’s a failure, it obviously isn’t right for the West End.
“I’d much rather do experimental kind of work in less exalted spheres–in repertory theatres, for instance, which I hear have been flourishing remarkably in the year or so that I’ve been away. I’ve brought back from America two or three plays that I may do. But nothing’s decided yet.”
“And do you intend to do experimental work in films as well?”
“Well, not hocus-pocus kind of tricks; but I should like to have a go at striking a balance between the Russian neo-post-vorticism on on hand and legs on the other.”
“How long do you intend to remain in England?” I asked.
“I’m entitled to a year’s holiday,” he told me jubilantly, “before I go back to Hollywood to work off some more of my Warner contract.”
“It sounds a little like a ticket-of-leave man,” I observed.
“It does rather,” he admitted. “But it isn’t quite as bad as that. As a matter of fact, my contract with Warner Bros. is rather an unusual one.
“I was supposed to do three films a year for them, but I’m afraid I’ve been so otherwise occupied that my three-year-contract is already four and a half years old, and it’s still only about halfway through.
“However, I’ve made a compromise with them. I’ve undertaken to turn up in Hollywood to play in two films consecutively–Warners have been rather handicapped by not knowing just which year I would arrive–after which I’m entitled to two films independently.
“So I may do my two films in England and then direct or produce, which would be outside the terms of my contract. Fortunately, I never signed the kind of contract which would bind me to remain in Hollywood all the year round.”
“You sound almost as if you didn’t like Hollywood, ” I remarked.
“On the contrary, I like it very much; I have a number of friends there, and, as I say, I’ve been very well treated. But my roots are here; my home and my family are here–my boy’s going up to Cambridge shortly–and while I’m in Hollywood, or anywhere else out of England, I can’t feel really at home; I always feel that my bags are waiting to be packed!”
“So you’re not likely to return there for a year?”
“No, I’ve fulfilled my contractual obligations by playing in two pictures in quick succession–Stand in, for which I was lent to Walter Wanger, and It’s Love I’m After.
“You also played Hamlet in New York, of course?”
“Yes, we clashed with John Gielgud’s Hamlet, which was unfortunate, but unavoidable. In any case it wasn’t fatal–our readings of the part differ widely. I could never attempt Gielgud’s classic style.
“And it caused endless controversy, which was good for business.”
“Oh, then we toured it right across America for four months, and that was great fun. We visited the chief cities–Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake–finishing at San Francisco.
“As our play-dates were sometimes rather far apart, we made side journeys–to such places as Wichita, Kansas, for instance.
“These smaller towns–or rather cities; practically every American township is called a city in anticipation–provided a grand experience, because many of them had hardly ever seen a stage play before, and the whole population flocked to us.”
“I suppose,” I said, “it satisfied the well-known American thirst for culture?”
“For the older folks, yes. And the younger one pleased their parents and teachers by going to see Shakespeare. And also they very seldom have a chance to see a movie star in the flesh, so everyone was satisfied.”
That’s a typical Leslie Howard remark; I know few people with such a keen sense of humour under such firm control.
“What about Lawrence of Arabia?” I asked. This subject has been on the tapis so long that I’m almost losing hope of its ever coming to the screen; but I think that’s a pity, for it would make a first-rate film subject– and I can’t think of any other British actor who could so faithfully portray the strange combination of visionary and man of action that was colonel Lawrence.
“It will probably be my first production as producer-actor.”
“And Bonny Prince Charlie?” This is another subject that has been hanging fire; Doug. Fairbanks, jun., was going to have a cut at it, but he decided that the Bonny Prince didn’t ever achieve anything, and it appears to have lost interest in him. Leslie Howard, again, could certainly portray the visionary, sensitive, gallant figure of the the Young Pretender better than anyone.
“That’s another thing I want to do. It’s a matter of arranging… and fitting things in. First of all, I’m going to see what this play of mine looks like on the stage…”
We strolled down the lane to my car, he in a dark blue short-sleeved shirt and gray flannel bags, his recently acquired California tan making his fair hair appear fairer than ever.
Leslie Howard has been referred to by interviewers as “that demned, elusive Pimpernel,” but in my experience no one could be more accessible or friendly to the prowling pressman.
A couple of village girls cycling past gave him a casual glance; here he is no glamour-wrop’t film star, but a country gentleman taking a well-earned holiday.
Nevertheless, with the holiday only a few weeks old, beneath that calm exterior a restless energy is seething. So don’t make any mistake and reat the title of this article “Leslie Howard Lazes Plans.”
It simply wouldn’t be true.
(Picturegoer, Semptember 18, 1937)