Leslie Howard – Perennial Charmer (1936)
Leslie Howard – Perennial Charmer
There’s a great mystery in Howard’s appeal. Unassuming and serious, this blond chap has something other stars envy
by Ruth Rankin
Ladies gentlemen-especially ladies.
The following discourse, concerning a literate and articulate actor, contains not one word about his lovelife, per se. Intentionally, it omits speculation direct or indirect regarding his marriage, his amorous dalliance, if any, his preference for blondes or brunettes, also if any.
Mr. Leslie Howard entertains the controversial opinion that a man may be an actor and also have a private life.
You will, one hopes, agree that he can at least _try_. Possibly you may even find it refreshing to discover an actor who wants a private life.
This explanatory digression has nothing to do with the subject matter, except as an early illustration of Leslie’s rebellious nature. Imagine an actor daring to want a private life!
Those of you, who regard Mr. Howard and sex-appeal
as interchangeably synonymous, will perhaps be pained, or anyway surprised, to find out that other things do go on in his mind.
But before we progress to his mind, how’s about analyzing the appeal. (Did I hear cheers from the ladies?) What is it Leslie has which no other actor has? Where does he keep it? Does he put it on and take it off or is it always there?
Well, now you have me. It’s that thing called charm. Without it, there is a not particularly personable, slightly skinny gent in an old loose tweed jacket and trousers with a patch on the seat and tortoise-rimmed glasses, pulling on a blunt pipe. With it, there is Leslie Howard.
It works in various ways its wonders to perform–but it always works. For instance, two very chic Upper-Crust young matrons arrive from New York and it is my pleasure to introduce them to a studio. Well, a studio is a studio, and I make arrangements accordingly. But no, I was wrong. They only want to go to the studio where Leslie Howard is making a picture–and the only actor they want to meet is Leslie Howard. Tie that. And here I figured they were pretty darn lucky to see any studio! And it seemed fairly reasonable that since Howard was working on a picture, he wouldn’t send out any brass bands to meet us… Ha, I was wrong again.
The gals were fairly skeptical. This Howard now, he was just a legendary character who charmed people, willy-nilly, on the screen and stage–but in person, well, they were very polite about it, but they wished to be shown.
You’re way ahead of me, of course. In half an hour, Leslie made it awfully tough for other men in their lives. I always feel sorry for the guys who have to follow Leslie. On the screen or on the hoof, he leaves ’em with that far-away don’t-touch-me-right-now look.
What did he say to them? Well, he talked about some technical details of the picture, he compared Hollywood with New York and managed the gargantuan feat of not disparaging either place. He said directors had all the fun making pictures, and some day he wanted to be a director.
It was not what he said, my pets, it was the way he said it.
So far as the mind can see and the naked eye reveal, charm is not visible. But one small clue to Leslie’s charm is his quiet but superb confidence. Oh no, don’t go off half-cocked like that. Confidence is not something that pounds its chest and swaggers and talks loud and uses non pronoun except the personal “I.” Confidence like Howard’s is something quiet and infinitely sustaining. It doesn’t give a damn for praise or criticism–it just goes serenely on, buoyed and confirmed by some inner source of strength.
This kind of confidence is so rare in Hollywood that the natives are a little afraid of it. You see, it selects its friends among whomever it finds interesting or amusing, and fails to note if they come within the same salary bracket. It gets in no panics about being seen in the right places with the right people. It dares to wear comfortable old clothes and glasses, not just around the studio but anywhere and everywhere. This sort of confidence actually estimates the worth of a restaurant by the quality of food it serves, and not to whom it is served. Thus you will sometimes discover the Howard in little out-of-the-way joints which no other actor would think of entering, because he will not be seen by the right person.
Maybe right now gently but firmly you are saying I am nuts to define charm as being nine parts confidence and one part Leslie Howard. All right, you define it. And anybody who quotes Barrie and refers to “that damned charm” he mentioned will have to stand in the corner till school’s out.
Another thing about how Leslie’s charm works. You know, of course, that interviewers are not supposed to be women while on duty. The usual thing is, when you make an appointment, you say “three o’ clock at the studio,” and that’s that. Well, when you make an appointment with Leslie, you go and have your hair done. Then you have a long silent debate whether to wear flat heels and a tweed suit and look practical, or wear high heels and the Lily Daché hat and look as frivolous as possible, so he won’t expect too much in the way of an interview… Which reminds me. There was an interview, wasn’t there?
It was noisy on the set, so we drifted outside and sat in Leslie’s English car– half a block long, with more gadgets on the dash than a fancy airplane. Howard loves to give demonstrations with them. You press something and a jack promptly lifts one wheel. Press something else and signals snap out. Whenever an electrician or a prop man passes and look interested, Leslie shows him the works. Knows what goes on under the hood, too.
In between working the gadgets, Howard told me he was bored with acting. He wants to be a director. Directors have all the fun. The only use for actors is to exploit a story. The actor has no control over his medium. Directing is an exacting business.
“The measure of a picture’s greatness is in direct ratio to the greatness of the director. He is the man who brings it together, it depends absolutely upon the unity of his mind.”
Ensued a long technical discussion on the creation and production of pictures. Evidently, Howard had given the subject a great deal of thought. He talks in a remarkably easy manner. His words are understated, his voice unraised under any circumstances–even when a truck went by. He presents his views with utter detachment, leaving the listener to sort and emphasize them.
Only his eyes refuse to be detached. Amusement, gay and flickering, looks out of them. Amusement at the picture he is painting of himself as a rebel, as a profundity, as a shrewd businessman. And by the way, he is a shrewd businessman, whether or not the idea amuses him. He is a rather forceful person in a calm way, who wishes to make no outward to-do about anything, least of all his rather daring plan to desert acting for directing.
He wishes to leave the known and the proven, which has become stale to him (“I’m tired of doing bits and ends as one must do on the screen”), for a sporting chance at bigger game.
“And by that I do not mean money,” he added, “I would be satisfied to show my pictures in ten or twelve selected cities, and find ample audience for the things I could do without shame.
“It is a very good thing to make up your mind about whom you are going to please. One cannot hope to appeal to everyone who attends the film theatres, that is obvious insanity. I prefer to please those who thik along the same line as I do. Why not? Certainly I can understand better what they want. Naturally, it is a limited field.”
I edged in a faint note of wonder as to how this could be accomplished, in the face of his acting contract with Warners, the “Romeo and Juliet” being mad at M-G-M…
“Oh yes, my contract provides only for acting. Yes, indeed. But you see, I have various identities. There is the stage actor, the stage director, the writer, the picture actor– and now the picture director!”
He regarded my bewilderment with the air of one gently teasing small child.
(Charm Note: that’s another angle on this charm business. When you wish to avoid telling something to a woman, look at her gently, as if she were a very small child. It’s marvelous.) He turned on that mischief-mysterious smile, the smile that implies so much and tells nothing, the “you leave it all to me” smile.
So don’t ask me how he will work out his plan, in the face of contractual obligations. Something tells me, beyond a doubt, he will. And it will happen after the most serene one-man rebellion ever staged.
While he was making “Petrified Forest” at Warners, that studio had urgent need for a good determined brace of bloodhounds, due to their star’s insouciant habit of disappearance. He was located eventually in any of several odd places. Possibly asleep in the back of a truck , or prowling around the rafters high over the set. Assistant Director Frank Shaw tried to follow him every place, but Howard became expert at losing him.
Howard always arrived late on the set and flew into a simulated bustle of activity right away. “Well, old chaps, what’s holding us up?” What can you say to a man like that?
One day he made off on an electrician’s bicycle. It happened to have all the man’s tools in a leather bag on the back. The electrician waited, fuming, and bawled hell out of Howard when he finally got back. Howard took it beautifully.. (I can think of several pretentious actors who might have had the man fired.) When he finished, Howard shook hands with him and remarked, “Old chap, I’m afraid you take life much too seriously.”
At every possible opportunity, Leslie went to sleep. He just calmly put his head in Bette Davis’ lap and fell asleep, or he went out into her car or anybody’s car. After four in the afternoon, he begins to fade. It’s very strange how Leslie knows exactly when to begin fading. He doesn’t like to work after four, and any scenes taken later than that have to be made over in the morning, anyway.
He put in days with Humphrey Bogart figuring out a happy ending for “Petrified Forest.” The studio decided he shouldn’t be shot, for a while there, and everybody was writing happy endings. Leslie and Humphrey played it on the stage and were firmly convinced there was no logical way to end it happily, so some of their finis were hilarious. One was: Leslie was not to die, he was to go to Paris with Bette. There they would be, Bette painting, and Leslie happy because he was working for Paramount! The studio turned it down.
Then Howard’s daughter, Leslie, wrote an ending–very seriously. Bogart was to say, “I can’t kill you.” So Howard grabs the gun and says, “All right, let me do it.” Instead of which, he sticks them all up, gets a big reward and lives happily ever after, with Bette and lots of children. Leslie says his daughter ought to be writing scenarios for Warners.
Leslie’s son, Ronnie, looks exactly like his father, and has lots of fun going around autographing. That accounts for two sets of Leslie Howard autographs all over town.
Howard likes to see pictures and goes often to small neighborhood theatres with his daughter Leslie.
The night of the “Petrified Forest” preview, scheduled for eight-thirty, I was there at eight twenty-five, and the house was jammed. Arrived then a pleasant simply-dressed family group, a man in glasse and an old somewhat faded polo coat, small daughter in her school clothes, and mama minus furs or swank. The Howards. There were no seats. I think they stood up for the performance. I went upstairs and sat on the balcony steps (don’t tell the fire department) in some obliging genteleman’s lap, as there wasn’t any room left on the steps. (Yoo hoo, thanks mister.) Apparently, neither of us minded, it was such a grand picture. Never has such a crowd turned out for a preview in this, our preview-mad village.
Any way you look at it, seeing his pictures or interviewing Leslie Howard, it’s a Lovely Work, I wouldn’t lie to you!
(Modern Screen, April 1936)