Leslie Howard Speaks His Mind (1933)
Leslie Howard Speaks His Mind
In an interview with Doris Mackie
Every now and then something extra pleasant falls to the interviewer’s lot. It may be a talk with someone comparatively unknown, who yet has an arresting personality and a story to tell, or it may be a talk with someone famous, who turns out to be even more interesting than you had expected. Leslie Howard belongs to the latter category.
There was, to begin with, something rather interesting in the fact that he had chosen to stay at one of the smaller and older London hotels instead of one of the modern caravanserais where film stars usually congregate, although, I suppose, it only meant that he knew his London, and knew where he wanted to go.
Full of Ideas
He was alone when I was shown up. He looked tremendously fit, and it seemed somehow appropriate that he should be reading a book on horses. He is, as you know, long and lean and fair. His voice is particularly quiet, and he is an easy person to talk to, because he is full of ideas, and doesn’t mind putting them into words.
We began on the subject of film stories. I knew it must interest him, because he freely exercises the option his contract gives him to turn down those of which he does not approve.
“A great many of the stories filmed,” he said at once, “are entirely unsuitable for filming, let alone for any particular actor. The screen suffers because producers simply have to go on making films. No stage producer ever puts on a play because he has to use a theatre. But all the big film producers are absolutely forced to turn out films at a certain rate to keep their theatres supplied, and for that reason a great number of stories are filmed which should never be done at all.
“The actor must remain free if he is to survive. I didn’t realise that when I started, but after the first six months I stipulated that I should always have the final word on the stories in which I played. An actor can suffer tremendously from bad material or faulty casting.”
I asked him how he went about the selection of his stories, and he told me that he had tried to apply theatrical standards.
“For the stage you go on reading plays till you find one you like– and if you don’t find it you don’t produce it.
“I have never played in a story written for the screen, although some have been done. Most films, of course, are taken from a novel or a play. Of the two the play is the more dangerous, for a photographed play is not a good film.
“The stage is a literary medium concerned with words. It should be just as interesting if the actors simply sat down and talked all the time without moving. Stage movement is entirely artificial– you cannot get real action between four walls. All the same, a good play photographed is better than a poor pictorial story.
“Of course, with either play or novel the treatment is always the danger– everything depends on the way the thing is transferred to the screen. And you’ve got to remember that when you are transferring a play it has to be seriously condensed. In “The Woman in His House” we had to do the three acts in the space of two.”
Mr. Howard considers that since the introduction of talkies the art of cinema has been standing still. It should, he believes, be fifty per cent, silent; that is to say, at least fifty per cent action.
“It is a very fascinating medium, and a very difficult one to work in, since it is a combination of so many arts, but photography is the most important of them all. The camera is still the principal factor in the making of a film, although it has been grossly neglected since the talkies came in.”
Film He Likes Least
Going back to the story question, I asked him which of his films he liked least, and the answer came back without any hesitation.
“Secrets,” he said at once, “But that was partly because they changed the story. It was originally an English play, and they turned it into an American one. Then, it is old-fashioned– actually it is only twelve years old, but it might be fifty– and full of theatrical convention. Also, it is very difficult, almost impossible, to put biography on the talking screen. I, personally, find it very hard to believe in the passage of an enormous number of years when I am watching a film. It was better in the silent days– before the dialogue slowed things up to such an extent you could cover more ground– and, of course, on the stage the intervals, while people talk and walk about, help to strengthen the illusion of the passage of time.
“I was a little bit hesitant about ‘Secrets.’ In the first place, but I fell for it because the whole connection was so interesting. Mary Pickford is a great friend of mine. Frank Borzage is one of the best directors in the world, and was fresh from a perfect success in ‘A Farewell to the Arms.” Frances Marion, one of the best writers in Hollywood, did the scenario. But in spite of it all ‘Secrets’ didn’t quite come off.”
A Fascinating Story
It seemed natural to ask him next which film he considered his most successful, and his answer was equally unhesitating.
“Berkeley Square,” he said, “the last film I made– it hasn’t been shown over here yet. I liked it best of all my stage plays, and I like it best on the screen. It is a fascinating story– the sort that is very rarely written, and still more rarely put over.
“I liked ‘Smilin’ Through’ a lot, though I didn’t think I was going to be in it after I turned down the part of Kenneth Wayne. There are some good moments in the part, and Fredric March made a big success of it, but it didn’t appeal to me. It was more or less a straight love story, on Romeo and Juliet lines. The old man, John Carteret, had the more interesting part of the story, though it may have been less popular with the audience. I mentioned casually that I liked it, and then they offered it to me.”
When he goes back to America he is going to do Somerset Maugham’s story “Of Human Bondage” for R.K.O. It is his own selection– he turned down so many of the stories they put up to him that in desperation they asked him to suggest something!
“I wish you would tell me something about the stories you turned down,” I said, and he very obligingly complied.
“There was that thing that Constance Bennett played in,” he said, and for a minute he couldn’t recall the name. We found it between us– “Rockabye.” The whole story struck him as a piece of nonsense, very trite and unbelievable.
“The company found that out, too,” he said. “They spent 400,000 dollars on the first edition, and didn’t like it, so they did it again, with another director and some new characters, and spent another 400,000 dollars. Altogether it must have cost them over a million, and it wasn’t any better in the end.”
Another rejection was “Three Came Unarmed,” in which it was proposed that he should play with Katharine Hepburn.
“The book was interesting,” he agreed, “but when it was boiled down to bald facts it would have been simply awful as a film. They couldn’t make anything of it, and dropped it in the end.”
A third part which he turned down was another which would have seen him with Katharine Hepburn– “Christopher Strong.”
“I didn’t like the man…”
“As a man or as a part?”
“As a man. It was a real enough part, but he was an uninteresting creature– conventional. He didn’t lead a conventional life, of course, but his very unconventionality was conventional. To be really interesting,” quoth Leslie Howard quite seriously, although his eyes were twinkling, “a part must have a little touch of madness in it. Why should an audience to to see what they can see every day? The man in “The Woman in His House,” he remarked firmly, “is just a little bit cracked!”
I asked him what he thought about Katharine Hepburn, as he had been so near to playing with her on two occasions. He thinks she has the making of a great actress in her. Her very hardness he finds interesting, although he is not sure whether it is the crudity of youth or a New England characteristic which will remain with her always. “She is refreshingly different,” he said, “she doesn’t rely, as nearly all the American girls do, on sex-appeal.”
All the same, I think he must be fundamentally uncertain about her greatness, for a few minutes later he was telling me that he thought that seventy-five per cent of greatness in film acting lay in sex-appeal, the rest being a compound of imagination and technique.
“And no matter haw great the technique may be,” he said, “it is useless without sex-appeal– that something they call X in America…”
He told me a little about the film he is to make in this country for Gilbert Miller. So far he has read the rough draft only, which he had in the States, and not the final script, but he describes it as light, very pleasant comedy. He doesn’t know yet who his leading lady will be, although half a dozen girls in the States confided in him that they had been signed up for the part! His own idea is that it calls for someone like Yvonne Printemps, so it will be interesting to see who is the final selection.
All An Actor’s Tricks
“Besides,” he said shrewdly, “it doesn’t do to stick to one type of thing too long. The public get tired of it– begin to think that they know all your tricks.”
I’d have liked to go on talking to him for hours. He is so clear-cut in his ideas, so interestingly frank in his point of view, so definite– almost mathematically so– in his statements. But Mrs. Howard (all I saw of her was a hat peeping round the door) wanted to know where the children were, and I realised that I had been monopolising him for nearly an hour, which had seemed like a quarter of that time.
I left quite sadly (for a Leslie Howard doesn’t fall to one’s lot every day), nut with a very definite insight into the factor which account for his popularity and his success. He isn’t only a very fine actor– he’s a very intelligent one, and brains go a very long way indeed in this year of grace.
(Film Weekly, July 21, 1933)