Leslie Howard Talks About Sex Films (1934)
Leslie Howard Talks about Sex Films
The famous star indicts the movie moguls in one of the most outspoken interviews ever given by a film artiste. “The production of pictures in America,” he says, “is –75 per cent, at least– in the hands of people who are devoid of taste and culture. The only thing they have is the money to pay for the production.”
During an interval, whilst he was filming some of the scenes in the screen version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which he is starring for London Film Productions, at Elstree, I asked Leslie Howard whether he thought– from his intimate knowledge of film-making in Hollywood– this new purity drive started by the churches would mean that costume would oust sex film?
He was looking very slim and debonair in his Regency period costume, with lace ruffles and frills, softening the rather severe lines of his tailed olive-green coat. There is no actor on stage and screen who can look better in costume than Leslie Howard.
Bringing his mind back to present-day problems, as he came off the set, he pondered for a moment before he replied:
“I am inclined to think that you cannot divorce sex from the drama. It does not seem to me to matter very much whether the play is acted in costume or not if it has any trend towards romance.
“As a matter of fact, the vogue for the sentimental, or semi-sentimental film, many of which were of the simple, romantic order, was started many years ago by the Americans with their simple, sentimental stories, which were produced always in modern dress. I mean the ‘hick’ romances, which, it seems to me, led the way, undoubtedly, to the costume play.
“For we polished up these a bit by putting them into costume, to add glamour to the film.
“The costume play is not the only form of entertainment which does not depend upon sex entirely for its success. When I say entirely I mean that you cannot absolutely remove sex (even in a very mild form) from any play or film which is written about men and women.
“For men and women are only human, after all! They are not the robots which, those who are running this purity campaign, would try to make them out.
“You would be putting a tremendous strain on any costume play by removing sex completely from the plot or the scenario.
“Sex is never dull, though it may be highly censorable. That is why costume plays have had such a hoodoo upon them in the past, for they were often deadly dull. And who can blame the public for refusing to go to see something which might bore them instead of amusing them?
“I think the vogue for costume plays, or films, is a very good thing at the present juncture. The sooner the public can be made to think that costume plays are not dull the better, from the box-office point of view. Which, after all, is the view that is bound to matter in the long run.
“Personally, I am all for the costume play. I have acted in several, including Berkeley Square, and now in The Scarlet Pimpernel, which should be a very popular hit. Later, I am supposed to play in Anthony Adverse, in Hollywood, which will be another costume play.
“Rothschild, The Private Life of Henry VIII, Catherine the Great, all were tremendously successful, both in this country and in America, and all, of course, were costume plays.
“But it is very easy to kill that vogue if there is a tendency to give the screen-going public an overdose. For kinema audiences soon tire if they are surfeited with any particular form of entertainment.
“Witness the death of the once so popular gangster film! And then there was a spate of aeroplane stories, of which everyone got tired to death.
“Frankly, I believe that Hollywood will acknowledge it was the British-made Henry VIII which started this new vogue, which producers over there rushed in to follow once they realised what a tremendously popular (and financial) success this film was in America.
“Stories which were scheduled to be produced –on the old sex line– were pigeonholed and producers went on a wild rampage for costume plays.
“But I do hope that they will not overdo it. That is the worst of Hollywood. Producing companies get a bee in their bonnets for a certain type of film, and they proceed to give us a surfeit of the type. They do not see that moderation pays better.
“After all, there is only one vogue, using the word in its general interpretation, which can be successful, and that is the vogue for first-class entertainment, whether it be costume play , or film, or not.
“I think the greatest point in favour of the prevailing craze for costume plays is that they transport the audience from hum-drum everyday life and gives it romance rather than realism.
“Modern movies are so real, that they leave nothing whatever to the imagination, and the audience is constantly being dragged down to earth with a thud!
“But go to a costume play. You enjoy the picturesque romance, the glamour of those other days when life was not such a hustle as it is to-day; one’s thoughts are taken away from the immediate present, which may, in many cases, be a welcome escape.
“Whereas the realistic modern play makes you unduly conscious of the present.
“I consider that the present drive against sex plays will last only just as long as the people who are behind it keep fighting. The moment they relax any of their efforts, producers (ever on the look out for any tiny sign of weakening in the attack) will lay plans for the production of sex plays again in Hollywood.
“Personally, I thin there is a lot of ballyhoo being written and talked about this much vexed question of sex. As a father who is devoted to the welfare of his children, I would rather let my children see a clever sex play than an objectionable, ugly, or vulgar gangster film.
“There is so much ugliness– which is so repellent to me– in many of these gangster pictures.
“An attractive sex picture will do a lot less harm than an unattractive, vulgar and ugly gangster picture, as far as the mind of a child is concerned.
“There is nothing wrong with sex. There is everything wrong with gangsterdom.
“It’s all a question of taste.
“Unfortunately, to-day the production of pictures in America is –75 per cent, at least– in the hands of people who are absolutely devoid of taste or culture.
“The only thing they have is the money to pay for the productions.
“And the only remedy, or the only way to ameliorate the present unpleasant conditions is to sweep out of existence that 75 per cent, who practically control the picture industry. You cannot keep them out of it.
“If they would only go on making such horribly bad pictures that the public would boycott them and drive this 75 per cent. bankrupt, then there would be a chance for others, possessed of better taste and culture, to try their hand.
“How I wish there were more men at the head of picture-producing companies like Alexander Korda! Men with his mentality, his culture, his genius. If that state of affairs could be brought about there would be no complaints from the churches, or anyone else, regarding improper pictures.
“They did not object to Henry VIII because it was such a splendid production, although there was sex interest in it. That was because of the genius with which it was directed, not because it was devoid of sex.
“I think the depression in America was a blessing in disguise as far as the future of pictures is concerned. For the kinema-going public, not having the money to go so often to pictures, became more selective, because they wanted to pay for only that which they thought the best, not just because they wanted to ‘go to the pictures’ irrespective of what was being shown on the screen.
“So that, int that way, the taste of the public has improved, which is a sad blow to that uncultured 75 per cent. I spoke of just now who, hitherto found they could produce any kind of picture– for, after all, anybody could produce them– and the public would go.
“In bad times the worst go to the wall and the best comes to the front.
“And so with pictures. Want of money to spend is educating the public, making them more selective, improving their taste, which is a very hopeful sign.
“But, although there are so many laws and regulations regarding screen scenarios in America, including the new code of love-making — whether a man should kiss a woman in a horizontal position, what shall, or shall not, be done– producers will manage to dodge restrictions, no matter how they may be hedged around by them.
“That is my reply to the question whether the objectionable sex play will be ousted by costume plays.
“For it would be impossible to have such a volume of costume plays produced to take the place of those ousted.
“On an average American producing companies make about six hundred films a year. Out of that total only about thirty could be costume plays, which would not be sufficient to fill the gap.
“I contend, therefore, that we cannot do without sex, but sex plays can be improved in treatment and production, to render them uncensorable, yet detract nothing from their entertainment (and ultimate box-office) value to the kinema-going public.”
(Picturegoer, September 15, 1934)