Leslie Howard Tells What He Thinks of Acting, Writing and the Movies (1932)

Leslie Howard Tells What He Thinks of Acting, Writing and the Movies

Acting Is the Chief Thing Leslie Howard Doesn’t Care About Doing

By JANET WHITE

HE IS “the eminently successful British actor” on both sides of the Atlantic and is at present developing an increasing number of admirers from among those who sit in darkened auditoriums watching shadows. Yet all this means little to him.

Leslie Howard, who is constantly bringing down encomiums upon his blond head—this season for playing Tom Collier with such sensitive perception in “The Animal Kingdom,” last year for his performance as Peter Standish who stepped back into the past in “Berkeley Square,” an earlier season for his interpretation of the convict in “Escape”— this Leslie Howard would much rather be a fine playwright than a fine actor.

In his dressing room alter the matinée the other afternoon he admitted that he was only mildly interested in the theater from the performer’s viewpoint, less interested really, than in the numerous other things he does. Quite by accident, and only as a means of keeping the ubiquitous wolf from the door, he accepted his first role in an English touring company of  “Peg o’ My Heart,” a very bad play, he says, but an enormously popular one. Other parts presented themselves, in 1921 American audiences first saw him in “Just Suppose,” and so, quite to his own amazement, he found himself achieving a reputation. His dramatic talents, he assures you, were obscurely dormant prior to that first appearance in 1919, and totally, untrained. Becoming an actor was about the last thing Leslie Howard, ambitious for a literary career, would ever have thought of doing.

His writings include “Murray Hill,” which was produced on Broadway; two earlier theatrical operas, numerous magazine articles, a play which he has just completed, another which he recently discarded after writing about half of it and a third which is in the working stage. He prefers not to act in his own brain children, since he feels that playwriting should be a release from the job of being actor rather than an added responsibility.

As for his motion picture work, he dismisses it quite perfunctorily, for to him the screen offers little real opportunity to the actor’s art.

“The actor is merely a prop in a motion picture,” he told me in his pleasant, serious manner; “really, no more than the furniture or setting. The fact that magnificent things have been done on the screen without actors proves this. The director is the ‘big cheese.’ The worst actors can play in a picture under a first-class director and the result can be a highly successful production. On the stage the prime responsibility is the actor’s. When the curtain rises—director, producer, author, every one departs— only the actor remains and success or failure falls upon his shoulders. To express himself the actor must go to the theater.”

Mr. Howard derives no satisfaction from seeing himself in a picture, even if it is quite good. “And surely there is no pleasure to be gained while actually playing before the camera. When you are required to say six dramatic lines at 11 o’clock in the morning and then continue the eloquent scene at 5 the next afternoon there is little feeling of the creation of a character.”

He does not disparage the movies, however, but sees in, them a definite contribution as an impressionistic art, an art of which thus far we have only caught a glimpse. He pointed to Joseph Von Sternberg, director of “Morocco” and “Shanghai Express”, as the one who understands the stands the true technique of motion pictures. He believes that the first part of  “Shanghai Express” came to being a perfect cinematic achievement. But next to a production with true pictorial values, he places the reproduced stage play as the second best thing, for it is generally better written and better acted than the ordinary screen story.

Leslie Howard refuses to permit his life to be dominated by his profession. That is why he turned down a five-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It would have meant giving up his freedom, and as he expresses it, the direction of his own destiny.

On the stage he likes appearing in the unusual play, the kind that producers are quick to discard as financially unprofitable. That is why “Berkeley Square” remains his favorite. It was, of course, enormously successful, but every one expected it to fail dismally. Together with Gilbert Miller he was the producer of this as well as “The Animal Kingdom.”

Away from the theater he wants to forget about it, and talk of other things. I heard him address an audience recently on “The Economic Crisis in England,” and come off splendidly. He is keen about photography and painting, tries his hand at both, though specimens of the latter art are not for exhibition.

Following the run of “The Animal Kingdom,” he will pack his trunks for Hollywood, where he will repeat the role of Tom Collier for the delectation of motion picture audiences. Then back to England for quite a long while. His plans call for an early retirement. During the next few years he hopes to do comparatively little acting, perhaps appear in alternate seasons, and then withdraw to a rambling country house in Surrey, England, which he bought a year ago, which he hasn’t lived in as yet, but where, some day soon, together with Mrs. Howard and their two lovely fair-haired children—Ronald, 14, and their seven-year-old daughter Leslie—he hopes to spend his time doing what he pleases — writing,  mostly.

He looks incredibly young for 39— always has, in fact. He remembers playing a school boy, when, in private life he was already a father. His diction is not too characteristically British—almost American, really. He has a patriotic fervor for England, doesn’t quite understand the fact that the hearts of innumerable American and British young women flutter alarmingly on seeing him; recently celebrated his 16th wedding anniversary, likes wearing grays, enjoys horseback riding and swimming, doesn’t play golf—but what is infinitely more important than all these minor things—he has retained his enthusiasms and has come through the generally destructive fires of fame and adulation completely unspoiled.

(Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 24, 1932)