Leslie Howard – The Lost Actor (2011)
Leslie Howard – The Lost Actor
Leslie Howard, although seen by most people as an archetypal Englishman, had overseas ancestry. His father Ferdinand Steiner came from Hungary and in 1886, after being brought up in Vienna, came to England to seek his fortune at the age of 24. He then came into contact with Lilian Blumberg, a member of a long-established Jewish immigrant family dating back in England to 1834.
The Blumberg family lived in Jasper Road (the house is no longer there) in prosperous circumstances. Love blossomed between Ferdinand and Lilian, and in due course they married. At some stage they presumably set up home at Westbourne Road, Forest Hill, where Leslie was born in 1893. Some five years later Ferdinand returned to Vienna with his wife and son, and they enjoyed the cultural life there for five years or so before returning to England. Although they are said to have enjoyed their stay in Vienna they (or at least Ferdinand) found the restrictions placed on Jewish families, or those of Jewish extraction, unacceptable.
On returning to England they bought a house in Jasper Road Upper Norwood next to that occupied by Lilian’s parents (the house – Allandale – is also no longer there). The house is described as having 5 storeys looking down on a sloping garden with a spectacular view over the whole of London. The Blumbergs were of course thoroughly anglicized, and there was pressure to
remove any trace of Leslie’s foreign roots, including of course his speech.
Upper Norwood is described in the book as a very pleasant suburb with many well-off families, including such famous people as Emile Zola and Camille Pissarro (both of Jewish origin).
Leslie’s education then took place at a local preparatory school and then Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, After a rather unhappy time there Leslie was encouraged by two of his Blumberg uncles, and his mother, to take an interest in acting, and together they put on amateur dramatic productions at the Stanley Halls, South Norwood. His father however saw no future in it, and so Leslie went to work in a bank in Whitehall, although he spent his leisure writing articles and short stories.
At this point the 1914 outbreak of war took over Leslie’s life, and he joined a cavalry regiment. When, eventually, his regiment was sent to France Leslie was found medically unfit and remained in reserve at Colchester, where he married Ruth Martin. He was not long after discharged from the army and returned to Norwood with his wife. He then abandoned his job at the bank and joined various touring theatrical companies, with mixed, but mainly favourable, reviews. He finally made it to the West End in 1917. One of his theatrical Blumberg uncles had become a film director when moving pictures and the cinema were in their silent infancy. Conveniently, the studios for the company were in Limes Road, Croydon. Leslie then obtained a major role in a London play, followed by another, both of which were reviewed favourably, at least as far as he was concerned. These were followed by more substantial productions which brought Leslie into contact with many famous actors of the time. He persisted with his interest in the world of film however, and compensated for its ups and downs with stage work and writing plays and scripts. He joined Adrian Brunel in setting up a film company, and enlisted the help of A A Milne. They had some success but eventually the company was dissolved. At that point Leslie decided to try his luck on the American stage.
His first play ‘Just Suppose’ finally reached Broadway in 1920, and had some success, but Leslie’s reviews were not always good. He continued to write articles, and had no trouble in finding parts in other plays, some of them written, with mixed success, by A A Milne. One success was however ‘Outward Bound’ which attracted enthusiastic audiences in Britain and America. By 1928 he was in demand on both sides of the Atlantic, although in ‘Her Cardboard Lover’ he was overshadowed, both on and off the stage, by Tallulah Bankhead.
The Leslie Howard that most of us know is of course his film career. The family went to Hollywood in 1930, as did most of the Broadway talent. There Howard made his name in a number of films with leading stars, but did not apparently enjoy the process of film-making compared with theatre work, and alternated between the two in England and America with considerable success.
He also showed skill at directing. His role in The Scarlet Pimpernel in England struck a chord with the persecution of Jews in Germany and featured many well-known actors. It was a resounding success in both countries. He then had another theatre success in The Petrified Forest, later a film. He was generous with his off-stage and off-screen time, and gave talks to organizations like the English-Speaking Union, which was avowedly hostile to Fascism.
Like many serious actors, Howard wanted to enter the world of Shakespeare, and mounted a stage production of Hamlet. His role was not however successful as his quiet and restrained acting style did not fit well into such a play. More suited to his style was a film of Pygmalion in 1938, which is regarded as watchable even today, although overshadowed to some extent by ‘My Fair Lady’.
On return to America, and apparently with some misgivings, he took the part of Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, a film
that needs no description here.
When the war broke out Leslie Howard became involved in efforts to promote the production of British films, and British culture generally, and went to France to discuss possibilities. After the collapse of France he continued this work in Spain, Portugal and Eire, and this ended with his tragic death when his aeroplane was shot down in 1943 by the Germans (whether or not it was because he was a passenger is a matter for conjecture). He also made many broadcasts to promote the war effort. In 1941 he adapted the theme of The Scarlet Pimpernel to make the successful and widely-influential film Pimpernel Smith, a production which highlighted the treatment of the Jews by the Nazi government and is still occasionally shown.
Leslie Howard had a cameo role in The 49th Parallel – a film which brought into focus Canada’s role in the conflict, and portrayed the Germans unfavourably. In 1942 he then produced, directed and took the leading role in The First of the Few, a film widely-regarded as his best work, and highly relevant to the Battle of Britain period following which it was made. Again, it is still shown occasionally.
In 1943, Howard presented and directed ‘The Gentle Sex’ which attracted considerable praise. He then produced ‘The Lamp Still Burns’ which portrayed the experiences of a trainee hospital nurse based on a book by Monica Dickens. It attracted mixed reviews.
‘The Lost Actor’ concludes with two chapters dealing with Howard’s visit to Portugal in 1943, ostensibly to explore the possibility of making films in two languages, thus avoiding ‘dubbing’, and also to promote the Allied cause. There is some speculation in the book about whether Howard had some kind of role in the security services, but no real evidence.
To sum up, The Lost Actor reflects exhaustive research by the author, and is worthy of a place on that part of a bookshelf dealing with the theatre and films over a long period, and during momentous changes. This brief article does not reflect an understandable emphasis in the book on the contributions to the theatre and cinema of the talented Jewish communities here and in America. This is partly because it tends to affect an assessment of Howard’s role but mainly because the subject deserves a book of its own.
(The Norwood Review Official Journal of the Norwood Society, Spring 2011)