Leslie Howard’s Skill as an Actor, 1935

Leslie Howard’s Skill as an Actor

by John Mason Brown

If Leslie Howard had not shown us once what he can do as an actor by giving such a memorable performance as the tortured hero of Mr. Galsworthy’s “Escape,” some of his admirers would lament a little less than they do that quiet, effortless charm of his which he has brought to one play and one movie after another during the last ten years and more.
That he is charming and handsome, no one can deny. That he is skillful is equally self-evident. That he possesses a pleasant English voice which he uses well, and is both sensitive and intelligent are facts which each and every one of his performances have made clear.
His gifts, even as he has revealed them in parts which make identical demands upon him, are rare ones. They are talents which are his and his alone, and by means of which he can, with no apparent effort, grant more well-bred composure to comedies and fantasies–yes, and melodramas, too–than any other actor at present on our stage or screen.

Mr. Howard’s Rare Gifts

Mr. Howard is a master of understatement. He is almost showily undemonstrative. Yet beneath the calm of his British exterior and the meticulous deliberation of his British speech, there palpably exists a romantic actor who does not have to wear a cape and sword to let his audiences know that he is romantic.
He is firm but shy; has the advantage of seeming to need feminine protection, even while he is going surely on his own way; can appear to be as helpless and pathetic as a Bond Street Caspar Milquetoast at the same time that he is demonstrating his innate heroism; and is, as Stark Young has said of him, the only player in our theatre who is able to make good taste in itself dramatic.
But unusual as are his gifts, and admirable as his performances have been in “The Truth About Blayds,” “Outward Bound,” “Murray Hill,” “Isabel,” “The Green Hat,” “Her Cardboard Lover,” “Berkeley Square,” “Candle Light” and “The Animal Kingdom,” they all have been pretty much one of a kind–the very kind in fact that, in spite of costume differences, Mr. Howard has given recently in such a play as “The Petrified Forest” and such a film as “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”
All of these performances have been charming and skillful presentations of Mr. Howard’s charming and skillful self. But we should think that by now Mr. Howard would be wearied of reading reviews in which he is always called charming, and in which the same old things are said about him because he gives no one the chance to say anything different.

What “Escape” promised

We do not mean to say that Mr. Howard is not excellent in doing what he does, or that we ever really tire of watching him do it again, or that there is any one else who can do it half so well. But, with his performance of Matt Denant in “Escape” still vivid in our mind, we do wonder why it is that Mr. Howard has never bothered to enlarge his field, or to play the truly courageous part in the theatre that could so easily be his.
His Matt Denant pointed, as has nothing he has undertaken since, to the kind of actor Mr. Howard could become. It indicated his fine potentialities for tragedy, and found him rising to meet demands of a sort which he has been spared by his subsequent choice of scripts. It made the play significant as more than a picture of the way in which various classes in English society would react to an escaping convict, and turned it into an all-important and all-hopeful proof of Mr. Howard’s ability to escape from himself.
On that escape, however, Mr. Howard seems deliberately to have turned his back. He has not chosen to follow the adventurous course, say, that has been followed by the Miss Cornell with whom he once played in “The Green Hat.” His selection of plays has been pleasant and tasteful enough. But it leaves one wondering why a man who ought to make an interesting Hamlet, who could play the luckless king who is known to the stage as either Richard II or Richard of Bordeaux, and Galworthy’s Falder, and any number of other parts should have elected to be so unadventurous in molding his career as an actor.

Mrs. Isaacs Asks Some Questions

Unquestionably Mr. Howard has won and deserved the stardom and the vast popularity which are his. Yet he seems to have won them by leaving undone, rather by doing, many of the things which would have made him far more important than he is. He has, in short, repeated himself endlessly, but always in terms of such polish and perfection that we feel ungrateful in mentioning it.
We remember resenting this very point when it was excellently stated only last month by Edith J.R. Isaacs in her review of “The Petrified Forest” in Theatre Arts, for such is our admiration for Mr. Howard that we have fought off admitting it even to ourselves. But having just seen him in “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and having looked in vain int that cumbersome though well-acted film for the new Mr. Howard we had been led to expect there, we are forced to agree with Mrs. Isaacs.
With her we find ourselves asking, “What can make the pother and unreality and uncertainty of an actor’s life worth while for a man with Mr. Howard’s wits except acting–creating something in voice and speech and manner and character that is not himself? Even if he goes on pleasing his public, as he does, does he not bore himself to death?”

(New York Post, March 26, 1935)