Master of Polite Sophistication (1929)
Master of Polite Sophistication
by George Halasz
Leslie Howard, Handsome, Blond and British, Has Gift of Playing Light Comedy as if It Were Invented for That Very Purpose
It is an interesting phenomenon of the American theater that the majority of our male stars capable of portraying a role in a light, sophisticated, polite comedy without appearing utterly ridiculous, hail from England. While our managerial and casting offices simply abound in talented actresses– the overflow, indeed, is large enough to permit us to send a goodly proportion of it to England– and while we have a greater per capita supply of excellent slapstick comedians than any other country on earth, there exist a veritable, and somewhat lamentable, shortage in actors who can wear full dress without giving the impression that they masquerade in costumes and who can utter a Molnar or a Lonsdale line with sufficient grace to make the audience believe that they have just thought of these witticisms themselves. To be sure, this phenomenon is not strictly restricted to America. A somewhat analogous situation exists in Germany where practically all the actors famous for their polish and refinement are of Viennese extraction.
Among the English actors who lend to the American theatre an air of polite sophistication– or is it sophisticated politeness?– one of the finest is Leslie Howard, who, in the course of less than a decade, has so definitely become a fixed body on our theatrical firmament that his absence in so much as a single, solitary season already evokes loud expressions of regret. And justly so. For he can play light comedy as if light comedy has been invented for no other purpose than to give him an opportunity to play. He has grace, charm, nonchalance adn naturalness, a combination so rare that one often doubts whether it exists at all. But when one sees Leslie Howard gliding over thin ice with such sureness that the precarious ice seems like solid rock, one is once more assured that the apparently impossible is, after all, possible.
Leslie Howard is thirty-six years old and was born in London. And no matter how incredible it may seem now, he began life– life, in this instance should have been written with a capital L, but never mind– upon completing his couses in school, as a bank clerk. He was, however, not long in that dreary profession. The war broke out and he joined the colors. In 1917, he was honorably discharged, and then, having nothing else to do and being firmly convinced that there was absolutely no chance for him to become president of the Bank of England, he decided to become an actor. He first appeared on the stage in a more or less minor role in “Peg o’ My Heart,” in a company touring the English provinces. When “Peg” finished reaping all the tears that were about hanging loosely on eyelashes– there were quite a number of them to be seen in those horrible days 1917 and 1918– he went into that most successful of English comedies, “Charley’s Aunt,” playing Charles Wyckham.
All these activities of his were strictly confined to what is known as the Hinterland. He appeared in London only in 1918. There he played in “Mr. Pim Passes By” and “East Is West” to mention but a few. In the fall of 1920 he set sail for America and on November 1 he appeared here in “Just Suppose.” Almost immediately he attracted attention and within a short time, entrenched himself definitely in the hearts of all. Just to refresh your memory, Howard played in the Milne plays, “The Truth About Blayds” and “The Romantic Age,” became the darling of the Junior League in “Aren’t We All?” elicited the shouts of the cognoscenti in “Outward Bound,” deftly lifted naughtiness to piquancy in “The Warewolf,” conquered the Arlenites in “The Green Hat,” enchanted a few enthusiasts in the all too short lived “Isabel,” and caused a near riot on the opening of “Her Cardboard Lover.”
The following little anecdote is told here not because I have even the slightest intention of besmirching the memory of so talented an actress as the late Jeanne Eagles was, but because it seems to me that it gives a fairly accurate impression of how greatly New York theatergoers like Leslie Howard:
It was something like two seasons ago that an innocuous French farce, from the pen of one Jacques Deval, a Parisian cococter of light theatrical fare, was presented at the venerable old Frohman stronghold, the Empire Theater. It was called “Her Cardboard Lover,” a title arrived at only after some wrangling, for Jeanne Eagels having felt slighted by the original one, had insisted that the sex of the star player should be made eminently conspicuous in the electric lights. Her wish was granted and title changed by the simple expedient of changing a “the” to “her.”
To be sure, this was her second victory, prior to the New York premiere of the play, as regards billing, electric signs, programs, etc. Her first, which she achieved with what may be called surprising ease, concerned itself with an omission rather than with a mere change. For she expressed a desire of having her name all alone on the marquee, in the lights, without the accompaniment of any other one. This, to have all things straight, was a most legal wish, and very much in accord with the spirit of her contract. But she came out with it only when the management simidly suggested that Leslie Howard, whose extraordinarily well-rounded and graceful performance as the above mentioned cardboard lover was the sensation of the out-of-town try-out should be honored by having his name placed below hers on the signboard. As a featured player only, of course. Miss Eagels, however, stood film and permitted no alteration in her contract.
All this took place behind the curtains, and the public as such was little aware of it. Nothing happened, indeed, until after the curtain was lowered at the end of the second act on the opening night. And even then, for the first five or six curtain call, everything went smoothly. The players, leaded by Miss Eagels, appeared on the stage and bowed. But when, according to the time-honored old tradition, the star came out alone, the ill-mannered, rude and boisterous audience, fully disregarding the legal aspects of the contract, begin to yell, bellow and shout: “Howard! Howard!”
Miss Eagel smiled, bowed and the curtain went down. But the audience, even more boisterously than before, kept on calling for Howard. But no matter how loudly they acclaimed the blond, graceful actoc, he never appeared on the stage again. Every time the curtain went up, it disclosed the beautiful actress, while the addressee of the hosannas was safely tucked away in his dressing-room. This elegant hide-and-seek wen ton for a time, then the audience, tired of the vain efforts, repaired to the lobby to balm their aching lungs with a few puffs of cigarette smoke.
But Leslie Howard is not merely an actor. He is a writer of no mean talent, a humorist of charm and delicacy. It was, I believe, after the opening of “The Green Hat” that his first sketch appeared in print in America. It was a hilarious account of the premiere, a minute to minute account, and it was published, of all places, in the Equity Magazine, the official monthly publication of the actors’ association. Hidden between “New Members” and a passionate description of the latest committee meeting, it attracted only little attention, but, fortunately, the “little” included the editor of Vanity Fair, for which magazine Leslie Howard later turned out quite a number of delightful pieces.
There was one among them, published some three years ago, which will linger in my memory for quite some time to come. It was a pathetic little tale of the hardships of his own son– yes, Leslie Howard is married and the father of two children– who, spending half his time in America and half in England was unable to reconcile the peculiarities of the two, said to be closely related tongues, as taughts in the public schools of the two countries. The calamities resulting from this peculiar situation were recounted with such exquisite humor that– well, if you have time on your hands and a library nearby, delve into the dusty folios, find the issue, and read it for yourself. Especially, if you happen to be a one hundrend percent American.
It was around that time that the oversigned, writing in the dramatic columns of this journal, ventured the suggestion that it would not be a bad idea for Leslie Howard to try his hand at playwriting. And as if his mild sigh had actually been heard, along came Mr. Howard with a play called “Murray Hill,” as delightful nonsense as any one could wish for. It was, however, too airy and too bubbly to last for three acts, and not even the author’s very paternal act of appearing in it personally could make it strong enough to withstand the onrushing tide of a New York season.
Just about the time these lines will reach your breakfast table Leslie Howard is putting the finishing touches on his– so far– most ambitious undertaking, the production of “Berkeley Square.” This is the play which John Balderston, an American newspaper man living in London, wrote, based on an idea suggested to him by a short novel of Henry James. It took the British capital by storm three seasons ago. The vicissitudes Leslie Howard had to undergo in order to get this play for himself are too numerous to find place here, but he has it now and there is quite a possibility that “Berkeley Square” will turn out to be one of the minor– if not major– sensations of the current season.
Leslie Howard will not only play the leading role but he will also appear as co-producer of the pièce, together with Gilbert Miller. In addition, he has also staged it.
For some time past now, Howard has done little literary work. But if “Berkeley Square” happens to be a success, he will settle down and do some writing. Personally, I hope he will succeed. And I have faith in his ability as a comedy writer. And God knows we do need a few more light comedies without wisecracks and gags, the kind which “Murray Hill” indicated Leslie Howard is able to and will write.
He appeared early this season with Gertrude Lawrence in “Candle-Light,” a very light little farce.
Several seasons ago he demonstrated his ability as a dramatic actor in Galsworthy’s “Escape”.
(Brooklyn Eagle Magazine, November 3, 1929)