Riding High (1933)
by Margaret Reid
Leslie Howard’s repeated success has put him in position to demand “Berkeley Square” for his artistic followers.
There are rare moments in the theater when illusion is complete, when perfection of dramatic intent is realized and the audience is so wholly at one with the stage that the barrier of footlights vanishes, creating a thrilling unity of audience and actor.
One of these moments occurred when Leslie Howard flung open a casement window and said softly, “Berkeley Square! I always knew it would be like this.” That moment was compensation for all the disappointments to which the theatergoer is subject.
Mr. Howard, purveyor of that flash of theater magic, is now the object of competition among lady satars who ardently desire the use of his distinguished profile in their pictures. He has been the object of that competition for almost two years now.
It is deeply gratifying to note that he has pretty well retained his artistic integrity– a pompous term, but the only available for that subtle thing which John Barrymore, for instance, checked at San Bernardino when he came to prospect the gold-filled hills of Hollywood.
Rated one of the finest actors of the present day, Leslie Howard is still so rated after two years of exposure to the cash blandishments of Hollywood. His performances, on stage or screen, are as he wills them, sans that paraphernalia of personality, the flashing smile, the drawl, or the pretty toss of the head, with which too many of our gentlemen take violent, personal possession of their roles.
According to Hollywood mandates, he should not be successful on the screen. His acting is of the intellect, direct toward the spectator’s mind rather than solar plexus. And no one was more surprised than Mother Hollywood when it was found that movie audiences actually had intellects with which to respond to Mr. Howard’s subtle performances.
Considering his status in the theater, it is curious to find that he is an actor by accident rather than intent. Even now, when one of his children voices an inclination for the stage, he can’t quite understand it.
“I’m like the man in the story, the successful musician who hates music.
“I should like acting to he a hobby rather than a business. Only two or three times in my life have I felt that spark of response, inspiration, whatever you want to call it, in a play.”
One time, the major one, was “Berkeley Square,” a play in which no producer had particular confidence. Howard fought to obtain possession of it, then fought to have it produced. Its success and its perfection as a vehicle for him made a high spot of the theatrical season three years ago.
Born in London, of business folk, he was destined for a “solid” business career. Parental expectations were undisturbed by the fact that he was a painfully shy, timid, uneasy child, incapable of adaptation to the conventions of life. His diffidence made him miserable in the presence of children and grown-ups alike.
Hypersensitive, imaginative, and bewildered, the first break in his life came when he was taken to Vienna where he stayed two years and returned with a German accent.
As he grew, a desire to write grew with him. But to write, as every one knew, one had first to work on a newspaper, and to work on a newspaper one had to have “connections.” Into that stolid suburban life no newspaper connections were likely to come; and young Leslie, shy of pursuing an unknown trail, put his ambitions aside stillborn and dutifully went into business. From which he was almost immediately snatched by the War.
After two or three years of active service, during which time he married, he returned to London with no more idea of what he should do than before. Now that he was married, he felt the need and impulse to contrive a direction for his life to take. Because he must make some money, he turned tractably enough to business. But in line ahead of him were hundreds of demobilized men who, like himself, were eager for work– any kind of work.
For him, unskilled at pushing ahead in the lines of applicants, there appeared to be no work of any kind. One attempt, indistinguishable from the others as far as he was concerned, was with a theatrical agent to whom a friend had introduced him. The agent glanced at him cursorily– a young man still in uniform– and promised to let him know if anything turned up.
Since most of the other offices where he had applied for work had given the same vague encouragement, he was unmoved. However, a few days later the agent really did let him know– of a chance to join a company touring the country towns of England. Astonished that work should come from this of all quarters, he took it quickly, lest they reconsider their munificent offer of four pounds a week.
At college, he had dabbled in the theatricals, more interested in the writing than the acting. Now a member of a professional company, he was not aware of any such thing as destiny fulfilled.
“The four pounds– twenty dollars at normal rate of exchange– was the means and the end of life at that moment. I remember no feeling about the job other than a sympathy for those actors, some of them getting on in years, who had spent their lives doing dull little plays in dull little theaters, with London a dream never to be realized.”
Howard père had had definite things to say about acting as a profession for a grown man. His son, observing the thwarted, fruitless lives of the shabby little company he worked with, was inclined to agree with him.
Then where, one is bound to wonder, where and how did he learn to act?
“Oh, the audiences teach one that. They were all that taught me, at any rate. I began to be aware of that wave of understanding or misunderstanding following this gesture or that reading of a line. It seems like telepathy, but I suppose it is just response to a physical manifestation of something mental. You think thus and so and the audience understands because your thought is expressed in a movement of the hand or an intonation of the voice.
“That is one reason why I must always get back to the stage at intervals. I know how to act only when the audience is there and I am aware of the current between us. When I act before a camera, a mechanism, it is only remembering.”
After a year or so of touring, marked by wistful applications to London producers whenever he came near the city, he found himself without any work at all. The company had disbanded, nothing else offered. His wife was expecting a baby. And there they were, two young people tossed by the War into mature responsibilities for which they were unequipped. The black period of despair and ill fortune inevitable to most lives was upon them.
One or two insignificant opportunities to join other touring troupes occurred, but with the baby’s arrival imminent, Howard could not bring himself to leave his wife. Finally, he got a post as secretary to a producer, grateful to what he considered an indulgent fate for the financial security of his modest salary.
It was after several months of secretaryship that the preparation of a play was halted by the illness of the leading man. In the midst of the pandemonium, an almost inaudible voice was Howard’s, mildly asking if he might be given a chance at the part. Because the producers were desperate, he was allowed to read the role. And was hired.
That performance in London which is the one key to more performances in London, established Howard as a “promising young actor.” In a not very long time he had materially fulfilled the promise. His name acquired importance, his life took shape as he became seriously interested in the theater. Finally accepting one of the insistent offers to come to America, he was acclaimed as one of New York’s, as well as London’s, greatest actors. And thence West to the inevitable movies.
His evolution as an actor, one of the important actors of the modern theater, has been unusual, as you see. Nor is there anything usual about him as a _person_ who is, during business hours, an actor. His intelligence, which is of a high order, is not exercised in the conventional channels of his profession. Over his thoughtfulness and considerable wisdom is what can only be described as lightness of touch, the final grace of the civilized mind.
When he is talking, his English blue eyes focus somewhere in space outside the window. His face would give an impression of mysticism were it not also humorous. He has wit, of the kind not consciously recognized until remembered.
Since his entry into picures under the auspices of M.-G.-M. and a six months’ contract which brought him some bad pictures, he refuses to sign a contract anywhere, preferring to select for himself. He is about to begin a picturization of his beloved “Berkeley Square,” and immediately thereafter plans to go East for a play with Helen Hayes.
Other plans include at least one picture in Europe with René Clair. He is, besides that, absorbed in photography, in his two charming children and in any opportunity to “live country,” in California or outside New York or in his house in Surrey. Not happy in a city, his relaxation lies in swimming, tennis, riding, polo.
But, unlike many actors whose careers were built carefully from childhood, it is not at all likely that he will sacrifice his professional and personal standards to the possibility of a marble swimming pool and an entire Bevery hill.
(Picture Play, July 1933)