Taking Stock of Leslie Howard, 1939
Taking Stock of Leslie Howard
No star is sitting prettier than Leslie Howard–who, on top of his Pygmalion success–has drawn the role of Ashley in G.W.T.W. Motion Picture takes stock of him as he is today
by Bill Blanker
It’s perfectly nice, you know, to be making a quarter of million dollar a year, or so!–and to be quite, quite famous, and having people barging around asking for your autograph, and all that sort of thing!
It’s perfectly splendid, too, and somehow egotistically satisfying to have a completely devoted family–an adoring wife, a worshipping daughter, and an admiring son!–and to be able to give them all the finer things of life…
But darnitall, if he didn’t have all those quite lovely things, Leslie Howard could have such a hellish lot of fun out of life…!!!
He’s gotten around to the age–pretty close to fiftyish, now!–where he’s taking stock of living. And while he wouldn’t take ten billion dollars, plus all the tea in China (which is, in itself, a huge inducement to anyone as British as Leslie), for that family of his, nevertheless a man can’t help imagining, can he?
And so Leslie Howard curls himself upon a big, fat divan, with one leg twisted under his sitzplatz, and a particularly puckish expression on that long, thin, horsey face of his, and he admits things right out loud–
“If I didn’t have a family,” he says, “I’d have an attic.”
“An attic?” you ask.
“Precisely–an attic,” he repeats. “Preferably one with a fireplace. A fireplace that doesn’t smoke, you know. And a typewriter. And a piano. And a camera or two. And a lot of work–oh, a great deal of work to do.”
“Oh, no–not much money. Just enough money to support the attic, and the piano, and the fireplace, and the typewriter and the cameras.”
But if he wants those things, why doesn’t he have them? you want to know. And then he explains–He loves his family deeply. He owes that family a great deal. Moreover, he has accustomed them to having all the finer things. A big house, and automobiles, and servants, and jewelry, and imported foods, and dogs, and horses–and, of course, fame. He’s gotten them so used to such things that they’d be quite put out without them. And inasmuch as he’s the only one in the family, as yet, who can earn such things for them, why, he’s got to go on being famous, and acting, and getting a quarter of a million a year, or so, and giving them houses and servants and automobiles and all that.
Darnitall, a man does get himself into the confoundedest spot, doesn’t he?
From all of which you may gather that Leslie Howard is back in Hollywood again, and that he’s up to his usual trick–bellyaching hellishly at the state of things in Leslie Howard’s life.
For Leslie, lovable as he is, is the most incorrigible belly-acher in moviedom. To Leslie, nothing is ever right as it is. Leslie always and perennially and perpetually wants life–specifically, HIS life–rearranged to be something other than what it is at the moment.
I for one, have never talked with Leslie Howard without hearing him proclaim that he’d rather be doing this-and-that and so-and-so, and that by heaven and high water, that’s what he’s going to do. For instance, he’s unquestionably one of the finest actors on stage or screen today–and he loves it. Yet he bellyaches and bellyaches about acting, and vows that he’ll never be happy until he quits being an actor, and becomes a writer or director, instead.
But give him a chance to stop acting, and he finds eighteen dozen assorted excuses for not stopping.
Leslie, my lad, you’re a colossal bluff…!
For instance, this role in Gone With the Wind, that he’s going to play. Ashley, it is. I’m positive that Leslie Howard would have given his right arm, rather than lose a chance of being in the most-talked-about picture of the decade. Yet, when the role of Ashley was dangled in front of him, practically for the asking, he hemmed and hawed and back-and-filled and tacked and side-stepped until his poor agent, not to mention Old Man Selznick, were in a state of jitters.
“It’ll take so long to do,” he complained. “It’ll keep me from going back to England, and making movies the way I like to make them–with a cup o’ tea, you know. Oh, yes, I fancy you’ll pay me a pretty penny for it– but ahfter all, money isn’t everything, you know…”
And that’s the way it went. But it so happened that I dropped in at his agent’s office on the day Leslie finally and irrevocably attached his signature to the contract to play Ashley.
And did he do it with a flourish of delight and joy?–like Viv Leigh must have, when she got the role of Scarlett?–or as any actor might, when he finds a perfect plum of a role dropped into his lap? No, not Leslie. He did it with a bored:
“Oh, veddy well–I may as well do it, I s’pose.”
And then he came out of the office, and curled up on a couch, and looked all of one color–with those fawnish-hued corduroys, that beigish polo shirt, that nondescript tannish sports jacket–and that sandy hair and brownish face!–and told me about how he’d like to have an attic instead of a family.
Hollywood used to take Leslie Howard seriously, at first. But Hollywood has gotten over that. Hollywood now takes Leslie, but with a grain of salt. Hollywood loves Leslie, but Hollywood snickers and chuckles at Leslie, at the same time, Hollywood knows that Leslie, for instance, is NEVER on time. Clocks are just something with hands that go around.
“You Ameddicans are always too, too in a huddy!” he remonstrates, if you mention a clock. And then he tells you how he and his co-workers mad Pygmalion over in England…
They thought they’d made it. So they bought it from George Bernard Shaw–
“Everyone ahsks me about Shaw. I s’pose you want me to tell you about Shaw,” Leslie interpolates about here. “Well, we rahther thought the old chap’d be positively haunting the stujo. But he didn’t, you know. He made one single blessed appearance, and that was at the luncheon we gave when we started work. We had tea and champagne and things, and we all drank toasts, and it came Shaw’s turn to drink a toast. So the old chap raised his glahss and said: ‘Well, you’ve all been drinking a lot of toasts to so-and-so, and this and that, and you’ve neglected one person. You’ve neglected me. Shamefully. So I drink a toast to George Bernard Shaw!’
And I s’pose that was a particularly Shavian remark, and what everyone expected him to say, and there you are…”
So anyway, Howard goes on telling about how they accumulated a director, and a cast, and got some space at Pinewood studios about 50 miles from London. It’s built on an old English country estate, ant the manor house is used as a sort of clubhouse by the cast. Making movies is rather social, in England. They all lived at the manor house, and it was a glorified week-end that dragged on for several weeks. They’d knock off making movies around four, each afternoon, and have a spot of tea, and they’d talk. They’d talk over what they’d do, next day, maybe.
“The picture just grew, at these sessions,” Leslie explains, vaguely and naively, “and we were all so jolly surprised when it turns out to be making money, actually!”
Underneath his offhandedness, however, Howard is really delighted at the success of Pygmalion. He speaks many words of praise for the Britishers who helped him make it, and he says he’s going back and make more pictures that way, now that they turn out to be profitable. Getting money from English backers for making movies is the worst task of all, he explains.
“Englishmen would never be so foolish as you Americans are–putting millions of dollars into a project that has so much chance of turning out in the red…!” True, it has a chance of making money, too. But a chance isn’t what English investors want. They want certainty.
Leslie hopes, sincerely, that British movie production never improves. It’d be a shame. It’d spoil all the fun of making movies as they did make Pygmalion. What he hates about Hollywood methods is the mass-production system.
“It keeps me on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” he complains. “It’s work, work, work all the time. You start at the studio at seven in the morning, and you finish at midnight, and you’re in a state of collapse by the time you get home and into bed, only just in time to get up again ad do it all over, again!”
Just at present (at this writing, that is) Leslie’s family is still abroad. But now that be’s signed for Gone With the Wind, he’ll bring them to Hollywood again. His son, Ronald, is in Cambridge. Ronnie still looks like Papa Leslie–but not as much as he did a few years ago, when he used to “double in autographs” for his dad. The resemblance between the two used to be so strong that when crowds descended on Howard, for autographs, Ronnie could step in and pose as Leslie, and sign all the books.
And there’s Leslie Jr. Not another son: a daughter. It’s Leslie Junior who’s the apple of papa’s eye. He’s mad about that girl. They’re pals, devoted pals. Play polo together. Do the night spots in London together. Even though she’s only 14. If you think an American girl is sophisticated, you should experience a 14-year-old British girl of the social class the Howards move in…!
And of course, there’s Mrs. Leslie Howard. When Leslie works in Hollywood, Mrs. Leslie Howard is a fixture in Hollywood’s social life. she is a matronly, Britishly competent wife and mother, and is utterly devoted to Leslie Howard. She has had Leslie for many years, now, and she knows him inside and out. She knows his reputation about town for being the most ready, catch-as-catch-can Don Juan on the reservation. True, a great part of that reputation is synthetic. Howard likes lovely women, as what normal male doesn’t? But the chatter that runs around town, if it were true, would reduce even a most virile Leslie Howard to a mere wreck–if it were true!
So Mama Howard doesn’t mind. She hears the gossip and smiles. She observes that lovely young British-French secretary that Leslie has, and she smiles. Why, she admit, shouldn’t a man have a pretty young secretary, if he wants one, instead of some hatched-faced hen, of perhaps a mincing male secretary? So Leslie has his pretty young secretary, and isn’t it nice?
And he goes his Howardish way about Hollywood, impressing women with his charm and his winsomeness and his utter desirability. I recall the most indicative remark one Hollywood damsel mad to me, when she was talking about Leslie.
“He strokes so beautifully!” she said. He’s like John Boles, that way. Both Leslie Howard and John Boles have learned the knack of how to practice the laying-on-of-hands, without offending the layees…! On the contrary!
And so there you are. There’s Leslie Howard, back in Hollywood again. He’s going to be with us quite a while, now–for it’ll certainly take a great, long time to make Gone With the Wind.
He’ll putter around town. He’ll stroke women so beautifully. He’ll complain about his lot in life–about having to work under these horrible rush-and-rush conditions in Hollywood; about how he’d much rather have an attic than a family. Yet he’ll be the doting husband and father, through it all. He’ll set innumerable hearts aflutter; he’ll irk the very devil out of innumerable executives; he’ll delay production by vanishing at tea-time; he’ll annoy innumerable hostesses by being anywhere from an hour to a week late; he’ll work himself into a rage at the income-tax people; he’ll play polo with his daughter; he’ll snapshot innumerable people in innumerable, unspeakable position with that candid-camera which is the terror of Hollywood; he’ll wear the sloppiest clothes in town; he’ll bellyache in that quiet, calm way of his from morning ’till night–
And he’ll do a wonderful job, as always, in Gone With the Wind. And then he’ll go back to England, with his wife and family, and he’ll enjoy himself by sitting around with a cup of tea and explaining–
“Movie stujos are sweatshops. They kill the best in actors. Hollywood is full of creaky stories, and time-worn plots. Oh, deah, deah, deah…”
He’ll do all that.
Because he always does…!
(Motion Picture, May 1939)