The Life Story of Leslie Howard (1935) – 2
The Life Story of Leslie Howard – 2
Complete & Fully Illustrated Souvenir Film Pictorial Gift Book
By John K. Newnham
Public Demand “More Howard”
The “fans” thought otherwise. They discovered in him a romantic appeal as overwhelmingly powerful as that of any dark, dashing Ethel M. Dell hero.
The filmgoing public’s reaction to Leslie’s announcement that he was through with Hollywood was nothing short of sensational. It was something the studios will never forget. Letters, literally by the thousand, poured into the studios, into film magazine offices, to Leslie personally. They demanded that the studios get him back; they beseeched him to alter his mind.
The studios did their best. They made offers which were staggering in their financial magnificence. They promised him this, they promised him that, if only he would relent and return to the fold.
The tall, quiet Englishman merely shook his head. He packed up his things, and said farewell to screenland. He crossed the continent, then he boarded a boat and sailed for England, for home.
Let us be fair to him. He makes no secret of the fact that he prefers the stage to the screen. But this “war” was not so much with films as with Hollywood.
He still had an open mind toward films themselves. He could see their tremendous possibilities, their rosy future. It was the Hollywood production atmosphere that he disliked. And he made a film in England. Paramount had restarted their English unit, and were producing at Elstree. British pictures were still in the doldrums. Nothing worthwhile had been produced for years. Few people took English films at all seriously. Hollywood certainly didn’t. A few determined workers were trying their best to put them on their feet and gain recognition for them, but apart from one or two Hitchcock films, our pictures were really appallingly bad.
Paramount-British had on contract a director named Alexander Korda. Who was he? No one in particular. He had made a number of Hollywood pictures, only one of which had gained any outstanding recognition–The Private Life of Helen of Troy. Apart from this, he was just another director, and no one ever dreamed that within a few short years he would rise to become the most important figure in British film production.
This, mind you, was only in 1932. Not so very long ago, was it?
Anyway, Alexander Korda was going to direct a film named The Head Waiter. It had been done as a silent picture a few years before with Adolphe Menjou as star. It was a smart, sophisticated little story. It was humorous, entertaining, but nothing particularly brilliant.
|Leslie Howard Is a Director NowIt would seem that Leslie Howard is going to take a wider interest in British production in the future. He has joined the board of a new company, United Productions, at the head of which is the new British film “Czar”, Mr. C.M. Woolf. Other directors include Anna Stern and her husband, Dr. Eugen Frenke. The company is to make, at a cost of £100,00 each, a series of films, the first two subjects being “Lady Hamilton” and “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”|
British Studio’s Record Offer
The starring rôle was offered to Leslie Howard, and he agreed to take it. He was paid what was then a record sum for any British studio, £500 a week. Do you remember the picture? It was retitled Service for Ladies, and it was one of the slickest, most delightful pieces ever to come out of an English movie-factory. It was more than up to the Hollywood standard and was infinitely superior to the silent version in all ways.
Leslie Howard’s performance was a joy to watch.
So it was that he helped to put Elstree on the map. He did even more than was realized at the time. For he helped put Korda on the map as well. Would that picture have been so good without the polished acting of Leslie? It’s doubtful.
The film put life into the British film industry, set Korda on the road that was to lead to Henry VIII and other giant pictures which would send the name of British talkies echoing round the whole world, and made Leslie Howard himself even more popular than he had even been before.
Then Leslie said he was returning to the stage. Those letters from “fans” continued to pour in. Hollywood became more and more desperate in its efforts to recapture him. The offers that had been made before dwindled to nothing in comparison to the new ones. Leslie hesitated. He knew he could dictate to the movie pundits. He had them, figuratively speaking, grovelling at his feet.
But he still hesitated.
While he was in England, the desire came upon him to settle down, to find a quiet old place in the heart of his native country to which he could retire for months at a time, and eventually to the end of his life. He saw the place of his dreams when he was down in Surrey one day. It was a large, romantic, picturesque estate near the pretty town of Dorking. Leslie fell in love with it at once.
It was for sale. But the price was tremendous. Big money though Leslie had been earning, it was really beyond his pocket at that time.
“I’d like to have it,” he said, but that was as far as he went. Meanwhile, there were other things to do. He was due back in New York to appear in a new play by Philip Barry, the title of which was The Animal Kingdom.
Still came those requests from Hollywood for him to return there. They came by cable, by letter, by transatlantic telephone. And still he took no notice of them.
Back in New York, Hollywood continued to shower him with offers. Leslie thought of that lovely house in Surrey… thought of the price… thought of all the money he could make in Hollywood.
But he was not the one to sell himself for a pot of gold. Acting still meant more to him than money.
“If I come back,” he said, “can I make my own terms? Can I do what I like? Do you mind if I leave you again if I’m not satisfied?”
Hollywood didn’t mind what he did so long as he returned–and said so.
Changed Myrna Loy’s Career
Leslie thought the matter over, very seriously this time. He loved his part in the stage play he was doing– The Animal Kingdom. When he heard that the film rights had been bought by Radio, he became still more disposed toward returning to screenland. Radio wanted him to play his original part in the film version of the play.
Metro were also asking him to appear opposite Norma Shearer again, this time in Smilin’ Through. In this picture, he would have the part of a young man at the beginning, and an old man for the rest of the time. He read the script, and liked it.
So Hollywood saw him again. He went back to play Smilin’ Through first– and what a great performance he gave– and then in the talkie version of The Animal Kingdom, which was renamed The Woman in His House for this country. The Woman in His House was a particularly significant picture all round. As a production, it was a masterpiece. As an opportunity for the various players in it, it was one of the most outstanding pictures for many a year. It did much to persuade Leslie Howard to remain on in talkies. It encouraged Ann Harding after a number of not-too-good rôles. It gave William Gargan a fine break (and started a warm friendship between him and Leslie). And it changed Myrna Loy’s whole career, for she was on the point of saying good-bye to Hollywood, in complete despair of ever getting anywhere. She has never looked back since that production.
Life was very, very good to Leslie nowadays. He was completely on top of the world. He was doing plays that he liked, and films which satisfied his artistic conscience. He was also fulfilling that old desire, suppressed for years, to become a writer. He had, a year or two before, written a play called Murray Hill which e produced on Broadway. It was not a staggering success, but at the same time it was not by any means a failure, and Leslie had the satisfaction of knowing he had created every character in it. He was also writing short amusing pieces which he was selling to a number of smart American papers.
He had developed, too, a great passion for photography. He had started in quite a humble way, with a cheap little camera. Now he had an enormous array of machines of all types, including an expensive home movie outfit. He was becoming an expert. He developed all his own pictures and, in the studios, he found a great new interest in trying out camera angles on his own accord.
He was wanted on the set during production one day. They all looked round for him. There was no sight of that famous red dressing-gown. They searched all over the place. He wasn’t in his dressing room, he wasn’t in the restaurant, he wasn’t taking one of his favourite rests by the side of the studio pool, gazing at the gold fish.
Dream House at Dorking
He was found at last, actually in the studio, and right near the set. He was up in the rafters, with a camera in his hand, taking some “angle” shots!
With the greater income from the studios that he was now receiving, e was able to afford to buy that dream house near Dorking. He returned to England to do so. It was still up for sale, and seemed even more beautiful than before. Leslie bought it. Ig gave him one of the biggest thrills in his life. As he expressed it himself: “It gives me a feeling that at last I have dug down deep into the ground and planted roots.”
It gave him a sense of security. He had for years been something of a nomad, never settling down anywhere. Hollywood–New York–England. He had gone from place to place time and time again, crossing the Atlantic on so many occasions that he had forgotten how many times. He was not able to settle down there, however. Hollywood was still calling, and he seemed to be settling down more happily to film work.
But he still went on giving Hollywood shock after shock. He was unconventional in all manner of ways. A lot of people called him terror of the talkies. No one knew quite what he would do next.
His heart, of course, remained with the stage, and he had not deserted it. He continued to keep up his theatrical work, and to make pictures when it suited him. Money was still not important. If he was not keen on a film, he turned it down flat and nothing could ever alter his decision.
Turning Down the Stars
Marion Davies wanted him to appear with her in Peg o’My Heart. It would be rather interesting had he done so, for, of course, it was in a touring version of the play that he made his very first professional stage appearance. That seemed a long ago when he was offered the rôle opposite Marion Davies in Hollywood. His fortunes had changed somewhat!
He said “No.” It was no reflection on Marion Davies; he had been in a picture with her before, and had enjoyed making it. But he didn’t want to act in this story. The part didn’t appeal to him.
£17,500 was the price reported to have been offered him to take the part, but it didn’t tempt him. The offer was increased by another £2,500, bringing the total to £20,000 for the one film, which would take only a few weeks to produce. But Leslie still said he really didn’t feel that he would accept the rôle.
Marion Davies gave it up as a bad job, and found some one else to take the part.
That was typical of him–typical of the shocks he proceeded to give the movie folk.
Another time, he refused point blank to appear in a picture with Greta Garbo. It was the co-starring rôle, mind you. A lot of publicity has been given to other people who have turned down opportunities to appear with Garbo, but the truth of these has always been the parts have not been co-starring or even featured rôles opposite the star.
The film Leslie Howard was asked to make was Queen Christina. He was to have had star billing. He caused a sensation when he said “No.” Various reasons were given by numerous people, most of whom knew nothing whatever about the facts of the case, for his reason.
Superstition Plays a Part
What was the real truth? Actually there were four reasons. One was that he was just about to leave Hollywood for New York, and he didn’t want to alter all the arrangements he had made. A second reason was that he didn’t think he was really suited for the part. A third reason was, to quote his own words given in an interview to a friend of mine: “It was Garbo’s picture, which was important, because it was designed for her and not for me.”
A fourth reason was the strangest of all. I have already, in this biography of him, referred to that strain of superstition in him. And superstition played quite a big part in determining his decision to turn down that rôle with Garbo.
For this is what Leslie said to someone he knew: “While I think Miss Garbo is probably the most fascinating actress on the screen to-day, a trail of ruin has been left behind in the rank of her supporting casts, which I don’t intend to join.”
Leslie couldn’t reconcile himself to overcoming all the reasons for saying “No” to this opportunity which thousands of actors would have given their ears to have had. So he didn’t play the part.
He gave the studios numerous other surprised as well. Garbo was supposed to be elusive. Leslie was found to be just as bad. During the making of one picture, the studio assigned three assistant directors to the production. Their main job was to keep an ey on the star. He was apt to disappear like a wraith. He would wander off the set, and it would take hours to find him.
Hollywood was soon ringing with stories about his unusual personality. His habit of forgetting all about appointments caused a lot of talk. But those who took the trouble to inquire into such a trait as this found that a missed appointment was never a deliberate insult, but sheer forgetfulness.
Someone once told the story of how a very great friend of his was invited to lunch one day. The friend turned up. Leslie didn’t. He’d forgotten all about it. The next morning, he came across a very casual acquaintance and he made this same offer for him to come along for a bite of lunch. The man did so, and Leslie was there. He treated him to a repast fit for a king!
Similarly with stories of his passing people without taking notice of them. A lot of people thought they were deliberately “cut.” It was not for sometime that Hollywood discovered that Leslie was really short-sighted and couldn’t see at all well without his glasses.
No one has ever known what to make of him. There are so many facets to his unique personality.
One Hollywood story related when he went back there told of his being seen wandering along in his old flannels and even older blazer. His blue eyes were sparkling like a mischievous boy’s. And he was indulging in the schoolboy trick of ringing at front door bells and running away!
You needn’t believe that story, of course, but it is typical of many of those which soon began to go around about him.
Hollywood has never ceased to talk about his deep affection for dumb animals. He saw a woebegone stray dog one day. The animal was growing old, and it looked hungry. Leslie picked him up, and the dog licked his hand.
“Poor old boy, hungry?” The dog barked, and Leslie stroked his head. “All right, we’ll get you something to eat.”
After that, it was a familiar sight to see Leslie’s coloured chauffeur going out to buy meat for that animal.
He once shipped four of his favourite polo ponies to England. When Leslie said “Bon voyage” to them, there was a tear in his eye.
But to continue with the story of his screen career.
Leslie is one of the best friends to have in all the world. He never forgets a friendship. He will do anything for a pal.
One of his most brilliant Hollywood successes has been in the talkie version of the stage play in which he made a hit, Berkeley Square. He has always maintained that this play made him. When the film was to be made, Leslie was excited at the idea of renewing acquaintance with his old friend. Seems queer, maybe, to have a deep friendship with an object (or, rather, subject) such as a play. But there it was.
“I owe so much to it,” he said, “that I’ll do anything to ensure the success of the screen version.”
The picture was made. The last day’s shooting took place, and Leslie left the set. He was paid for making the picture, and when the last “take” had been completed, his responsibility ended. He was free to go to the other end of the world if he liked.
Instead, he remained on hand.
“I’ll stand by for a few weeks in case you want any retakes,” he told Jesse Lasky, the producer.
Helping “An Old Friend”
Lasky was overjoyed. He knew that doing this meant altering the star’s plans, and he said something about liberal remuneration. Leslie waved him aside. He didn’t want the money, and he refused to accept a cent. Berkeley Square was an old friend, and he was only too willing to go out of his way to do what he could to help it.
So with his appearance in The Scarlet Pimpernel. His friendship with Alexander Korda, of course, dates from the time they made that significant picture, Service For Ladies. Korda, intent on building up his British company, asked Leslie if he would make a picture for him. Leslie immediately said he would. The Scarlet Pimpernel was a result–a film which is doing more for the prestige of the English talkie industry than anything else since Henry VIII.
Leslie refused for years to sign a long-term contract with any of the Hollywood companies, though they all did their very best to persuade him to do so. He preferred to be on his own.
He had to give way in the end. There was almost a deal with Radio, but it failed to materialize. Instead, Warner Brothers were the lucky ones. The company for whom he first went out to Hollywood apparently had someone on the staff who knew the way to get round Leslie Howard.
At any rate, he signed. It was one of the most generous contracts given to any star. It was drawn up under his own conditions, which meant that he had complete freedom in all sorts of ways. It agreed that he could act on the stage whenever he wished. It agreed, too, that he could have complete choice of story material and need never make anything with which he was not completely satisfied. It game him, if he wished, the right to go off the set at 5 o’clock every day. Furthermore, he was not bound to make the pictures in any particular space of time.
It was actually a long time before he started to work under this contract, for soon after signing it he came back to England. Then, somehow or other, luck didn’t seem to be with him too much. He couldn’t grumble. He had had years of unbroken success, with everything coming his way. He could turn his back on Hollywood–and get away with it. Nothing ever seemed to go wrong.
But there are unlucky patches in all our lives, and there was a disappointing time ahead for Leslie. He agreed to make a picture over here for Columbia, who were starting up production. The film was called The Lady is Willing, and with Leslie in the lead it sounded promising.
Something went wrong. The picture didn’t turn out the way it should have. There were delays on the set. The result was disappointing. It was Leslie’s first set-back in years.
He had a play in mind. It was based on the life of Shakespeare, and Leslie was to appear as the poet. The title of the play was This Side Idolatry, and never have I known anyone so enthusiastic about a production as Leslie was about this. It was so very near his heart. He had been a Shakespeare lover all his life. Ever since he could remember, there had been volumes and volumes of Shakespeare’s works on his bookshelves.
The part struck Leslie as being one of the most ideal he had ever attempted. He was so terribly keen about it. He went into rehearsal with a blazing, inspired enthusiasm.
This Side Idolatry was produced in the West End. It was a complete flop, and it was withdrawn after a short run of nine days. Its failure hurt Leslie badly. The money side of it didn’t matter. The fact that he had been in a failure wasn’t so important. But he had so set his heart on this story… the short run caused him personal pain.
Was his long run of good fortune coming to an end at last? He must have asked himself this question. But he needn’t have worried. There was no fear that a man of his outstanding ability and charm should know failure for long.
Things were looking up for him again within a very short time. Back in Hollywood, he made British Agent, which proved a striking success, particularly for him. In England he made The Scarlet Pimpernel, about which there can be no difference of opinion in regard to its merit.
Future Brighter than Ever
On Broadway, he attained one of the greatest hits in all his career in a play called The Petrified Forest. It had a long run, and raised his status even higher than before in the eyes of New York’s theatregoers. He will be making a talking version of this out in Hollywood before very long. At the moment, he is taking a well-earned rest in that Surrey home of his.
He can be well satisfied with his life so far. He is extraordinarily fit and youthful. Both on the stage and the screen, he has had a most distinguished career, and his future now is brighter even than it has ever been before.
His children are beginning to grow up, and he adores them both. He can be seen out riding with them. They play polo together. They are the greatest pals in the world. Can there be anything more than a man can ask than complete friendship with his children?
It has been a successful life for him; but he has done even more for the screen than for himself. Hollywood owes him a debt of gratitude it can never repay in anything but roles which will give him complete satisfaction; England owes him an even greater debt, for the importance of Service For Ladies and The Scarlet Pimpernel can never be underestimated.
Throughout it all, Leslie Howard has remained the same shy, sensitive person that he has always been.
“A most distinguished gentleman,” was how he was described a little while ago.
That is just what he is.
(Gift Supplement to Film Pictorial, 5/10/1935)