The Unconventional Mister Howard (1936)
The Unconventional Mister Howard…
He smashed theatre and movie traditions, and has a new technique for radio.
By Mildred Mastin
It is logical that Leslie Howard should be the first great actor to become a regular radio performer. And that, in going on the air, he should be the one to introduce a new technique in radio drama.
For Mr. Howard is one of the most daring young men in the theatre. He has smashed age-old traditions on the stage and startled Hollywood by doing the unexpected. And if your picture of Mr. Howard is that of a conventional Englishman, drawing-room type, flawlessly attired, and carefully courteous, discard it. The description doesn’t fit. It isn’t big enough.
In England they call him “that American actor.” In America they call him “the great English star.” Mr. Howard considers both flattering. But call him “a matinee idol” and he’ll throw the nearest thing at hand–and hit you, too!
For he is too modest to tolerate a title, and too sincere about his work to let a descriptive phrase type him. By the same token, he refuses to allow traditions or conventions of the theatre to interfere with his work and how he does it.
There was a time, for example, when, clading an old dressing-gown, he appeared before a large audience and dashed the famous the-show-must-go-on tradition right smack out the nearest exit. It was an opening night in Chicago. Howard had a sore throat which had been growing steadily worse all day. He had asked the manager to postpone the opening, but the manager only said: “The show must go on!”
Since he had no understudy, the show couldn’t go on without Leslie Howard. He struggled through the first act, suffering with every word he uttered, and growing hoarser speech by speech. At the end of the act, he called the manager, told him it was ridiculous for the play to continue under such circumstances, that it was unfair to the audience. The manager remindid him again that always the show must go on, and the rest of the cast agreed with the manager.
When, at the end of the first scene of the second act, Howard’s voice had dwindled to a hoarse laryngitic whisper and the manager still refused to call the show, Mr. Howard slipped into his makeup stained dressing-gown, and stepped in front of the footlights.
He told the audience it was being cheated. That he was suffering, and because of that, those in the theater were seeing a rotten performance. He advised them to leave at once and demand their money back.
“The audience applauded,” says Mr. Howard. “They rose as one man, and a lot of women, and demanded and received their money at the box-office… You may have noticed that the time-honored tradition “the show must go on” applies only to lead players. An electrician, a member of the chorus, a scene-shifter, even the manager himself may stay at home if he is ill or his wife is sick or his father is dying. The receipts at the box office will not be affected by his absence. But if the leading man or leading woman–the big name of the play–suggests missing a performance, everyone exclaims: ‘But don’t you realize? The show must go on!‘ Why, it’s ridiculous!”
The fact that he was criticized later in the press and by theatrical people for breaking the “sacred” tradition that night in Chicago never worried him.
Leslie Howard also has conceived a rather unconventional “cure” for an actor or actress who goes upstage on him. In his pocket he keeps one of those rubber balls with a face painted on it and a tongue that sticks out. When another member of the cast begins moving slowly upstage, taking the eyes of the audience with him or her, Howard has given fair warning that he’ll turn his back to the audience, take the rubber ball in his right hand, put it behind him, and begin making faces with it, for the benefit of the audience.
“The warning was effective,” Leslie remarked.
And it must have been. Certainly no one has ever tried to get upstage with Leslie Howard.
It was entirely unconventional, in the first place, for Leslie Howard to become an actor. He never had even considered it until he was dismissed from the Army, after the Armistice was signed. It always had been assumed that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a broker.
But after the horrors of war, the make-believe of the stage seemed much more inviting than the cold facts and figures of his father’s brokerage firm. So he changed his name from Stainer to Howard, and offered himself to the footlights.
Without any experience and, according to most producers at that time, without any talent, his early years in the theatre were bitterly difficult. Theare was a baby son at home now, Ronald, and many things were needed in the little household. But his wife, Ruth, wouldn’t allow him to give up his stage ambitions and turn to other work.
He finally got his first real “break” in “Peg o’ My Heart,” on the London stage. And his rise to success from then on is theatrical history. Some say he is the only person who ever stole a show from the late Jeanne Eagles, and that Howard outshone the famous actress when he played opposite her in “Her Cardboard Lover.”
In Hollywood he amazed the movie colony by turning down a good rôle opposite Greta Garbo. His reason for refusing to play with her was that the rôle was designed, not for him, but for Garbo. “Besides,” he added, “though Miss Garbo is the most fascinating of actresses, a trail of ruin has been left behind in the ranks of her supporting casts.”
The very fact that he has been married to the same woman for twenty years would make him a strangely unconventional figure in Hollywood. But no screen star in the moviedom ever had a more romantic or exciting wedding, nor a happier, more ideal marriage.
He met Ruth Martin during the war. Three weeks after their meeting, he got one day’s leave, rushed to her down to a little church and married her. He remembered to get a ring and a parson, but he forgot about witnesses. He asked two scrubwomen to serve as witnesses. A few hours after the ceremony he left for France and the front.
When Howard isn’t busy with stage, screen or radio work in America, he, his wife and their two children return to their country place, Stowe Maries, in Surrey, England. The lovely old house was built more than four hundred years ago, and the land lies in the lea of a spur of the North Downs. Charles Laughton is their only close neighbor. And among the theater’s famous who come frequently to visit at Stowe Maries are Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Lunt and Howard reminisce of the lean years, long ago, before either of them was famous, when they first met in New York. And Lunt loves to tease Howard about the time they started to art school together and Leslie was so embarrassed at the sight of a nude model, he couldn’t draw.
At home, Howard is the artist, his wife the manager. Only once did Mrs. Howard leave the practical details of a situation to her husband. She regretted it.
It was two years ago when they were sailing on the Berengaria for England. Howard agreed to go to the bank, draw out the money needed for the voyage, and meet her on the boat.
He boarded the ship at the last moment. Mrs. Howard sighed her relief, and said: “Wher is the money, Leslie?”
“Good Lord!” he gasped, “I forgot it! I went to the bank, spent half an hour chatting, and had a pleasant time. But I never did ask for the money!” They had to borrow from the purser to make the trip.
Next to his work and his family, his greatest interest in life is horses. Especially polo ponies. “The whole family is horse-mad,” he says, “breeding them, training, riding–the house is always full of talk about horses. When we returned to England this last time, we took five polo ponies back with us.”
His interest in radio became active after he broadcast “Berkeley Square,” last winter on the Lux Radio Theater hour. “There was more zest attached to the broadcasting of ‘Berkeley Square’ than there was in filming it,” he said. “I suppose that was because of the continuity of the script.” Like many stage stars, he never has become used to the lack of continuity in movie making, the filming of a last scene first.
The new technique which he has introduced in radio drama–that of the soliloquy– in his weekly series for Hinds Honey and Almond Cream, is considered a most important contribution to dramatic art on the air. He eliminates the need of a narrator for setting the scene, time and conditions of episodes. Thus no outside medium breaks in on the action or atmosphere of the play. It is to radio drama what the acts are to a stage play, what the camera’s “eye” is to the movies.
While continuing with his radio serial, “The Amateur Gentleman,” Mr. Howard is producing a new stage adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet on Broadway this winter. He will play the title rôle.
“It is necessary,” he says, “for an actor to leave the movies and come back continually to the stage. Pictures are good training because there is no need for exaggeration before the camera, and consequently they make for a subtlety and restraint. But in making movies, you have to depend on memories–memories of how and audience reacts. Consequently, you must return to the stage to refresh those memories.”
In spite of his own tremendous success in the theater, he discourages young people who want a stage career. Asked once to talk on “Advice to Those About to Go on the Stage,” he wrote and read a three page “speech.” Page one said simply: “Don’t!” Page two was: “Life is more important than Art.” Page three: “Art is more important than Broadway.”
He probably didn’t mean the “Don’t.” But he was deadly serious about those last two statements. And in them lies the essence of his philosophy toward his work, and much of the magic of his success.
(Radio Stars, January 1936)