What Should Leslie Howard do now? (1941)
What Should Leslie Howard do now?
by Hubert Cole
Leslie Howard plans to play Hamlet on the screen– to give up acting and become a director– to do all sorts of things which will take him away from the romantic costume roles that he plays so well. What do you want him to do?
A few months ago I wrote a mildly more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger article about Leslie Howard. I felt he was losing interest in films, just when films needed him most. I felt he was going all intellectual on us, when he was so obviously cut out to be a romantic, sentimental hero. In general, I felt pretty worried.
Last week I went down to see him at Denham, where he is directing and acting in Mr. Pimpernel Smith. He talked about what he has done, what he is doing, what he wants to do.
What he wants to do and what he is doing are the same thing at the moment. He has been planning Mr. Pimpernel Smith, in various forms, for over a year now.
“First,” he explained, “I wanted to make a film based on the Blue Book revealing the origins of the war and exposing the Nazi treatment of political opponents. Then I came to the conclusion that the subject was too large– it would have made too long a documentary. So I looked around for a means of introducing a fictional plot– and the old Pimpernel theme seemed as good as any.
“This modern Pimpernel is temperamentally far from being a man of action. He is a lecturer in archaeology at Cambridge, an obscure and quiet person whose only claim to fame is that he has discovered and presented to the Fitzwilliam Museum a Greek statue which he has christened Aphrodite Callipygos.” (I suspect the statue’s name represents a little quiet humour on the part of Mr. Howard himself, but I forgot to ask.)
“Indeed, this marble lady is almost the only passion in Mr. Smith’s life. He is always popping round to the museum to visit and admire her. Even when he takes a party of undergraduates to Germany during the vacation, he preserves his spirit of cloistered calm. It offends his sense of scientific utilitarianism, however, to discover that so many intellectuals and people who can be of use in the world are being confined or executed for apparently inadequate reasons.
“So, in his donnish way, he sets about getting them out of the country. There is, I hope, plenty of adventure and suspense in the story, but this is not of Mr. Smith’s choosing. He shuns violence, because he doesn’t see the necessity for it.”
- At the frontier, Leslie Howard and his leading lady, Mary Morris, in another scene from Mr. Pimpernel Smith
This seemed to me a good moment to take Howard to talk about his passion for plays and characters of ideas and intellect. I suggested it was a pity that, when there are so few convincing romantic actors on the screen– when so many of them, in costume parts, look self-consciously as if they were on their way to a fancy-dress ball– it was a pity, I repeated, that Howard should wrap himself up in a scholar’s gown instead of a cloak and wield a volume of doubtful modern philosophy instead of a sword. Pygmalion and The Petrified Forest were two films that I mentioned as examples of the intellectual drama he had appeared in– and now Mr. Pimpernel Smith turned out to be a man of ideas rather than action.
“I had never really considered the point until you mentioned it,” Howard said. “But it does seem to be true. I started on the screen in a play of ideas– Outward Bound. I suppose I’m naturally drawn to that sort of things.” He smiled gently and added: “By the way, I’m hoping to film Hamlet as soon as I’ve finished with Mr. Pimpernel Smith, and the part I’m to play in 49th Parallel.”
This, considering I had just finished delivering an impassioned plea for Howard to give up the intellectual stuff, was a bit of a blow. Rather like lecturing somebody on the danger of playing with matches and, at the end of it, being idly informed that he was planning to set fire to a cathedral.
“Why on earth pick Hamlet?” I asked rudely.
“Well, it’s not, perhaps the very greatest of Shakespeare’s plays– King Lear is probably greater– but then I couldn’t play Lear any more than I can satisfactorily play in Shakespearean comedy. I’ve played Hamlet on the stage, the part interests me, I think it suits me, so I should like to do it on the screen.”
“But how many filmgoers are going to want to see the film? How will you get your money back?” I asked.
“Not a great number, perhaps– at any rate, not many compared with the huge crowds that go to see the more popular subjects. But then I hope that a film version of Hamlet would be good enough to deserve several revivals. It would have a long run among the few instead of a short run among the many.
“The film could be made comparatively cheaply, too. When Romeo and Juliet was made, so much money was spent on it that it was difficult to make a profit– and probably M-G-M considered their Shakespearean experiment a failure. But there is no reason why Shakespeare should be a financial flop on the screen, provided the cost of production is kept down.”
“Hamlet, too, is a play that could well be adapted to the screen. The soliloquies could be handled better, because the camera does not have to stay on the actor’s face all through the long speeches. I would build the whole of the castle of Elsinore on one set, so that the camera could travel right round it, linking up all the scenes.”
It was evident that Howard had gone into fairly close detail in planning the film. “So you would rather be the introspective Hamlet than, say, the dashing original Pimpernel?” I asked.
“When you reach a certain age” — (Howard I ought to explain, has the habit of referring to himself as an old man. Actually, he was looking boyish and almost wistful. I know it’s pretty caddish to let a man stand you lunch and then label him “wistful” behind his back, but I can’t think of a better word to describe the air of eagerness, sincerity and slightly frustrated idealism that Howard carries with him in private life as well as on the screen– a sort of Rupert Brooke, with a haircut and more experience)– “When you reach a certain age,” Howard was saying, when I interrupted him with that protracted bracket, “you begin to feel a little self-conscious about painting your face and leaping about in front of a camera. That’s one of the reasons why I took up directing– in the hope of getting away from acting. The actor gets most fun on the stage, the director on the screen.
“Besides, I don’t think I have ever been temperamentally suited to that high-powered cloak and sword stuff. It embarasses me.”
“No,” I admitted. “I didn’t mean swash-buckling heroics, but I did mean costume drama, Berkeley Square, for instance. Don’t you feel that you belong in the eighteenth century? Or the seventeenth? And what became of the film you were going to make about Bonnie Prince Charlie?”
“I would still like to make it,” Howard replied. “But I can’t at the moment– there’s a lawsuit going on about it. As for belonging in the eighteenth century, I half agree with you. I certainly am intensely interested in the period. I feel at home in it. But not the seventeenth (or the early eighteenth, for that matter). The enormous wigs and elaborate clothes bow you down and stifle you. The purely physical strain is too great.”
We talked some more about his plans for the Bonnie Prince Charlie picture, and I suggested the Vicar of Wakefield as another eighteenth century subject.
There wasn’t any doubt that Howard would like to play a romantic eighteenth century character. But it is only one of many things he would like to do. He would like to play Hamlet. He would like to give up acting and direct.
And it seems to me such a shameful waste to let him slip away like that. There are, as I said before, so few actors who have his air and grace in wearing costume, his romantic sentimental touch, his spirit of strength combined with tenderness and restraint.
I would like to see him, despite his dislike for the seventeenth century, play some minor hero of the Civil War– our own Civil War– a more vigorous companion piece to his Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.
Sir Richard Lovelace, for instance, who is remembered now only for two tags from the verses that he wrote:
“I could not love thee, dear so much
Loved I not honour more.”
“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.”
Those two over-quoted couplets do sum up Lovelace’s character pretty well. He was a soldier, poet and gentleman. The woman whom he loved next to honour jilted him. He fought for his king at home and abroad. He died in prison of poverty and disease, having sacrificed luxury, fortune, and finally life for the sake of a cause– and a lost cause at that.
Wouldn’t it warm the cocles of your heart to see Howard throw overboard his bespectacled Professor Higgins, his archaeological-minded Mr. Smith, and his hair-splitting Hamlet in order to play a man like that?
Then why not write and tell him so?
(Picturegoer, February 8, 1941)