Why Leslie Howard is Leaving the Screen (1936)
Why Leslie Howard is Leaving the Screen
Here, in his own frank words, he explains why he is through with the films forever
by George Madden
With the completion of “Romeo and Juliet,” Leslie Howard will leave Hollywood for New York where he will star in his own, long-awaited production of “Hamlet.” The stage cast is already chosen. The sets are designed. These plans are not new.
But here is news:
Following the run of his stage play, the British actor and his family will sail for home and England; as the liner pulls him of of New York harbor, it may be with a salute and farewell to his Hollywood career.
This is the plan of one of the finest and most respected actors the Hollywood screen has ever reflected.
“I am quitting,” he said. “I have never enjoyed acting and now I believe the time has come when I can leave it for other fields–for writing, particularly.”
The first step in this direction will be made when the star closes the Broadway run of “Hamlet” (Which is to follow the completion of “Romeo and Juliet,” with Norma Shearer, at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), sails away to England and produces his own pictures.
“It will be a significant experience for me to guide the destinies of a production in all departments except acting,” he said.
Box office bets have flared and died on the screen and faddist stars have had their day and waned into obscurity. Burt for an artist of Leslie Howard’s exceptional prestige to desert a career his fine talent has dignified for so many years, strikes me as being in the same category as would the announcement that Eugene O’Neill has retired from play writing.
Only one factor stands between his future plans and their immediate reality: Warner Brothers hold a contract on his services calling for several more pictures.
“It was signed to make three pictures a year, for three years,” the star said. “The three years are almost gone and I’ve completed but three of the nine pictures. Warner Brothers have willingly allowed me to make fewer pictures because they realized the futility of finding so many stories suited to me. So I am quite sure we shall be able to find a happy compromise. It should be simple, considering that they have no story for me, and I do not care to make any.”
If his remarks were startling, he seemed quite unconscious of it. He sat thoroughly at ease in his dressing room on the M-G-M lot consuming a hearty lunch of steak, potatoes, spinach and milk. He was wrapped in a tailored, maroon robe. His shoes, however were the tall-sides type worn by Romeo and his hair had been allowed to grow long and heavy at the temples.
There is a strong sense of suppressed mirth about this slender man that is disconcerting, at first. You feel that he is barely restraining himself from enormous guffaws. Guffaws at what? Life, perhaps. Or Fate. Or the merry-go-round of Hollywood. It is my opinion that, despite the fact that he is a great actor himself, this suppressed humor of his holds even the sacred cows and customs of his profession as slightly ridiculous, to be prodded, now and then, out of their complacency and smug self-satisfaction.
He did not even seem to expect me to question him about the unusual design for his future or just how he hoped to refill the void in his career. He merely stated his case, eating the while–British fashion, with turned-over fork– a bit of steak, potatoes and spinach.
“The studio files proudly display a Leslie Howard Biography,” I said, “that inform me that from the moment you rebelled against following in your merchant father’s footsteps until now, when you are riding the crest of the wave as one of the foremost actors of two continents, you have fought for your career every step of the way. Yet today you casually announce you are going to dismiss it. Why?”
He nodded his head and leaned slightly forward across the luncheon table. He said, “I shall tell you why. It is very simple. I do not like motion picture acting; I cannot abide motion picture acting as it is successfully done and I do not intend to continue motion picture acting. As a matter of fact, come to think of it, I do not like acting.
Did you hear the story of Toscanini when he went to a distant city as guest conductor? Well, it seems that during the first rehearsal, the great conductor was terrifically annoyed by the pained expression on the face of the first violinist. The man played the violin magnificently. But his expression was horrible. He looked as though his moth was curled by an uncured olive. Finally the maestro could stand it no longer. “What is the matter with you, my man?” he roared. “Are you ill?” The musician replied that he was not. ‘Is that you do not like me?’ roared Toscanini. The violinist replied that he considered him the greatest of all conductors. ‘Then what is it?’ the leader demanded. The first violinist sighed and stared at his feet for a long moment. Then he said, very simply: ‘I just don’t like music, that’s all. I just don’t like music!”
“And that,” smiled Leslie Howard, “is entirely my case. I just don’t like acting. I particularly do not like acting in pictures. Frankly, it is a bore!”
He moved from his chair to a more comfortable, sprawling position on the tan lounge before he continued:
“Of all the creative arts of today, motion picture acting is the most sterile for the artist. The camera actor has so little to say about his work–so very little–that I, for one, find it impossible to enjoy. On the stage it is different. Once the curtain has lifted, the play is entirely in the hands of the performer. He may do as he likes with it, interpret it in his own manner. But this is not true in Hollywood. The only individual who has the least chance to be creative is the director. He plans every scene, maps every move and directs every gesture. The actor becomes a mere puppet within chalked camera lines. But that isn’t the important complaint in my case
“First and most important, I haven’t the temperament of an actor. Acting before the camera is a hard job and, since personality means immeasurably more than acting ability, I believe the only actor who gets commensurate pleasure from the hard work is the exhibitionist. I don’t happen to be one. Every time I see myself on the screen, I become embarrassed; the same thing happens when I witness the screen acting of a close friend. Thus, if I am to stay in this business, I must get over into the department that allows for creative effort without embarrassment. I mean I believe my place in the motion picture business is in the writing, directing and producing end of it. I intend to be there.”
It was my first indication of what his future plans were to be and, like everything else he had said, he mentioned this banner-line idea as casually as though he were planning a dinner menu.
“As an actor in Hollywood, I believe I have learned much that will stand me in good stead when I take over the producing job in England. At least, I have learned what to avoid. For instance:
“Too much money is wasted on the average picture, even on the super-picture. It has reached the point where a Hollywood producer has to advertise that he has spent a million or more in a certain production before the public will believe it! In my opinion, a fine picture can be made for $250,000. This amount is mere pin money in Hollywood where realism is the hue and cry. Hollywood has a little word that every producer loves to have used in connection with his picture: convincing. If the picture is not convincing, it seems to have failed. I consider that the wrong tack. In fact, to me, the only real place for realism is in the news-reel; if the news-reel lacked realism it would have failed utterly. But for the film story, I prefer fiction.
“On the stage, the scene designer may have a perfectly plain white wall, a stair running up one side and a table in the center of the stage and call it anything from a modern drawing room to a hall in a castle and the audience gets into the make-believe mood with him. But consider the way Hollywood handles a similar idea. If they need a boat scene, usually nothing short of the Normandie will satisfy. Or, if they can’t get the Normandie (and no expense will be spared to get her, believe me!), they will build an exact replica on a sound stage at the cost of thousands of dollars. I doubt if there is a single scene designer in Hollywood. Most of the men in those positions are architects. They leave nothing to the imagination. To the contrary, they overpower the audience with mammoth reality. They leave it impossible for the movie-goer to play at make-believe, and make-believe, in the theater, is all the drama there is.
In the beginning of his production career in England, Alexander Korda achieved exceptional results because this fictional quality was so pronounced in his pictures. The reason was simple enough. Korda did not have the necessary money (or space) to construct an exact duplicate of Buckingham Palace on his back-lot every time it was needed. But he gained the wanted impression with a few gray stones piled in the background. This artistic creation of impression gave his pictures charm and originality. They did not look as though they had been run through the Hollywood mill where realism is a god.
“And I shall attempt picture along that line when I return to England. I want desperately to help revive the art of make-believe. Of course, I won’t make pictures in the hope of appealing to a hundred per cent of the public, as Hollywood tries to do, because I don’t think it can be done. I think a picture should be made, just as play is produced, to appeal to a particular audience. Occasionally, such a picture may turn out to be a best seller, just as a fine book sometimes does, and then the profit should be exceptional. I shall make my pictures just as I want, with the hope that a sufficient number of people will agree with my interpretation and thus return the cost of the production, plus a profit. Or does that sound too much like a motion picture Utopia?” he laughed.
He sat quite still for the moment. The inevitable smile, or half smile, still lurked at the corners of his mouth. Finally he said:
“Wouldn’t it be grimly ironic if I should find that I am not to be a success in my new career and that, with all my fine contempt for the present methods, I must return to the thing I no longer want to do? It would be a supreme joke to discover that the work that bores me is the only work I am fitted for! Well, I suppose actors always talk a good game of pictures. But at least I shall have the experience of proving my points to myself, if to no one else.
“And as long as I have been so honest, I may as well go the whole way and admit that should a role in one of my own pictures be particularly apropos of my talents, I should probably do it myself. But what a luxury it would be to act in a picture because you believed in it rather than because you were contracted for it! This last admission, though, still leaves me far from Hollywood because I shall be producing in England.
“That studio biography you mentioned is wrong in one fact: I did not refuse to become a merchant after my father because of any burning ambition for an acting career. I just did not want to be a merchant. The War helped me to put it off for a couple of years and when the War was over, naturally I wanted to get into something immediately before Father could bring up merchandizing again. As far back as I can remember, I’ve had but one ambition–to tell stories, either in plays or novels. Since I did not have the necessary time to prepare for that work, I took a job in the theater where I thought I might gain first-hand knowledge of play construction. Unfortunately, I became an acclaimed actor by mistake before I could get out of it.
“But I have never forgotten that original ambition and now that my acting career has produced sufficient cash to see the dream through, I would be a traitor not to try.”
The clock had moved exactly one hour, which meant “back on the set.” I knew my appointment was at an end. Leslie Howard has none of the temperamental tricks of stardom such as holding up the company. While he is in Hollywood, he plays the Hollywood game.
(Movie Mirror, May 1936)