Women of the Screen (1935)

Women of the Screen

by Leslie Howard

Actor turns critic! Here’s a shock for Hollywood and a novelty for you. Just before Leslie Howard’s departure for America we asked him for his opinions of the leading feminine stars from the viewpoint of an experienced screen artist who has acted with most of them at one time or another.
“A pretty thankless task,” he commented. But he didn’t shirk it. Although the candid comments he makes in this interview-article may get him into hot water in Hollywood, we think you’ll agree that his criticism are shrewd, impartial and pungent.

Bette Davis

“She lacks almost entirely the normal vanity of her sex.”

Greta Garbo

“I always think of her as a magnificent but unpolished diamond.”

Norma Shearer

“Her acting ability is of her own making. She has worked hard.”

Joan Crawford

“She will let nothing standing in her way, not even her own personal happiness.”

 

The most courageous woman with whom I have ever worked is Bette Davis.
She is a girl whose mentality has a strong masculine streak and she lacks almost entirely the normal vanity of her sex.
When the cast for Of Human Bondage was being assembled, Director John Cromwell approached quite a score of famous actresses to play the part of the heartless trollop with whom the hero of the story, Philip Carey, fell in love. It was thought that whoever played the part would be finished in films, and everyone refused.
The only girl with sufficient courage to do it was Bette Davis.

Taking a Chance

It is safe to say that, had any other actress attempted the characterisation she would have tried to compromise. She wouldn’t have dared to make the girl as ruthless and superficial as Somerset Maugham visualised her. She would, as it were, have apologised for her and tried to show that underneath “there was a heart of gold”–or silver, anyway.
Not so Bette Davis. She seemed to delight in placing on the screen the girl’s despicable psychology. She lost her glamorous doing it, but she gained something far more important, the plaudits of the intelligent filmgoer.
At the moment, Bette is acknowledged to be one of Hollywood’s most promising character actresses, and her reputation should increase as time goes by, for it is founded, not upon sex-appeal, but on real ability.
About Norma Shearer, with whom I appeared in Smilin’  Through, I can only reiterate what has been said a dozen times before–that she does everything perfectly. She is a successful wife, a happy mother, and an efficient actress. There is nothing “lucky” about her continued popularity. She is the perfect example of the actress who has got there through her own determination and good sense.
Norma possesses no great histrionic talents. Her acting ability is of her own marking. She has worked hard; studied the cinema technique and timing assiduously; and improved very gradually. If you see one of her films made five years ago, you can easily detect the improvement she has made. To-day, she is a really polished actress, capable of placing on the screen any shade of emotion required by her director.
Garbo is the exact opposite of Norma Shearer. She has the elements of greatness in her. It has been said that Garbo is the Bernhardt of the screen. This is quite untrue. But she might have been, and might still be. All she need is restraint.

Unpolished Diamond

Garbo’s chief drawback is her lack of experience in repertory theatre work. She is allowed to ramble unrestrained through her films. Her magnetic personality covers a multitude of technical sins.
I always think of Garbo as a magnificent but unpolished diamond–or rather, a diamond which has been polished in the wrong way to bring out her superficial glamour instead of the emotional powers which lie beneath.
Despite all her drawbacks she is exceptionally talented. Had she not possessed natural acting ability she would have fallen into obscurity years ago. She can express moods of happiness and misery, ecstasy and delight, with greater ease than any other actress on the screen.
Emotions that it would take another actress a whole sequence or scene to portray, Garbo can show with a glance or gesture. I shall never forget the sparkling joie de vivre. the unutterable happiness , she expressed during her love-scenes in Grand Hotel.
Different again is Elizabeth Bergner.
Bergner is lucky in that she has never been miscast nor suffered inferior direction. Behind all her films, supplementing her own capabilities as an actress, is the original mind of her husband, Doctor Czinner.
Bergner, unlike Garbo, has been throughly trained. Her acting is never slipshod. she is a delight to watch, especially to those who are themselves professional actors.
She has built up an immense artifice. She is so perfect that even the critics say she is inspired, meaning that she plays her parts instinctively.
Actually, however, inspiration has nothing to do with it. Bergner’s body is a perfectly tuned machine which responds readily and accurately to the dictates of her own intelligence.
She is, of course, a very cultured woman–well read, with a knowledge of the arts and science. She knows what is good and bad, cheap and noble, with the result that she and Czinner never do anything that is trashy or lacking in good taste.
A woman who has rightly received much praise recently is Myrna Loy, with whom I appeared in The Woman in His House.
This was the first film in which she dropped “vamping” and played the sort of part for which she is now famous. Myrna makes no pretense of being a great actress and is content to typify on the screen the wholesome, humorous American girl of to-day. This she does extremely well.
She is quick-witted and has a grand sense of humour, which makes her an ideal player for a film like The Thin Man.
It is more difficult to act a part like this, convincingly, than many people would imagine, for, in such a film, the entertainment value doesn’t rely so much upon the plot as it does upon the ability of the actors and actresses to behave naturally. They must walk and talk exactly as you or I do in private life, and it is very difficult indeed to do this when you are standing before a camera.
Myrna’s naturalness breathes life into the roles she plays, and she shares with Maurice Chevalier the faculty of being able to say naughty things nicely, and trite things humorously.
It would be unfair to talk about typically American women without mentioning Jean Harlow. Myrna Loy typifies the high school type of American girl. Jean Harlow is at her best when she is playing the part of a girl who, by sheer vitality and sex-appeal, has risen far above her normal station.
As the twentieth-century courtesan, vital, callous and mercenary–or as the illiterate wife of a rich financier, Jean Harlow is superb. She has made it her business to perfect this type. Her energy, her hysteria and her method of delivering wisecracks, would turn the dullest story into good entertainment.

Katharine Hepburn

“It is the touch of gaucherie in her which makes her so real.”

Myrna Loy

“Her naturalness breathes life into the roles she plays.”

Elisabeth Bergner

“A delight to watch… She has built up an immense artifice.”

Jean Harlow

“Superb as the twentieth century courtesan… vital, callous and mercenary.”

She Plays Coarse Parts Well

Another girl who plays coarse parts particularly well is Korda’s erstwhile starlet, Binnnie Barnes. She is remarkable in that she is the only English girl ever to become famous playing this sort of role, yet women of this type are badly needed on the screen.
Alexander Korda’s other find, Merle Oberon, is an actress of a very different calibre. Her part of Lady Blakeney opposite me in The Scarlet Pimpernel did not give her much scope, but her acting in The Battle, if immature, was exceptionally good. And I still think that her study of Anne Boleyn, in The Private Life of Henry VIII, was the highlight of that famous film.
Merle has beauty, dignity, innate acting ability, and the intelligence to use it properly. At the moment her reputation rests to some extent upon her work in The Dark Angel. I haven’t seen it yet, but one thing I am certain–given good pictures and discerning direction, Merle is bound to become a great international star. Even a series of mediocre films that would ruin most of us might not harm her irreparably. She has that indefinable something possessed by Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo. Let us hope her producers will not misuse it.
One of the most remarkable women in Hollywood is Mary Pickford. Her work has been severely criticised of late–possibly because she mastered the technique of silent films so thoroughly that she finds it difficult to adjust herself to the talkies. Secrets, the picture I made with her, was one of those things that didn’t come off.
Quite candidly, it isn’t so much as an actress that I admire Mary Pickford, but as a business woman. It was Mary who helped to found the United Artists Company, and she has made millions out of it. To-day, when most of the silent stars have fallen into obscurity, Mary remains one of the most influential women in Hollywood.
Recently, as you know, she has allied herself with Jesse Lasky. By the formation of the Pickford-Lasky Company, Mary has placed herself on a footing with Messrs. Mayer, Goldwyn, and Korda. I only wish I had half her business head.
Another old-timer who interests me is Marion Davies. she is not very interested in films, or rather in being a film-star, but merely does it as a side-line. Her chief object in life is living. Her wine is the rarest in Hollywood, her servants the most efficient, and her food the most epicurean.
I believe that Marion’s influence on Hollywood has been considerable. To her house-parties come Einstein, Wells, Marconi, Shaw, and any other artists or scientists who happen to be in the vicinity. Directors rub shoulders with philosophers, and many are the times that great new projects have come to life over a Davies cocktail.
It was Marion who introduced Reinhardt to Hollywood.
If it is true that Marion Davies is not very interested in being a film star, it is equally true that her screen career means everything to Joan Crawford. she will let nothing stand in her way, not even her own personal happiness. I think this explains the criticism leveled against her–she is so full of films, so eager to do her best, that she is inclined to over-act.
By all accounts, Joan was once quite a plump and ordinary young woman who worked in a tea-shop. To have become one of Hollywood’s most fascinating women is, in itself, no mean achievement. It was her enthusiasm that did it.
Some years ago she lamed herself, apparently for life, but she overcame it. Every time she makes a film she tires herself out so thoroughly that she has to spend several weeks recuperating.
Enthusiasm is also one of the principal assets of Katharine Hepburn. My acquaintance with her began long before she became famous.
Some years ago, I put on a play in New York, and one of the girls who applied for a minor role was Hepburn. She was very raw, very vital, and terribly high-school.
I remember that she came striding into my presence behind the stage looking extremely vital, and what with her high cheekbones, blazing hair and dilating nostrils, she mesmerised me into giving her the part.
But Katharine didn’t know the first thing about acting at that time. On stage, her intensity became rather embarrassing. She had to leave the show.
The next thing I heard about her was that she had swept America off its feet in Bill of Divorcement. The film people had changed her considerably. They had coiffured her hair and given her a sort of polish, without spoiling her innate beauty. She and her directors had harnessed her immense vitality and power and turned it to the use of the cinema.
Katharine is a pure cinematic actress. On stage she was not quite right. On the screen she is superb. She is quite different from any other actress. There has been some talk recently about bringing her more into line with other screen stars: softening her voice and giving her a more sedate walk. It would be a pity to do this, for it is the touch of gaucherie which makes her so real and so attractive.

(Film Weekly, October 25, 1935)