Don’t Get Leslie Howard Wrong!, 1936
Don’t Get Leslie Howard Wrong!
By Harry Lang
If you’ve been carrying the wrong impression of Leslie Howard this story will set you straight. I’ts high time you knew him as he is–human and regular and popular with every worker on the lot
Most people picture Leslie Howard as a deadly serious, highly-starched, pedantic arty person who wanders about with his head in the clouds and clouds in his head, spouting dreary stuff about Live and T’ Theatuh and things like that. Well, he’s nothing of the kind! Herein, with his complete approval, the legend is debunked. Leslie Howard will parade before you as human and regular, and often clownish–basically a fellow who congratulates himself on being lucky enough to earn his keep at acting instead of bank clerking–who gets more fun out of Hollywood than most other folk, because he likes to laugh at it, and whose greatest abhorrence is taking life seriously. That’s his attitude!
First off, he’s 42 years old, and doesn’t give two toots in tarnation who knows it. And yet he’s young-looking enough so that his 17-year-old son, Ronald, can and does front for him when autograph hunters attack. The youngster is the spittin’ image of his dad. Looks like him, walks like him, talks like him. When the Howards, together, behold the charge of the autograph brigade bearing down, Leslie scurries off to some nearby hiding-place, and Ronald takes the shock. “Leslie Howard” he writes, over and over again. Peeping from his hideout, Papa Leslie grins and approves thoroughly. And so, by and by, the autograph-hunters disband, happy. Papa emerges, rejoins Ronald, and they saunter on. Everybody’s happy–and probably this is the first time many possessors of Leslie Howard’s autograph will realize they’ve really got his son’s forgery, instead…! The resemblance between dad and son is one of Hollywood’s marvels.
Leslie takes nothing seriously–not even his work, although he loves it. He was once a bank clerk, you see–just after he’d finished a four-year-stretch in the British cavalry, during the war. He was a perfectly terrible bank clerk, he admits. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like clocks and numbers and routine. And so, somehow, he became an actor. There’s not much routine in that–and as for clocks——
Now, there’s a subject! Clocks. Most people take them much too seriously, thinks Leslie. But not he! Just ask the boys in the studios. They’ll tell you, for one thing, that from about 4 o’clock on, Leslie Howard isn’t worth a tin nickel as an actor. If they manage to keep him on the set, he’ll go through his stuff, right enough. But he’s just too tired and bored by that time to really put any “oomph” into it, at all. It’s hardly ever that they manage to keep Leslie around after four p.m. He just disappears. Houdini could have learned some things from him, like vanishing into thin air. His favorite method, it seems, is to observe his wrist-watch, note that it says 4 or thereabouts, and mutter to the director: “I say–I think I’ll dash over and have a spot of tea.”
But Leslie is never temperamental. He just can’t be bothered. Because, to tell the truth, making movies rather bores him. Not that he doesn’t like acting, but he enjoys stage acting so much more. That’s because he’s more important on the stage. “The stage” he tells you, “is the actor’s medium. The actor controls, there. But movies–why, they’re the director’s and the cutter’s and the electrician’s and the writer’s and everybody else’s medium, and the actor is merely incidental.”
To while away this boredome while making movies, Howard clowns incessantly. He’s always up to some manner of gag. On Petrified Forest, there was hardly ever a serious moment between shots. He and Director Mayo and Humphrey Bogart, the heavy, made the sidelines a gauntlet of gaggery. Most of the action was on a desert set, with wind machines stirring up great clouds of dust. One of his stunts was to organize a dust-mask orchestra. The actors and technicians all had to wear dust-masks during the six weeks’ shooting–masks looking like miniature war gas-masks. One day, Howard discovered that he could make weird music singing through he snout-like tube of the mask. He got Bogart and Mayo doing it, and hour after hour, they’d wheeze amazing tunes through their gas-mask. They thought it was fun. Some of the crew didn’t know whether the dust or the music was worse.
The dust was so bad that it got into everybody’s lungs. Everyone had a “cold.” Howard got a touch of pleurisy. It annoyed him. One day, lying on a rooftop with Bette Davis for a love-scene, he suddenly interrupted it all with: “Say, how on earth can you expect a man to be amorous with pleurisy?!” So they called off that scene and switched to the final where Howard is shot dead. They started to rehearse it, and were all ready to shoot, when he caught a glimpse of his wrist-watch. It was past 4…!
“Good heavens,” he exclaimed. “I’m tired. I’m really too tired to be killed today. I’d rather not be killed today please, Mister Mayo.”
“But Leslie,” pleaded Mayo, “We could finish this scene today if we worked at it.”
“But Archie–I’m really too tired to die well today. And besides, Archie, I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I’m staving it…”
“Skip it! SKIP IT!” screamed Mayo. They shot the scene the next day.
In Hollywood, Leslie Howard doesn’t do “the” things to do. He doesn’t gad about. He doesn’t even live in Beverly Hills or Brentwood or any other of the film colonies. He lives in a non-movie neighborhood with his wife and two children–Ronald, 17, and Leslie Junior, younger. The latter is his daughter. He’s absolutely wrapped up in her. At present, she’s working with him on his radio broadcasts; you’ve probably met her there. Leslie doesn’t talk much about her but if he’s ever serious about something at all, it’s his daughter.
As for his son, he rather figures Ronald can make his own way. Not long ago, Ronald asked Leslie how to learn to be a writer, because he wanted to write. “Go ahead and learn for yourself,” Papa Leslie told him. Imagine Leslie’s surprise, then, one day on the Romeo and Juliet set, where he’s working now, to behold Ronald playing a bit role!!!
Howard’s biggest aim, at present, is to direct, rather than act, in pictures. Non-professionally speaking, his one aim is to enjoy life and to make just enough money to be able to do it. Money doesn’t bother him–except taxes…! And taxes don’t bother him, except the bother of paying them. “I wish,” he wails plaintively, “that I could make a deal with the government. I wish they’d just fix it so the studio would take my salary and split it two ways every week–give a check for half of it to me, and the other half to the government. Then the government’d be satisfied, and I wouldn’t have to bother about paying taxes. It’s the beastly bother of it that annoys me–not the amount.”
He frankly admits he prefers England to America–in two fields, at least. One is his work, because he says he can make twice as much with half as much labor. The other is taxes. “Not that taxes are cheaper there, but they’re not such a bother.”
The fellows who work with him like him because he doesn’t talk art. He’d rather talk with a gang of technicians and carpenters than with a college professor. He can’t stand visitors on his set. He gets really rude about it, sometimes. Once he saw a man with a couple of other people watching him. In the midst of a take, Leslie stopped suddenly, stalked over, faced the intruder: “My good man, ” he said icily; “I’m NOT interested in insurance; I don’t want to buy a house; I don’t need a new car; nor do I want to buy anything you want to sell. Now, goodbye.” Then someone hurried over, and explained that the intruder was really Harry J. Brown, one of Warner’s big producers. Leslie was no end embarrassed. No end!!
(Motion Picture, May 1936)