Hamlet – Articles and Reviews – 8
Leslie Howard’s Hamlet – Articles and Reviews
November 22, 1936: “Broadway Is Given ‘Gentle Hamlet’ By Leslie Howard” by George Ross, Port Arthur News
All “Hamlet” partisans, it seems, were obliged to concede the point to John Gielgud after seeing Leslie Howard’s acting version of the Melancholy Dane.
Now that tho Howard and Gielgud Hamlets have set up rival stands on the Rialto, comparisons have begun to fly, like fur, in all directions and Broadway champions on either side are not rare.
But the official decision has been made; Mr. Gielgud has the edge on his nearest and only rival; and any further protest will have to be made to the fair play bureau of the Hamlet conservation commission.
Not that Mr. Howard’s “Hamlet” is a less striking production than Mr. Gielgud’s. Indeed, it meets the eye with more color and more force. It does not, however, meet the ear so startlingly and so effectively as Mr. Gielgud’s does.
It has not the deep, abysmal brooding, the blood and thunder
of the Gielgud Prince of Denmark, for Leslie Howard has made an almost gentle fellow of the Dane.
It Is missing in the fire, the power and volcanic drive that propel Gielgud through the sanguinary tragedy, for Mr. Howard is an actor of leisurely movement and careful restraint. So it was the impression of most Hamlet connoisseurs that the second of the Broadway Hamlets is an honorable loser to the first.
The battle of the Hamlets grown fiercer apace. Two Englishmen, one comparatively unknown until now in this country and the other a golden-curled Grade A matinee idol, are the protagonists.
John Gielgud put on his version of the mad and homicidal Dane and shortly thereafter Leslie Howard came along with a competitive treatment up the street. The opening of the Howard “Hamlet” and the resulting critical reactions have had the odd and embarrassing effect of increasing the number of standees at the Gielguld opus.
The consensus seems to be that Mr. Howard would look a great deal better as “Hamlet” if Mr. Gielguld were not around as contrast. The longer Mr. Howard appears in “Hamlet” the better he looks as a competent and winning Broadway heart-throbber and Hollywood hero; and the slicker Mr. Gielgud seems as a Shakespearian mime.
Of course, there are a great many people who would go to see Leslie Howard stand on his head in the center of the stage for three acts. During the first week of his “Hamlet” the line of autograph fiends at the stage door was often longer than the line at the box-office and that sort of draw is bound to bring them in sooner or later.
But I hope his experience, even though he manages to make money out of Shakespeare, will be pointed enough to discourage him and other pleasantly polished actors from rushing for the Complete Works of the Bard as soon as a little success and popular acclaim has come. We need Mr. Howard’s benevolent presence in the talking pictures, where he can even disport himself in a “Romeo and Juliet” on occasions when the Shakespearian itch becomes too great to be borne.
But this “Hamlet complex” which apparently plagues generation after generation of actors the moment they enter that demoralizing half-world between the Ham and the Genius, could stand a lot of healthy discouragement. “Hamlet” will remain as one of two or three great poems in the language. But I think I could marshal a good many rabid Shakespearian scholars and cultist to my side when I say that it grows more and more detached from the drama and more and more reader’s play with the years. It is beautiful, to this reporter at any rate, in the same way that “Ecclesiastes” is beautiful for its dizzily lovely and sonorous poetry.
And once every few years there will be a Gielgud on hand to act “Hamlet” and keep it green for the masses. It is doubtful that Broadway is big enough for two “Hamlets,” however, running simultaneously, and certainly not big enough when one of them is a Gielgud and the other a Howard.
A year or so ago I interviewed Mr. Howard backstage during the run of “The Petrified Forest.” He was superb in this play. I hope nothing in the foregoing conveys the impression that I am not a rooter for Mr. Howard, for I am a fan of long standing. His performance in “Berkeley Square” afforded me one of the pleasantest theatrical evenings of my life.
But even as I talked to him, many months ago, I gathered that he felt “The Petrified Forest” and even “Berkeley Square” were not tony and literary enough. He confessed that the dream of his life was to do “Hamlet” and the thought depressed me monstrously. For I knew he was heading for grief.
And although it would not harm him to be scared away from Shakespeare by his recent attempt, I don’t think he ought to be at all discouraged by the unhappy comparison to Gielgud. I saw Mr. Gielgud in a modern movie, in which he impersonates a grim, whimsical English secret agent, and the result was pretty terrible. Any time Howard wants to be reassured of his great talents, he should have that film run off in his private projection booth. And he should follow it by look at himself in the debonair and moving “Scarlet Pimpernel.”
The Theatre: Howard’s Hamlet
Monday, Nov. 23, 1936
When English William MacReady and American Edwin Forrest presented rival interpretations of Macbeth in Manhattan in 1840, their partisans were lashed into such a frenzy of jealous adulation that they staged a riot in Astor Place which took 21 lives. Last week English Leslie Howard brought to Manhattan his version of Hamlet, set it up five blocks away from the theatre that had been housing English John Gielgud’s Hamlet for a month (TIME, Oct 19). Not a life was lost. There was no riot. There was no rivalry. The two performances were not in the same class.
General impression in show business is that fastidious Actor Howard would rather be on the stage than in the films, would rather be on his country estate in England than anywhere. He undertook his own production of Hamlet to escape for a turn the shackles of the strictly commercial theatre. To support him he imported some middling Britons, including pretty Pamela Stanley as Ophelia, who would not dim the Howard brilliance. Unfortunately, this time there was no brilliance.
Graceful, great-nosed John Gielgud had chosen for the background of his fine impersonation some rather sombre, common place sets and costumes of Stuart England. Equally commonplace is the gaudier Howard mise en scène which represents 11th Century Denmark. The two productions, however, are separated by more than five centuries of decorating history.
Actor Howard’s blond charm and gentle British passivity have on occasion seemed to endow plays like The Petrified Forest with a brooding, thoughtful quality not indicated in the script. But, as those who saw his film Romeo last spring might have guessed, the nation’s No. 1 matinee idol does not have so easy a time with William Shakespeare as with Robert Sherwood Shocked and disappointed at Actor Howard’s failure in the most ambitious and demanding male role on the English-speak ing stage, critics found the Howard Hamlet enervated, thoughtless, unilluminating.
The antithesis of Actor Gielgud, Actor Howard robs Hamlet of every shred of dignity and nobility: by being peevish with Polonius’ garrulity instead of simply bored; by being quizzical when he means to be sardonic; by indicating neither method in his madness nor madness in his methods; by delivering most of his soliloquies while loping about the stage and peering under the furniture; by failing at any point to convince the audience it is watching anything more than Leslie Howard walking through a part. Unanimously, metropolitan critics found star and production remarkably unexciting, agreed with the Post’s scholarly John Mason Brown’s shattering judgment on Actor Howard: “His spirit is still in ‘slacks,’ even if his body is not.”