How Do They Get That Way? (1937)

How do they get that way?

An open letter to Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Dear Leslie Howard,
We see tha you have been going through the old I-want-to-get-away-from-it-all routine. I’s funny how it still makes headlines. But it does.
“This is a dreary life,” you say, “tiring because it is unexciting, dull, because it is uninspiring.” Most film acting, you add, is merely futile and fatiguing.
You are frank enough however to explain why, with all its shortcomings, the screen still claims you and your professed ambition to become unfulfilled and the Great Modern Play unpenned.
“It will be understood,” you state, “why I am looking for an escape from grease paint and for some occupation which will be sufficiently absorbing and at the same time sufficiently remunerative, so that I may continue to be kept in the style, to which, heaven be praised, I have become accustomed.”
Now we think we know you well enough not to misunderstand you. For one thing, unlike most of the spoiled darlings of the screen who bleat about art and escape you have given us proof of your sincerity and demonstrated the courage of your convictions by producing your own stage shows. You are, we believe, to produce your own films.
Moreover, you have in films like Berkeley Square, The Petrified Forest, The Woman in His House and Romeo and Juliet–and here again your position is almost unique among the movie malcontents–contributed something of value to screen art.
You are entitled to your opinion and we respect it.

We do, nevertheless, quarrel with your action as a leader of your profession in giving encouragement to all those others with lesser, or no claims at all, to look the wonder gift horse of film success in the mouth.
Not in all the history of Art has Art been so richly rewarded. Genius in other arts starves in a garret; mediocrity in movies earns a million dollars.
Rembrandt and Mozart died in penury, but in the movies an ex-college boy with a year’s experience and a nice profile can become the most famous actor in the world. Bing Crosby can in a few years earn more than Caruso in a lifetime and a little girl’s childish dance steps and nursery songs reward her with more money than Pavlova and Galli-Curci combined made in the whole course of their careers.
Perfection and success in any other art take long, weary years of work and struggle and study, but an ice-skater with reasonably good looks and more than average self-assurance becomes a £1,000-a-week movie actress overnight and an ex-pugilist with little to recommend him but an impressive torso and an elementary ability to memorise lines, can rise to £60,000 a year and the title of a great actor, to boot.
Yet one wonders if they are grateful, these favourites of fortune whom you encourage to revolt against oppression at five thousand dollars a week.
The carefully censored publicity stories that go out from the stars on this point are always all that they should be. They love their art, they love their public and they cherish a noble ambition to do bigger and better things.
What they really think is seldom known, except, perhaps, when some dispute gets as far as the law courts–those courts that reveal so much of the truth that Hollywood does not otherwise widely advertise.
The sensational aspects of the Mary Astor case have been forgotten and it is better so. We mention it here because it afforded a striking commentary on the attitude of stars to their work.
One looked in vain amid the pages of futile trivialities and emotional self analysis in purple ink for just one world that betrayed a sense of responsibility or even gratitude to the profession that has provided her with luxury and fame that few attain.
Instead we found only a school-girlish outburst of annoyance against her studio for cutting short her holiday by one day and such entries as “even if I were tremendously successful in movies I wouldn’t be happy. I don’t like the work and I hate Hollywood.”
Miss Astor, as revealed by her diaries, may not be a representative star. One hopes, not, but there are many others with the same apparent attitude.
Ho do they get that way? We don’t frankly know, but a lead such as you have just given seems to us to likely to help.

The Editor

P.S.–We forgot to mention it, but in view of your aspiration to support yourself in the style to which you are accustomed as a writer, we think you’d like to know that the Poet Laureate of England earns less than any film bit player and your monthly Hollywood cheque would cover all that Shakespeare got for every play he wrote.

(Picturegoer, August 28, 1937)