“He was a great man, one of our best” — Derrick de Marney
Leslie Howard made 28 pictures before his death at 50. Here FILM shows you some of the highlights of a dramatic screen career which began in Hollywood in 1930 and ended over the Bay of Biscay in 1943
Homeward-bound, the British Overseas air liner swept down the runway of the Lisbon aerodrome. The date was June 1st, 1941; the time, 9,30 a.m. Just ninety minutes later a dramatic message was flashed to Britain : “We are being attacked by enemy aircraft.” Then silence.
In that ‘plane were thirteen passengers. Among them, Leslie Howard. It is ironical that Leslie, who found his destiny shaped by the dislocation of the 1914 war, should meet his death in World War II. During 1942-41 he he’d been engaged on propagandist broadcasts from Britain to the United States and Canada and, under the auspices of the British Council, went to Spain and Portugal to promote the Allies’ cause. The Germans hated Leslie’s work. The renegade “Lord Haw-Haw” frequently
made Leslie the target of his vituperation. On one broadcast, he said: ” We will make this pompous British actor repent his words.”
Leslie’s son, Ronald, has no doubt that the Nazis implemented their threat. ” My father’s death was deliberately planned by the Germans,” he said; “they were angry over the damage he did to the years of propaganda work they had carefully carried out in the Iberian Peninsula.” Whether or not the Germans deliberately set out to kill Howard is immaterial; the tragic fact remains that Britain lost one of its most charming and talented screen personalities.
Leslie Howard, the son of Frank and Ruth Evelyn Stainer [sic], was born in London in 1893. Reared in a suburban home, he was educated privately and then attended Dulwich College’ where he excelled at polo, tennis and cricket. After graduation he obtained a position punching an adding machine in a London bank
.When the “incident” at Sarajevo plunged Europe into war, Howard was barely old enough to be accepted for service; but he enlisted at once, and his skill at horsemanship soon won him a commission as lieutenant in the 20th Hussars. He went into action with Canadian troops at Bethune and, being wounded, was invalided home before the war’s end
.Military life, Howard found, made banking seem dull. Having dabbled with amateur theatricals in school, and with service organisations at the front, he decided to try his luck on the stage. He suffered the usual disappointments of a beginner, but his two brothers and two sisters, as well as his parents, encouraged him in his ambitions.
” I tried writing,” said Howard. ” I really wanted to be an author. But somehow, it seemed easier for me to get along on the stage. At any rate, it was better than crouching behind a grilled wicket in a bank, counting other people’s money.
“Maybe, as a writer once said, it was “that quiet subtle humour and disarming charm of manner” that helped. At all events, Leslie soon got a stage job. His first professional engagement was with a provincial company staging “Peg o’ My Heart.” This was in 1917, and other plays he took part in on the same tour were “Charley’s Aunt” & “Under Cover.
“From provincial successes, it was only a short step to the West End stage. Leslie made his London debut at the New Theatre in 1918, and subsequent plays–notably “Mr. Pim Passes By,” soon established him as a stage favourite.
America was not long in bidding for his services, and he appeared in several plays in New York. His first screen role was in “Outward Bound.” This film, shown in 1930, was an instantaneous hit and established him as an outstanding artist in films. He followed up by appearing in “Free Soul” and “Reserved for Ladies” and then signed a contract with Selznick to appear as Tom Collier in the screen adaptation of the play, “Animal Kingdom.”
Howard then played roles in “Berkeley Square,” “British Agent,” “The Lady is Willing,” but, of all his screen appearances, undoubtedly the most memorable are those he made with Bette Davis in the early version of “Petrified Forest,” and “Of Human Bondage.” The characterisation in these two last-named films typified Howard’s dreamy, philosophical personality– a personality that lives even to this day.
Despite his success in films, Howard was often critical of the screen medium. Like Chaplin, he believed that “no artist should make more than three or four pictures a year” and would often reject the roles he considered unsuitable. His convictions in this respect were unshakable. He once turned down an offer of £15,000 to play opposite Marion Davies because, he said, the proposed film roles would not do justice “either to me or to Miss Davies.”
For a different reason, he once refused to act in a film with Greta Garbo. Leslie had promised to appear on stage and screen in Britain, and nothing would make him break his word.
He was glad to return to Britain in 1935. He had found the synthetic atmosphere of Hollywood incompatible with his temperament. He believed that film-making in Britain–both from the stars’ and producers’ viewpoint–offered more artistic freedom.
Opportunity to put his belief into practice came in 1936 when he decided to concentrate on production and direction. Later, he achieved distinction as co-director of “Pygmalion” (in which he portrayed Professor Higgins) and, while on a fleeting return visit to Hollywood, worked in dual roles of male lead and associate producer for “Escape to Happiness.”
It is invidious to single out any one Leslie Howard film as “the best,” but Leslie’s performances as the sensitive violinist in “Escape to Happiness” should certainly be bracketed with those roles that have won him such universal acclaim.
Many, too, will cherish memories of his portrayal of Ashley in “Gone With the Wind.”
Off screen, Howard had a shy but friendly manner. At a glance, one would hardly have taken him to be an actor. He dressed carelessly in loose-fitting clothes, often wore a floppy collar and a casually-knotted tie. He clung tenaciously to his pipe, which he would rub reflectively on his chin.
Married to Ruth Evelyn Martin, he had a daughter, Ruth Leslie–who strongly resembled him–and a son, Ronald, who is now so ably carrying on the acting tradition of his father. Howard led a happy country life at his attractive country home near Guildford; to his family he was “Leslie,” a companionable friend rather than a parent.
He owed much to his wife, who tempered his dreamy temperament with a practical outlook. Mrs. Howard would often accompany him to a film set to “keep him in order.”
While generally shown in leisurely roles, he liked nothing better after a day’s work than to drive a sport car at breakneck speed. Generously inclined, he spent lavishly–particularly when entertaining the R.A.F. pilots assigned to take part in “The First of the Few.”
One of the highest-paid British artists ever engaged in films, he earned £37,000 in one year in Hollywood. His income from the stage was in proportion: he drew £6,000 in a week when, on one occasion, he played Hamlet at Boston in the States.
He owned a freehold house in Beverly Hills, California, and another at Stoke Poges.
Leslie Howard’s last, and very brief, screen appearance was in “The Gentle Sex,” a film which he also produced and directed.
One of his last production was a drama of hospital life during the blitz. The title, “The Lamp Still Burns,” provides a fitting epitaph to an actor whose brilliance will shine throughout the years.
l930 Outward Bound (Warners), A Free Soul (MGM).
1931 Service for Ladies (Paramount-British), Never The Twain Shall
Meet (MGM), Daughter of Luxury (MGM), Devotion (Chas. R. Rogers-
P.D.C.), Smilin’ Through (MGM), The Animal Kingdom (RKO).
1933 Secrets (Pickford-U.A.), Berkeley Square (Fox), Captured (Warners)
1934 British Agent (Warners), The Lady Is Willing (Columbia-British), Of
Hunan Bondage (RKO).
1935 The Scarlet Pimpernel (London Films).
1936 The Petrified Fores, (Warners), Romeo & Juliet (MGM).
1937 It’s Love I’m After (Warners), Stand-In (Wanger-U.A.).
1938 Pygmalion (Pascal).
1939 Escape To Happiness (Selznick-U.A.), Gone With The Wind (Selznick-
1940 Pimpernel Smith (British National), 49th Parallel (Ortus), From
The Four Corners (D & P Productions).
1942 The First Of The Few (Btit. Aviation).
1943 The Gentle Sex (Concanen-Two Cities), The Lamp Still Burns
(Two Cities).Ars longa, vita brevis
(Film Illustrated, vol. 3 no. 6, June 1948)