Howard Hits Out at the Film Business (1938)

Howard Hits Out at the Film Business

In an exclusive interview with J. Danver Williams Leslie Howard, iconoclastic arch-critic of the screen, discusses with considerable glee the fun he got out of playing in Stand-in, Hollywood’s latest satire on itself

Leslie Howard


“When I came to England some months ago,” said Leslie Howard, “I left behind me in Hollywood a raging controversy. This was due to the picture which I had just made for Walter Wanger, Stand-in, a satirical exposé of the film industry. “On the whole, Hollywood took this picture in good part, but in some quarters I was accused of biting the hand that feeds me–and I was also criticised for having, a few weeks previously, made an after-dinner speech in New York saying that an actor is seldom permitted to do anything worthwhile on the screen and that, in the average motion picture, he is little more than a puppet and a lay figure.” Leslie Howard looked at me across his elegantly furnished drawing-room. The atmosphere of his Dorking house is so remote from the film industry that, unless one knew the contrary, one would never suspect this fair haired country squire of being a famous film star. “I have no doubt that to many thousands of people my attitude appears strange,” said Howard, “and that it seems thankless of me to draw large quantities of money out of the film industry and then turn round and criticise it. “I would like to give a full and reasoned account of my behaviour. “Let it be understood from the beginning that films attract me more than anything else on earth–more than writing, painting or even the theatre. Were I not so attracted by them I should have got out of the racket years ago, and most certainly shouldn’t, at the moment, be considering putting back into various British film projects much of the money which I have earned starring in pictures. “Films are the most fascinating form of expression on earth. Their potentialities are limitless. What troubles me is to see this young industry corrupted by big business and held in check by its own bogus artistic standards. “I think you will agree that anyone genuinely interested in the rational development of the film industry can scarcely be blamed for taking every opportunity of exposing its follies?”

Cantor and Hamlet

“I accepted Walter Wanger’s offer to star in Stand-in because I think that one of the best ways to improve the present situation is to hold the film industry’s fundamental insanity up to ridicule. “A year ago it hadn’t occurred to me that I should ever be in position to make a satirical picture about Hollywood. I had not appeared in a comedy for many years and had become typed throughout America as a deadly serious actor. “It was Eddie Cantor who was instrumental in re-introducing me to humour. “I had just been playing in Hamlet all over the United States. I was weary of being serious and had refused several Hollywood offers to appear in serious parts. “I intended to come to England and have a long holiday from ‘higher culture’: but one morning Cantor’s penetrating, childlike voice came through on the telephone. “‘Say Leslie, why don’t you come into my radio programme this evening?’ “‘What, me?’ I said, ‘I could recite “Alas, poor Yorick” but I’m not very much use as a comedian.’ “‘I know it’s a terrible thing to ask a Shakespearian actor to guy Hamlet,’ said Eddie, ‘but if you don’t mind doing something on those lines we’ve got an angle ready made.'”

Comedy Cash-In

“We rehearsed the act during the afternoon and put it over the air in the evening. Next day the newspapers were full of it. “At eleven o’clock Jack Warner rang up and suggested that I cash in the publicity and make a comedy for him. “In the afternoon Walter Wanger came through and made a similar suggestion. At first I refused, but when he told me that, if I consented to make the picture, he would purchase a marvellously satirical exposé of the film industry by Clarence Budington Kelland, author of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which he had just read in the “Saturday Evening Post.” I felt that this was too good an opportunity to miss. “Stand-in is about a young accountant of natural integrity who goes to Hollywood to balance the accounts of a big film concern. He discovers that one of the executives is wilfully trying to ruin the studio so that he will be able to buy it up at half the proper price. “You may think that such a situation is quite preposterous, but I can assure you that the whole history of films has been chequered by incidents of this sort. “In the story there is also a temperamental star who has risen to the heights because she was one the mistress of an influential producer. “That, of course, in no uncommon occurrence. For a ‘small’ consideration it is possible for a woman with no intelligence and no acting ability to be sky-rocketed to fame. “Within a few months she is a powerful individual with a world-wide following, quite possibly in the position of ruining the producer who made her famous.”

Star and Technician

“For dramatic purposes, this situation has been rather exaggerated in the picture, but it is symbolic of the sort of thing which does, under present circumstances, happen quite often in Hollywood. “Such a star command £30,000 for a picture while the director is lucky if he gets a quarter of that sum. The unfortunate cameraman who, with infinite care, has photographed the star and given her face a flawless beauty, is well off if he gets two thousand pounds a year. “The people behind the scenes are often craftsmen of rare intelligence and sincerity, capable, in their own departments, of producing pictures that would make the average production look quite flat. But they are forced by circumstances to use their natural ingenuity to bolster up glamour instead of ability. “I do not want you to run away with the idea that I consider the actor unimportant. In all the first-class pictures I have ever seen I have been conscious of an affinity between director and star. “It takes Tracy and Lang, Laughton and McCarey, Sternberg and Jannings, Gaynor and Borzage, working in sympathetic conjunction, to make a really great and living motion picture. But it is the genuine actor–and not the glamorous personality star–who is important. An actor will only achieve worthwhile results when he forgets his own ego and realises that he is merely a cog in a machine–of no more importance than the director, the scenarist, cameraman or lighting expert. “The film industry makes it very difficult for even its genuine actors to approach their work in the right spirit. The adulation which is extended to anyone who appears in pictures tends to puff them up with big ideas of their own importance. “Publicity sheets shriek one’s capabilities and gifts to the skies until one almost believe them.”


Howard is present at a little display of temperament by the director, Alan Mowbray, in Stand-in


Joan Blondell joins the triumphant Howard at the end of the film

The Puppet System

“Actors are often prevented from doing work of value by the very star system which seeks to glorify them. There have been so many artificial star incapable of doing anything constructive that the tendency is now to treat them all like puppets. “The scenario is delivered on the set in its completed form. The actor has no part in the characterisation he has to play. Often he does not even know the story. “He is placed before the camera and told what to do and is surprised when the picture is completed to find that he has been playing the cad when he thought all along he was the hero. This puppet system is absolutely maddening to any actor of real ideas and ability. “It is this star system which has made the average Hollywood film merely a series of quite superficial actions which do not require any mental concentration on the part of the actor. For example, some years ago, I saw a famous star brought to the studio each day by a nurse, because her own excesses, coupled with the adulation which surrounded her, had robbed her reason. “It took her days to learn a few lines of dialogue–yet, whenever her pictures were shown, so cleverly had the director handled her that she was commended for her slick and effortless performances. “The film industry if full of bogus standards. A short while ago the big producers get together to prevent any journalists from entering a film studio when they were making what are called process shots. “This is a system which has come very much into prominence of late. Instead of an actor going on location he is placed on a platform before an ordinary moving picture of the required background and this creates the illusion that he is actually on the spot. “By this simple process one can, in a few weeks, and without going outside the studio, make a picture ranging all over the world. It is much cheaper and more satisfactory than building up elaborate backgrounds. “All well and good. But why must the film industry try to hide it up? “To me the proper understanding and manipulation of such process is the very essence of screen technique. It is obvious that an actor will only begin to do good work when he understands the demands, limitations and technical intricacies of the medium for which he is working. “But Hollywood maintains that if the public gets to know about this process-shooting they will be disillusioned and the stars will lose their glamour.”

Academy Pretensions

“Each year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents a statuette for the best performance of the year. Stars receive more than their quota of praise. The men who invent ingenious systems like process-shooting are called just trick-men and are conveniently forgotten. “Some years ago, when a famous director exposed the absurd pretensions of the Academy, he was blacklisted and had to come to England to earn his living. That, I fear, is the attitude which the film industry takes towards its artists. “It is the film industry’s false sense of value–the immense wastage of money and talent, the idea that glamour is more important than technique (all of which is a direct result of capitalist exploitation)–that Wanger and I have done our best to satirise in Stand-in. “We are prevented from going the whole hog by the Hays Office, who maintained that certain portions of the picture were too viciously satiric. We were forced to cut some of these and substitute a less ironic type of humour. “I do not think we should have got the film through at all hat it not been for a surprising number of Hollywood people who stepped forward to defend the enterprise. “That is a healthy sign–a sign that the film industry is growing increasingly conscious of its own false artistic standards. “It shows that, beneath the glitter of the film industry, there is a definite leavening of common sense. I hope that Stand-in will act in some small way as a stimulant.”

(Film Weekly, April 9, 1938)