I’m Afraid to Play With Garbo Says Leslie Howard (1933)
It was on an afternoon during the final sequences of his beloved “Berkeley Square” at the Fox studio that he discovered he wouldn’t be needed for several hours on the set. We retired to his dressing-room where, with the warm sun pouring in wholesomely through the wide open front door, he still looked picturesquely romantic.
Though he was attired in the courtly costume the role requires–including knee breeches, lace-trimmed vest, and powdered white wig–his remarks were those of a keen-minded modern.
“I am leaving Hollywood for three months,” he explained, “not because I dislike it, but because any sort of change is stimulating. Yet, when I stop to remember how pleasant life in California is, I wonder why on earth I want to see London.”
“Tell me about the Garbo lead,” I queried. How we writers do pester anyone who knows anything about the illusive Greta!
“It was a tempting offer. I’m an enthusiastic Garbo admirer myself. Like fifty million others, I’ve never even seen her in person! But I almost met her the other evening!” he chuckled in that whimsical manner of his.
Therein hangs an amusing tale. It seems that Greta, upon her re-entry to Hollywood, was anxious to secure Leslie for her new film and expressed a desire to meet him.
“A meeting was planned at the home of a friend Garbo was visiting. Unfortunately, I was a trifle late”–promptness is not one of the Howard virtues–“and when I arrived Miss Garbo had regally retired for the night. I wouldn’t let them disturb her. I’d a horrible suspicion she might be going mysterious on me and I feared being up-staged!
“It is my guess that she is most intriguing personally. Certainly she has a peculiarly dominating personality on the screen, and that is exactly why I declined that part. I shouldn’t hesitate to play opposite the most glamorous of stage actresses. A play can be depended upon to materialize as rehearsed. A picture is different. Added to the terrific competition of her personality–which no man has equalled–the film would naturally be cut to her advantage. And where would I be?
This charming Englishman, whose suave yet strangely shy sophistication has made him not only the Big Moment of discriminating women everywhere but the idol of the feminine stars as well, is a smart fellow, no?
“I did have the pleasure of meeting Marlene Dietrich a week ago. She is very beautiful and I enjoy her pictures because she is such a delight to the eye!”
“And in comparison to Garbo?” That’s dynamite in venturing an answer to this, most stars figure. He paused not at all.
“From a critical standpoint, neither is a great actress. Dietrich has been the more fortunate in having been trained carefully by a director who understands her perfectly. He taught her to be alluring. She has attained her peak in becoming a pictorial triumph.
“Garbo has succeeded on account of her marvelous personality. She might reach true greatness if she corrected some bad mannerisms. It is her own fault that she has been handicapped by inadequate direction, for she has scared everyone so that they don’t dare to supervise her, to advise her when she is mistaken.”
Sheer personality, artificial Hollywood glamor, and a flair for stylish garb has carried the majority of our feminine stars to the top, in Leslie Howard’s estimation. Fame and fortune are temporarily theirs, but they have not the acting equipment to last. They haven’t bothered to study acting as a craft, as most of the male stars have.
Our best actress in his rating is Helen Hayes. An orchid goes to Ann Harding, who rates high. But a fabulously salaried stage import who sports a verra broad-A accent (guess who!) is not on his list. He claims that her affectation betrays insincerity. Of the schooled-in-silents graduates he gives the first place to Norma Shearer.
“The long training Helen Haye has had on the stage has given her a superb technique. She never has to worry about how a scene should be done. It is instinctive with her. In addition, she has all the fire ad emotion a great artist needs.”
His first theatrical appearance in America, incidentally, was with Helen. He says “The Wren,” the play in which they teamed, was a sad bird. They have remained mutual admirers since that memorable flop, anticipating another try together. Both have been searching for a play which would enable them to co-star on Broadway.
“Miss Shearer has worked exceptionally hard and has acquired an excellent technical knowledge. She plans every scene to the last detail. She would be a hit on the stage. The only criticism I could make of her is that she is a bit too studied. When she lets her emotions out more freely she will be artistically complete.
Because an actor cannot rely on superficial props to the extent lovely woman can, the men who are scoring today are more apt to be thoroughly qualified. Paul Muni, James Cagney, and Spencer and Lee Tracy are typical examples of our many first-class actors. Their ability puts them across. They’re not camera illusions!
“Clark Gable is an unusual case. I should say Gable is the only male star whose popularity is due to personality rather than to acting. The Barrymores? Well, ah–they go on and on!”
I wondered what Leslie thought of Mae West. They haven’t much screen similarity!
“She’s all right!” he spoke up, smiling broadly. “She is a one-part star, of course. Yet she’s entertainment plus and I get a wallop from her realism. No hokum about Mae. I’ll go and see her any time!”
The recent trend of the talkies gratifies him. He finds them increasingly intelligent. The reception accorded “The Animal Kingdom” pleases him. (And yet, even “She Done Him Wrong” was a step upward! An orch–pardon–a diamond to you, Mae, for your contribution to adultism!)
“Most people here have bemoaned the depression. Why, it is the savior of Hollywood! It has brought the studios to their senses. It has absolutely proved that the hooey, the dumb inane stories so long sanctified as ‘box office’ are not what the fans want, and it has made the producers wake up to the market for adult, mature drama.
“Hard times have begun a new era in Hollywood. I still find the actual work on the sets less interesting than acting on the stage, but the possibilities of the screen are limitless now that they are abandoning childish formulas. And I think there is a vast audience waiting for better pictures.”
Stories are of prime importance to Leslie. He won’t appear in stupid or carelessly constructed ones.
“The reason I left Hollywood the first time was not because of any adverse attitude towards the talkies. It was due to the fact that I was on the verge of being forced into a long-term contract. I wanted to pick my vehicles, so I decided the wise move was to go away for a while. After a season on the stage I came back and did five films at five different studios.
“I made just one mistake–choosing “Secrets.” It is impossible to cover four generation convincingly in an hour. I had a feeling the story was poor before we started it. Chalk that up to friendship!”
It was at Mary Pickford’s special request that he enacted that role.
In the twelve months he was in California on his second venture into pictures he earned almost $200,000. Which he has not thrown to the winds. That he is sincere in his artistic ideals is demonstrated by an incident which occurred last Spring. He was offered twice his regular salary to do “Peg O’ My Heart” and had the moral courage to decline.
“I made my stage début in that play in 1917. It was good then–but now it creaks awfully!”
The most amazing characteristic of Hollywood to Leslie used to be the eternal optimism. The persistent gladness and cheerfulness of the place no longer strike him as odd. He has been imbued with the hopeful complex, too.
“The freaky architecture was a novelty. But one gets used to it. Southern California is really the ideal spot. It’s a glorified country club. I’ve always hated cities, anyway. In London and New York I feel continually walled in. Here there are gardens and lawns and flowers, and there’s plenty of room. If Los Angeles could support long run stage shows I’d never leave!”
The way the movie stars let the public in on their love lives is the most astonishing thing about Hollywood to him now.
“Why do the players advertise their loves? It is so unnecessary blatantly to publicize that which should personal. It gets your name into print, the objective I suppose, but in the long run I am convinced the fans look down on the stars who cheapen themselves. Don’t you agree?”
I nodded my okay, remembering the esteem in which Leslie himself is held by the public. No unfavorable rumors have ever touched him and he is a romantic riot in spite of the fact that he has been happily married for years and has a son who is fourteen and an eight-year-old daughter.
“Movie divorces? Ah, well,” and he squinted as the bright sun hit his face, “to me they’re the resort of optimists! Those who try, try again are always suffering from the illusion that they’ll find perfection. I think it’s better to be slightly pessimistic and to conclude that, after all, the husband or wife you’ve got is pretty nice and you couldn’t improve by changing!”
No reflection on Mrs. Howard, to whom he is devoted. A non-professional, she has been and is the strongest influence in his life. At parties he is surrounded by glittering ladies–to whom he gives no encouragement. He stands patiently in their midst, secretly wigwagging at a pal to come to his rescue!
“Beverly Hills society is not as fascinating as it’s gossiped-up to be. Funny, the power the columnist have, isn’t it? An actor solemnly told me he and his wife had to separate because they’d told a chatterer they would and couldn’t disappoint her.
“A lot of this Hollywood glamor is apt to be synthetic. I haven’t met any beauties who’d make me forget wife and family! And why is it one meets only movie people out there? It’s refreshing to come across an outsider once in a blue moon!”
His son Ronald aims to be a writer. Leslie is worried lest school conventionalize his children. He says he has to argue at length with his boy on the merits of war, the lad having acquired a flag-waving, militaristic notion. Named Leslie, after her father, his young daughter has so far escaped school. He’s keeping her unspoiled by dogma as long as he can.
“My stage draw has been greatly helped by my picture work,” he commented as a man came to escort him back to the cameras. “That’s another material advantage Hollywood gives!”
As he straightened his costume and departed with a friendly farewell to resume his job as a hero, I went my way reflecting that he deserves his present luck. He had to take any kind of stage parts when he was beginning and there were months when he had a desperate struggle to support a wife and son. That such a purely artistic type can learn business traits is an inspiration!
The World War upset his life by drafting him into its horrors. But it repaid him as well. He was grabbed from his drab routine as an insurance clerk and thrust into the theatrical world after he’d done his share of fighting.
Now he is in his native London, starring in “The Lady Is Willing,” Columbia’s initial attempt at production in England. Fox wants him to do “A Tale of Two Cities” and will send a staff across the Atlantic if this judicious gentleman is willing. Warners have outbid the other major companies for his services, at least for his next three American films. This Fall he will be back in Hollywood to star for them. And he’ll pick the stories–this brilliant Leslie Howard, the only man in the civilized world who doesn’t want to play opposite Garbo!
(Screenland, September 1933)