In Salute To a Fine Actor And a Very Great Gentleman (1943)
In Salute To a Fine Actor And a Very Great Gentleman
by Kaspar Monahan
No one knows just what happened when a transport plane, bound for London from Lisbon, plunged presumingly into the Bay of Biscay early last week. At this writing it appears that the plane was shot down by the Nazis–wantonly shot down–for there was no mistaking that it was an unarmed plane.
We can well imagine the terror of the doomed passengers, some of them children. But there was one aboard, I know, who was not afraid. That one was Leslie Howard.
Quiet, unassuming Leslie Howard’s courage is a matter of record in two wars. In the first war he enlisted for active fighting and served three years. In the current war he remained in England through all the blitzes, clung to his native soil when invasion appeared inevitable, worked ceaselessly night and day. This–when others not only of the theatrical profession but Englishmen of means in other activities suddenly found “vital” reasons for running away to safer regions, mainly this country.
He stuck–and toiled. He broadcast over the BBC; did benefits for the war charities and turned out movies of the “morale-building” type at Denham studios. Once in a blackout he was seriously injured, but recovered and kept on working.
One of his greatest boosters was Ernie Pyle–and if you know Ernie you know the little guy doesn’t go for phonies.
Picked For ‘Wind”
My one and only meeting with Leslie Howard I’ll never forget. Nor, I suppose, did he ever forget it. Oh, no, not because of me, but because of the rather prophetic message I delivered to him.
It was in 1937 in his dressing room at the Nixon when he was doing “Hamlet” here. (And a fine “Hamlet,” despite all the unfair barbs flung at it by New York critics and by their spineless echoers in the “road” cities. Here, I’m happy to say, all three of us liked Mr. Howard’s “Hamlet” and minced no words in saying so).
At that time, just for the heck of it, I was running a little contest for the readers–inviting them to name their choices for the five leading roles for the film version of “Gone With the Wind.” Clark Gable won the role of Rhett Butler hands down and Mr. Howard was almost as strong a choice for Ashley Wilkes. It turned out just that way, as you’ll recall, and I was not at all surprised, for I figured that the choices of Pittsburghers would be reflected throughout the nation–and they were.
At any rate, I thought the “GWTW” angle was as good as any to start Mr. Howard talking, and said:
“How do you feel about playing Ashley Wilkes, Mr. Howard?”
To my surprise, he looked puzzled, eyeing me quizzically.
“Ashley Who-did-you-say? Well–er, excuse me, but who in deuce is he?”
“What–why, he’s a major character in ‘Gone With the Win’–you know the book there’s so much talk about and ever more talk about who’ll play the roles in the film?”
Mr. Howard looked embarrassed and awfully apologetic. Explained he had been so busy with his production of “Hamlet” that he had no time to read, not even the newspapers.
So I told him about “GWTW,” that it was a monster of a book and that the film would be a colossal undertaking, hinting at the same time (somewhat miffed) that he should feel a little proud about winning our poll.
“Well, well, imagine that!” he exclaimed to his wife, who had accompanied him on the road tour. And then he regained his customary poise and calmly resumed putting make-up on his face.
“But, maybe, I should get that book. Y’know, this is really the first I’ve heard of it. H’m, maybe, I wouldn’t do for the role at all.”
“Oh, yes, you would,” I assured him. “You’re the first one for Ashley I thought of–and nearly every other reader feels the same way about it.”
So Mr. Howard sent word out–“Get me two copies of this–what did you say the name was? Oh, yes, ‘Gone With the Wind.’ One for Mrs. Howard, y’know, and one for me.”
I presume the Howards read the book during the rest of the tour. And that Mr. Howard saw in Ashley a role he was born to play. At any rate, he played Ashley and everybody deemed him perfect in it–which he was.
And who can ever forget Leslie Howard in any number of roles on stage and screen? With Bette Davis in “Of Human Bondage,” his “Petrified Forest” and “Berkeley Square,” both on stage and screen? Or his brilliant performance in “Pygmalion” or in “Animal Kingdom,” “Outward Bound,” “Scarlet Pimpernel;” also his roles in lesser movies, distinguished by his portrayals?
Of his more recent films, his “Mr. V” was outstanding–and it gave the Nazis the best of reasons for hating him. In this film he rescued professors from Nazi persecution, spirited them out of Germany by masking his underground work as an archaeologist.
The rumor is that Churchill was the quarry. Perhaps, but it could have been Howard. For “Mr. V” stirred Lord Haw Haw, Hitler’s mouthpiece, out of his calm, sarcastic pose, and the radio listeners got scorched ears from his wrathful blasts at Mr. Howard.
To the end Leslie Howard was ever the gentleman, the artist, the patriot. It was monstrous to kill him, another act of incomprehensible barbarity.
I am glad that once I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Leslie Howard. Seldom do such high talents and utter modesty mingle in one man. Peace to his gentle soul!
(The Pittsburgh Press, June 6, 1943)