Is He Priestley’s Successor? (1940)
IS HE PRIESTLEY’S SUCCESSOR?
Leslie Howard broadcast the Sunday evening “Postscript” two weeks ago. At once one London critic hailed him as “Priestley’s successor.” Others missed the blunt idealism which gave Priestley’s talks distinction
So the downright, take-it-or-leave-it, North Country postscript of Priestley may be replaced by the indolent but elegant diction of Leslie Howard.
If the B.B.C. makes the switch-over then it will certainly achieve a triumph of contrast.
Leslie Howard, born Leslie Stainer (on April 3, 1893) probably has a better claim to the title of the first gentleman of the screen than George Arliss or Herbert Marshall, who have both been unofficially awarded it from time to time.
Howard is essentially the English gentleman. He has a gentle voice, gentle manners, a gentle smile. His fair hair is gently waved. It is impossible to imagine his butting into the critics at a theatre bar during the run of his play (yes, he has written one), as Priestley has done, and saying, “Now you fellows, do what you’re paid for; go back and see the show.”
He has a slight scorn for American big business methods, especially for the “Hollywood factory.” He has a regard for the theatre, music, letters, as a cultivated Englishman ought to have. And the only thing he does violently is to play games.
If you ask him if he is a good polo player he will laugh gently with slight embarrassment and say, as we were all taught to say at school, “Oh no, I’m not much good.” He would give the same reply to anybody ill-mannered enough to ask him if he is a good actor.
The son of a stockbroker, he went to Dulwich College. He might easily, however, be the product of Eton. In fact it might be said of him as it was said of somebody else, “He is the finest Old Etonian who never went to Eton.”
At school, he became a member of the theatre club. He wrote plays and acted. And when he left school his father said, “Now my boy, you will learn something sensible.” So, with a sigh, he packed away his dreams of the stage and went to work in a City bank.
His duties were not too arduous, his wages rose to £2 10s. a week, and like Charles Lamb in the East India Office, he became reconciled to the life. Years later he revolted against the drudgery of Hollywood, turned down a contract which was worth £150,000 and declared that he wouldn’t be a slave in a ruthless machine. But he did not revolt against the drudgery of a bank.
The war broke him out of the rut. He joined the army, went to France, found his dreams again by appearing in shows for the troops. After the war he was determined not to be sensible. He got a job in a travelling troupe. His first stage appearance was in Peg O’ My Heart. Plays in London and New York followed: The Green Hat, Outward Bound, Her Cardboard Lover, Berkeley Square. Hollywood lured him to make a film version of Outward Bound. He did not really like the movies. But the film industry got him, made him rich, built him into a front-rank star. He was Lockhart’s British Agent and Norma Shearer’s Romeo, and Korda’s Scarlet Pimpernel. His Romeo was placid, rather world-weary, but Howard’s theory is that Romeo was a disillusioned rake, caught by love for the first time.
I think, and Howard agrees, that his best screen part (and that includes his Southern gentleman in Gone With the Wind) was the rather shiftless, poetic sort of chap in Sherwood’s play and film, The Petrified Forest. All he had to do was to say some witty, pleasant lines and be himself–and do the right thing in the end by dying heroically.
Howard came back to England at the beginning of the war, and he has been planning to make and appear in films which he himself likes. He refuses to be a cog, even a cog earning about £ 40,000 a year. Also, he has an urge to write. I hardly think he has any startling message to inflame the world. But he has a great love for England and he would like to share his pleasure in horses and country-side, in books and plays, and music, yes, even in the cinema, with others.
He has two children, a son Ronald who is a taller, slightly more handsome double of himself, and a daughter. Ronald is in the Navy. Daughter Leslie shares her father’s interest in horses and the theatre.
None of Priestley’s blunt self-made drive impelled the Howard rise to fame. He gives the impression that it was all luck and chance. Which is not true; the Howard ambition is a steady but hidden flame, always controlled by a cool head and slightly shadowed by the old school tie.
(Picture Post, November 30, 1940)