Lancelot in Modern Dress (1935)
Lancelot in Modern Dress
Leslie Howard–his tragedy and triumph
by Laura Benham
Lancelot in modern dress! That’s Leslie Howard. Had he lived in another age, he would have ridden gallantly to battle mounted on a snow-white charger, armor gleaming in the morning sunlight, banners waving in the breeze, an amulet from his Guinevere–or Elaine–tucked against his heart.
That he was born in our modern machine age is both his tragedy and his triumph! His tragedy, because it means that he is destined never to know complete happiness, but must forever grope toward an ephemeral, intangible goal which, like a mirage, fades when he attains it only to appear again in the distance to lure him further forward.
His triumph, because through this seeking fulfilment he can never know, he will leave a record of achievement and accomplishment that transcends even his fondest, secret dreams and will make an ineradicable mark upon the minds and lives of all who know him and his work.
From the moment that you meet Leslie Howard you are conscious of the turbulent but controlled conflict that surges beneath the calm, indifferent exterior of his dual personality. It flickers in his restless blue eyes and at the corners of his sensitive, mobile mouth; and for an instant flashes across his face in a disclosure more illuminating than a thousand speeches.
For he is not given to intimate, self-revelatory expression. Rather, he is reserved to the point of shyness–or discretion–and it is only through discussion of his work that one breaks through his cautious composure to catch glimpses of the man behind the actor.
In New York to appear in the Gilbert Miller Broadway production, “The Petrified Forest,” Mr. Howard find himself with a strange and growing distaste for the stage–and a vague nostalgia for California and the cinema capital.
“I’m afraid Hollywood has me in its spell,” he remarked as he sipped a glass of milk. “Next to England, I’d rather live in Hollywood than any place in the world. But I don’t want to continue acting, regardless of where I live.
“I’m tired of it all, you see, and I’m too old for the compensations of acting (except the money), to balance its drawbacks.
“For I’ve always thought acting a peculiar way for a man to make his living–putting powder and paint on his face and parading synthetic emotions before the public. It’s a woman’s game!
“But when I was young, the fun of making a name for myself, the thrill of the applause, the public recognition (which, though I hated at times, I loved at others) were wonderful, and made up for all the inner misgivings. I had about the calibre of my profession.
“Now, I’ve reached the age where none of those superficial things mean anything to me–I’m on the stage and screen purely to make enough money to leave them!”
Thus spoke the two Leslie Howards, the modern, commercially-successful business man, cognizant of his urge to acquire wealth; and the old-fashioned romanticist, dissatisfied and disillusioned with both stage and screen because of the very mercenary aspect to which he subscribes.
“For many years I considered the stage the only artistic medium and looked down upon pictures as a rather mediocre order of entertainment. I refused any number of offers to go to Hollywood,” he admitted.
“Then, when Warner Brothers bought ‘Outward Bound,’ in which I was appearing on the stage, and offered me my same role in the screen production, I began to believe what many of my friends had been telling me–that pictures had become ‘uplifted’ and artistic–and first-class.
“I appeared in that picture and stayed around Hollywood for the rest of the six months for which my contract had been signed–and then the studio informed me that they would not take up my option, as I had no sex-appeal.”
Mr. Howard managed to maintain an unemotional countenance, but I could not resist a gasp of amazement at this judgment of the man who is today considered one of the screen’s leading exponents of masculine charm, both by the public and by the men and women who know him.
“I came back to Broadway and appeared in several plays,” he went on. “And then came my second try in pictures.
“Now, one of my prejudices against the screen had been because an actor had so little to say about his roles. In the theatre, a producer submits a script to the actor he has in mind for a part and the actor can either accept or reject it as he sees fit after reading the play.
“In pictures, of course, an actor is simply signed on a term contract and must appear in whatever films he is assigned.
“My experience in ‘Outward Bound’ had been different and after my return to New York, I made up my mind never to do another picture.
“However, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sent for me and offered me a contract–and because it was considered such an excellent organization, I signed with them. And the first role assigned me was in “Never the Twain Shall Meet”!
“Immediately I read the script I went to Irving Thalberg, whose production it was, and said to him, ‘This is awful–it’s old and trite and has been done a thousand times before. There is no reason nor justification for making it.’
“And his answer was simply: ‘But it will make money!’
“Then and there I decided to take pictures as they came, purely as a money-making proposition. For if Irving Thalberg, admittedly one of the smartest men in the business, could take and old, outworn story and produce a picture from it solely to make money, without regard for artistic merit, then there was no use in ever considering films as an art.”
However, Mr. Howard confesses that his faith has been somewhat restored by his own film of “Berkeley Square,” and other stars’ successes in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” “Henry the Eighth,” “Catherine the Great.” And he is frank in admitting that his current dissatisfaction with acting my be due simply to the influence of Hollywood, for it was not always thus with him as he is one of those individuals who found his métier because of an exalted inner urge which would not be denied. There was no tradition, nor heritage of the theatre to guide his footsteps through a stage door.
Born in London, of non-professional parents, he was reared as befitted the son of a cultured household, being educated by a tutor and later attending Dulwich College. It was while a student in latter institution that he first began to act in amateur theatricals, but even then did not consider the stage as a career.
Upon graduation, he worked for a short while as a bank clerk, leaving that position to go to war. Theatricals behind the front line renewed his interest in acting, with the result that when he was demobilized, he decided to make it his life’s work.
His first professional part was with one of the road companies of “Peg O’ My Heart,” which was followed by work in London. The latter brought him impressive recognition in England and his next step was New York and a role with Katharine Cornell in “The Green Hat.”
Other successes followed, and in “Outward Bound” he attracted the attention of the movie moguls to such an extent that their previous somewhat indifferent offers became a real clamor and he departed for Hollywood and fame and fortune. And today, after several years of stage-and-screen work combined, his liking for the climate of California remains, though he holds no brief for the people, modes, and manners of the cinema capital.
“People out there are so surfeited with wealth and luxury and easy living that nothing can give them pleasure or happiness. I, myself, am guilty of the same unrest that affects everyone else–I was more contented, had more joy in life and living, before I had as much money as I have today. But once getting in the habit of living luxuriously and of making a good income, it is impossible to ‘let down’ and lower the standards of luxury which one has adopted.”
Mr. Howard’s standards include a manor-house in England, a wife and two children to whom he is devoted, and a string of polo ponies. For polo is the principal enthusiasm of his life.
Second in importance is his interest in photography, and with his small Leica camera he takes informal snapshots of everything and everyone he sees.
It is this latter interest that makes him believe that some day, perhaps after he has tried the “retirement” he threatens, and has become bored with idleness, he will direct pictures.
“Not plays,” he explains. “I’ve directed a number of them and feel that the theatre today exists only as a training-school for pictures. As the most money is to be made in films, every play produced today is done so with picture production definitely in mind.
“Therefore, it is to the screen that we must look for any real development in the future. And I do believe that splendid, artistic films can be produced economically–if properly handled. Some day, maybe I’ll try my hand at it.”
In the meantime, we can expect to see Mr. Howard for some time in the future on our stage and screen. While he is appearing on the Broadway stage in “The Petrified Forest,” his latest picture, “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” which he recently made in England for United Artists, will be playing the movie houses of the country; and upon completion of the play, he will return to Hollywood and Warner Brothers for further pictures.
So, his prospective retirement looms as a distant threat and need not frighten his motion picture public for some time to come.
(Screenland, March 1935)