Leslie Howard (1936)
by Percy Burton
Leslie Howard has a very keen sense and expression of humor–and an even greater appreciation of it, while he has more personal charm than almost any great actor (or actress) I have ever known, and has that supreme art of concealing art and projecting his personal charm and spiritual magnetism over the footlights. But he is by no means a poseur, as so many of the other really great actors I have known so well and intimately have been, and is peculiarly unsophisticated in his views, expression and attitude towards life in general and the theatre and art of the cinema in particular.
There is something peculiarly wistful (one might say Barriesque) about his personality–a certain hesitancy about his judgment and decision, as if he hated to commit himself; and it is this quality, amongst many other graces, which makes one feel instinctively that he was born to play “Hamlet”–and let us add “Richard II”; while we have already had a taste of his perfection in “Romeo” and many more modern roles.
Leslie Howard in appearance is much younger than his years (he is at present a little over forty, but still has a slim and boyish figure), and one cannot realize that he is a paterfamilias until one sees him in the company of his growing son (a replica of Leslie) and his delightful and irresistible daughter. The sympathetic charm of his wife and their typical English home on the outskirts of Surrey in the village of Westcott, with its vista of broad acres and lovely gardens, add a finishing touch to his most treasured possessions, but we must not forget the score or more of polo ponies which await the young Squire in his stables. For country life evidently pleases him more than any other, and from his conversation, one soon gathers that he would much prefer to have been a modest writer than a great actor. And it is to the former calling that Howard père hopes his son, who already shows indications of his enthusiasm and success as a writer, will eventually turn to his life-work after his forthcoming sojourn at Cambridge University.
It was a pleasure to hear Leslie Howard and his son’s description of a visit to Hugh Walpole’s English country retreat in Cumberland, and their whole-hearted tribute to that great writer and his charming company as an ideal host.
Strangely enough, too, the Leslie Howards’ daughter has no particular desire for a theatrical or moving-picture career, though there is no doubt she inherently possesses all their natural gifts for the stage and cinema, while her debut in Hollywood with her father on the Radio in “Dear Brutus” will be recalled by all who had the pleasure of hearing them together.
Leslie Howard’s gratitude to America rings true in its evident sincerity, and his modest tribute to his own wonderful luck on the stage and screen immediately shatters once and for all any suggestion of egotism, or the feeling that he may merely have got his just deserts.
“Never,” he says, “has the actor had such chances of which he can avail himself to the full as nowadays,” though there always lurks the feeling that he does not really consider the actor (and himself as one of them) quite worthy of his princely rewards. Like Tree, who would have preferred his half-brother, Max Beerbohm’s career and envied his success as a writer, Howard gives one the indelible impression that he does not consider himself as quite in his ideal métier on the stage, though willing to make the best of it; and, while he has much in common with the late Herbert Tree in his philosophic view-point and personality, Leslie Howard is much more of the “homme sérieux” in every way. In many ways Leslie Howard more closely resembles Charles Wyndham, and should rival that consummate comedian in “David Garrick”.
Leslie Howard pays tribute to the great good done by the Little Theatre movement in America (and in England) to the stage as a whole, but considers that work has now been accomplished to the full in New York, which surpasses any European capital in the variety and breadth of its theatrical appeal and extraordinary range of its themes and treatment thereof. The local censorship he considers ample; any officialdom is apt no doubt to cramp the style and breadth of the popular theatre, confining many subjects inevitably to the limits of the private theatre and its membership as in England. (One need only instance the example of “Victoria Regina” in London to illustrate this.)
But Leslie Howard is by no means oblivious to the naiveté of American audiences as a whole, though, knowing, and having had some experience of his own apparent difficulty in sometimes making up his own mind, it is refreshing to hear him unburden himself amusingly (and perhaps not always quite convincingly–even to himself) of the love of Americans for conferences, in which everyone talks round in a circle and nothing is often or eventually settled.
Leslie Howard is a very sparing eater, and, although he confesses to a natural fondness for wine and cigars, says that a little of either goes a long way with him. But he is passionately found of polo (probably next to writing his only real hobby), while he is already making active plans for his own production of plays and artistic direction of others in pictures.
It is to that he will probably turn eventually when, if ever, his appeal as a favorite “star” should wane, while he is already arranging to alternate his own personal appearances with his direction of others on the screen.
And it is Leslie Howard’s greatest ambition at present to divide his time equally between the Stage proper and the Talkie in the U.S.A., while he would naturally like to continue his activities here with those at home in England, spending six months in each country.
It is wonderful to think in these competitive days that Leslie Howard never appeared on any stage until his honorable return from the Great War in 1917, when he first appeared in London, but has had all his greatest success in these United States so far.
One last touch, which is indicative of the man, the dreamer–and the artist, with all his sensitivity and delicacy of feeling.
Leslie Howard told me–quite naturally and in a delightful and unexpected view of reminiscence–that the gold coin appended to the fragile chain which hangs around his neck (next to his skin), and from which he is never parted day or night, was sent to him by his wife just before his stage success in “The Cardboard Lover! (following a very thin and, indeed, rather hard time). “Wear this,” his wife had said in a little personal note accompanying it, “and you will never want for anything.”
He woke the next morning to find himself famous, (proverbially and literally); little wonder that he has worn it ever since night and day. The coin happens to be an English sovereign ($5) piece, dated or minted the year I myself was born, which is quite besides the point, though it game me a peculiar sensation to take the charm to be mended when it snapped during the first few weeks of my association with him; while the fact that the New York jeweller would make no charge for repairing it was indicative of America’s generosity and her appreciation of Leslie Howard.
(From Hamlet programme, 1936)