Leslie Howard (1959)
Became An International Star By Projecting The Superiority Of Brain Over Brawn
by Homer Dickens
Leslie Howard’s unusually successful film career did not begin until he was 37, and comprised only two dozen films made in a dozen years. In fact, as we shall see, his film career really consisted of 22 pictures made in nine years.
Howard captivated women because they sensed in him an understanding as well as a liking of women. He charmed men by his intelligence and his espousal of masculine virtues of self-reliance, courage and honor. However, the basis of his appeal was a-sexual. He was physically rather slight, but had the wit to capitalize on this. He consciously turned himself, on stage as well as screen, into an image of the supremacy of brain over brawn.
Brain can vanquish brawn? That was what Leslie Howard told audiences from the stages of London and New York theatres and the motion picture screen of the world. The superiority of brain over brawn — yes, such was the message that issued from all his film and made him an international film star.
Leslie Howard Stainer was born on April 3, 1893, in London. His father, Frank Stainer, a Hungarian by birth, worked in a stock broker’s office and supplemented his income by playing the piano at the “at homes” of London’s middle-middle class. At one such he met Lillian Howard and married her against her parents’ wishes. Leslie was born a year later. There were ultimately four other children, and never much money. Mrs. Stainer organized a local dramatic society and encouraged the writing ambitions of her first born — activities which Mr. Stainer opposed. When Leslie did not do well at Dulwich College his father got him a job in a bank.
He was rescued from this by World War I. He enlisted a school for cavalry officers and while there met a 21-year-old daughter of a regular army soldier named Ruth Evelyn Martin, who was working in a recruiting office in Colchester. They married in 1916 and had a few months before Howard went to France. In ’17 he was invalidated home with a severe case of shell-shock.
His father wanted him to return to the bank, but his mother suggested he try the theatre. He decided to do so, and to drop his father’s name and call himself Leslie Howard.
It was wartime, there were not many young men in England, and, through a theatrical agent named Ackerman May, Howard obtained a part in a road company production of Peg o’ My Heart. After which he continued on the road in Charley’s Aunt. Matheson Lang then made him an understudy for the juvenile lead in the London company of Under Cover, but he did not get a chance to on. However, this led to a part in Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Freaks, which opened in London in February ’18 and closed six weeks later.
While Howard was “at liberty” his first child was born on April 7. He was christened Ronald, after the character Howard had played in Freaks.
He then had a succession of assorted minor roles: in Arnold Bennett’s The Title; Gladys Unger’s Our Mr. Hepplewhite; A.A. Milne’s Mr. Pim Passes By (Dion Boucicault played the title role); G.E. Jenning’s The Young Person in Pink; and Samuel Shipman and John B. Hymer’s East Is West.
It was while he was in Mr. Pim Passes By that Howard organized Minerva Film Ltd., to make pictures that would “get away from the comic picture-postcard type of film which at present appropriates the trade name, comedy.” His collaborator was Adrian Brunel, whom he had met at a small studio where his (Howard’s) uncle directed films. C. Aubrey Smith, A.A. Milne and H.G. Wells were among the financial backers of Minerva, which produced three one-acters called Bookworms, Five Pounds Reward and The Bump. They were not a success and Minerva soon ceased to exist.
Gilbert Miller then offered him $250 a week to play a part in A.E. Thomas’ Just Suppose, which Miller intended to put on in New York in the fall of ’20. Howard crossed the Atlantic alone, but was joined by his wife, sans child, a few months later. Geoffrey Kerr, who had the lead in Just Suppose, befriended them both. Just Suppose did well and was taken on tour.
Howard then got a part in Booth Tarkington’s The Wren, starring Helen Hayes, but it closed almost at once. After that he went into Cosmo Hamilton’s Danger, starring H.B. Warner, which closed early in ’22. He next obtained the juvenile lead in A.A. Milne’s The Truth About Blayds, with O.P. Heggie and Frieda Inescourt, which lasted till that summer.
By that time the Howards had brought over their son, secured a nurse, rented a house in Great Neck, and been taken up by Alexander Woolcott and the “Algonquinites”.
John Golden then hired him for A Serpent’s Tooth, starring Marie Tempest, after which he went into another Milne play, The Romantic Age. Fairly good parts in two short-lived plays followed: Lady Cristilinda with Fay Bainter, and Edgar Selwyn’s Anything Might Happen.
Howard’s stage career in the US was by then well established and in May ’23 he opened in Frederick Lonsdale’s Aren’t We All, which ran until December, when he left it to play Henry in Outward Bound, the cast of which included Margalo Gillmore, Alfred Lunt, Charlotte Granville, Eugene Powers, and J.M. Kerrigan. It ran till April, and in August he opened in The Werewolf.
The second of his two children, a daughter, was born that October and was christened Leslie Ruth Howard.
In Jan. ’25 he opened in an adaptation of a German play by Kurt Goetz called Isabel, which was preceded by J.M. Barrie’s curtain-raiser Shall We Join the Ladies? And then he got the part of Napier Harpender in Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, starring Katherine Cornell and Margalo Gillmore. “It’s the hardest part I ever had to play,” he told a New York reporter, “because I know that under the given circumstances nobody in the world would say the things I have to say in the show.” He added that the play did not deserve the critical praise it had received. Nevertheless, The Green Hat lasted until the summer of ’26, when Howard went to England to play in The Way You Look at It with Edna Best and Martita Hunt.
He returned in the fall to play the title role in Her Cardboard Lover, which Gilbert Miller was producing with Laurette Taylor as the feminine leader. The out-of-town try-outs showed re-writing was required, and that Miss Taylor would have to be replaced. Miller got Jeanne Eagels, who proved difficult and demanding during rehearsal. When it opened the viewers thought Howard’s performance had outshone that of Miss Eagels, whose physical and mental decline had begun (she died two years later).
Howard’s success in Her Cardboard Lover enabled him to get a play of his own, Murray Hill, produced. It had only a brief run, but a long enough one for him to prepare for the lengthy part of the escaped prisoner in Galsworthy’s Escape, which ran in New York until the spring of ’28, when Howard went to London to be in the English production of Her Cardboard Lover with Tallulah Bankhead.
Before he sailed Howard and Gilbert Miller formed a partnership to produce plays. Their first was John Balderston’s Berkeley Square, and while Howard played in Her Cardboard Lover in London, he and Balderston worked on Berkeley Square, which opened in London in the spring of ’29 to mixed notices. Miller then asked Howard to play with Gertrude Lawrence in Candle-light, which was tried-out in England (but not in London) and opened in New York in September.
It lasted only a few weeks and “Gilbert Miller and Leslie Howard” then presented Mr. Howard in Berkeley Square on November 4, ’29 — a few days after the great stock market crash. “Something of beauty breaks through even the stock market news,” said Burns Mantle.
While playing in Berkeley Square Howard directed the rehearsal of Out of a Blue Sky, which he had adapted from a German play by Hans Chlumberg. And it was while he was in Berkeley Square that he got his first offer from the movies: to play in Outward Bound at $5,000 a week.
Neither he nor his wife thought much of Hollywood on their first visit and as soon as the picture was finished they went to England, where Howard had bought ten acres and an old house in Surrey.
On his return to the US in the fall of ’30 he took Berkeley Square on tour, finishing in Los Angeles. Whereupon he made three film for MGM — Never the Twain Shall Meet, A Free Soul with Norma Shearer, and Five and Ten with Marion Davies. None did anything for his reputation, nor did a fourth, Devotion, which he made for RKO. The money he got for doing them did a great deal for the house in Surrey he was restoring and remodeling.
In the summer of ’31 he went to England to play in the first British film Alexander Korda directed — a comedy based on a story by Ernest Vajda called Reserved for Ladies in the US and Service for Ladies in Britain. While he was doing so Miller sent him the manuscript of Philip Barry’s The Animal Kingdom, which Howard began to rehearse as soon as he got back.
Before it opened in New York, Katharine Hepburn was replaced by Frances Fuller, whereupon Barry shifted the play’s emphasis from Hepburn’s role to Howard’s. It was a hit and RKO signed Howard for the movie version.
He went to Hollywood in the spring of ’32, but made Smilin’ Through with Norma Shearer, for MGM, before doing The Animal Kingdom with Ann Harding and Myrna Loy. Mary Pickford then asked him to play in her last film — a Western called Secrets, in which Howard was a young man who aged — into his seventies. After which he did Captured at Warners. And then Berkeley Square for Fox.
In ’33 he went to England and made a farce called The Lady Is Willing for Columbia, which Gilbert Miller directed, far from well. After which Howard had another flop — on the stage — in This Side Idolatry, a play about Will Shakespeare.
It was at this time that he refused to play with Greta Garbo in Queen Christina. He would not hesitate to play with any actress on the stage, he explained, because “a play can be depended on to materialize as rehearsed.” But Queen Christina would be a Garbo vehicle, he said, and asked: “Where would I be?”
He returned to the US and made one of his finest films — Of Human Bondage, in which Bette Davis gave the performance that lifted her to stardom. Howard then made British Agent with Kay Francis at Warners.
He went back to England to appear in Alexander Korda’s production The Scarlet Pimpernel, which Robert Sherwood and Arthur Wimpuss had adapted from the Baroness Orczy novel. Sir Percy Blakeney proved to be one of his most memorable roles.
Sherwood provided him with another. They had crossed the Atlantic together and on shipboard Sherwood showed him the manuscript of his The Petrified Forest, in which Sherwood said, there was a part just made for him. Howard agreed that there was, and that he would play it.
He opened in it in New York on January 7, ’35, and it was a great success. Peggy Conklin played the girl and Humphrey Bogart the gangster. When Warners asked Howard to do the film version he said he would, provided Bogart played the gangster. Warners wanted Edward G. Robinson to have the part. Howard insisted. Bogart said he would never forget it — and never did (cf. Films in Review, May ’57).
Irving Thalberg then induced him to play Romeo to Norma Shearer’s Juliet. Howard did not want to do it, for he thought the play was built on and for Juliet and that Romeo was an uninteresting character. But he became determined to do it when Warners refused to lend him to MGM for the part. Also, he had always wanted to play Hamlet, and he thought Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet would abet that ambition. Warners finally agreed to lend him, along with Paul Muni for The Good Earth, in exchange for Robert Montgomery and Clark Gable.
Howard worked very hard on his Hamlet, which opened in New York in competition with John Gielgud’s. John Houseman collaborated with him in the direction; Virgil Thomson wrote a score; and Agnes de Mille did the choreography for the players’ scene. It was liked outside New York, but not in. John Mason Brown said it was Hamlet with Hamlet left out.
To retrieve his money loss Howard then played in a zany comedy with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland called It’s Love I’m After, and some low comedy with Joan Blondell and Humphrey Bogart called Stand-in, in which he was too dignified to be more than passably effective.
The fall of ’37 found him in England working on one of his finest films — Pygmalion, which, with Anthony Asquith, he co-directed. It was produced by Gabriel Pascal for the British MGM, and was edited by David Lean. Wendy Hiller’s performance in it as Eliza made her an international star. Pygmalion was released in the fall of ’38.
When Howard returned to the US David Selznick offered him the part of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, which he accepted only after Selznick proposed they work out an agreement whereby Howard would act in certain Selznick pictures and produce or direct others. Howard did not like the part of Ashley Wilkes, and publicly said he didn’t know what Gone With the Wind was all about and wouldn’t think of reading the book to find out. During the shooting of GWTW Vivien Leigh once rebuked him for forgetting his lines.
While he was waiting around for Selznick to finish up GWTW, Howard started work on Intermezzo, in which he starred and of which he was associate producer. It was Ingrid Bergman’s first American film, and Howard enjoyed working with her, but he hurried the shooting.
For it was the summer of ’39 and he wanted to get back to England before the war Hitler was threatening began.
Intermezzo was really the end of Leslie Howard’s film career. True, in England he directed and acted in two wartime propaganda pictures — Pimpernel Smith (called Mister V in Britain) and Spitfire, a biopic about R.J. Mitchell, designer of the fighter plane which defeated the Nazis’ bid for the air over England (called The First of the Few in Britain). Also, he did a bit part, along with other stars, in The Invaders, and worked on two documentaries. But all that was war work.
During the war Howard did a weekly broadcast to the US and a few words from his first broadcast, made soon after the capitulation of France, give the stripe of Howard’s wartime feelings:
“Most of you, I’m sure, will know what I mean when I speak of the curious elation which comes from sharing in a high and mysterious destiny. The destiny of Britain we cannot know for certain, but we can guess at it and pray for it, and work towards it as we find ourselves singled out, of all nations in the world for the rare honor of fighting alone against the huge and ruthless forces of tyranny.”
In the spring of ’43 Howard was sent by the British Council to lecture in Portugal and Spain, primarily about Shakespeare and theatre, and only indirectly about the war. Howard took his accountant, Alfred Chenhalls, with him. When the lecture tour was completed, they were asked to stay in Lisbon an extra three days in order to attend the Portuguese premiere of The First of the Few.
This change in their plans obliged the authorities to “bump” two passengers from the regularly scheduled flight of the Lisbon-London commercial airliner on the morning of June 1, ’43, in order to put Howard and Chenhalls on it.
That was the morning Churchill was returning to Britain from Algiers.
In the fourth volume of his memoirs (The Hedge of Fate) Winston Churchill says:
“Eden and I flew home together by Gibraltar. As my presence in North Africa had been fully reported, the Germans were exceptionally vigilant and this led to a tragedy which much distressed me. The regular commercial aircraft was about to start from the Lisbon airfield when a thick set man smoking a cigar walked up and was thought to be a passenger on it. The German Agents therefore signalled that I was on board.
“Although these passenger planes had plied unmolested for many months between Portugal and England, a German warplane was instantly ordered out, and the defenseless aircraft was ruthlessly shot down. 13 passengers perished and among them the well known British film actor, Leslie Howard, whose grace and gifts are still preserved for us by the records of the many delightful films in which he took part.
“The brutality of the Germans was only matched by the stupidity of their agents. It is difficult to understand how anyone could imagine that with all the resources of Great Britain at my disposal I should have booked a passage in an unarmed and unescorted plane from Lisbon and flown home in broad daylight. We of course made a wide loop out by night from Gibraltar into the ocean and arrived home without incident. It was a painful shock to me to learn what had happened to the others in the inscrutable workings of fate.”
The plane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay, in the waters of which Leslie Howard drowned.
He was in his fiftieth year.
He intended, after the war, to give up acting, which he had never liked, and to produce and direct both plays and films.
(Films in Review, April 1959)