Leslie Howard (1943)
At any time the death of Leslie Howard would have been an irreparable loss to films. Not only was he an actor of incomparable charm and distinction, a director of the highest integrity with a rare gift for inspiring his fellow actors, and a producer in the true sense of the word, both enterprising and imaginative in his choice of subjects, he was that rarer and almost indefinable thing a great personality. But at the present time his loss is the greatest individual blow British Films could suffer. He was uniquely fitted for the unofficial post of Britain’s screen ambassador to the world at large–a post which he did not seek, but which seemed to grow naturally around his personality. He was the perfect embodiment of many of our national characteristics, and he was able to make those characteristics internationally intelligible and, what is far more important, lovable. To millions all over the world, Leslie Howard’s diffidence of manner and indifference to dress, his courtesy, independent of outward form, his self-deprecating ironical twinkle, his understatement, more eloquent than any peroration, had come to be the hall-mark of the Englishman, and behind all these qualities he was able to convey a steely strength of purpose which was all the more formidable for the casual way in which it was revealed.
As a craftsman he showed the same qualities. The immense amount of thought, the iron self-discipline which must have gone to building up his extraordinary technique, one could only guess at. No one ever made so little parade of his accomplishments. He was entirely without “nonsense” of any kind. To the casual onlooker he appeared to treat his work with the same careless indifference he so often displayed as the hero of his films. He would come on the set (sometimes, it must be admitted, a little late) glance at the scene, walk through the mechanics and then act it as if it was the merest matter of office routine. It was only the performance itself which revealed the imagination, the sensibility, the acute intelligence which were its invariable ingredients. But that was all it did reveal. You were faced with the accomplished miracle–but you could never see the processes by which it was performed. With him the thing to be expressed and the means of expression were so intimately fused that it seemed irrelevant to talk of technique at all. And yet he had the most amazing technique. He would repeat a scene over and over again without the faintest detectable variation of movement, expression or inflection. But the performance was never mechanical. He seemed to have the power of re-create the scene every time within the strictest framework. He combined in an extraordinary way the precision of a machine and the creative imagination of an artist.
I was intimately associated with him for more than six months on the making of Pygmalion. I confess that before I met him I looked forward to our combined work with trepidation. He was a great Hollywood Star, accustomed to the best Hollywood directors: I felt there was bound to be either acute friction or, more likely, that I would be charmingly but firmly brushed aside and ignored. Even after our preliminary conferences I felt that his courtesy and eager responsiveness to suggestions were too good to be true. It was only when we got on to the floor that I realised how true an artist he was. Nothing, including his own performance, mattered except in so far as it contributed to the film as a whole. I can truthfully say that throughout Pygmalion he made me feel that I was working on equal terms not only with a great artist but a colleague and friend for whose consideration and for what he taught I shall always be inexpressibly grateful.
At the beginning of the war he could, with every justification, have continued his American career. In doing so he would no doubt have rendered valuable service to the British cause. But he saw that he could render it even higher service by staying here. Our gain was immeasurably the greater. So now is our loss.
A.A. [Anthony Asquith]
(The Cine-Technician, May-June 1943)