Leslie Howard Star of Intermezzo and Gone With the Wind in Beverly Hills (1992)
Leslie Howard Star of Intermezzo and Gone With the Wind in Beverly Hills
text by Brendan Gill
To American moviegoers in the thirties, Leslie Howard was the archetype of an authentic British gentleman–urbane, soft-spoken and hinting a capacity for passion that bore no threat of sexual intimidation. Slender, blue-eyed and with blond curly hair above an exceptionally high forehead, Howard starred in such sweetly sad romances as Smilin’ Through (1932) and Berkeley Square (1933) and in such brisk drawing room comedies as Philip Barry’s The Animal Kingdom (1932) and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1938). He appeared with Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934) and with Humphrey Bogart in both the stage and movie versions of The Petrified Forest. Always looking many years younger than his age, Howard played Romeo in the movie version of Romeo and Juliet (1936) when he was forty-two. To his dismay, but not to that of his fans, Howard also played what he thought of as the detestably soppy role of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939), and, more to his satisfaction, the role of a violin virtuoso in Intermezzo (1939). The plot of the latter called for a celebrated public performer, long married, to fall helplessly in love with a ravishing young protégée–Ingrid Bergman in her first American movie role.
Intermezzo meant a lot to Howard, for two reasons. The first was that, like so many intelligent actors, he was eager to try his hand at directing and producing, and David O. Selznick, the producer of Gone With the Wind, had invited him to serve as associate producer on Intermezzo. The second and more important reason was that the movie had a strong autobiographical overtones for Howard: Himself a celebrated and long-married public performer, he had fallen in love with a striking young woman of French descent, Violette Cunnington, whom he had met while making the movie version of Pygmalion in London.
He had persuaded Violette to come to America with him, to the distress but not to the surprise of his wife and two children. (As his daughter later wrote in her biography of him: “He never had enough energy to run after a woman; it was, rather, that he lacked the enrgy to run away.”) Howard and she were almost continuously together until her sudden death at the age of twenty-nine.
During his years in America, on the road as a stage actor and while making movies in Hollywood, Howard remained a British subject; he and his family had regarded as their only permanent home an ancient half-timbered place that he had purchased in the Surrey countryside, not far from London, with the first fruits of his professional success. For as long as it took him to complete his studio assignments in Hollywood, he would rent a house appropriate to his family’s needs. An energetic chatelaine, Mrs. Howard would anglicize their temporary abodes, whether decorated in Spanish, Italian Renaissance or Grand Rapids “Amurrican” syle, with reassuring English country touches–chintz, china and a profusion of flowers. It was a revolutionary gesture when in 1939, the year of Gone With the Wind, Howard acquired not one American house but two, installing his family in a small house on Camden Drive in Beverly Hills that had belonged to actress Hedy Lamarr and, with a practiced discretion, installing Violete in a somewhat smaller rented house on Beverly Drive.
If to Americans Howard was the quintessential upper-class Britisher, to his compatriots he was something of an impostor, having been born in humble circumstances to a Hungarian immigrant named Stainer and his sturdy middle-class English wife. Besides, he was an actor, and all actors are suspected of being bogus because of the ease with which they convey an air of not being bogus. It was the hard work Howard volunteered to do after the outbreak of World War II–making inspirational war films, broadcasting to America and undertaking personal appearances wherever he was called upon to do so–that worked a profound change in him. A notably diffident, crowd-hating and perennially hypochondriacal man became under the pressure of war a robust and tireless leader, of Kiplingesque gallantry and resourcefulness.
When Howard returned to England in the late summer of 1939, it was with the expectation that he would drop his family off in Surrey and then join Violette for a leisurely drive through the south of France. First the threat of war and then the start of hostilities in September altered everyone’s plans. By 1942, having been bombed out of a couple of flats in London, Howard and Violette took a small house in Stoke Poges, conveniently close to the movie studios in Denham. There Violette fell violently ill with cerebral meningitis, and in a few days she was dead. Howard never fully recovered from this devastating blow. A few months later, as a part of his hectic schedule of war activities, he consented to fly to Spain and Portugal–both neutral countries–to give some lectures on Hamlet, indirectly praising England by praising Shakespeare. On a regularly scheduled commercial flight from Portugal, his plane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by a squadron of Nazi fighter planes. It was rumored at the time that the Nazi pilots had been told that Churchill was aboard, but the rumor was obviously nonsense. The prime minister, Hitler’s implacable adversary, was not very likely to be flying with twenty or so other passengers in a slow commercial plane over enemy waters. No trace of the plane was ever found.
(Architectural Digest, April 1992)