Leslie Howard’s Bitter Triumph (1939)

Leslie Howard’s Bitter Triumph

by May Mann

Extravagant with praise and exuberant with admiration were the milling throngs that crowded about Leslie Howard at the preview theatre. Across the marquee gigantic letters flamed out the name of the picture Pygmalion.
Few knew how long Leslie Howard had awaited this moment. It was to be the climax of an ambition overpowering all others, even stardom and international fame.
On every side actors, critics and public talked excitedly. A great picture, a great actor, a great performance, they said!
Leslie stood listening, anxiously searching each face, hopefully waiting to hear something that as yet had remained unsaid. While he accepted the hand-shakes, the compliments, disappointment settled in his smile. In the midst of it, he shrugged his shoulders, as though admitting defeat, and walked away.
But why?
Lavish and profuse was the praise of the well wishers, so how could they realize they had failed him! Their homage had been given to Howard, the actor. They had forgotten Howard, the director!
Leslie Howard directed Pygmalion with the one great hope that it would establish him as a director and producer. Instead it defeated his primary interest and added another laurel to his acting ability.
Unthinkable as it seems, Leslie Howard, at the very height of his screen career, would gladly relinquish stardom to produce and direct.
If the choice were his, he would gladly withdraw into the shadows of cinema making and direct others. But neither the public nor the studios will listen. Proving his ability in Pygmalion was to little avail. It was Leslie Howard the actor they applauded.
Why should Leslie Howard turn his back on success when he is box-office? Only after popularity has passed, do matinee idol step out of the spotlight. Why does Leslie Howard choose to withdraw into the background where his name will only flash for a brief second as “Leslie Howard, director?”
“I would gladly leave acting in a minute if I could get the studios to believe in me,” Leslie told me the other night. “I’ve always wanted to direct and produce motion pictures. But they always say, ‘Why, directing requires a genius, a man of rare intelligence and creative ability–while an actor merely reproduces what someone else has already done!”
“They’re right, of course, but ever since I’ve been an actor I’ve wanted to get my hands on a picture and do it my way. I worked very hard on Pygmalion. It will prove that I have creative ability, I thought. If it is a big success, the studios will want me to make pictures for them. They will see my work and recognize my ability.
“But what happened? The critics talked about my acting. The studios offered me pictures to act in.
“So now I’ll have to show them again what I can do. It takes a great amount of patience, doesn’t it?
“If I didn’t have my family depending on me, I would have given up acting long ago. This however, I could not do. I had accustomed my wife and children to a certain standard of living, nice homes, cars, polo ponies, luxuries. I’ve had to act to earn money to fill my responsibilities. Money has never meant much to me as an individual. But I have no right to deny those whom I love when it is within my means to provide for them.”
It is probably natural that a man of Leslie Howard’s intelligence would like to produce his own ideas. But the public which demanded that he play Ashley in Gone With the Wind will keep him on the screen. His versatility as an actor is unquestioned. At forty he played Romeo to the entire satisfaction of the severest of critics. His voice registers 99 per cent sex appeal, which appeals directly to women. Society dowagers have been known to wait at the stage door to present him with flowers.
“When I want to please myself, when I feel that I must do something creative, then I return to the theatre and do a play,” Leslie says.
“In motion pictures an actor is merely a puppet before a camera. A director tells him what to do. He is handed some lines to read. He gets up like a child and faces the camera and says them. He has little or no control of the situation or what he says or does.
“A movie player does what he is told, what’s expected of him. He portrays an emotion as the director interprets it. He is not swept by a sustaining emotion but turns it on and off for a dozen retakes. He can not walk freely, as on the stage, but only on the measured line in the camera angle.
“The producer and the director are the artists, for they have to control each step of the production. They are the captains; we actors are the crew. Naturally, like any man in any profession, I want to advance. I want to be captain.
“I want to make pictures the way I feel they should be made. I can if I can control them. I demonstrated this to some extent in Pygmalion. I will again in my current picture Intermezzo in which I will act, because the studio says I must, but on which I am associate producer with David Selznick. This job is very important to me. When this picture is previewed, I hope to hear praise for the production. I hope the critics will mention me as associate producer.
“No real actor ever comes to Hollywood for his art. An actor expresses artistry in the theatre. That is why so many of us continually return to the stage. We must create something real.
“Now let me tell you something that few actors have the nerve to admit. Actors only come to Hollywood for one reason–money! they can tell you they come for their art. But don’t let them fool you. They come for money and money alone!
“I have just finished Gone With the Wind in which I played a small part. Everyone seemed anxious that I play Ashley and so I did.
“I will finish Intermezzo for Selznick by fall. Then I shall return to England to start work on my own production, The Man Who Lost Himself, at our London Studios. Again I will have to act in this picture. But I will produce it. We have three others ready for production which I will either direct of produce. If the latter three are box-office successes and the studios acknowledge me as a director-producer, then I hope to retire as an actor!”
The next day this interviewer stopped at the studio to see how a star-director-producer worked. Leslie telephoned that he would be there shortly. Production was to start on Intermezzo. The telephone in his office rang continually. The wardrobe department asked approval on costumes. The art director wanted Mr. Howard’s okay on a set. The assistant to Leslie’s agent was pacing the floor, because Leslie was due for a five o’clock national broadcast, and the studio, not notified, was holding him for scenes.
The little dark-haired secretary was constantly consulting the little blond secretary at his home, checking and rechecking Leslie’s schedule for the day. “Did Mr. Howard know that he was expected at David Niven’s cocktail party at five?” And the agent, overhearing, croaked, “Did anyone know that Mr. Howard was expected on the radio at five?”
Finally Leslie came dashing in, took a look about and listened while everyone talked at once. He was due for a story conference; he was expected for a radio rehearsal, and Mrs. Howard was entertaining guests for dinner at eight. Would he autograph a stack of pictures for fan requests? They were waiting for him down on the set to do a re-take on Gone With the Wind.
Leslie looked amused, sat down at his desk and yawned. “Relax everyone.”
“But I can’t, Mr. Howard,” the agent’s assistant gasped. “If you don’t go on this broadcast two hours and 38 minutes from now, you’ll be sued. the studio will not let you go. It’s my fault I know, because I didn’t get a release before signing the contract with the radio people–but what in the name of heaven shall I do?”
“Perhaps we’d better call Mr. Selznick and explain that if I’m going to be sued I’ll have to make my expenses a bit more on this picture to take care of it,” Leslie replied with a wink.
Leslie calmly telephoned Selznick while the agent’s assistant muttered something about the whole place being a mad house.
Explaining in detail over the telephone, Leslie finally smoothed the matter. He would be on the broadcast, for he’d obtained an hour and a half away from the studio.
In this new role of producer, director and star, Leslie Howard is perhaps the busiest man in pictures. He attends to the hundred and one details on his pictures–okaying scripts, costumes, bills. Then he snatches a few moments to go over his own lines before facing the cameras. Leslie admits that doing three jobs is confining.

(Screen Book, October 1939)