Leslie Howard’s Letters to His Son (1939)

Leslie Howard’s Letters to His Son

Ronald Howard, the star’s son has sent us these intimate letters from his father in Hollywood and he has added his own comments to them. It gives a more vivid portrait of Leslie Howard than any interview could do.

Leslie and Ronald Howard

Leslie Howard and his son, Ronald, at home on the veranda of their house in Surrey

My dear boy — You have been asking for some time for a Hollywood letter. You asked for all kinds of inside information that may interest readers–all kinds of spicy bits of news and other items of interest. It only just occurs to me that I know practically nothing about the place.
As a matter of fact, the Hollywood cuttings you sent me from your own newspapers in London frequently amazed me. I cannot imagine why this should be so.
I was working in a studio for months. Often I frequented such places as the “Brown Derby,” the “Trocadero” and even the Rathbones parties–but nobody told me anything. I simply never heard the inside stories, and I am amazed if not a little shocked; I even read things about myself which I am almost sure have never happened.

Well, in a way, I agree with you when you say “I read things about myself which I am almost sure have never happened.” But remember, father, don’t put too much trust in gossip-writers. Such persons are paid handsomely–to find out the truth behind the truth–odd as it sounds. Film fans, the world over are never amused by a simple bit of news about their particular idols. A “spicy” item is what they delight in. Then Hollywood encourages the gossip-hawk.
It flatters film stars to see their names mentioned–even if they are mentioned in a mildly libellous manner. That’s what publicity agents are for.
Though I sympathise with you for any highly-coloured and imaginative reports you may have read about yourself, you really must read your newspapers a bit more.

Anyway, it seems I did the following in my right months in Hollywood. I acted in the film of Gone With the Wind.
This occupied a great many months during which time I only appeared before the cameras occasionally and always seemed to be doing the same thing.
I played, in spite of my years, a handsome young southern gentleman named Ashley Wilkes–and since I have only read about two hundred of the twelve hundred pages of the book it may be said I am entirely to blame for the fact that to me Mr. Wilkes always seemed a somewhat obscure and nebulous character.
Mind you, short of finishing the novel, I did my best and I hope I have earned my pay; but there were months when I wondered greatly.
I really made an effort to penetrate the dark mystery of Mr. Wilkes.
When the picture was nearly completed I was permitted to see some fifteen edited reels. I must say it is a most impressive production. It is, for the most part, wonderfully played against a most moving panorama of the American Civil War. But I was still a little mystified by Mr. Wilkes.
This character appears for a brief scene about once every three reels–regularly announces that the old south will never be the same again, that his world has gone for ever–and then vanishes into a private limbo for another three reels.
Repeatedly throughout the film, Mr. Wilkes returns with the same lugubrious pronouncement.
The only variation to all this was my southern accent, which I suspect was not entirely consistent (the south of England crept in occasionally)–and my costume which became more and more ragged with each successive appearance. I finished up literally held together with bits of string which entirely befitted a veteran of the Confederate Army.

My dear, lugubrious Mr. Wilkes; I’m sure you must be underrating your ability. But then that’s one of your sly habits.
Forgive me for saying this, but I feel sure that although you did not read all the novel, appeared only intermittently in the film, were acutely melancholic at such time–and finished up in tatters–still I am sure there must be something encouraging that you have forgotten to tell me. You must have something up your sleeve.
I am waiting anxiously till the film comes over here–just to see what that something is.

Interspersed through the latter months of this long production I began working on another picture–Intermezzo. This was in the same studio, under the same producer, David Selznick.
Mr. Selznick had the unutterable courage to make me his associate producer–largely as a sop to my vanity because he knew I had ideas above my station. Also, I had artfully impressed him when I told him that I actually had a hand in the making of Pygmalion–which a lot of people thought was a nice film.
So I went to work on Intermezzo–a rather lovely story about the private life of a great Swedish violinist.
I had opposite me my charming friend, Edna Best, and also a very lovely and talented young Swedish actress, Ingrid Bergman. It was directed by my mad Russian friend, Gregory Ratoff, and photographed by a man whom I believe to be the greatest camera artist in the world, Gregg Toland–remember his work in Wuthering Heights?
I think you will agree, however, when you see the film, that its most impressive aspects is my violin playing. The beauty of my renderings of Grieg and Brahms  was astounding when you consider that not a sound came from the instrument while I played it!
I intend to make another film in England and, as usual, I am timing my enterprise at the worst possible moment–just as Europe is plunged in war.
I’ll tell you what my plans are when we meet.
Your affectionate father, Leslie.

Dear Papa–What an amusing letter you write. It has come like a tonic to me.
And what a courageous man Mr. Selznick must be. I should like to meet him. He might even put me in pictures–though I think his courage would become a little elastic at times.
I am longing to hear that wonderful concert violinist playing while you make the motions. Still, I am sure you are not entirely ignorant of the rudiments, viz., bowing and fingering.
Give my love to Mr. Selznick–he is a great producer. And, father, if you are conscripted, I hope we both get into the same thing, viz., the local fire brigade.
Cheerio. Your loving son, Ronald.


Leslie Howard in Intermezzo with six-year-old Ann Todd and Edna Best to whom he makes reference in his letters

Leslie Howard

A recent studio portrait of the star whose sensitive acting has won him so many admirers

(Picturegoer and Film Weekly, September 30, 1939)