Leslie Howard’s One-Man Show (1937)
Leslie Howard’s One-Man Show
“Hamlet” of the stage, debonair hero of the screen, the noted English actor turns completely small-boy as he tells you about his camera hobby
By Ruth Tildesley
A friend, stopping at the Leslie Howard house in Hollywood, had occasion to look for a handkerchief in one of his host’s bureau drawers. Instead of handkerchiefs, the drawer fairly bulged with prints of camera pictures. He sought in the rest of the drawers, but there discovered more piles of prints, more spirals of films, more strips of not-yet-enlarged Leica shots.
“But,what do you do with your shirts and ties ?” he demanded, mystified, when the actor had come to his rescue with the needed linen.
“Oh, Mrs. Howard sees to that, I don’t know. I need this space for my pictures !” returned Mr. Howard.
He took trunkloads of camera pictures with him to England, where they are permanently installed in the Howard homestead, but already the new Hollywood domicile is overflowing with results of recent Howard-Leica excursions.
The new home is. not three minutes from the heart of Hollywood, but once inside the gates you’d never suspect that you were within a hundred miles of the roaring town. The stucco house, with its flat roofs and arched windows, is set into the side of a hill that rises from the dark green of fir trees to the blue of the sky. Yucca, those “candles of the Lord,” dot the upper slopes.
Below the driveway is the swimming pool, flower rimmed, with a stone terrace above the dressing-rooms, gay with yellow furniture, tilted sun-umbrellas, and water-proofed swings.
And here was Leslie Howard, slender and sunburned, in blue bathing trunks, dark glasses, and a gold medal suspended on a thin gold chain.
“Nice place for pictures,” he commented, with a glance at the sunlit panorama around us. “Eventually, you know, I should get something rather interesting here.”
The important thing about a house, I gathered, was that he should be able to make pictures around it.
“I had cameras long before I thought of going into motion pictures,” he said. “I suppose the reason anyone goes in for cameras is because he can’t make pictures with oils or charcoal or watercolors. As a child, I wanted to be an artist; but as I grew up I hadn’t the time or opportunity to devote myself to it, so I did the next best thing and made my pictures with a lens.
“Leicas, or other miniature cameras, seem the best for my purpose because of the swiftness of the lens. It takes motion picture film, too, which is the best there is, and you needn’t stop
to reload every few minutes. “I prefer to do my own printing, but it can’t be managed very well while I’m travelling and living in rented houses; still, I do my best with the chaps who take care
of my work, explaining what I want. Sometimes they get the idea, sometimes not. In this picture of my daughter and myself against the Washington monument, I had to have them print it three times before they understood that I wanted us in silhouette against the pure white of the monument.
From a crammed suitcase beside him the actor selected a print of little Leslie, his daughter. “I set the camera for that shot and had a friend make it for us, and I like the result.
“My child had never flown up to that time and she wanted so much to go somewhere in a plane, so one day while I was doing ‘Hamlet’ in New York, I decided to take her to Washinsgton by air. She was thrilled with her trip and with our sightseeing, and especially so with the fact that we could fly back New York in plenty of time for the performance.
“Here’s a shot I made of her looking up at the statue of Lincoln. It isn’t so good in composition as others I made of the statue itself, but I like the human interest note of the child looking up.”
The contents of the suitcase were augmented by numerous envelopes containing enlargements of prints, some done with etching masks that turned the prints into what seemed to be hand-made sketches.
Yes, one of these days there is to be a One Man Show of the Howard camera studies. So many people have urged it that it is now beginning to seem a good idea.
The prints in Screenland can, of course, only give you a faint idea of the finished beauty of the pictures.
“As a rule,” my host observed, elbow-deep in his scattered prints, “I don’t care for pictures made on Hollywood sets. There’s something so patently ‘picture’ about them, and pretty girls and handsome men don’t interest me. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was different. It lent itself to the sort of thing I like. For example, this shot is authentically Italian. You could believe you were in Italy rather than on a set.” He extended a print of tables, glasses, shadows on an ancient wall.
“The shadows beyond the extra girl in costume make this one interesting, the informality of the group of extras, in this; the face of the old woman in the foreground of this one; the feeling of the period in some of the others. But a production like this is rare.
“While I was touring with ‘Hamlet,’ I used to try to get shots from the wings, or to have someone shoot from the house while I was on the stage (after I’d set the camera and arranged the angle and so on), but I doubt if they are light enough for reproduction. They enlarge beautifully, though, and I hope to use a few of them in my ‘show.’
“I made a number of shots on the special train we used during the tour, using no light except that coming through the windows. I rather like this study of a friend about to order a meal. He didn’t
know what was happening until I shot, which explains his expression.
“Self-consciousness, of course, is the foe of cameramen. It will be nice when they perfect something that will take excellent pictures when the subject is unaware. I’ve just bought my child one of those tiny things you can hold in your hand, unobtrusively, but I doubt if the lens is fine enough for my purpose.
“I remember, several years ago, they got out a camera in the form of a watch; when you wound the stem you got your picture and anyone noticing you thought you merely had an odd time-piece. But the lens wasn’t quick enough. Unless you told them to ‘hold it,’ your subjects moved and ruined the shot.
“Now they have a gadget you can put on your little Leica, so that you can seem to be looking one way, while you take a picture at right angles. I might seem to be looking up at the house, while actually I was stealing a picture of you, at my right.
“However, my problems aren’t usually concerned with people. They are mainly composition, catching moving objects or birds in flight, finding the best spot for my city shots, and so on.
“In these shots of sea gulls, we were up at the top floor of a high building in San Francisco, throwing bread up in the air to attract the gulls, who swooped and flew after it.” The enlargements of these shots show enven the detail of color in the wings.
“I always use filters outdoors. When I wish to make what will seem to be a night shot, in moonlight, I take a dark red filter. Here are some rather dramatic shots of the sea breaking against rocks in what appears to be moonlight.
“An orang or yellow filter is best, I find, for ordinary daytime shots. It takes away the glare and gives you the detail of cloud or shadow. My Bermuda and San Francisco shots were done with orange filters. The sun in Bermuda is so intense that even with the filter the walls are too white. This shot of San Francisco, taken from the roof of a building on one of the highest hills, is my pet. See the puffs of cloud, the bridge in the distance, and the shadows on the streets!”
It takes patience to make pictures. One day, the actor lay down close to the sand on the beach for hours waiting for just the right wave to break on the shore, so that the composition of his picture–one of black rock, yellow sand, blue serene sky and white breakers–would suit him.
“The idea in making a picture is to get a mood, sometimes. Take these shots made at Hugh Walpole’s home in the English lake country. It rained all the time we were there, and the country seemed sad, sometimes ominous, sometimes desolate-looking, sometimes almost terrifying. This one of my son, armed like a real Howard with his own camera, enlares with an almost Bronte feeling.
“This shots of my home town, Dunster, are definetely English, but somehow in Hollywood they look like shots on a motion picture set. This is true of the view of Linton, with the castle in the distance, but the shot with the water in the foreground loses that false feeling.”
Shooting against the sun on a bright day will give you interesting results. One of the actor’s favorite pictures is taken outside the special train for “Hamlet” company, in late afternoon, at a midwestern stop, whn the combination of snow, train smoke, and exhaust steam gives someting delightfully different.
A red filter used on the snow scenes from the train window gives the right contrast to the water and shadows, the expert explained. Etching masks on such scenes do wonders for the picture.
“I like the mood of this shot of New York, amde from the top deck of our boat as we came in. It was foggy and the city looks like something imagined instead of something real.”
Just now, Mr. Howard’s fancy has turned to color film to be projected on a screen, since as yet no process of printing has been found satisfactory.
“The problems of composition are not the same as those of the black-and-white picture. It’s like turning from the charcoal sketching to water colors or oils. It’s interesting. I’m sorry Screenland can’t see my desert flowers, or some of the San Francisco water shots. Better than technicolor; much better.”
(Screenland, November 1937)