Leslie Howard’s Triumph (1935)

Leslie Howard’s Triumph

He is a New Man–a Real Man in “The Scarlet Pimpernel”

says Patricia Hill

I went to see Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel, wondering a little what I should find. The slight, fair-haired hero of a dozen films and all the massed womanhood of Britain and, especially, America, seemed so out of place in the rôle of a man of action. I expected a nice gentle and very refined “Pimpernel”–hardly the ideal character for Leslie Howard.
In short, I expected the perfect gentleman–and I found the perfect man.
That is the vital change that this latest of his rôles has wrought in Leslie Howard. He comes to us as “The Scarlet Pimpernel”–gay, active, alive. He has won for himself a unique place in the hearts of women film “fans” (men do not think much of him) in Britain and, more especially, in America. Every woman in these millions has had the same feeling about him after watching his screen and stage performances–they wanted to “mother” him. His was no dominion built up on strong-hearted sex-appeal; it was the appeal of a son to a mother which had raised him to stardom. That is why all men, and a few women, found him a little colourless and wondered vaguely what there was about him which made other people so rapturous.
To these men and women the new Leslie Howard will be a revelation. Something has brought a virile manliness into his acting. He is essentially the dominant male– a commanding presence even in the passages which call upon him to appear foppish and inane. These he plays with a cutting humour–an acid, steel-like quality that is quite new in him. Very different from the best Leslie Howard rôle of the past, which I personally hold to be his Service for Ladies, a British picture made nearly three years ago.
How I should like to study the faces of all those “mothering” millions as they come out of the cinemas after having seen the new Leslie. There will be a faint air of surprise, a little bewilderment– but also a pleased sense of the fresh quality they have discovered in their idol.
It is not hard to prophesy that Leslie Howard, from being just one of the stars, will leap to the position of the star of the year when this picture is released.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is a film of action and adventure–colourful, swift, exciting. It has a strong story. It is ideal film material. All this we sill admit and all will agree when they see it. But those “mothering millions” were dubious when the news was first announced that Leslie Howard had been cast for the title rôle. Their gentle, passive Leslie would surely never be a man of action, a vigorous leader. They grieved a little, fearful for the loss of favour which they felt sure would attend his attempt on such a character.

They thought of the tender, passionless little love scenes he played in earlier shows. They thought of his fine talent for portraying nobility and the endurance of suffering. They, who had watched him through misty eyes in rôle after saddened rôle, whose hearts had bled for his wonderfully acted sorrows–they could not visualize their hero as a conqueror.
Their view of him was as the hero of Berkeley Square. Do you remember that story, with its wistful appeal, its haunting air of melancholy? It gave the old Leslie Howard–the “very perfect, gentle knight”–his ideal part. His brilliant acting, so finished, so quiet, so restrained, fulfilled the rôle to perfection. It seemed right that he should live for a long-dead love, worshipping a shadow with the faint drift of lavender perfume across his memory.
Berkeley Square was a beautiful story and Leslie Howard played it–beautifully.
The changed, triumphant Leslie will be rather a shock for his admirers. But it is a shock that will please them mightily–though it will puzzle them–as it is already puzzling everyone.
Tribute is due to Alexander Korda. His casting (violently criticized at the time) proved nothing but a stroke of genius. To his supervision and to the direction of Harold Young there must be due acknowledgement–Which Leslie himself will be the first to render.
Yet this great change–this blossoming forth into an entirely fresh coat of many colours–goes farther than any outside influence. It proves a change in Leslie Howard himself. Something has awakened him. something has taken his charm and charged it with fire. He has grown up to full manhood.
The Leslie of the old days–the Leslie Howard of Service for Ladies, Berkeley Square, Of Human Bondage–was off the screen as wholly delightful as he was on it. He was the most restful man in pictures. Chatting to him, on the set, you had the impression that he quite enjoyed his acting. It was all good fun. Yet, you felt, rather than saw, a gentle mocking smile at the corners of his mouth. He seemed always detached from the hurly-burly that is filmland.
Striking–and so very unlike many stars–was his consistent refusal ever to discuss other film artistes and their little ways. He would smile with all that elusive, negative charm of his and gently turn the question away; waving instead an airy hand at the weather, chatting about his house or his health–or yours. It was all done with such ease, such utter simplicity that it forebode a renewal of the topic. And thus he preserved that air of remoteness and remained outside the gossip and the scandals and the sometimes petty quarrels that go to make up the little world of films and their makers.
He has been in pictures, but never “of” them. You felt he was a little detached–longing to be away with his family and the son of whom he is so very proud. In Hollywood it was his delight to leave the studios and make a bee-line for the shore, there to lie for lazy hours in the golden sunshine. Always a little lackadaisical, you found it difficult to take him seriously. It was better just to enjoy his company and surrender to his charm.

Only his polo belied this attitude. For polo is anything but the game for a lackadaisical man. It is of all games (and I include American football) the toughest. It demands strength, fearless determination, swift decision and swifter action. And there was a riddle for you… Leslie Howard, lazily climbing into the saddle and, one minute later, Leslie Howard playing polo–a demon of speed.
It betrayed the real man–the passion for the game. It proved that the lazy smiling charm hid power, and a fire which nothing else had managed to kindle. Once, in a West End restaurant, I heard a young man say as he danced past Leslie’s supper-table: “I can’t understand what all those women see in Leslie Howard.” And I caught the glint of amusement in those very blue eyes of his.
And now something has kindled that fire in him. He moves, laughs, acts with a fresh abandon and a refreshing vigour through the whole of The Scarlet Pimpernel. His love-making has a new urgent note no it. His hatred is played more bitterly.
Watch his passages with Merle Oberon… dark, vibrant–most promising of Britain’s young actresses. You will see the fire burning most brightly then…

(Film Pictorial, January 12, 1935)

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