Man and His Image, 1943

Man and His Image

Leslie Howard Left His Own Memorial in ‘Spitfire’

by Bosley Crowther

It was a truly uncanny coincidence that “Spitfire” should have opened here just a few days after it was reported that Leslie Howard, its star and producer, had been lost at sea. It was weird and justly poetic and the loss of Mr. Howard was thereby brought more poignantly home because this film , which is a quiet memorial to the designer of the famous British plane, might suitably do the same service, in the eyes of Americans, to its star. In the film, R.J. Mitchell, the designer–the role played by Mr. Howard–gives his life in perfecting the fighter that saved England in her hour of direst peril. Mr. Howard was on a mission for his government when the plane in which he traveled was shot down. In the film, Mr. Mitchell is presented as a dreamy, shy, gentle sort of chap–precisely the type of person which Mr. Howard most charmingly played.
There is always something supernatural–at least, to this writer’s mind–about an actor or actress being visible posthumously in a film. This curious feeling is accountable to the association of the image, no doubt, with the actuality of the person as he or she was known to have been. It seems that the moving image or shadow should not remain when the mortal substance that brought it to being no longer exists. This feeling is either endorsement of the illusory power of the screen or possibly it betokens the level of this writer’s mentality. But, for all that, it is a reaction which we rather suspect is common to most. And it probably is the human reflex from which “Spitfire” will now draw its most moving effect.

For actually this picture (now showing at the Rivoli) is but a fair motion picture, as motion pictures go. It is an unhurried, nonexplosive and generally sedate narrative report on a man who calmly and efficiently overcame official indifference and disdain in carrying out his dream of building, first, the speediest plane and then the fightingest one. It follows the career of Mitchell (as it is told to a bunch of RAF chaps during a rest in the Battle of Britain) from his first work on the Schneider Cup planes through his discovery that the Nazis were hammering air power and on to his death after finishing the Spitfire. And it emphasizes simply and quite modestly that this earnest, unassuming man, with his vision and inagination, was one of Britain’s immortal heroes.
There is question, first, whether Mitchell was quite the singular seer he is made to appear. Our understanding is that others in England were quite as sensitive to peril as was he, and that the Spitfire was actually designed to fulfull a semi-official request for an interceptor that would climb straight up. Mitchell didn’t have to sell it personally. At least, that’s what we understand. And, as a picture, “Spitfire” has its moments of almost tedious restraint. Apparently, Mr. Howard in making it was determined not to whoop it up, and as a consequence he leaned over backward to the point of monotony. His quiet delineation of a genius and a hero is cinematographically dull.
But that is peculiarly the quality in the picture which now gives it a strange appeal–that and the fact that fate has so recently played a final hand. For Mr. Howard’s R.J. Mitchell in “Spitfire” is mostly Mr. Howard–or the character he has often played in pictures and which we have often admired–the studious, retiring fellow of a certain melancholy turn of mind which was sweetened by a quiet sense of humor and a deep-rooted self-respect. It was he in “Of Human Bondage,” “The Petrified Forest” and “Intermezzo.” Mr. Howard played the fellow in “Pygmalion,” “Mr. V” and as Ashley Wilkes in “Gone With the Wind.” And now, to see him in “Spitfire” seems almost too relevant for chance.
For Mr. Howard’s parting as Mitchell is too much like his own exit into the blue. The final fade-out of the picture on panes winging toward the clouds is prophetic. “Spitfire” is not the last picture which Mr. Howard has made before he was listed as missing. But it is the last one that we have seen. And if he had consciously designed it, he could not have given himself a more appropriate leave.
(The New York Times, June 20, 1943)