Problems of an Actor’s Private Life! (1935)
Problems of an Actor’s Private Life!
By B. F. Wilson
Leslie Howard came into the room. He had just been for a long stroll in Central Park. He wore the traditional Englishman’s idea of a proper walking costume, consisting of a sweater under the coat of his suit; no top-coat, of course; no hat, and heavy brown suede oxfords. With his pipe clenched between his teeth, he must have aroused no little curiosity as he walked down Fifth Avenue. Pedestrian probably took him for “another of those health nuts.”
Certainly as one saw him, one would never have connected him with the theatre. Here is no handsome matinée idol, I thought as I watched him move about the room. No swash-buckling romantic figure to speed up the feminine pulse. You would never suspect him of being in the same category with Clark Gable, with his lure of good looks. Or Ronald Colman and his fascination of sophisticated charm. Or Maurice Chevalier with his obvious sex appeal. Or any of the other famous screen idols. I saw before me just an ordinary young man with an intelligent face.
And yet, over on Broadway his name was bringing joy to the box -office not only of the theatre in which he was scoring the biggest hit of the current season in a play called “The Petrified Forest,” but also to the largest motion picture palace in the world, where his latest screen vehicle, “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” was drawing unmitigated praise from all who saw it.
He sat down in an arm-chair and proceeded to polish his horn-rimmed glasses. They make him look like a student. The dark color of the rims accents the blueness of his eyes, and the blondness of his closely-cropped, curly hair. Always slight of figure, his recent ill-health had lightened his weight until now he was thin to the point of emaciation.
“The chief problem for an actor who is married and has children, is a home,” he said. “Take my own case. My work calls for me to live in three places: England, Hollywood, and New York. For the past ten years, I have shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic so many times, I’ve lost count.”
His expression grew quite serious as he got up from his chair to walk around the room. He always thinks better on his feet. His thoughts and ideas seem to flow more easily, he say.
“Now I have very strong views about children. To my mind, they fulfill a human need that no other substitute can provide. There is something so definite, so final about having children. They are a tie to life that exists for all time–not just a day or a month. It’s putting the root of yourself into the earth, and knowing that you will go on forever. Do you see what I mean?” he demanded earnestly.
The most stupid listener could have seen that he wasn’t talking for effect. The coldness of the printed word can no more convey the warmth and sincerity of his speech than a rose can bloom on an iceberg!
“For years, my own children have provided me with a definite interest that is more important than any other factor in my life. I have a boy sixteen who is in school in England. I am very keen about the fact that he wants to be a writer. He has turned out a lot of stuff–poetry, essays, and stories. Some of them quite good, too. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he did write eventually, and uncommonly well.”
“Leslie, the girl, is ten. She’s my favorite, and the most wonderful companion any one could possibly want. She’ll probably go on the stage when she grows up–there are certain definite signs of a theatrical tendency already.”
The grin on his face was the fond, foolish one of any proud father. “I spend all my time with her when I am at home,” he continued. “She’s a fine little athlete. Jumps, rides, swims, dives, plays a good game of tennis, and is now learning to play polo.
“You see, up until two years ago when I bought the place in Surrey, she had been living an awful life for a child. Boats, hotels, or apartments taken on a temporary basis. When I first came over here to play on the stage, we took a house down at Great Neck, Long Island, and put the children in school there. Then I had to go back to London to work, and of course, the whole family went with me. The boy’s education didn’t suffer so much, for he was old enough to send away to school; but the girl’s bringing-up became my chief worry. From London to Hollywood is a long trek for a child; and so about two years ago I decided tat I’d have to do something about the situation, and we looked around for a suitable place which we could make a permanent home for the children.
“I found an Elizabethan cottage about an hour’s ride from London down in Surrey. There’s thirty acres of ground around it, and I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun in all my life as I got out of fixing the place over. We put in modern bathrooms–it was an old farm-house before, and of course it had no modern conveniences–and knocked some of the small rooms together to make larger ones, and we started new gardens, and cleared up the grounds, and built some new stables. We have a few horses, and Leslie and I use them every day, rain or shine.”
As he talked, growing quite lyrical in the description of his home, the enthusiasm of his voice broke through British reserve, and a new Leslie Howard appeared. One lost complete sight of the great artist, the player who has been applauded on both sides of the Atlantic, and one saw instead the family man. The undercurrent of his words was triumph–triumph in the achievement of a long-felt ambition. That of acquiring a home! Through the colorful pattern of his words you could sense the great longing for a real home that had consumed him all his life. You could feel the vision of Leslie Howard as a young bank clerk, coming up to London from the country to make a living. The same vision floating before the eyes of the lonely soldier he was, fighting throughout the war; and after it was over, finding himself, like so many ex-service men without a job.
When he came out of the army, he was already a married man, having met his wife on his first leave of absence from the front. The problem of earning a living at that time was causing great anxiety to more than one war-time couple; and for a while, things were pretty bad for Leslie and his young bride.
He had always liked the theatre. He knew one or two of the players, and somehow through these contacts he managed to get a job with an unimportant road company touring the provinces. He covered most of the English countryside in the next few years, playing usually small roles in the old-time favorites like “Charley’s Aunt” and “Peg o’ My Heart.” (Can you imagine anything more delightfully incongruous than the super-exquisite “Scarlet Pimpernel” playing “Charlie’s Aunt”?)
His success in London, when he finally managed to reach there, is theatrical history. But he feels that his finest triumphs have been achieved right here in New York.
“No other city has ever been as wonderful to me as this place,” he said. “Right from the beginning, when I came over here in 1921, the people here seemed to take me right to their hearts. I can never repay my indebtedness to this city; and yet–I have to give up–to stop working here!”
It seemed incredible to me to hear an actor making such a statement when at that very moment his success was outstanding in the city he thus renounced.
“I mean it,” he said firmly. “I’ve had to make up my mind to cut it out. A man can only do so much, and no more. I’ve nearly killed myself trying to live and work in three different centers.
“It’s not good enough! I’ve been playing steadily for eighteen years. There comes a time in any man’s life–if he has any sense–when he wakes up to the fact that life is slipping away fast, and he begins to want other things than success. I want to learn something about the fine art of living. To enjoy my home. Sunshine. Sports. Relaxation with friends. I want to have a little fun. I’ve never really played–perhaps I’ve begun too late–I don’t know just how to play now. Just how to have fun. But I do want to find time to do some of the interesting things in the world–not just hack, day in and day out–year after year!”
His voice lost the almost fiercely earnest tone behind the words he had just spoken, as he thought of a new angle.
“I admire the true dilettante,” he said. “He knows how to get the most out of life. He probably knows the real essence of living. Take Korda, the director-producer, for example. He is the real exquisite, the super-civilized human being. The reason that the characterization of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” turned out as well as it did, is solely because Korda is Sir Percy in actuality. ‘I don’t feel a bit lide working today,’ he would say right in the middle of shooting an important scene. ‘It’s such a divine day! All of you go home. I’m going to the country!’ And the fact that it was costing about several thousand dollars made no difference. Work is far less important to him than catching the supreme enjoyment of a mood or a moment!”
I wish you could have seen the bit of acting accompanying the above reference to Korda. Sir Percy in the flesh stood before me; and the airy wave of his hand–the use of the battered old pipe in place of the lorgnette–the lazy, languid yawn behind the genteel fingers–all these were miniature masterpieces of acting.
“Do you know what John Barrymore said after he had played ‘Hamlet’ one hundred times?” continued Howard. “He said ‘Nuts! I can make all the money I want if I go to Hollywood, and at the same time live exactly the kind of life I’ve always wanted to live. This business of being the greatest actor on the stage is all very fine, but what does it get me? Work, work and more work! That’s all!’–and that is exactly the reason that John gave up playing on the stage and went to the movies. Now he has a yacht! And that’s how I feel about it,” said Leslie sincerely.
“I have no personal ambition any more. That sort of thing is part of one’s youth. But I’m past the stage where I’m willing to slave with all my strength just for the sake of the big thrill of an opening night. That’s what it really amounts to! When that first night is over, and the excitement and tense anticipation of finding out just how good you are in the part have gone, the rest becomes slavery. You go on and on, doing the same thing night after night, forever and ever if the play’s a hit, until the monotony of it gets unbearable.
“I shall keep on working, of course,” continued Mr. Howard, serenely impervious to the fact that he had uttered any unusual sentiment. “My contract calls for one picture a year to be made in Hollywood. I like the arrangement. Because I like Hollywood. Living there in the sunshine. I shall take about four months out of every year for my work on the coast. Then back to England where I shall make at least one, or perhaps two pictures a year for Korda. Also, I can do a stage play in London without having to give up my home life.
“New York distracts me to the point of desperation. I hate living in hotels. You have to make such an extraordinary effort to have any fun in New York unless you have a home here. Otherwise, it’s devastating! Night clubs, cafés, hotels–that’s all one can do for amusement. It bores me to death! I want to live in a place where I can do other things besides sitting in a smoky, noisy room, drinking uncertain liquor. I want to be with my children–to have my own things around me; my books, my own personal belongings, a chair that I am particularly fond of, an etching that belongs to me, that I like to look at. A horse to jump on if I feel like riding. The fresh country air, the sun. I am a sun-worshipper by nature, and if I have to do without it for any length of time it makes me feel all withered and shrivelled up!
“You know,” he said, a trifle sadly, “I’ve just walked up to another important fact which has made me change my ideas about working so hard. And that is, that the day for building up big fortune is gone–finished–pfft! I’ve gone on slaving away, year in year out, with one idea in mind. When I’ve saved up enough of all this money that’s pouring in I can stop, and enjoy life for the rest of my days, besides leaving a goodly bit for the kids’ future. Now with the government taking away about two-thirds of everything I earn, I feel that it’s perfectly silly to keep on as I did before. I have to pay two governments. Naturally, being an English citizen, and property owner over there, they have an income tax for everything I make. They also feel that they are entitled to a tax on what I earn in America. The United States quite rightly feels entitled to taxing my salary coming from American dollars. By the time the two countries are through with my annual income, I’ve very little left towards founding a fortune! So there you are!
“So I shall keep on working, of course,” he added, “just as long as I can. And eventually grow into another George Arliss, or someone like that. But I shall also try to learn how to play a little. To get a little real fun out of my life.”
He smiled, the most impish, saturnine grin one could hope to see. The twinkle in his eyes was positively sardonic. “It’s a pity that having a little fun is such a complicated business,” he said; and I’m still trying to guess the answer!
(Screenland, July 1935)