Problems of My Four New Parts (1934)
Problems Of My Four New Parts
by Leslie Howard
in an interview with Hubert Cole
From everyday life in London to the throes of Red Revolution in Russia. From twentieth-century Russia to eighteenth-century France. From the horrors of Robespierre and the “terror” to the spacious adventures of Anthony Adverse.
That will be the sum of my year’s film trips by the end of 1934. And they say actors don’t see life!
Four films. Four entirely new settings. And each film raising a different problem that interests me as much as I hope it will interest you.
The first certainly should. It concerns every filmgoer. It sets the question of what the film producer should aim at. Whom should he try to please?
I will confess at the outset that I was, and still am, doubtful as to whether Of Human Bondage will turn out to be a great commercial success. The film is based on a novel by Somerset Maugham–his greatest work, in my opinion. The part has given me more pleasure than almost any other I have ever played.
The story tells how a shy and cultured young medical student falls in love with a waitress in a tea shop. She is an extremely cheap and nasty young woman. She is cruel to him. She leaves him for other men. She shows no consideration for his feelings whatever.
Yet his passion for her continues. It is one of those inexplicable and ill-assorted love affairs that you see so often in real life but so seldom on the screen.
It is a reversal of the accepted plot in which the man deserts the woman. We are presented with the spectacle of a woman who is always cruelly letting down a man who is so infatuated with her that he can never completely cut her out of his life.
For this reason I suspect that the picture will cause discussion. Cinema audience, brought up on the conventional plot of the strong-willed he-man who stands no nonsense from his women, may revolt against my apparent attempt to make a hero out of a weakling. They may judge it by the standards of conventional entertainment and condemn it as untrue to life.
They will be wrong if they do. And I shall still be glad of having played in the picture.
I do not believe that the sole aim of a film should be to please the average audience. It may means more profits at the moment, but it leads to suicide in the end.
Of Human Bondage has broken new ground. And that, in my view, is the one thing to aim at in making films. You may find yourself producing stuff that is just a little above the heads of an average audience, but that is a hundred times better than producing stuff that is below them.
Berkeley Square did not do particularly well as a film. Not because it was a bad film, but because it was a little too subtle in idea to appeal to every filmgoer. But even though it failed it was a gallant failure. It tried to contribute something to the ultimate advancement of the cinema.
If the cinema is to make progress it must take the risk of always being one jump ahead of the audience. It must never lag behind–that can lead only to mediocrity and decay.
British Agent, the picture that I completed after Of Human Bondage and immediately before I came to England, presented two problems. The first was one mentioned in a recent Film Weekly article–the disparity of accents between characters of supposedly different nationalities.
The picture is set in Russia during the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution. Kay Francis, as a Russian girl, spoke with her normal accentM I spoke with and English accent; other characters, representing Bolsheviks, Frenchmen, and sundry foreign ambassadors, spoke in a fine variety of tongues.
The discrepancy between English and American did not trouble us much. Americans themselves do not pay much attention to it nowadays. I have myself frequently been taken for a New Englander.
What did bother us was that some of the minor characters spoke with genuine Russian accent, while our leading lady spoke pure American.
My own suggestion was that all the characters should actually speak in the language of the country they were supposed to represent, unless they had anything of vital importance to say–in which case they would say it in broken English.
But that was considered to be too difficult, and possibly ludicrous. In the end I am afraid we arrived at the inevitable compromise–Russian crowds shouting in real Russian while other “Russian” characters delivered their lines with the intonation of Iowa.
But there was a still more important problem presented by British Agent. One that has arisen in the last five years and is growing more acute every day: where are we to get good dialogue for films?
In Of Human Bondage we had Maugham’s own dialogue. Like Galsworthy’s it is curt but full of meaning, so that the actor is given an opportunity to express character through words as well as action.
For British Agent practically all of the dialogue had to be invented. It had to be expressive without being bombastic, tense without lapsing into ludicrous melodramatics. And we had a lot of trouble getting what we required.
The arrival of talkies has made the dialogue writer of supreme importance. So why is he still the most neglected bird in the film aviary? Producers blithely spend thousands of pounds a week on salaries for stars and directors, yet seem to consider it gross extravagance to pay highly for the work of a good dialogue writer.
No director or star can make bricks without straw, and it is the dialogue writer who must provide the straw. For that reason alone I should be prepared to justify the filming of stage plays.
Berkeley Square and The Woman in His House (“The Animal Kingdom”) may have had grave weaknesses as “movies,” but they did at least provide the actor with something to say. I would rather act in a filmed play with good dialogue than in a genuine “motion picture” where the lines were hardly worth uttering.
Before I get down to the problem that is linked with The Scarlet Pimpernel, I must set your minds at rest on one important point.
The film will definitely keep to the romantic spirit of the novel. My own conception of the Scarlet Pimpernel is a sort of eighteenth-century Bulldog Drummond–a man of action who conceal his abilities behind a mask of foppishness and an apparent interest in nothing but fine clothes.
Some of the real historical personages of the time are bound to be seen in the film, and that confronted us at once with the vexed question of which are the better–historical characters of fictional?
I will say at once that I am glad Sir Percy Blakeney is nothing more than a figment of Baroness Orczy’s imagination. I shall feel much more at home in the part than if he had once really existed.
Mr. Arliss has said that he prefers to portray real personages because they offer so much material to draw from. they have spent their whole lives in creating their own characters.
For my part, I should have thought such wealth of material would have been an embarrassment rather than a help. In any case, it is impossible to give a complete portrait of a man in the hour and half that the average film lasts.
And, by sticking to fictional characters you avoid that biased prejudgement which makes people praise or blame a picture, not because it is good or bad as art or entertainment, but simply because it does or does not present a historical character as they have imagined him.
The Private Life of Henry VIII managed to “get away with” a one-sided portrait of a historical personage because it was an extraordinarily good film. But if it had been merely a moderate film it would have failed horribly. There is no middle path for the film that takes liberties with the popular conception of a great historical character.
And now for “Anthony Adverse,” which I am to make on my return to Hollywood. It is a huge book, vast both in scope and length. It immediately raises the problem of whether films should be made in standard sizes.
My own answer is a very definite No! I see no reason why a film should not run for two hours or more if the subject-matter demands it, or, on the other hand, for only half an hour if that is its natural length without padding.
The argument against it is that filmgoers insist on seeing two pictures at each performance. I’m not sure that this argument is based on the truth! So many times one’s enjoyment of a really good picture is marred by staying in the cinema and seeing an execrable “second feature” afterwards.
The system of one long picture per performance is used extensively in America. I hope it will be adopted in England, too.
“Anthony Adverse” is so long that I have suggested making it into not one film but three. Warners, on the other hand, have tentatively proposed issuing it at full length as two and a half hours’ entertainment in itself.
I rather hope they do. It’ll cause a few minor earthquakes if it does come off. We shall see!
(Film Weekly, July 20, 1934)