Romeo at Home, 1936
Romeo at Home
by C.A.L. (from the Observer, London Independent Conservative Sunday Newspaper)
IF YOU want to talk to Leslie Howard, screen star of The Scarlet Pimpernel and the newly-finished Romeo and Juliet, and stage Hamlet of the coming New York season, you must go down into the leafier lanes of Surrey to find him. If you have to take local bearings—and you may, for this is one of the little villages that are still inconsequentially buried at the end of nowhere—it is wiser not to ask for the house of Mr. Howard, the actor. They only know two actors thereabouts. One is ‘a Mr. Charles Haughton,’ who lives some way off, on a hill, and the other is Mr. Sydney Howard, the comedian. Leslie Howard is simply known locally as the mad fellow with the polo ponies. He has sixteen of them, six recently brought over from America with a Californian polo-player and a Texan cowboy to train them. When I arrived the lane outside his house was blocked by boys with delivery bicycles, women in aprons, an ice-cream cart, a couple of tradesmen’s vans, half a dozen snorting horses, and a snaky dark motorcar, with a left-hand drive, standing negligently across the road, while the whole Howard household turned out to catch a brown mare that had gone berserk.
Mr. Howard himself, looking, oddly improbable in light sweater and leather chaps, sat his horse in silence and watched while the Texan, with professional ‘Ho yo!’ and ‘Ho, girl!’ tried to rope the brown mare. Mr. Howard was worried. The other horses were getting too excited. There was a mare in the next field with a young foal, tossing her head nervously, neighing and cantering.
When the brown mare was finally caught and saddled Leslie Howard disappeared. He has a way of silently disappearing. He does it on the studio lot, and is usually discovered at last, far away, reading, or asleep in somebody’s car. All his comings and goings have a kind of appealing inconsequence. You somehow expect his talk to be equally, inconsequential, and it is one of his characteristic anomalies that when he does talk about work he talks with complete authority.
I found that with surprise on the day of my visit. When at last he reappeared from the paddock and dropped into a chair beside me in the sunny garden, he was suddenly and practically a man of the theater, an actor of experience and precision. Where I had anticipated vagueness, he was definite. He talked with certitude, and about things he knew. We began, naturally, with Romeo and Juliet, the film he has just finished in Hollywood with Norma Shearer. ‘Would the public like it better than A Midsummer Night’s Dream ?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know what they’re going to say about Romeo. It’s very fine, a beautifully produced picture; much more Shakespearean than the Dream. But then I think the Dream is one of the worst Shakespearean plays, anyway. Fantasy is always bad to act, and Shakespearean corned y isn’t understood nowadays, and when you have both together you’re headed for trouble. Now, Romeo is the ideal Shakespearean play for the screen. It’s a great show and a great romance, and the screen is always supposed to be the most romantic of mediums.’
‘ Somebody told me,’ I said,’ that Thalberg used five hundred pigeons and a herd of goats for the scene in the square. Doesn’t that sort of thing upset Shakespeare a little?’
‘Of course, Hollywood’s cardinal sin is over-elaboration and extravagance; but so long as film producers are going to do everything realistically . . .’
‘ Certainly not, but they have done it with such elaboration and for so long that it’s going to be a bit hard to break the habit now. With Romeo, in particular, the whole canvas is so rich by nature that if you’re going to treat it realistically, you might as well be lavish—let your square in Verona be a square in Verona, turn your feuds loose in it, have great masses and a sense of busy life—500 pigeons if you want them—and beautiful dances, pavanes and passacaglias. The whole film is a curious combination of magnitude and intimacy. You see, that thing about background—on the stage, as you say, an enormous background would smother the play. But on the screen you can take the background right away at any moment and it becomes an intimate study of two people . .
‘ For instance, the farewell scene after their night together. The room in half darkness, Juliet still lying on the bed, Romeo turning towards the window, and the bird’s song outside—the intimacy of that scene is perfectly amazing. By the way, we learnt that there’s one kind of Shakespearean line that is wonderful on the screen—the quiet, philosophic line, and particularly the soliloquies. You can play them as low as you like, whisper them, and the effect is right. On the stage you always lose a little because you have to speak them sharply.’
I asked him if he thought Romeo a good actor’s part, and he told me, terrible.
‘ I always thought it was a perfectly deadly part, except in the later scenes, where Romeo was something more than just a man in love. A man in love is a stupid thing—he bores you stiff, in real life or anywhere else; but a woman in love is fascinating—she has a kind of aura. Shakespeare was obviously fascinated by Juliet, and it was the woman he enriched. Romeo acquires something in the later scenes, when he becomes the victim of a political feud, and in his tragic moments he’s rather interesting—a kind of adolescent Hamlet. But in the early parts of the play he’s an awful bore. That’s where the film script is so good. It cuts those early scenes ruthlessly.
‘I really took the part,’ he added, ‘because they sent me this wonderful script to read. I had turned Romeo down half-a-dozen times, but now he seemed interesting to me for the first .time in my life., No more of the Rosaline business. He jumps in quickly, without any mooning about. Some of the wordless sequences, too, are quite electrifying. The scene -where Romeo is looking for Tybalt to kill him, after-“Thy beauty hath made me effeminate.” Suddenly galvanized, he picks up the sword Mercutio has dropped, rushes through the alleys where the life of the town is going on, women shopping, builders working, and spies him in a wine booth drinking with the rest of the Capulet gang. He stops dead and shouts the man’s name “Tybalt!”—and by that time the audience is on its toes, ready for anything. That’s a scene you can only do in pictures, and they’ve done it beautifully.’
‘ So in the end you came to like Romeo ?’
‘ It was a very good experience for me, anyway. I’m doing Hamlet in the theater this autumn, and I thought I’d better see what sort of Shakespearean actor I should make. The screen, isn’t really an actor’s medium at all, though,’ he added. ‘It’s a very fascinating medium for producer and director. People like Korda and Thalberg get the best thing out of pictures. Quite frankly, if I had to go on year after year acting in one picture after another, without any control over the direction . . . ‘
There was a whinny from the paddock. Leslie Howard tried hard to ignore it.
‘That’s Sally,’ he said, smiling. ‘She’s jealous of the new mares— thinks^ they’re going to hurt her baby. Mm—what was I saying? Yes! If you can control your own pictures, it becomes interesting . . .’
Another whinny, more excited. Mr. Howard got up. .’Funny things, horses,’ he was saying as he drifted away. The interview was over. He was gone.
(The Living Age, August 1936)