The Unconventional Mr. Howard (1939)
The Unconventional Mr. Howard
Who casually defies customs and achieves a brilliant success
by Bruce Barrett
Of all the stars in town, Leslie Howard, the blond English star of Pygmalion and the Ashley Wilkes of Gone With The Wind, is probably the most interesting and the most complex.
The day I interviewed him he carried on the interview to the accompaniment of a muted violin. You see, he is playing a violinist in his latest picture, lntermezzo, at Selznick International Studios. Some stars balk when it comes to interviews. They shy away with astounding rapidity when you question them about themselves. But not Leslie. He loves to psychoanalyze himself, and his own findings give him plenty of amusement.
Of course, I didn’t know this at first. “Leslie,” I began cautiously, “why do you like to wear informal clothes, disregarding matching colors and conventional attire?”
“I blame it on California,” he answered in between thrusts with his bow on the violin strings. “California demands informality. Clothes a person would wear here wouldn’t be at all suitable in New york or London. For example, I like to wear a one-piece shirt and trouser outfit. It really fits into the swing of things here. It expresses the lackadaisical mode
of living, and it stresses comfort about appearance. Of course, I must admit I got the idea for such an outfit by living in England as long as I have. There, men start wearing grey flannels and sport coats when they enter college. And they go on wearing that same combination until they are-doddering old men of eighty.
(Leslie was wearing grey flannels, a sport coat, and sandals.)
“Outside of comfort, what else prompts your liking for informal attire?” I asked.
“Well, there’s something to be said for the argument that such things give me more time to sleep in the morning, and that’s quite an item. you .”You see, if I had to put on a complex outfit and had to be careful of every item being correct, I’d have to get up earlier to figure out the darn thing. But when you have something that just says, ‘Slip me on and let’s get out of here’, then–well, you can see for yourself that you get at least a good half hour’s more sleep.”
“Here, in Hollywood,” I told Leslie, “people think clothes are often more important than a personality. What do you think about that?”
“Clothes do make a first impression,” he replied, “but you can’t merely look at an outfit all day. If there isn’t anything inside of the natty attire, it all gets quite dull. To me, anyone who has a vibrant personality is much more interesting than a fashion plate who can only say, ‘yes, how delightful,’ to your every attempt at conversation.” Leslie resumed his
fingering of the violin.
“What is back of your habit of running away?” I asked him, “To save making important decisions?”
“I retire and retreat to save having to say ‘No’ to someone who expects me to say, ‘Yes.’ For example, I wasn’t sure I’d play Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. But with everyone pressing me for an answer, I decided I’d have to take a hop down to Palm Springs and forget about it all. But even there I was pressed for a decision. Finally, late one evening, I called my agent and told him to come down immediately, I had made up my mind to do the part. I just had to get away by myself before making a decision.
“You Americans can say, ‘No’ very convincingly. But we English can’t. If someone told you to jump in a lake, you’d say, ‘I will not! Don’t be stupid!’ But if an Englishman were told to jump in a lake, he’d grin and say, ‘Well, that’s quite an idea! Yes, it really is quite an idea!’ Then you would assume that he would go right out and jump in some lake.
“It’s just difficult for me to declare myself openly. Consequently, I’m always being misunderstood. I can’t help it, though. It seems so very impolite to say, ‘No’ to a person when you know he expects you to say,
‘Yes!’ ” Again he fingered the violin.
“Does running away from decisions help you out of difficulties?” I asked.
“Definitely. You see, I like to do several things at once, and consequently, I often put myself in a spot. Whenever I get into a jam and can find no way out, I just sit down, smoke a cigarette, and forget about it. Everything works out very well.
“Last week, I was supposed to do a broadcast. I was due at the station at four. I thought it would be all right, for as far as I knew, I wasn’t due at the studio for scenes until the next day. But suddenly I found out I was supposed to report at four that afternoon for work at Selznick’s. The station wouldn’t release me, and neither would the studio. One told me I couldn’t be replaced, and the other reminded me I was under contract to them and that they had first call on my services: I was in quite a dilemma.
“Everyone was in a panic. There didn’t seem any possible way out of the mess. At half past three, I went into my office at the studio, sat down, and became very calm. I wondered whether it would be cheaper to be sued by the station or by the studio. I lit a cigarette and waited. A few minutes later, a gentleman from Selznick’s came in and told me the situation had been ironed out. I could go to the broadcast. So, you see, it doesn’t pay to get yourself in a state of nerves. Everything is cleared up eventually.”
No one has more fun living than does Leslie Howard. And all because nothing can ruffle hin, nothing can throw him off key. With the possible exception of moving a violin bow up when he should move it down.
“I hear you’re quite absent-minded,” I commented. “What about it?”
He grinned sheepishly and proceeded to conduct a few more silent fandangos on his violin.
“Yes, I am–extremely so.”
“About what, for instance?”
“Chiefly about forgetting my telephone number. I can remember everyone else’s, but never my own. I know the figures that make up the combination, but I never can remember in what order they come…
“What’s your solution for that?”
“Oh, I just sit down and try every possible combination, and sooner or later, I get the right one…
“But don’t you put your number in your notebook?”
“I never remember to do that, and if I did, I’d leave the book at home in another suit of clothes. So you can see that wouldn’t work at all.”
“What about forgetting to keep engagements?”
“Now there’s where I really do slip up,” he said. A pause. ”By the way, do you know anything about playing a violin?”
I assured him I didn’t. He looked rather disappointed and went on plucking the strings.
“About forgetting to keep engagements,” I reminded him.
“Oh yes. I’m always forgetting such things. Recently, I was to meet a man
who had come all the way from England. I put the date down in my engagement
book, and then I forgot all about keeping it. It just slipped my mind. It was really very careless of me, too.
“Another time, I was to have dinner with a friend in London. Came the day and time when I was supposed to meet him–at least, it was the day, as far as I knew. I went to his hotel and said, ‘Well, I actually remembered to keep this engagement. Let’s have dinner.’ The man looked at me and said ‘You didn’t have any dinner date with me tonight.’ ‘Oh yes.’ I assured him. ‘I put it in my book, and my secretary even reminded me.’ He just looked at me and then replied. ‘I did have an engagement with you three weeks ago tonight–and at this time. but you didn’t keep it. But this evening–no.’ Rather embarrassed, I realized that my secretary had mentioned to me that I had missed the previous date. I’ll never know how I managed to turn up three weeks late on the dot. But that’s how I am about such things.”
Leslie even went to a very formal affair one evening and was dressed to a T–except for one thing. He had forgotten to take off his black lounging slippers. His only comment was, “It was too late to do anything about it, and besides they didn’t look so very out of place. They were black, you know. They weren’t carpet slippers.”
“What else do you forget?”
“I never can remember a part for the screen. I can only retain the lines for about two hours, and then they’re gone. On the stage, it’s different. You become so accustomed to saying the lines over and over, you just naturally remember them.
“And I never can manage to get on the set promptly. I have an optimistic idea that there are about twenty-six hours in a day. And I can’t get used to the accustomed twenty-four. I just have a warped sense of time. Very inconvenient, too. Yet, in a way, being absent-minded helps. People usually forgive me for slips by saying, ‘Well, Leslie is rather absent-minded. You can excuse him then.'”
Usually, those who are absent-minded, and show me a person who isn’t, forget things because they are preoccupied. And with all that Leslie has on his mind, it’s surprising he doesn’t forget everything.
Of course, there was one time when being preoccupied was rather embarrassing. Leslie told me the story.
“I was playing Hamlet in Los Angeles,” he began. “In the graveyard scene, when Ophelia is being buried, Horatio and I are on the stage. When Laertes makes his entrance, there was a line I always forgot to say. It was, ‘That is Laertes, a very noble youth.’ So the chap playing Horatio would always nudge me to give the cue. Under his breath, he’d say, ‘Who’s that?’ then, like a flash of inspiration, I’d say ‘That is Laertes, a very noble youth.‘
“One night my close friend, William Gargan, was watching the play from the wings. I was looking at him and not thinking of much. suddenly, I felt a nudge in my ribs and heard Horatio say, ‘Who’s that?’ I boomed out, ‘Bill Gargan, you darn fool!’ I caught myself in time to add, hurriedly, ‘Why, that is Laertes, a very noble youth.’ I don’t think I was ever in such a state!”
You would think from all this that Leslie never could concentrate. But you’re wrong. When he’s in the throes of producing or acting, he readily knows how to concentrate. He just goes off some place by himself and does his thinking in private.
At present, he is quite contented. Besides acting in what is practically the producer’s berth for Intermezzo, he is also starring in the picture. But the situation for concentration is quite pleasant. As Leslie says, “Now I have an office where I can concentrate on being a producer, and a dressing-room where I can concentrate on being an actor. Consequently, no one ever really knows where I am, and I have lots of chance to think things out without interruptions.”
Before discussing Leslie’s career as a producer and an actor, his ideas about pictures and the like, there’s a story about his daughter, Leslie Ruth, that is amusing. One day she walked on to the set to watch her famous father work in a picture. When she left later, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Huh! Silly business–pictures.” Such is Leslie’s favorite’s idea of the business to which he has devoted his life. But, at times, Leslie agrees with her candid opinion.
Since Leslie is one of the few actors who prefers producing to acting, however, and since his venture behind the camera as well as in front of it in Pygmalion was so successful, he has many very illuminating ideas of producing. Ideas that would shock the staid, settled minds of some Hollywood’s illustrious, ideas that probably would bring a more favorable reaction from Leslie Ruth. But regardless of anyone’s opinions, Leslie Howard, producer, is one of the most brilliant in the business today.
In Pygmalion, everyone had a voice in the production. Everyone, including the cameraman, the technicians, the electricians, and the cast. This complete cooperation was possible because, during production, everyone lived in the studios. Many evening, the crew would sit down and discuss this scene and that, and offer valuable criticism or suggestions would be acted upon. Even while a set was being put up, opinions were asked of those concerned in the picture. Yet, unlike Hollywood, there was no interference from the front offices of the studio. A scene was shot, and if it pleased Leslie, Mr. Pascal, and a few others, it was okay. No one away from the picture itself–no one behind a desk in an executive’s office–had anything to say. The resulting success may Hollywoodites like to call an impractical accident. to the natives here–some, at least–interference from the big boss is the thing. But look at their results!
In connection with Pygmalion, Leslie spoke of Wendy Hiller, the sensational star of the picture.
“Wendy was a very fine actress before she ever made the film,” he told me. “She had played the same rôle on the stage several times and was a great favorite of Shaw’s. But picture technique frightened her terribly. She just felt that she was doing a bad job. One day she came to me and told me she was going to quit, that she couldn’t go on.
“In such cases, the director usually says, ‘My dear, you’re doing beautifully, and you look so lovely in those gowns. You’re doing a superb job. Now, you mustn’t worry, dear.’ But that isn’t my idea of doing things. Instead, I took Wendy aside, ran a few rushes for her, pointed out her mistakes, showed her where she would have to play scenes for a camera instead of for a stage medium. I took great pains to point out where she was wrong, and to show her what she must do to improve. She soon saw her mistakes and became more confident. And because she is a fine actress, she was able to do such a magnificent job. After the picture was over, she said it would be her last. But I know it won’t be, for she is suddenly finding herself more interested in the films.
“It was that spirit of mutual help and cooperation that made Pygmalion the success it was. And we have the same idea and the same spirit in Intermezzo. William Wyler, the director, has the Bohemian conception of working that I like–the idea that it pays to enjoy yourself in your work and to have a good time doing it. Our conferences aren’t verbal battles. We discuss points calmly and yet have fun while we’re ironing out difficulties. Wyler realizes that no picture can be a success unless it has unity of feeling among those who are responsible for putting it on the screen. It’s the quality of people as human beings that makes up a production, not of just one single individual. In other words, a successful film is the result of the reflection of the composite minds of several people.”
I asked Leslie how he avoided temperament when taking more than one person into the confidence of the few important people. He replied that by taking in everyone’s good suggestions and ignoring the bad ideas, unity eventually would be established. He admitted it was difficult to avoid any jarring notes, but that it was necessary for a picture’s success. To Leslie, there is no room for a one-man tyrant in the production of a picture, unless that one man is a writer, director, and producer.
Leslie Howard is the embodiment of usual human qualities and an unusually brilliant mind. He has made a success out of his life because he hasn’t forgotten to combine brilliance with humanness in all of its complex phases.
The interview was over. Leslie walked down the hall, violin in hand, still strumming idly. He was on his way to a music lesson.
(Movies, November 1939)