War Work Keeps Leslie Howard Continuously on the Move (1942)

War Work Keeps Leslie Howard Continuously on the Move

By Ernie Pyle

Denham, England.–Just for variety’s sake, we’re switching from soldiers to movie stars for a day or two. The movie star is one you all know–Leslie Howard.
Howard has lived most of his adult life in America, and he expects to live there again some day.
But in 1939, less than 10 days before war was started, he came back to England on a three-month business trip. That three months has now stretched into more than three years, and Leslie Howard is still here in his homeland, as esteemed today by the British public as he ever was in America.
He isn’t in uniform–he is still in the movie business–but he is contributing his share to the war effort.
His son is in the Navy and hasn’t been home for a year; his daughter is married to an Army officer; Howard himself works day and night on propaganda films, public appearances, broadcasts to America and to the troops.
The BBC insists on paying him for his radio work. He insists in refusing. So his assistant just sends the checks on to charity, and he doesn’t even see them.
Howard still owns his home in Beverly Hills. But almost everything else he made and saved in those two decades in America has gone by the boards since he left–through taxes and confiscation of British assets abroad.
Today he has a country home in Surrey, south of London, but gets there only on occasional week-ends. He lives mostly in a rented house near this village of Denham, a three-quarter-hour train ride from London.
All day he works at the Denham studios, directing and producing his own movies. At night he takes scripts home with him, and edits and rewrites till bedtime.
Three or four nights a week he goes in to London to broadcast, or to make some public appearance. He has hardly a moment of free time; but he wouldn’t have even if there were no war, for his mind is so active it has to be doing something all the time.

A friend of mine from Washington named Martin Codel, publisher of the magazine Broadcasting, met Howard at a theater one night, got him into a corner, and invited himself and me out to the studios to spend a day. Howard surrendered graciously.
We rode the suburban train out to the Denham stop, and walked through mud and rain acros short-cut paths, through pastures, to the big studio buildings.
I have admired Leslie Howard for I don’t know how many years. He turned out to be everything I thought he was. He is so kindly and quiet-voiced and attentive that you can’t help being at ease with him.
He was working on a new film–his fifth since he returned to England three years ago. He is realizing an old ambition to produce and direct his own pictures. He couldn’t do it in America, for they wouldn’t let him stop acting. Now he’s his own master.
The newest picture is a story of the ATS–the girls of the British Army. It takes seven girls of different personalities and backgrounds, brings them together into the common brown uniform of the ATS, and carries them on from training cap to front-line manning the great AA guns.
The seven leading ladies are professional actresses; all the others are real ATS girls, detached long enough to do their various bits in the picture.
The picture is temporarily called “We’re Not Weeping,” but will likely be changed to “The Gentle Sex” before it’s finished. It probably won’t appear in America for three or four months yet. Howard doesn’t act in it himself.
All of Howard’s pictures now have a war or propaganda character. He works closely with the ministry of information, but the government does not contribute financially.
His latest one to be released is a biographical film on the man who designed the famous Spitfire. It is called “The First of the Few,” but will probably be shown in America under a more understandable title. Howard and David Niven both played in it. Niven was given leave from the army for the picture, but is now back on active service.
It isn’t easy to make pictures in wartime. You’re short on help, short on studio space, short on money, short on technical equipment.
And yet, as Howard says, it’s actually easier than before, for now you definitely have something to say. Britain has said it well in its films since war began. Movie-making over here has made greater strides in the last three years than ever before.

(St. Petersburg Times, November 4, 1942)