What Leslie Howard Really Thinks of Hollywood (1936)
What Leslie Howard Really Thinks of Hollywood
Now can be told, for the first time, the very candid views of the romantic Englishman who likes Hollywood–and leaves it, only to come right back again!
by Ben Maddox
“Hollywood is a carnival–where there are no concessions”–Leslie Howard
Into Leslie Howard’s life the great moment has come! After so many experiences he is suddenly, thrillingly at peace. Not simply with those whom he must deal for his livelihood, and with those he loves. But more importantly–with himself.
Finally he is aware of the man he truly is. The impulses toward tempests and tangents are on the wane. The thousands of little pretenses are quite forgotten. He has become certain of the precise kind of person he is, and of what he really wants. The slate is wiped clean of confusion. Life begins!
Rumors always spread about a romantic. They have whispered often about Leslie, because his charm has involved him frequently. He is not an ordinary, humdrum soul; but a prepossessing adventurer who has demanded the very essence of whatever he has tackled.
However, his future, heretofore a vague day-dream, stretches at last plainly and satisfyingly. It is no longer thought of as an escape from perplexing frustrations. The tomorrows tantalize with their opportunities for this clear-visioned individual.
His career as an actor, his family, where he’d best take root–all easily fit into the right pattern. He realizes definitely the contribution of each factor. Circumstances have ceased commanding.
I met this changed Leslie Howard during his filming of “The Petrified Forest” at Warners. At our other meetings, on his previous California episodes, he had been the witty conversationalist, sparkling with the gay bravado of one who must keep a fast pace for fear that, elsewise, he be left to face realities. This time he walked into the studio café with a quiet calmness. His zest was of a different nature. He seemed vibrantly content.
“It’s nice to see you again,” he declared. “You somehow manage to report me accurately.” A sigh indicated that being continually press-agented was not his notion of fun. One half of Leslie is a perennial Peter Pan, a youthful, lark-adoring boy-man who will never be daunted. The other side of him is the keen sophisticate who, naturally enough, winces at being circused to the curious.
On his last trip home to England, newspapermen crowded about at the dock and peppered him with questions. He was thereafter quoted as saying that he hated Hollywood and that every British actor should disdain it and work in London.
“When they pick out just part of your opinions it is disconcerting. I don’t dislike Hollywood, merely some of its conditions. I observed that all picture players ought to try their luck in England. This hardly marks me as an ungrateful wretch, does it?”
And then and there, over a raw vegetable salad he was tempted into investigating, Leslie poured forth the fascinating facts about the self he has succeeded in locating.
“I believe that our ultimate understanding of ourselves is the most exciting thing that can occur. It isn’t one of the fierce joys that fire adolescence. We are hemmed in and protected by our parents, or whoever has charge of us, until we are thrust upon the world. Then the fine rules we’ve memorized are bombarded; we gradually stray into all sorts of pastures.
“How to earn a living is the first quandary. We fall in love, expecting to possess a miracle. The years roll on and generally we are nonplussed at what’s apparently happening to us. We watch the rest of the people we know and hear about and it dawns on us that we may be in wrong grooves. We then either dare to do as we fundamentally wish, or we become embittered and resigned to our fate.
“My parents weren’t connected with any fashion of theatricals. We lived in a London suburb and I went to private schools. They weren’t especially blissful days, for I came out of my shell slowly. I was an imaginative, shy chap, I guess. Perhaps it was release, or appreciation, that induced me to scribble at drams and be among the school thespians whenever possible.
“When college was over, I achieved a new high in uncertainty. I privately nourished magnificent illusions, of course. I yearned for stage fame and for an emotional companion. I encountered neither and went ino a bank as a clerk!”
That period was mercifully brief. Leslie’s peculiarly alive blue eyes went warm as he recalled that love had arrived almost simultaneously with the call to France. He persuaded the lovely girl to marry him before he was bustled across the channel, to the chaos and carnage which raged until the fierce fury of nations exhausted itself.
The winter sun shot through the drapes beside him as we sat there talking, burnishing his light brown hair into semi-blondness. Of those years in the trenches he preferred not to speak. What is there to say? He returned to England and his bride, anxious only to erase the horrors of mass brutality. He shared the spirit of unrest, sternly resolving not to resume the dull clerkship. He vowed that he would force his way into the magical whirl of the theatre.
His smile was tender as he remembered those initial onslaughts on the moguls in power. He had had to begin humbly, touring the provinces. Radiant, inspiring Ruth went along, and so did their bouncing baby boy Ronald.
He spread his hands, expressing so much with a gesture of lean, sensitive fingers. “I plugged as best as I could. Came prominence in London, and then on Broadway. Came Hollywood.” With characteristic sprightliness he grasped a tumbler of water and raised it in a toast. “To Hollywood!” he exclaimed. A trace of a sardonic chuckle flashed and as quickly disappeared. He bent forward.
“Please get this straightened out for me. I have no highbrow condescension toward this place. I merely disagree with a number of its customs. I don’t concur with the commandment, for instance, that popularity zooms in direct ratio to sensational personal publicity. The quality of the picture is what counts. I would rather search for quality than for space in gossip columns.
“Fortunately, I do not have to be a yes-man here. I can fall back on the stage and on English films. When I come to California what story I’m to do is determined in advance. I shun the puppetry.
“This brings me to what I have been endeavoring to explain all this while. I have discovered–me. I feel as though I have crystallized at last. Among my dominant desires, I want to be with my family more. What I suppose you might dub the ‘real’ things in life appeal most strongly. I have perceived, also, that Hollywood, and the routine of a star here, cannot absorb me. Mind you, no reflections! It is just that I am matured. I am terribly fond of the sunshine one can have here. Too, the splendid equipment of these studios for enhancing one’s personality is impressive.
“But the money I might earn by staying in California permanently is an outmoded lure. With the higher income taxes prevailing it’s impossible to build up a fortune. So the former philosophy of ‘let’s take the cash while we can and then we’ll be set’ is passé. You might as well do what you wish because you can’t accumulate a huge reserve fund.
“Then, the superficial glitter I might attain isn’t intriguing to me. The exhibitionist urge is wearing thin. I even receive less pleasure from acting itself. It doesn’t furnish enough mental exercise. I fancy only a beautiful young woman or an exceptionally handsome man actually responds to wholesale flattery!”
His earnestness rose to a crescendo. “I want to appear in fewer and ‘more quality’ pictures. And also: I want to swing into the production end. Already I have an interest in an English company. We will not attempt to turn out dozen of films, on a big schedule. Instead, the story will first be chosen, the cast then selected carefully. Whan one unit is started it will be time to plan another.
“There are so many marvelous tales waiting to be screened. I feel we have only touched the surface. I have been delving into historical periods, into every stirring book and play that promises to evolve into a stimulating show. Not with myself alone in mind, as used to be the case, but for the sake of the drama itself. I have practiced filling the roles.
“In stating that actors ought to try English studios I mean in addition to Hollywood. It will be beneficial both to the actors and to audiences for British films to progress. There will be more good engagements for the players and the healthy competition from abroad will automatically weed out the inferior offerings.”
Leslie Howard’s headquartering in his native land is no derogatory decision, as you recognize; it is a natural aftermath of roaming and experimenting. Literally, home is an enchanting estate in the countryside, an hour’s jaunt from London. There he has everything form a polo field to vegetable gardens. It is a heaven-like haven from the activity which regularly surrounds him. Although, for a measure of seclusion, he resides at a quiet hotel when busy in London, and locates likewise whenever he is in New York.
The movies, a current national radio hook-up, the legitimate–in work that invigorates, Leslie has stumbled upon stability. The more responsibility he assumes, the more details fall upon his shoulders. He told me of his forthcoming production of “Hamlet” on Broadway. “They have been so grand to me, American theatregoers, that I want to do my utmost in thanks!” Essaying the title role would be sufficient for the average star. Yet Leslie, for his most ambitious stage effort, has been slaving over the special adaptation necessary; he has schemed out the lighting effects, supervised the designing of the costumes, the painting of the scenery, and the picking of the performers.
A man of his intelligence wouldn’t settle down to standard Hollywood stardom. when his scope can be so much wider. He is not only emphatically not guilty of ingratitude to American fans, but on the contrary he estimates them so highly that he is actively in the vanguard of a new crusade for better entertainment. In acquiring personal discernment he has hit upon a cause we will all favor.
When he stood up to bid me goodbye he broke into an embarrassed grin. He was thoroughly surprised with his own frankness. I beamed myself. Had I been bolder I’d have patted him on the back and cried “Bravo.” There’s happiness ahead for Leslie Howard now!
(Screenland, February 1936)