Monday, April 7, 2008

A Few Kind Words for Leslie Howard

Fey. Twit. Nebbish. Pantywaist. Namby-Pamby.

These are some of the "nicer" terms that I was reminded of when my fellow blogger HighHurdler mentioned that Outward Bound (1930), the first talking picture that featured Leslie Howard, who went on to acclaim in a memorable adaptation of Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1934). In recent years, I've seen the above terms applied to one of the biggest box office names on Broadway and in the movies between the two world wars by today's observers. Sure, tastes change. Movies got grittier, notions of masculinity became coarser, and in many cases, movies became more realistic. These cultural shifts seem to have trapped the actor Leslie Howard—in celluloid, as it were, especially by those who vehemently reject the ineffectual character he played in Gone With the Wind (1939).

Nothing I write can change the impression made on millions by Ashley Wilkes, the appealing yet wistful moral weakling whose image fills the imagination of a naïve sixteen year old Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), especially after he lies just out of her reach by becoming the hubby of a sedate cousin, Melanie Wilkes (Olivia de Havilland).

Howard shared a negative viewpoint of the entire production when he signed up to appear, and his only true motive for taking the part was the money and the promise of becoming a producer under the aegis of the Selznick organization, (the result was a much better role for Howard as co-producer and star with Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo: A Love Story [1939]).

Despite the actor's disdain for his weak-willed character in this role, the walking embodiment of a Southern ideal that he played was an implicit commentary by the filmmakers drawn from Margaret Mitchell's novel. A man given to fine words and fine feelings--but noticeably ineffectual in war and peace, Ashley Wilkes becomes more ghostly as the film goes on--drawing what vitality he has from his wife, Melanie and his ideal, Scarlett. The fact that Howard brought a gnawing awareness of these flaws to his characterization of Wilkes lent Ashley some poignancy--if not appeal.
Howard had already co-directed with Anthony Asquith a fine adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion to critical acclaim, (though Howard's stubbornly cerebral characterization does pale a bit next to the role as enacted by Rex Harrison in the ultimate musical made from the same material by Lerner and Lowe with My Fair Lady).
Above: In Intermezzo (1939) with Ingrid Bergman. This was a romantic role that fit Leslie Howard a bit better since its theme was closer to home and it gave the actor behind-the-scenes clout.
When it came to GWTW, however, Leslie Howard thought that he was ill-suited for such an unplayable part, going so far as to write to his daughter during pre-production (when he had to grow his hair long, and submit to having it burnished), that "I hate the damn part. I'm not nearly beautiful or young enough for Ashley, and it makes me sick being fixed up to look attractive." As filming neared, the actor brooded that his Confederate uniform must make him look like the gay "doorman at the Beverly Wiltshire- a fine thing at my age." His attitude toward the film itself: "Terrible lot of nonsense -- heaven help me if I ever read the book.''

The unhappy GWTW cast member, modeling his uniform
I've even encountered GWTW devotees who are irked—at a distance of nearly 70 years—by the actor's admitted disdain for the role. That revulsion for Ashley's character didn't just begin when Leslie spotted the stilted dialogue his character was saddled with by the many screenwriters who adapted it. Howard had emerged in the twenties and thirties as one actor who managed his career with some thought. He really didn't want to be a performer anymore, but I think he gave more to the part than he knew.

Having given Gone With the Wind a pass for several years, when it was shown on TCM recently, I watched it once again, (well, okay, truthfully, I was also working on my taxes while I did it, but the travails of the Civil War certainly threw my problems with math into perspective and it was a good distraction). Seen again, his role as the idealistic, philosophical Wilkes, thrust by history into a new world, and filled quite often with some justifiable self-loathing, is more complex than I remembered, as when he discerns--with some pain, the nurturing strength he derives from Scarlett. Others sometimes find Howard's aristocratic Southern accent is closer to Mayfair than Atlanta. That aristocratic edge in his pear shaped tones seems more acceptable when one realizes that many of the scions of the antebellum South were educated by English tutors and several would have gone to Britain to be educated to rule over their plantations.

Above: Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) between the two women who will mold his life, Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Melanie Wilkes (Olivia de Havilland.
The real problem with the Wilkes character is that it hands an actor who exuded intelligence an impossible task: make a man likable whose wishy-washy demeanor is in sharp contrast with the brusquely forward thinking Rhett and the determined and willful Scarlett, and, for that matter, the moral steadfastness of Melanie. Howard was asked to make a man believable who behaves like a milquetoast in the face of pretty tough odds. Yet as a youngster, when viewing GWTW in one of its last showings in a movie theater, I was truly beguiled by Ashley Wilkes! Seeing this film again after many years, something seems to have changed. It couldn't be me who's changed, surely?

On balance, I actually think Leslie Howard was a good choice for the part of Ashley, despite his own misgivings. Who else but this tall, slightly awkward figure could make an audience feel a pang of empathy for this man, representing the peculiar nobility of all lost causes, and the dislocation of many of those whose lives were upended, an aspect of the story that may have had greater resonance for Depression era audiences in the late 1930s? Even now, when we now believe that the racial, social and economic ideals that Ashley represented had to be exposed as false, the actor manages to put a hopelessly human face on a failure. Maybe that's one reason why he makes us so uncomfortable? Or maybe we just outgrew him and the story, just a bit.

Above: Howard as the transatlantic cultural ideal of "The Perfect Englishman." He knew better.
The cultural fate of Leslie Howard seems an object lesson in the dramatic differences between the world before and after the Second World War. Like his contemporaries Fred Astaire, Ronald Colman and William Powell, his appeal was based on talent, hard work, and that hard to define, now all too rare quality: charm. His own brand of the elusive trait was uniquely his own. His diffident, sensitive exterior, slight stammer, a touch of the "silly ass Englishman" and that look of puzzlement that characterized his work made him appear to the world as the consummate Englishman. In reality, English-born Leslie Howard Stainer was the son of anglicized Hungarian-Jewish parents, (he took his mother's adopted maiden name of Howard when he went on the stage). Having been placed in an uninspiring job as a bank clerk due to his hardworking father's good graces, Mr. Howard had chucked it all to join the Hussars during WWI, and was invalided out of the service following being shell shocked at the Battle of the Somme in 1917. Encouraged to take up acting as a form of therapy during his recovery, he found his greatest success when he appeared in New York as "Broadway's favorite Englishman" in the '20s. He soon conquered Hollywood as well, becoming a canny businessman who worked on both sides of the Atlantic, formed his own production companies and was--and is--to some, a sensitive, intelligent actor, whose professional and personal choices still might deserve a second look by some of us.

Howard, who, after becoming Broadway and Hollywood's idea of an Englishman, had definitely outgrown these parts. As his friend and First of the Few (1943) co-star David Niven later said, Howard was "not what he seemed. He had the kind of distraught air that would make people want to mother him. Actually, he was about as naïve as General Motors. Busy little brain, always going."

On the polo field with Leslie Howard and his wife, Ruth Martin Howard who married him in 1916.

Howard was not the effete character who may be remembered by many viewers--if modern audiences remember him at all. He was a hardworking professional, determined to develop his strengths as an actor, producer, director and writer. He was also a patriotic British citizen, who had been seriously shell-shocked during World War I and whose commitment to supporting his country led him to turn his back on Hollywood in 1939. Howard was also a father of Ronald (who became an actor) and Leslie Ruth (called Doodie). In his few spare hours, Howard was a fiendish polo player, a bit of a devil with the ladies, and the husband of of Ruth Martin Howard for 27 years, who remained devoted to him, despite his numerous, well-documented affairs.

Leslie Howard as Pimpernel Smith (1941)
Leaving American shores for good just before the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany, he put that brain to work, providing the impetus for much of the best of wartime British propaganda films, including the dandy, but seldom seen Pimpernel Smith (1941), which features Howard as the deceptively vague professor helping others to escape the Axis. In his wonderfully over the top role of the cultured author "roughing it" in the Canadian Rockies with his Picasso paintings and gramophone on hand in Powell and Pressburger's The 49th Parallel (1941), he was the embodiment of a civilized man--yet one who could and would, when provoked, overwhelm the fascist enemy of Western civilization.

Laurence Olivier, Anton Walbrook, and Leslie Howard are overseen by Eric Portman on the set of The 49th Parallel (1941), a film that Howard also helped to co-produce (much to Michael Powell's chagrin).

But then, "appearing" to be a fop while actually being a man of character was par for the course in his career. The exploits of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) in Baroness Orczy's tale of the French Revolution, was the zenith of this type of character as he appeared to be--even to his wife, played by Merle Oberon--an effeminate dilettante, all the while rescuing persecuted aristocrats from the guillotine.

Above: Leslie Howard with Merle Oberon in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934).
I honestly have a difficult time enjoying this rather artificial feeling Korda film, and find that the much more sober Pimpernel Smith is both a more believable and a less distant figure. Unfortunately, The Scarlet Pimpernel is among those that is most familiar to today's viewers, and, along with GWTW, is probably responsible for his being categorized as a lightweight actor, though certainly one capable of acting in high style. In many of his other films from the thirties, however, Howard exhibited a subtle, restrained style of acting that anticipated the underplaying of a generation of actors. As Canadian actor Raymond Massey, who played a French revolutionary in The Scarlet Pimpernel explained to journalist Jim Bawden, "I learned so much working with Leslie Howard. He’d whisper between takes, “Tone it back a bit, old chap.” To me he never seemed to do much. Then I watched the rushes and he’d effortlessly stolen the scene."

Leslie Howard directing Pimpernel Smith on the set in 1941.
Howard's wartime work, which also included an ostensible lecture tour in neutral countries such as Spain and Portugal, led to his mysterious death at only fifty. On the first of June, 1943, the plane that held Leslie Howard and 16 other passengers was intercepted by the Luftwaffe and shot down while flying a commercial BOAC airliner route from Lisbon to London over the Bay of Biscay. Some believe that it may have been because a double for Winston Churchill, (the prime minister did fly commercially on occasion), had been spotted getting on the plane with Howard. Others think that Leslie Howard, who had been conducting broadcasts to the United States throughout the war, as well as helping to produce anti-Nazi films, was the ultimate target.

Unfortunately, in the decades since the actor's death, many of his best early films are no longer revived, broadcast nor are they all available on video. Yet, I think that some of Howard's gentle humor, wistful regret and romantic diffidence still strikes a chord with some viewers. It's noteworthy that today, in another time of tumult, war and rumors of war, several of the dramas that Leslie Howard was most closely identified with are finding new audiences once again. Just after September 11th, new stage productions were seen of Sutton Vane's Outward Bound, with its exploration of the line between life and death, and Playbills have been issued for productions of Robert Sherwood's The Petrified Forest in the last few years as well. I think that the appeal of Leslie Howard might be described in the following terms, rather than those cited at the beginning of this blog: gifted, sensitive, wry, kindly, thoughtful, loyal and brave.

Here's a brief, arbitrary list of Leslie Howard films that show him at his diffident, nuanced best, with TCM broadcast dates (eastern time) noted. :

The Petrified Forest (1936)
Bette Davis & Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest
The film that began Humphrey Bogart's long term at Warners (thanks to Leslie Howard, who insisted on casting Bogie in the part he'd played on stage) The contrast and the kinship between the self-aware member of the lost generation, played by Howard, and the brutally honest criminal Duke Mantee (Bogart) is still interesting. Bogart and Howard share the screen with a suitably dewy-eyed Bette Davis, longing for Paris.

Best scene: Howard reminding Duke of his promise.

Intermezzo: A Love Story(1939)

An enduring love story that is still fresh thanks the highest production values, the acting of Leslie Howard, the natural and incandescent Ingrid Bergman in her premiere American film, which was a remake of a Swedish movie she'd scored a hit in earlier. If you want to see a beautifully crafted film from the studio era at its height, this is it.

The film also has beautiful work from Edna Best as Howard's wife, Ann Todd as his daughter and the fine supporting player, John Halliday, (in one of his last films). The delicate balance between Howard's emotional dance between his domestic peace and his artistic muse, as seen below in a tender moment with Edna Best, playing Howard's wife.

Best scene: saying goodbye in front of the shop window.

Romeo and Juliet (1936)
 With Norma Shearer in Romeo & Juliet
MGM's sumptuous production and the middle aged stars almost overwhelm this, but Shearer has sincerity & listen to Howard's soft voice and understanding way with the poetry of the play. He wasn't a trained Shakespearean actor, (though he went on to do Hamlet--rather unsuccessfully--on Broadway, with John Gielgud and Maurice Evans also appearing in the same role that season to critical acclaim).

The Leslie Howard Nobody Knows:
These films are currently not scheduled, but may be available on VHS and DVD.

The Animal Kingdom (1932):

Philip Barry's comic drama places free soul Ann Harding, materialistic wife Myrna Loy,
and erstwhile boxer and houseboy William Gargan in a triangle--no, make that a rhomboid--with publisher Leslie Howard at the acute angle of all of them. Nicely done, and deftly played mildly romantic pre-code. Gargan, btw, was an actor, who, like Bogart, would be so indebted to Howard's kindness to him that he too would name his child after him. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall would name their daughter Leslie in honor of his friend, and Mr. and Mrs. Gargan named their son Leslie Howard Gargan.

Captured! (1933):

A corker of a boy's life version of POW experience in WWI. The playful and sad atmosphere of this Warner Brothers film is so reminiscent of the later Grande Illusion, I wonder if Jean Renoir saw this movie and was influenced by the story. This features good performances from Howard, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Paul Lukas.
Best Scene: Leslie climbs the tower.

Please note: since posting this profile, I had a chance to write more about Captured (1933), which can be seen here.

Berkeley Square (1933):

A romance from the imagination of John Balderston (Scenarist of The Mummy, Smilin' Through, & Prisoner of Zenda). This lovely film starring Leslie Howard & Heather Angel, takes a young man in the 1930s who travels back to the 18th century where he meets the love of his life. A film that few ever forget, it is apparently gathering dust in the Fox vaults. Like Jack Finney's Time After Time and the movie Somewhere in Time, a somber note runs through a love story. Beautifully done and this film, which only seems to exist in ragged copies.

British Agent (1934):

The Time: The Russian Revolution
The Place: Moscow
Kay Francis is secretary to--get this--Leon Trotsky (J.Carroll Naish)!
Leslie Howard, whose character is based on real life envoy R. H. Bruce Lockhart, plays the acting British Consul-General at the time, who tried to persuade the Bolsheviks to stay in the war. As history students might guess, this is really a love story between Kay & Leslie with nice work from Cesar Romero & William Gargan as diplomats caught up in the Revolution. Directed by Michael Curtiz in brisk, highly entertaining fashion.

Stand-In (1937):

Tay Garnett directs Howard & a relieved-looking Humphrey Bogart in a very amusing satire about Hollywood. Leslie has a great time as an accountant/efficiency expert baffled by the movie business until savvy Joan Blondell wises him up. Bogart is very good in his comic scenes and he carries a small Scots Terrier throughout the film that was really his cute little mutt. He seems much more relaxed than usual in this film opposite his friend, Leslie Howard. This is the film in which Howard most successfully parodies his own "nebbish" qualities. This funny movie has been broadcast on TCM and needs to be run again.

It's Love I'm After (1937):
In a nice play on Leslie Howard's serious foray into Shakespeare the year before, Bette Davis & he play a battling pair of actors who alternately love and torment one another, especially in the death scene from Romeo and Juliet that opens the picture. The relationship between Howard & his valet Eric Blore is priceless. Olivia de Havilland is on board as a dumb bunny fan of Mr. Howard. Archie Mayo keeps the movie moving, even if it does sag a bit toward the middle of the farce. This does pop up on the TCM schedule sometimes and has recently been issued as a Warner Archive DVD-r.

Bawden, Jim, Massey, the Great Canadian Character Actor at His Best, The 
Behlmer, Rudy, editor, Memo From David O. Selznick, The Modern Library, 2000.
Gargan, William, Why Me: An Autobiography of William Gargan, Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1969.
Howard, Leslie Ruth, A Quite Remarkable Father, Longmans Green, 1960.
Howard, Ronald, In Search of My Father: A Portrait of Leslie Howard, St. Martin's Press, 1984.
Morley, Sheridan, Tales From the Hollywood Raj, The Viking Press, 1983.
Sperber, A.M. & Lax, Eric, Bogart, William Morrow & Co., 1997.
Portions of this blog originally published by me at, Mar. 5, 2008. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Turner Classic Movies.)

Updated 9-15-10: The Guardian reports that family movies have been found in the basement of Leslie Howard's daughter, Doodie Stirling. The documentary filmmaker
Tom Hamilton, who has been struggling to make a film about the actor for some time, revealed this news to the press, commenting that the black and white and color films are razor sharp images of Howard flirting with Myrna Loy on the set of The Animal Kingdom, visiting with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Joan Crawford, a polo match, and images of young Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Mary Pickford. As Mr. Hamilton said, "You get a sense of the real human being. He's quite playful and warm in a way you don't see in his films." You can read more about this discovery here. Below is a video that Tom Hamilton posted on youtube to try to interest investors in helping him complete his Leslie Howard documentary. I hope that more investment and grant money comes his way now!


If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Polo Anyone?, a piece on the horseback sport in Old Hollywood, which was published on TCM's Movie Morlocks Blog, found here.


Tom Hamilton said...

Hi there

I liked this posting very much - and as someone making a documentary on Howard's remarkable life - with his daughter - any appreciation of the man is greatly appreciated.
Just one point - William Gargan named his SON Leslie Howard Gargan (LHG is still very much with us so I'm sure he'd appreciate if someone could correct this minor error)

tom Hamilton
Repo Films
(Leslie Howard: A Quite Remarkable Life is scheduled for completion in June 2009)

Moira Finnie said...

Thank you Tom!

I have made the correction and wish you well on your project--especially since the home movies have now received worldwide publicity. I sincerely hope that you receive the investments and grants needed to complete this film the way that you want to.


SimpleGifts said...

Thank you for the excellent post on Leslie Howard. You didn't mention "Of Human Bondage" but I thought Howard gave a wonderful portrayal of the anguished Dr. Carey. He held his own with Bette Davis' riveting performance. And his scenes with Frances Dee were heartfelt and tender.


Moira Finnie said...

Thank you, Jane.

Since I was trying to concentrate on the neglected legacy of Leslie Howard, pointing out some seemingly forgotten gems, I avoided discussion of the celebrated 1934 version of Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1934), directed by the under-rated John Cromwell. That drama unearthed Bette Davis' fiery talent but it also allowed Howard to display his skill in the less flashy but vital role of Philip Carey, as a man caught up in an emotional maelstrom.

I will try to watch this film again--though I admire many of Bette Davis' performances, I have never been able to enjoy watching the young Davis in this movie--and feel that the drama was thrown out of proportion due to her intensely felt but--for me--ultimately over-the-top portrayal.

However, since your link to Internet Archive allows an easy way to see this film again, I will peruse it once more. It would not be the first time that I found myself appreciating a film more the second time. I have added a reference to Of Human Bondage to the above post. Thank you very much for your comment.

Debbie Hertenstien said...

I first saw Leslie Howard when I was 15 years old...our local station was playing "Pimpernel Smith". I was immediately attracted to this sensitive actor, with the beautiful skin and eyes. Forty years later, my appreciation of this actor has only deepened. In addition to being a fine actor, he also tirelessly gave of himself in service of his country. Leslie Howard was an unique individual, and may his films always be a part of our lives. Through his display of quiet determination, Leslie pro-
vides an alternative for dealing with our boisterous society.

Moira Finnie said...

Thank you so much for your beautifully expressed appreciation of how Leslie Howard still speaks to some of us today. I believe that his "quiet determination" and the understated manner in which he committed himself to his work and his country still resonates with those who allow themselves to be captivated by his appealing presence.

For those who are curious about the film, Pimpernel Smith (1941), it is currently on youtube and can be enjoyed here



Anonymous said...

Hi there Ms. Finnie! Although i'm 27 I am a big fan of earlier films much thanks to great artists like Leslie Howard and Clara Bow,(Two favorites of mine.) and films like "Metropolis", "Orphans of the Storm"and "The Red Shoes."(once again, some random favorites.) It started when I was 15 and saw Leslie Howard in "The Scarlet Pimpernel." I was never the same... not only did I fall in love but I was introduced to a beautiful world beyond today. MOST films now are quickly thrown into catergories and forgotten about before anyone leaves the theatre. I just wanted to say thank you and that true talent to this day will still inspire, (my 7 yr old tap dancing along with Fred while we watched "A Royal Wedding.") and with a little sentiment will never die.

Moira Finnie said...

Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm, Anon! There may seem to be only a few of us, but if we can get others to look at Leslie Howard's many films, sooner or later one of them, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, Intermezzo, Pygmalion or Stand-In will invariably lure them into enjoying this interesting actor's charm and intelligence.

It's great to encounter anyone, but especially a younger person who sees these qualities too.

Anonymous said...

Leslie Howard has always been a favorite of mine, although he died when I was a child. I thought he was wonderful in GONE WITH THE WIND (which I first saw in re-release in the 1950s and have seen many times since) and cannot imagine anyone else doing a better job.

Moira Finnie said...

Thank you for your heartfelt comment on Leslie Howard's abiding appeal in GWTW as well as other films. This month on TCM, since he is the featured star, I have been receiving lots of emails from people who are just discovering his charm and gift for playful yet moving acting in a variety of roles. We Howard fans are a small but hardy band--which probably would have amused the actor very much to be remembered with such fondness so long after his untimely demise at only 43.

Anonymous said...

True... if it weren't for TCM running movies of Leslie Howard as Star of the Month, I would never have known what I was missing. I must admit that, before last Tuesday, I belonged to that rather large group of people who knew Howard only by his performance in Gone With The Wind - and having an intense disdain for the wimpy character that was portrayed, I had projected that dislike on to the actor as well, for all these years. How wrong I was!!! Ever since seeing The Petrified Forest, It's Love I'm After and Of Human Bondage, I have just fallen hopelessly in love with the man and the versatility of his talent. And then, the fact of his tragic death in the line of patriotic duty (which, again, I just learnt about very recently), has made me a totally devoted fan - I can't wait to see his other movies this month. Was viewing Gone With The Wind again today, this time with a special emphasis on Howard's scenes and guess what - I can now see what Scarlett saw in Ashley Wilkes after all! I do hope that other people will see it too. Thanks, TCM!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your work. He is one of my favorite actors but you never mentioned my two favorite films: "Devotion" [which will be airing on TCM and "Service for Ladies" [ directed by Alexander Korda].

Moira Finnie said...

To my two Anonymous commentators:

Thank you for taking the time to post your impressions here. The first Anonymous person has warmed my heart.

I had no idea that others could learn to discover Leslie Howard's qualities after being initially exposed to him as Ashley Wilkes. I am particularly glad that you had a chance to learn about his life as well as his best movies (isn't he great in comedy?).

To the second Anonymous poster-Thanks for your letting me know, but the reason that I did not post about Devotion (1931) or Service for Ladies (1932) is because I had not seen either of them when I wrote this article a few years ago.

I have since seen and enjoyed Devotion, but, unfortunately, Service for Ladies (which sounds like great fun with Howard as a smitten waiter) has never been available to see in my experience. Maybe it will appear someday, I hope!

Mary Rippy said...

I was first introduced to the films of Mr. Leslie Howard on TCM. I rather enjoy his films very much. He was quite a handsome man however, in my research of him, I must say I was disappointed in he being such a "ladies man". Though I guess I should not be...just disappointed. I had been married for 27+years therefore, I am sure his affairs did not go unnoticed by his wife. The pain of heart she must have endured.

R said...

A wonderful piece that's inspired me to seek out more Howard films. His turn in Pygmalion (whether or not it's classed as 'forgotten I'm not sure but it most certainly overshadowed by My Fair Lady) entranced me as a child. Louise Brooks made some very interesting observations about his character and acting and his relationship with Bogart in her piece Humphrey and Bogey. Worth a read and available online.


Related Posts with Thumbnails