Leslie Howard (1893 - 1943)

Leslie Howard
Leslie Howard
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Leslie Howard spent a large part of his career creating and playing roles which showed an idealised, slightly old-fashioned type of civilised, genteel Englishness, so it comes as something of a surprise to realise that he could speak German before he learnt English and that he was brought up in Vienna. He became an established Hollywood and Broadway star during the 1930's and his most famous roles were Sir Percy Blakeney in 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' in 1934 and Ashley Wilkes in 'Gone With the Wind' in 1939. He also received two unsuccessful nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

From the beginning of WWII Howard devoted much time and energy to the British war effort, and in 1943, when the civilian plane in which he was a passenger was shot down by German fighters in mysterious circumstances, conspiracy theories abounded and have continued to this day.


Leslie Howard was born Leslie Howard Steiner in London on April 3rd, 1893, the oldest of five children. His father, was a Jewish financier from Hungary and Leslie spent the early part of his childhood in Vienna until the family moved back to London when he was thirteen.

Early Years

He had a sheltered upbringing and when he was sent to the prestigious Alleyn's School in Dulwich, London, he disliked it intensely, preferring the world of the arts, particularly theater. His mother, whose brother was the Silent film director Wilfred Noy, encouraged her son's theatrical ambitions and at the age of 14 Leslie wrote his first play. With the help of his mother he established the Upper Norwood Dramatic Club to put on their plays.

With the First World War looming, the family Anglicised its name to "Stainer" although Leslie's own legal surname remained Steiner. His mother's maiden name was Lilian Howard and it was her name he later took when he started his acting career.

His father had no interest in the arts and at his insistence the teenage Leslie when he finished his schooling, had to begin working in a London bank, a job which he detested. He was saved by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 when he enlisted in British Army, in the Northamptonshire Yeomanry.

He served in the war but after the Battle of the Somme in 1916 he suffered what was then known as shell shock and he was invalided out of the army.

Stage Actor

He had no desire to return to banking and decided to try to make acting his career. He began on the London stage in 1917 and made a name for himself immediately for his talent and professionalism. His reputation soon spread to New York and by the early 1920's he had successes on both sides of the Atlantic in plays like 'Aren't We All?' in 1923, and 'The Green Hat' in 1925, before becoming a top Broadway star in 'Her Cardboard Lover' in 1927 and 'Berkeley Square' in 1929.

Hollywood Actor

It was the start of the Talkies era and stage-trained actors with strong voices and matinee style looks were in great demand for the new medium of talking films. Howard had enjoyed twelve years of success on stage and he was invited to Hollywood. He would not be short of work.

Many of his well-known early screen roles were spin-offs from theatrical productions. His first Hollywood movie was an adaptation one of his more successful plays 'Outward Bound' in 1930, and he did the same thing in 1933 with 'The Animal Kingdom'. Howard's calm, measured style went down well with audiences and he soon became one of the most popular stars of the 1930's Hollywood.

Howard was twice nominated for the Best Actor Award, firstly for the 1933 film version of 'Berkeley Square' and then in 1938 for his portrayal of Professor Henry Higgins in the film version of George Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion'. One of his best known roles was in 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' in 1934 where he plays the title character, Sir Percy Blakeney. Blakeney is, on the surface, a complete society dandy, but, in disguise as the Scarlet Pimpernel, he becomes a dashing hero, rescuing French aristocrats from certain death at the hands of the Revolutionaries.

One of Howard's best known theatrical adaptations was 'The Petrified Forest' in 1936 for which Howard refused to re-play his stage role unless the studio agreed to cast his friend and at that stage, the unknown, actor, Humphrey Bogart, in the gangster role of Duke Mantee. The studio agreed to Howard's demands and a star and a legend was born. During the earlier run of the stage play, Howard had befriended the struggling Bogart. Bogart never forgot Howard's gesture and many years later he named his daughter Leslie in tribute.

Hollywood Star

The 1930's were a busy time for Howard's movie career. In 1934 he had co-starred with Bette Davis in 'Of Human Bondage' and then in 1936 he co-starred with Norma Shearer in a film version of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet'. In the following year he appeared with Olivia de Havilland in the romantic comedy 'It's Love I'm After' and then in 1939 with Ingrid Bergman in 'Intermezzo'.

In the same year, Howard was cast in his most famous role, as Ashley Wilkes, the disillusioned gentleman Southerner, in 'Gone With The Wind'. The film was a gigantic success and Howard's reputation was at its peak, but the Second World War was about to break out and he became one of the first stars to return home to Britain. He spent the remainder of his career, and of his life, in making his personal contribution to the British war effort.

World War II

He did it partly through making pure propaganda films such as 'From The Four Corners' in 1941, in which he shows Commonwealth soldiers round the dome of St Paul's Cathedral to illustrate the things for which everyone was fighting, and partly by making more traditional movies to illustrate the same point.

For instance, the first film he made as a solo director was "'Pimpernel' Smith" in 1941, which cleverly moved his famous 'Pimpernel, character forward to a modern World War II era, with his character, Professor Horatio Smith, daringly rescuing important scientists and great men from the Germans. Also in 1941 he portrayed Philip Armstrong Scott, the explorer, in '49th Parallel' a movie backed by the British Ministry of Information, in which his own unselfishness in returning to Britain from Hollywood is cleverly highlighted by his character's doing the exact opposite and escaping to Canada to escape the Nazis until his own belongings are put at risk.

He directed two more patriotic feature movies. In 'The First of the Few' in 1942 he portrayed R.J.Mitchell, the inventor and creator of the Spitfire. It was his last major role in front of the camera. For his next movie, 'The Gentle Sex' in 1943 he was narrator only as he did not wish his well known features to distract from the message of the film, which was to show women's important contribution to the war effort. Just before his death in 1943 Howard was planning another war-related movie called 'The Lamp Still Burns' which was an investigation into the pressurised world of wartime nursing in British hospitals before the National Health Service. It was eventually made by Maurice Elvey after Howard's plane, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines/BOAC Flight 777, was shot down over the Bay of Biscay en route to Bristol from Lisbon. Howard had been travelling through the Iberian peninsula, ostensibly on a lecture tour about filmmaking, but he was also almost certainly meeting with local intelligence agents and helping to increase support for the Allied cause. There is a theory that he was mistaken for Winston Churchill who was travelling locally but this has since been discredited. His death, at the age of 50, was, of course, very sudden, and was seen as a major tragedy in wartime Britain.


He married Ruth Martin in 1916 and they had two children. His son Ronald, also took up acting after the war and also had a noteworthy career. Howard's daughter, Leslie Ruth Howard wrote a biography, 'A Quite Remarkable Father'.

Lesley Howard Academy Awards

No Wins:
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... Berkeley Square (1933)
Best Actor ... Pygmalion (1938)


Leslie Howard Filmography

The Heroine of Mons
The Happy Warrior
The Lackey and the Lady
The Temporary Lady
Five Pounds Reward