Leslie Howard (1893 - 1943)
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.
Leslie Howard was born Leslie Stainer in London in April 1893, the oldest of five children. His father, was a financier from Hungary and Leslie spent the early part of his childhood in Vienna until the family moved back to London when he was 13. His mother's maiden name was Lilian Howard and it was her name he later took when he started his acting career.
He inherited his mother's love and aptitude for acting and his uncle, Wilfred Noy, was one of the early movie directors, who secured Leslie his first film acting job in 1914 in 'The Heroine of Mons'. He served in the First World War but was invalided out after the Battle of the Somme in 1916 with shell shock. Acting was recommended for his nerves and after beginning on the London stage in 1917, he became successful in both London and New York, 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. His reputation preceded him and he was invited to Hollywood. Stage-trained actors with strong voices and matinee style looks were in demand for the new medium of talking films.
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.
Many of his well-known early screen roles were spin-offs from theatrical productions. One of the best known 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 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.
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.
He did it partly through making pure propoganda 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 NHS. 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 traveling 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 AwardsNo 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
Never the Twain Shall Meet
A Free Soul
Daughter of Luxury
Service for Ladies
The Woman in His House
Of Human Bondage
Hollywood on Parade No. B-13
The Lady Is Willing
The Scarlet Pimpernel
The Petrified Forest
Romeo and Juliet
It's Love I'm After
Escape to Happiness ... aka "Intermezzo: A Love Story"
Gone With The Wind
The First of the Few
In Which We Serve (voice...uncredited)
War in the Mediterranean(voice)
The Gentle Sex (voice)