IN PRAISE OF LESLIE HOWARD

This past weekend I was on the campus of The Ohio State University, visiting the library to see an exhibit of Shakespearean materials.  Displays featured books, cabinet cards, posters and playbills associated with two and a half centuries’ worth of productions of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet.  One of the few films among the chosen productions was the 1936 MGM Romeo and Juliet in which Leslie Howard played Romeo.  It is fashionable today to consider Howard the only casting mistake in Gone with the WindTHIS ATTITUDE FAILS TO APPRECIATE HOW POPULAR THE ENGLISH ACTOR WAS IN THIS COUNTRY IN THE THIRTIES, ESPECIALLY WITH FEMALE MOVIEGOERS.

He was the debonair Englishman par excellence; and he was at least as popular as Ronald Colman.  The American public of the time saw no problem in his having the significant role as the great romantic passion, and illusion, of Scarlett O’Hara’s life..  He had usually been a romantic leading man, romancing Bette Davis (It’s Love I’m After), seducing Ingrid Bergman (Intermezzo), and being nominated for the Academy Award for playing the screen’s first Henry Higgins (Pygmalion)  —  when he wasn’t fighting Nazis in The 49th Parallel or fighting the French Revolution in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Howard saw to it that Humphrey Bogart was cast in the film of The Petrified Forest in the role of Duke Mantee.  They had appeared together in the Broadway play.  There had been discussion of replacing Bogart in the movie.  Their chemistry is special, even viewed today  Howard and Bogart also appeared together in one of the best comedies about Hollywood, Stand-In.  If you are not familiar with Stand-In,  be on the lookout for its next showing on Turner Classic Movies.  Howard and Bogart make a perfect team, of opposites, trying to save a movie and a studio.  They are ably supported by Joan Blondell and Alan Mowbray.  Howard and Bogart always remained friends.  Bogart’s daughter Leslie was named for him.

Leslie Howard co-directed Pygmalion the year before he was in Gone with the Wind.  After GWTW Howard returned to England where produced and directed a couple of films,  including the memorable First of the Few ,known here as Spitfire.

Leslie Howard, in British intelligence, was killed in a plane crash in 1943.  The Nazis downed the plane, believing they had Churchill.  Howard was the only one of the four stars of Gone with the Wind who did not live to know the films’s longevity.  He had said from the start that he was too old to play Ashley and that he thought the script a bunch of nonsense.  “Damned if I’ll read the book.”  He was apparently taken to task at one point by Vivien Leigh who had long admired him and who told him she was disappointed that he was not more serious about the film.  Howard was 45 when the film was released.  (This makes him a 42 -year-old Romeo for the earlier film!).  In the novel Ashley Wilkes is 19.  GWTW marked his first appearance in color, and this aged him.  He had one of those classic black and white thirties faces.

Gone with the Wind
Victor Fleming
1939

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More on HIGH AND LOW:  Anyone interested in my April 17 discussion of Akira Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW might wish to follow the film up in the superb compilation World Film Directors, vol. 1, 1890-1945, edited by John Wakeman, New York, Wilson, 1987.  In the article on Kurosawa, David Williams sees the film as divided into two parts and views the second part as deliberately reducing the suspense of the first section. He also cites Donald Richie and Noel* Burch and Joan Mellen with their interesting perspectives on this rich and remarkable film.

*Sorry, Noel.  My keyboard lacks an umlaut.

Thank you for looking in.  NEXT POST May 2.

See you at the movies,

Rick

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