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Howard, Leslie (1893-1943)

Actor, Director, Producer

Main image of Howard, Leslie (1893-1943)

Though he would spend much of his career specialising in roles that conveyed a certain type of gentle, civilised Englishness, Leslie Howard not only came from immigrant stock but his first language was German. His Hungarian-Jewish father, Ferdinand Steiner, anglicised his name to Frank Stainer when he moved to London and married barrister's daughter Lilian Howard (née Blumberg). Though born in Forest Hill (on 3 April 1893), their son initially grew up in Vienna, returning to London and a Dulwich College education when his father joined a City stockbroking firm. Intending Leslie to follow in his footsteps, he secured him a job as a bank clerk, but the acting bug had already bitten thanks to his mother's fondness for amateur dramatics, and Leslie would take on her adopted maiden name as his own. He first appeared onscreen in the 1914 film The Heroine of Mons, directed by his uncle Wilfred Noy.

When the First World War began shortly afterwards, Howard joined the 20th Hussars (despite the fact that he had never ridden a horse) and served on the Western Front. The Somme disaster of 1916 triggered shell-shock, and he was invalided out of the army. That same year he married and began his acting career in earnest, his matinee-idol looks helping him to success in theatres on both sides of the Atlantic. He made some minor films in the early 1920s as both actor and producer (teaming up with Adrian Brunel as British Comedy Films Ltd, later Minerva Films), but it was with the coming of sound that his screen career really took off, thanks to Hollywood's need to recruit actors with good stage-trained voices, the better to cope with primitive early recording equipment.

Already a major Broadway star, he made his talkie debut with Outward Bound (US, 1930), based on an existing stage success. The theatre would fuel many of his best-remembered early screen roles, notably The Petrified Forest (US, 1936), for which Howard insisted that he would only reprise his stage role (as an effete, jaded intellectual) if the same deal was offered to his little-known co-star Humphrey Bogart - and by then Howard had enough power in the industry to make such demands, thanks to a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Berkeley Square (US, 1933). Bogart and Howard became firm friends, and many years after the latter's death Bogart named his daughter Leslie as a tribute to the man who launched his screen career.

By the mid-1930s, Howard had also made a mark on British cinema, his breakthrough coming with the 1935 smash hit The Scarlet Pimpernel (d. Harold Young), where his definitive incarnation of Baroness Orczy's Sir Percy Blakeney confidently straddled both the frivolous foppery that he presents to the wider world and the dashing heroism of his alter ego, selflessly saving innocents from the French revolutionary guillotine.

His next British film, Pygmalion (1938), was also his directorial debut, working alongside the more experienced Anthony Asquith. George Bernard Shaw adapted his own play, and although the veteran playwright had misgivings about Howard's suitability for what he saw as a more querulous and cynical role (Shaw favoured Charles Laughton), these were not shared either by audiences or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gave him a second Best Actor Oscar nomination (Shaw himself won Best Screenplay).

The year the Second World War broke out, Howard played his most famous role, as the archetypal Southern gentleman Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind (US, 1939). He could easily have stayed in Hollywood for the duration, but he was one of the first British stars to make a point of returning home (he actually did this a few days before war broke out, realising that it was inevitable). The rest of his career was spent helping the war effort, both through overt propaganda (From The Four Corners, 1941, shows him escorting Australian, Canadian and New Zealand soldiers to the dome of St Paul's to give them a panoramic view of and lecture about what they were fighting to preserve) and fiction features designed to convey a similar message.

His first film as solo director, 'Pimpernel' Smith (1941), wittily updated his most famous British role to a WWII scenario, with his Professor Horatio Smith performing similarly daring rescues of key Allied scientists and humanitarians from Nazi clutches. The same year, he played the explorer Philip Armstrong Scott in the Ministry of Information-backed 49th Parallel (d. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) in a neat inversion of his real-life persona: Scott has selfishly detached himself from his fellow countrymen's concerns by retreating to Canada and refusing to recognise the Nazi threat until his own possessions are brought into the equation.

Howard directed two more features: The First of the Few (1942), a straightforward flag-waver in which he played Spitfire inventor R.J.Mitchell. This was to be his last major screen role - he stayed behind the camera on The Gentle Sex (1943), contributing only narration, as he felt his onscreen presence would have distracted from the film's main aims, to portray and celebrate the contribution of women to the war effort.

Howard intended to continue in this vein with The Lamp Still Burns (1943), a surprisingly hard-hitting study of the pressures faced by nurses in pre-NHS British hospitals. However, it ended up being directed by Maurice Elvey after Howard was shot down by the Luftwaffe over the Bay of Biscay as he flew home after a lecture tour that may have been a cover for a British Intelligence mission. It is still not clear whether Howard was mistaken for Winston Churchill (who was also travelling in the region) or whether he was the intended target. Certainly, Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels was well aware of his importance to the British people as the very embodiment (both onscreen and off) of all they stood for and all that was worth cherishing about their values. His shockingly sudden death was widely regarded as a national tragedy.

Michael Brooke

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