Born on this date, April 3, in 1893, there's always been something very modern about Leslie Howard despite his having been gone for 66 years as I write this.
Maybe it's the very fact that Howard never saw old age, being shot down by Germans over the Bay of Biscay at age 50, which keeps him modern, like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. Though despite his playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939), Leslie Howard certainly isn't celebrated in nearly the same way those latter superstars still are today. Perhaps that is the distance of time, though neither Marilyn nor Dean took a breath at the same time as I have and their legends both carry forth.
What the premature death of a Hollywood star does do is extinguish the possibility of their glamor wearing off while watching them age before us as time ticks by, and so Leslie Howard will never be any more than fifty to any of us. Think of the far more modern Elizabeth Taylor by comparison. Though still with us, Liz doesn't seem all that modern to us today at age 77.
But, my, that's depressing, let's move on! I'd mentioned Howard's portrayal of Ashley in Gone With the Wind, which is a part I think we can safely refer to Howard as an afterthought in. The same can be said of his appearance eight years earlier opposite Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1931). In fact it occurs to me, Leslie Howard doesn't have much of a chance when he's forced to share the screen with Clark Gable!
Leslie Howard is an actor we want to like. In her post this week about the Korda Brothers, Jennythenipper writes of her "quest to begin to appreciate Leslie Howard," and I have to admit I often feel the same way about Howard, almost like I need his talent force-fed to me.
Why do we want to like him? Maybe it's as simple as his early passing. Perhaps it's because that death was a violent one. And maybe the quest continues all the more because his killing comes with the possibility of heroism--Howard may have been a decoy for Winston Churchill, who was also on a flight that day. Maybe it's simpler. Maybe his characters at times give us a glimpse of what there is to like about him.
For the longest time my greatest exposure to Leslie Howard had been as Phillip Carey in Of Human Bondage (1934). Having had the pleasure of reading Somerset Maugham's novel long before I saw the film, I was disappointed but not terribly so. I've often pointed to Bondage as a tale most young men should easily relate too, well at least any who have been at the complete mercy of a woman to whom their only desire is to please. In sum, Philip Carey is a pathetic character through most of Of Human Bondage, and Howard excels at playing this trait. Again, could be that he played Carey so well that he planted a seed within me that A Free Soul continued to perpetuate.
But the first time I came to really appreciate Leslie Howard, the first time I grew beyond thinking, "eh, he's okay," at the mention of his name was in his masterful performance as the drifter Alan Squier in The Petrified Forest (1936). Overshadowed by another film legend, this time Humphrey Bogart in his breakout role of vicious Duke Mantee, Howard here does hold his own and rises at least close to the level of Bogart's performance. Taken together I see The Petrified Forest as a masterpiece.
Both men were quite familiar with their parts, having played them on stage the previous year. The Internet Broadway Database lists the show as having run for 197 performances, and while I can't be sure whether Howard and Bogart performed in all of them, I can say that the more experienced Howard was impressed by Bogart enough to lobby for him to get the part on screen.
Despite The Petrified Forest being Bogart's coming out party, Howard excels. Leslie Howard is the hero of The Petrified Forest and his drifter has a laid-back spirit and confidence about him which I had never picked up on before. He even gets the girl in this one, in this case a much kinder Bette Davis than the shrillish Mildred that Howard has the misfortune of loving in Of Human Bondage.
But when I decided to write about Howard's birthday today I wanted a little more. I decided I had to watch one of the two classics featuring him which I had never seen. My first choice was Pygmalion (1939), where his Henry Higgins garnered Howard his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Unfortunately Netflix doesn't make Pygmalion, or any other Howard titles, available for instant download, nor does Amazon offer it as part of it's Video on Demand collection. Amazon does however make my back-up choice, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), available by download as both a rental and for purchase.
So, what the heck, I paid $2.99 for the purpose of renting The Scarlet Pimpernel for a week and watched it here at my desk tonight. First, a word on the Amazon Video on Demand offering, as Pimpernel was my first viewing from the service.
After purchase of your rental you have 30 days in which to view it, with a 7-day rental clock ticking down from the time you press play. I watched Pimpernel at my desk, because I can't seem to watch anything on the couch these days without dozing off midway through. I did have the option of registering my Amazon purchase to my Netflix Roku player and watching it on television if I preferred.
Having watched several films from Netflix on my computer prior to my purchase of the Roku Player, of course my Amazon purchase brought immediate comparison. All of my Netflix viewings started within a few moments of purchase and have played out flawlessly. Upon download Pimpernel began playing immediately, but did freeze on one occasion, early at the 7-1/2 minute mark. After a few nervous moments it righted itself and then played to the end without any problems. The transfer was pretty lousy overall, likely due to whichever print was being transmitted, though I must say it appeared much clearer in the tiny Amazon screen than it did when I enlarged it for viewing. Still, I wasn't going to squint, so I watched the entire picture in full-screen mode.
Overall I think of the Netflix service as a 9/10. Right now, and mind you this is based only upon the single viewing of Pimpernel, I'd put Amazon's service at about a 6 by comparison.
But on to The Scarlet Pimpernel! Based on the 1903 play, and then novel, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, I had somehow made it through life having zero familiarity with this French Revolution era story starring the mysterious Pimpernel. Maybe it was the title. It's always sounded, well, lame to me. In fact, even as I pressed play tonight the question rolled around in the back of my mind, "What the hell does that mean?"
Well, one of the characters asked the same question early on The Scarlet Pimpernel, and we're told that it's a humble wayside flower. Okay, I may have gone with a different name myself if I were a mysterious adventurer hellbent on saving the aristocracy from the guillotine, but hey, it worked.
The picture opens by very effectively transferring us back to 1792 and we soon see the blade fall several times in succession on many of the formerly titled folks of Paris. We even see Robespierre, one of the more intriguing characters of history who matched up well here with more modern day History Channel interpretations. Through Robespierre we meet Chauvelin, played by Raymond Massey with a sternness which had me recall his latter day portrayal of Adam Trask, James Dean's father, in East of Eden (1955).
Chauvelin's task is to find the Pimpernel, a man of mystery who is rescuing French aristocrats from the grip of Robepierre's Reign of Terror. Our first glimpse of the Pimpernel is in disguise as what I guess was an old woman (hag), who talks her way through the citizenry's gates by alluding to a plagued child in the back of her caravan. Of course the Pimpernel is not carrying the plague, but three of the upper-crust whom he has just saved, one of whom being the beautiful Suzanne de Tournay played by Joan Gardner, who is underutilized here.
Reaching safety the Pimpernel removes his disguise to reveal himself as Howard--after reading just a little in preparation for my viewing, I was a little surprised that this reveal came so soon. I'd expected the Pimpernel's identity to be hidden from the viewer, but as it turns out it was only from those not in his crew. Mildly disappointed by this at first, I soon realized it worked best and rather than having any mystery of the story spoiled to me in advance by what I had read, the surprise was actually turned upside-down by being allowed to know.
Back in London we meet the Lady Marguerite Blakeney, played by Merle Oberon. Lady Blakeney is being painted and we are immediately encouraged to like her as she's playful and down-to-earth, though both qualities seem to go missing after this initial scene with Oberon. The mild shocker early on is the appearance of her husband, Sir Percy Blakeney, who turns out to be none other than the Pimpernel himself, Leslie Howard. More surprising is what I initially mistook for a look of hatred crossing Lady Blakeney's face as Howard enters the scene.
We soon see why. The hero Pimpernel we've only been briefly introduced too is actually a real jerk as Sir Percy. Dandy would best describe him, even better the words of the Prince of Wales to Sir Percy, "You're brainless, spineless, useless, but you do know clothes." His wife refers to him as "the biggest fool in London," and goes further commenting "When I married him he was a man." Yet another interesting twist is when the Lady Blakeney's character is called into doubt, muddled by Sir Percy's mention of her having squealed about a Marquis, providing the information the French needed to put him to the chopping block. There goes Oberon's early charm!
The Scarlet Pimpernel gave Leslie Howard a chance to show us his entire range. For instance, the foppish Sir Percy makes a hit with his peers through a poem he recites a few times throughout, poetry he confirms because it rhymes:
They seek him here,
They seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?
Is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel
But this same man will later recite lines from Shakespeare's Richard II, not coincidentally the story of a deposed King who meets his end by violence, showing us the deeper side which we caught glimpse of in the hag scene at the beginning and thereafter only hinted at through brief communications with the Pimpernel's men.
The Sir Percy we see throughout the middle portion of the film is best summed up by Chauvelin's reaction to him in the library. Chauvelin had received information about a midnight meeting including the Pimpernel. He arrives to the library early and finds Sir Percy sprawled across the couch fast asleep. Massey's Chauvelin hovers over him and for a moment you can see concern and then shock cross his eyes before finally his lips curl to smile. There's no way this fool, Sir Percy, could be, or have anything to do with the Pimpernel.
In the end I found The Scarlet Pimpernel very entertaining. I enjoyed the adventure, the setting, and most of all Leslie Howard, which is exactly as I had hoped. His performance here, especially coupled with The Petrified Forest, changes my interpretation of Howard. I write this finding it impossible to think of him solely as the poor sap overshadowed by Gable a couple of times, or catering to Mildred's whimsy in Of Human Bondage, but instead as a charming and versatile actor who can play it both straight and with a touch of humor.
Breaking down this wall with The Scarlet Pimpernel elevates Pygmalion onto my list of movies that I must view.
For more about Leslie Howard please see Karen Costanzi's article Leslie Howard: Actor & Patriot on sister site things-and-other-stuff.com