- Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor
Estel Eforgan’s biography of Leslie Howard is a bonanza for modernist studies. In recent years, this ever expanding field has turned to visual media and performance not as separate forms of artistic production but as modes of expression sharing cultural and political imperatives with literature, foregrounding issues surrounding economic, technical, and social modes of production, circulation, and reception. Ever since auteur theory took hold in the 1960s, film directors have been receiving aesthetic attention equal to that paid to writers and other visual artists. But directors do not work alone. Theirs is a collaborative enterprise, undertaken with screen writers, editors, set designers, cinematographers, special effects engineers, other technicians, and of course actors. Estel Eforgan’s masterful biography shows how Leslie Howard’s acting career, from the 1920s until his death in 1943, is remarkable not only for his individual talents but also for collaborations that coalesced and activated a political vision that resonated far beyond darkened theatres. Howard’s multifaceted career represents a dynamic interplay of art and political history; working in both Hollywood and Britain as actor, screenwriter and adapter, producer, and director, his artistic commitments and forms of expression are deeply implicated in the political crises of the 1930s and the Second World War. His screen career of that period combines cinematic goals and techniques associated with various modes of modernist art, including the cultural critiques of German expressionism, Chaplin’s political comedy, and experiment with narrative perspective.
Two of the many great achievements of this biography are Eforgan’s judicious examination of the myths and evidence surrounding Howard’s death and her analysis of Howard’s wartime political activism on and off the screen. Leslie Howard Steiner, whose Hungarian Jewish father emigrated from Vienna and whose mother’s origins were Russian and East Prussian Jewish, was born in England in 1893 and was killed in a plane crash over the Bay of Biscay in 1943. As dramatic as any of Howard’s roles, the circumstances of his death are still debated, fostering rumors that the Germans may have targeted him as a British spy. These are rumors that may very well have been fueled by the romantic aura conveyed by Howard’s screen roles and persona. After all, his role in the 1934 film The Scarlet Pimpernel as an aristocratic if prissy savior spy rehearses his 1941 Janus-faced rescuer, Pimpernel Smith. Both films, as Eforgan shows, deploy entertaining but urgent espionage plots on behalf of defeating Nazi Germany and rescuing Hitler’s victims. In 1941, however, as was the case with the anti-Nazi writing of Phyllis Bottome, Storm Jameson, and Rebecca West, “it was not a message that anyone wanted to hear” (103).
Howard’s career began in the 1920s on stages and in film studios in London and New York. Unlike other silent film actors whose insubstantial voices diminished their screen prowess, Howard’s voice, with its tone of ironic doubt, deception, and self-deprecating masculinity, was [End Page 822] sufficiently ambiguous to appeal to middlebrow as well as coterie audiences. He became a Hollywood star during the 1930s when the Hays Production Code went into effect. While the code has been criticized for its suppression of honest sexuality, Eforgan treats the subject incisively, showing how it also monitored “sexual sadism” (97). Nonetheless, because of the code, Howard’s 1933 film Of Human Bondage, adapted from the Somerset Maugham novel, had to excise any hint of Maugham’s homosexual subtext. Howard’s Hollywood and British roles express emotionally and politically nuanced challenges, exemplified by his intellectual ripostes to Humphrey Bogart’s brutishness in Warner Brothers’ 1936 adaptation of Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest, his fast talking, metrosexual Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, and even his portrayal of the erotically challenged Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (a role he hated). Howard’s persona as an otherwise witty, elegantly sardonic dissident won him wide appeal on both sides of the Atlantic. He had made an elegant life for himself in the U.S., living luxuriously and amorously...