This is a break from our (semi-)regularly scheduled blog. Rest assured, I am diligently watching the films for the 15th Academy Awards and preparing my commentary on each, but I just finished with the very fine British propaganda film 49th Parallel, starring, amongst others, my absolute favorite discovery of this Oscar journey, Leslie Howard.
Just take a moment. I’ll wait.
My review of that film was going to center on Laurence Olivier’s hilarious French-Canadian accent, and maybe when I post the regular entry it still will, but then I was Skyping with my sister tonight and found out that Leslie Howard died. I knew right away that I could not brush this aside–he has fast become one of my favorite actors, and the news was particularly devastating to me.
Granted, he died in 1943, but that doesn’t make it any less distressing.
The need to pay tribute to this great man was immediately apparent. Ashamed as I am to say it, I had not even heard of Leslie Howard before embarking on this blog, and if I forgot everything else I’ve seen and learned along the way except him, I’d come out far, far ahead.
It has been an unrivaled pleasure to watch him in…
Smilin’ Through (1932/33), my first Howard experience…I was so naive then that I initially mistook him for Fredric March. Was I ever so young? His character, as I mentioned way back when, is one of the most tragic I have ever seen. He carries it with such panache, such restrained tumult, that my heart breaks just remembering it.
Romeo and Juliet (1936). He brought a maturity and, damn it, a sensuality to the title role. Coming off the heels of the debacle that was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, seeing Howard and Norma Shearer do Shakespeare right was even more pleasurable than getting to watch two Powell-Loy vehicles in a single year.
Pygmalion (1938), which he also co-directed. It’s the role for which I will remember him always, because his Professor Henry Higgins embodies everything I love and believe about language and about the human experience. I liked him before but this film made me love him, and you can bet that when I get to My Fair Lady in 1964 his performance will be constantly set against everything that film can offer. It better be damned good.
And that pinnacle of Technicolor indulgence, Gone with the Wind (1939). His all-too-brief moments onscreen made an otherwise insufferable film something approaching tolerable.
And finally he lends his inimitable presence to the third act of 49th Parallel, bringing his unique class to the wilds of British Columbia, his austere dedication to art and culture a passionate and unassailable bulwark against the Nazis.
I’ve also recently seen him in Berkeley Square (1933), one of the first time-travel films and for which he received his first Oscar nomination, and Of Human Bondage (1934), in which he desperately tried to escape Bette Davis’ clutches for an hour and a half. I think that’s an experience to which we can all relate.
It would be difficult to overstate the regard I have for him, as an actor and as a human being. Leslie Howard would be the Hollywood star that I would most readily choose to share a martini or twenty with, whiling away the wee hours of the morning with our talk of everything and nothing. And although I would certainly like to, I don’t think we’d even have to discuss his films…all he’d have to do is quote Macbeth and I’d be happy.
I look forward to discovering and watching more of his extensive career–his 1937 film It’s Love I’m After, co-starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, looks particularly intriguing–but I know that it will be a sad day when I have seen them all, the day when there will be no new Leslie Howard films left. I therefore have made it a point to refuse to view a complete list of his films, so that I might never experience that assuredly empty feeling of knowing that I will never again see one of his performances for the first time.
And I have a feeling that, no matter what new and exciting surprises and cinematic adventures await me as I continue this project–and there will be more, of that I am sure–he will be the high watermark against which the rest will be measured. In conclusion, here he is smoking a cigarette and patting a dog: