Leslie Howard’s career spanned over 20 years on film, starting in silent movies and then transitioning effortlessly into talkies, no doubt thanks to his classical stage training. He often was cast as elegant, sophisticated, wealthy noblemen, but could just as easily slip into a comedic role and frequently his movies combine both elements of drama and comedy, doubtless because he was able to effortlessly transition between the two.
Of course, the role that he is most associated with is that of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939), which essentially reduced his acting abilities to being bland and boring in comparison with the dashing and exciting Rhett Butler. It really is a shame that the overwhelming success of GWTW meant that Leslie Howard would forever be associated with a character that restricted all of his considerable talent to standing around looking slightly bewildered by all of the antics of the main characters. He looks like he has no idea how he ended up on that film set in practically every scene he’s in.
His tragic death three years later during the height of WWII cut short a brilliant career. Theories abound that the plane he was on was intentionally targeted by the Germans because it was thought to be carrying Winston Churchill, or other high-ranking intelligence operatives, including Howard, who was known to be working for British Intelligence. Whatever the truth, Leslie Howard died in the service of his country, the only world-famous English-speaking actor to have that sad distinction during WWII.
So, since the Leslie Howard love is strong here at Frock Flicks, and June 1 marks the 73rd anniversary of his tragic death, let’s all take a moment to appreciate the amazing talents and ridiculous good looks of this legendary actor who was taken too soon.
Berkeley Square (1933) – Peter Standish
I had to restrain myself to three photos, otherwise the entire post would be about Leslie Howard in this movie looking like my personal wet dream of an 18th-century boyfriend.
Secrets (1933) – John Carlton
Howard plays John Carlton, a young clerk who falls in love with an heiress named Mary, played by Mary Pickford in her final film role. The two lovers elope to California and become successful, starting a family, living the American Dream after a few exciting setbacks and a bit of personal tragedy. John becomes so successful, he runs for for Governor of California. On the eve of the election, his mistress Lolita Martinez (no doubt a reference to the notorious adventuress Lola Montez) reveals she and John have been carrying on a torrid love affair. She manages to convince Mary to divorce John so she can marry him, but John finally dislodges his head from his rectal cavity and spurns Lolita, revealing the depth of his love for Mary. Lolita goes public in retaliation, but John is apparently made of anachronistic teflon and wins the election by a landslide. John and Mary manage to patch up their marriage and rekindle the magic in their twilight years, heading back into the California sunset together.
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) – Sir Percy Blakeney
I’ve already written about my undying love for Leslie Howard’s portrayal of the inane/dashing Sir Percy, but let us all enjoy the eye candy once more of some of his best costumes. And truly, if you haven’t watched this film yet, TREAT YO SELF. It’s delightful and Leslie is at his best, IMHO. Also: cravat porn.
Romeo and Juliet (1936) – Romeo
Leslie Howard plays opposite Norma Shearer as the two doomed lovers. Apparently The New York Times listed this film as one of the “Best 1,000 Films Ever Made.” I don’t know about you, but Leslie Howard in tights goes on my list of “Hottest Men on Film Ever.” Not much I can really say about the plot because it’s practically encoded in the DNA of the English-speaking population of the world. The film sticks fairly faithfully to Shakespeare’s original, with a few deviations and omissions owing to filming constraints. Otherwise it’s the same ‘ol “doomed lovers die stupid, avoidable deaths, if only they had bothered to communicate with one another a little bit.”
Gone With the Wind (1939) – Ashley Wilkes
For years, this was the only film I had ever watched with Howard in it, so my impression of his acting abilities was summed up with “Meh.” It wasn’t until I went through a silver screen movie binge much later in my adulthood that I discovered what a talented actor he truly was. Plus there’s that whole “Slave owner, Confederate soldier, and KKK member” thing that wasn’t exactly flattering by modern standards. That said, he is still pretty to look at, and you all will personally murder me in the comments if I don’t include GWTW in this list.
What’s your favorite Leslie Howard historical costume film?