MCM: Leslie Howard


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.

1939 Gone With the Wind

“There’s been some kind of mistake. I think I’m on the wrong set…”

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.

Berkeley Square (1933) 1933 Berkeley-Square Berkeley Square (1933)

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.

Secrets (1933) Secrets (1933) 1933 Secrets

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.

1934 The Scarlet Pimpernel The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)
1934 The Scarlet Pimpernel

That’s a-moiré.

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.”

Romeo and Juliet (1936) Romeo and Juliet (1936) 1936 Romeo and Juliet


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

1939 Gone With the Wind

Gone With the Wind (1939)

1939 Gone With the Wind



What’s your favorite Leslie Howard historical costume film?

17 Responses

  1. Caroline Macafee

    Thank you for this Howard fest! I watched the *Romeo and Juliet* recently, and a bit warily, as both the leads are, in theory, way too old for the parts of the young lovers. But with Shakespeare, it’s all about the words, and having the words delivered by such mature performers is stupendous. It’s also a more complete textual rendering than we usually get with Shakespeare on film. Shearer’s horror at the thought of lying in the tomb with the remains of Tybalt (lines that are usually cut) sent shivers down my spine. And the men is tights are lovely, and not just Howard. It was actually for Basil Rathbone (as Tybalt) that I bought the film. Rathbone next, please, please, pretty please?

    • Donna

      I’m with you on this version of Romeo & Juliet … Howard, Rathbone *and* John Barrymore … swoon. Also, for comic relief, Edna Mae Oliver and Andy Devine

  2. Susan Pola

    ‘Those Frenchies seek him everywhere…’ is my favourite Leslie Heard film, followed by, although I prefer the Zefferelli version, Romeo and Juliet.

    Also, although it really isn’t a costume flick, Pimpernel Smith is a delight. It is a retelling of the Scarlet Pimpernel, this time with Nazis as the villains.

    I believe his daughter wrote a bio about him. Been trying to find it recently to reread.

      • Susan Pola

        Going to library later this week, I will add it to the DVD list I’m going to check out. Always nice to get a recommendation for stuff.

        • Emily De Palma

          Susan Pola ~ for a truly, lovely romantic film!!! ~ with our dear Leslie & Norma Shearer, you have to hunt down a copy of: “Smilin Through” !!!
          It is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, Leslie is amazing and so romantic you just want to marry him on the spot! Also, lots of wonderful romantic footage
          of this couple, and two different time periods too, which is always neat!
          I have to say that Fredric March in this film is truly amazing and has such
          wonderful on screen chemistry with the heroine, that he became a new favorite of mine ~ wow can the guy act! (He was a banker I think and then had a near death operation and after that, he realized life is too short to not be courting your
          true passions for a career, so he began to break into acting.
          All I can say is you’re in for a special treat and I would watch it twice!

          Love & Happiness,
          ~ Nell

  3. severn14

    I have a deep and abiding love for Leslie Howard’s gorgeous cultured voice. *swoon* I too was underwhelmed by Ashley Wilkes, but when I saw Howard in other things, especially as the foppish Pimpernel, I became a big fan. :)

  4. Wolf Girl

    Pygmalion and It’s Love I’m After.
    Have never been able to track down Pimpernel Smith, but I hope to someday.

  5. Charity

    I wish Howard would have realized that he could connect his angst, homesickness, and worry over England entering the war against Germany to how Ashley felt about losing the Old South. It’s a shame… he was blah in the film as a result, because he wanted to be fighting for England. :(

  6. Galatea

    Love Leslie Howard. He fought for Bogart to star in Petrified Forest. He is simply beautiful and the voice is such a lure for me.

    • MoHub

      And Bogart reciprocated by naming his daughter Leslie.

  7. stacysix

    Very definitely “The Scarlet Pimpernel” – it has one of the best instances of the craft of acting I’ve ever seen. There’s this moment when an outsider walks in on Sir Percy and his friends. Sir Percy’s face goes from strong and purposeful to simpering and silly in a breath, and the contrast is simply amazing.

    • SharonD

      I know I am late to this party, but i just discovered your website and have been reading it and listening to podcasts while working out for about 3 days, now…so I really want to comment on Leslie Howard. I agree, he is wonderful in Pimpernel and Romeo & Juliet, a talented actor, but woefully miscast as Ashley Wilkes. Ashley, in the novel, is not this milquetoast, weak-kneed guy. He is handsome in his own right, tall & strong in his own way. Yes, he’s a bookish dreamer, but he comes off as a sickly wimp in the movie, and that’s a real shame, as the other 3 principle characters are sooooo perfectly cast! Ashley’s blond good looks were written to be a direct physical and psychological contrast to the swarthy Rhett. I read a quote in one of my GWTW books (yes, I am one of “those” people, lol! That’s why I am loving this website!) from Leslie Howard that he felt like the costumes in GWTW made him look like a “fairy doorman”, and I guess his detachment from the character showed. So many of my friends puzzle over why in the world Scarlett would be mooning around over “dorky, ugly, wishy-washy Ashley” when Rhett was all hers for the taking. My response is…read the book! All of the characters come off much better in the book. Scarlett, especially, is much more understood in the novel. She’s a woman chafing at the rules and heirarchy of the rigid society she is born into, a modern woman, before her time. She wants none of this business of babies and husbands. Which is telling considering she was written in the 1920s, when women were actually gaining some ground. Oh how poor Scarlett’s life would have been different with access to birth control, lol!! In my mind, there are 3 arenas when it comes to GWTW. The BOOK, the movie itself (which is very much a separate entity to the BOOK), and the people involved in the movie. Vivien Leigh, oh my, how I could run on,,,I could talk about this for hours! Thank you, and love your website!

      • Emily De Palma

        It has been written that part of the reason that Leslie Howard’s performance
        was constrained in GWTW is: he felt he was too old for the part, and his true soul mate: Violette Cuttington, who he truly, truly loved and she him, became ill with pneumonia and died just like that during the filming of GWTW!
        Never had he loved and been loved like this and then to be out of the country and your true love quickly passes away, really affected him on all levels . . . in fact he was
        quite depressed during GWTW and chose to go on the Tour of lecturing to other countries with his friends when GWTW wrapped as he didn’t care whether he lived or died after she died.
        He was already heavily involved with British Secret Service too, at the same time so a lot was on his mind being British versus we Americans were not involved in the war yet.

        BTW, Violette was quite lovely, sweet, intelligent, had class and respected Leslie’s wife by not overstepping her bounds and accepting that she would be Leslie’s mistress and never his wife. She was there for him in every way and quite humble. . . when given a large sum of money to buy a dress from Leslie,
        she came home with a lovely but simple inexpensive dress. Who does that?
        She also was an actress and in 2 films with him prior to their relationship.