Leslie Howard Steiner (3 April 1893 – 1 June 1943) was an English stage and film actor, director, and producer. Howard also wrote many stories and articles for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair and was one of the biggest box-office draws and movie idols of the 1930s. He is probably best remembered for playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939). He had roles in many other notable films, including Berkeley Square (1933), Of Human Bondage (1934), (1934), The Petrified Forest(1936),(1938), Intermezzo (1939), “Pimpernel” Smith (1941), and The First of the Few (1942). He was nominated for the Intermezzo (1939), “Pimpernel” Smith (1941), and The First of the Few (1942). He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for Berkeley Square and Pygmalion.
Scott Sunderland, Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion (1938), which Howard co-directed
In 1920 Howard suggested forming a film production company, British Comedy Films Ltd., to his friend Adrian Brunel. The two eventually settled on the name Minerva Films Ltd. The company’s board of directors consisted of Howard, Brunel, C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Playfair and A. A. Milne. One of the company’s investors was H. G. Wells. Although the films produced by Minerva—which were written by A. A. Milne—were well received by critics, the company was only offered £200 apiece for films it cost them £1,000 to produce and Minerva Films Ltd. was short-lived. Early films include four written by A. A. Milne, including The Bump, starring C. Aubrey Smith; Twice Two; Five Pounds Reward; and Bookworms, the latter two starring Howard. Some of these films survive in the archives of the British Film Institute.
Following his move to Hollywood, Howard often played stiff upper lipped Englishmen. He appeared in the film version of Outward Bound(1930), though in a different role than the one he portrayed on Broadway. He had second billing under Norma Shearer in A Free Soul (1933), which also featured Lionel Barrymoreand future Gone With the Wind rival Clark Gable six years prior to their Civil Warmasterpiece. He starred in the film version of Berkeley Square (1933), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He played the title character in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934).
Howard co-starred with Bette Davis in The Petrified Forest (1936) and reportedly insisted that Humphrey Bogart play gangster Duke Mantee, repeating his role from the stage production. It re-launched Bogart’s screen career, and the two men became lifelong friends; Bogart and Lauren Bacall later named their daughter “Leslie Howard Bogart” after him.
Howard had earlier co-starred with Davis in the film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s book Of Human Bondage (1934) and later in the romantic comedy It’s Love I’m After (1937) (also co-starring Olivia de Havilland). He played Professor Henry Higgins in the film version of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1938), with Wendy Hiller as Eliza, which earned Howard another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Howard starred with Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo(1939) and Norma Shearer in a film version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1936).Pygmalion (1938) won a bevy of academy awards but went almost ignored in England. In 1939 as war approached he played opposite Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo; that August he was determined to return to the country of his birth. Howard was eager to help the war effort, but lost any support for a new film; instead he was obliged to relinquish £20,000 of holdings in the USA before he could leave the country.
Howard is perhaps best remembered for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind(1939), his last American film, but he was uncomfortable with Hollywood and returned to Britain to help with the Second World Wareffort. He starred in a number of Second World War films including 49th Parallel (1941), “Pimpernel” Smith (1941), and The First of the Few (1942, known in the U.S. as Spitfire), the latter two of which he also directed and co-produced. His friend and The First of the Few co-star, David Niven said Howard was “…not what he seemed. He had the kind of distraught air that would make people want to mother him. Actually, he was about as naïve as General Motors. Busy little brain, always going.”
During wartime Howard made documentaries with Noël Coward for the BBC, typically inFrom the Four Corners(1942), in which he eulogised on the principles of defending the British Commonwealth. “To hell”, he said of his critics. He took to directing also with Pimpernel Smith (1941), after years of experience with technical cameramen. The film was a big success in Britain and USA, but was deemed as deliberate attempt at propaganda. In throwing down the challenge to the Nazis, some critics have said the film spelt a death sentence to his career. He lived with Violette Cunnington at the weekend, now his girlfriend on the set of Pimpernel. In49th Parallel (1941) he delivered the famous lines, “So that’s how you are, Nazis!” The first of his nearly death-defying films came in 1942 withFirst of the few – aka Spitfire. R.J. Mitchell was the designer of the famous fighter aeroplane that featured in a romantic film that glorified the heroism of Mitchell’s role. Mitchell’s death was over-played and non-factual, but made more of the circumstances.(Matthew Sweet, film critic.). His son Ronald Howard worked in the Royal Navy during the war. His daughter married a Royal Canadian Army officer, Robert Dale-Harris. Howard’s attitude was “marry that dull young man”, and so she did in 1943. Howard then directedThe Gentle Sex(1943). His biographer,Quentin Falkbelieved the shock of Violette Cunnington’s death was total and devastating. Another biographer, American Professor Robert Wheeler believed that the cultural expedition to Spain through the British Council was an effort to contribute more to the war effort, after his lover had gone. On June 1st, 1943 his flight was arranged for Flight 777, some unimportant persons were asked to depart. Leslie was late and stopped to buy stockings for a lady friend. They flew over the Bay of Biscay, but were shadowed by enemy aircraft, “tapped by enemy aircraft” in the last message. The plane was shot down over the sea, on board were three VIPs: Ivan Sharp, economic warfare ministry man, Mr Shervington, Director of Shell Oil and Chief of Secret Service; Wilfred Israel, Head of getting Jews out of Europe, Spain station. Subsequent biographers have tried to explain the theory that the Nazis targeted the civilian flight.
In 1944, after his death, British exhibitors voted him the second most popular local star at the box office.His daughter said he was a “remarkable man.”
Leslie Howard and Myrna Loy in The Animal Kingdom (1932)