Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Leslie Howard

On June 1, 1943, actor Leslie Howard died. He was born Leslie Howard Steiner in Forest Hill, England. Howard began acting on the London stage in 1917 but had his greatest theatrical success in the United States on Broadway, in plays such as Aren't We All? (1923), Outward Bound (1924), and The Green Hat (1925). He became an undisputed Broadway star in Her Cardboard Lover (1927). After his success as time traveler Peter Standish in Berkeley Square (1929), he launched his Hollywood career by repeating the Standish role in the 1933 film version of the play.

The stage, however, continued to be an important part of his career. Howard frequently juggled acting, producing, and directing duties in the Broadway productions in which he starred. Howard was also a playwright, starring in the Broadway productions of his plays Murray Hill (1927) and Out of a Blue Sky (1930). However, he was always best known for his acting, enjoying triumphs in The Animal Kingdom (1932) and The Petrified Forest (1935). But he had the bad timing to open on Broadway in William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1936) just a few weeks after John Gielgud launched a rival production of the same play that was far more successful with both critics and audiences. Howard’s production, his final stage role, lasted only 39 performances.

With Bette Davis in "The Petrified Forest (1936) 

In 1920 Howard and his friend Adrian Brunel founded the short-lived company Minerva Films in London; Howard was producer and actor, and Brunel the story editor. Early films include four written by A. A. Milne, including The Bump, starring C. Aubrey Smith; Twice Two; Five Pound Reward; and Bookworms. 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 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) and later Professor Henry Higgins in the film version of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1938), which earned him another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Howard co-starred with Bette Davis in The Petrified Forest (1936) and reportedly insisted that Humphrey Bogart appear in the film as gangster Duke Mantee. Howard and Bogart had previously appeared in the play together on Broadway and became lifelong friends; the Bogarts named their daughter Leslie 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). Howard starred with Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo (1939) and Norma Shearer in a film version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1936).

Howard is best remembered for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939), but he was uncomfortable with Hollywood and returned to England to help with the Second World War effort. 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."

Widely known as a ladies' man (he himself once said that he "didn't chase women but … couldn't always be bothered to run away"). Howard is reported to have had an affair with Tallulah Bankhead when they appeared on stage in Her Cardboard Lover (1927); Merle Oberon while filming The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Conchita Montenegro, with whom he had appeared in the film Never the Twain Shall Meet (1931). However, towards the end of his life, with the full knowledge of his wife, he did take a mistress, Violette Cunningham. The actress who appeared in Pimpernel Smith and First of the Few in minor roles, acted as his secretary, but died in 1942 of pneumonia in her early 30s, six months before Howard's death. There are also rumors of affairs with Norma Shearer and Myrna Loy (during filming of The Animal Kingdom).

Howard died on June 1, 1943, when flying to Bristol, England from Lisbon, Portugal, on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight 777. The aircraft was shot down by German Luftwaffe fighter aircraft over the Bay of Biscay. His body was never recovered. A long-standing hypothesis states that the Germans believed that UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had been in Algiers, was on board the flight. Churchill himself can be blamed for the spread of the theory; in his autobiography, he expresses sorrow that a mistake about his activities might have cost Howard his life. German intelligence agents were in contact with members of the merchant navy in Britain and had been informed of Churchill’s departure and route. German spies watching the airfields of neutral countries may have mistaken Howard and his manager, as they boarded their aircraft, for Churchill and his bodyguard. Howard's manager Alfred Chenhalls physically resembled Churchill, while Howard was tall and thin, like Churchill's bodyguard, Detective Inspector Walter H. Thompson. Churchill’s Bodyguard noted that Thompson had written that Churchill at times seemed clairvoyant about suspected threats to his safety and, acting on a premonition; he changed his departure to the following day. The crux of the theory posited that Churchill had asked one of his men to tamper with an engine on his aircraft, giving him an excuse not to travel at that time. Speculation by historians has also centered on whether the British code breakers had decrypted several top secret Enigma messages that detailed the assassination plan. Churchill wanted to protect any information that had been uncovered by the code breakers. Although the overwhelming majority of published documentation of the case repudiates this theory, it remains a possibility. Coincidentally, the timing of Howard's takeoff and the flight path was similar to Churchill's, making it easy for the Germans to mistake the two flights., author of "Fade to Black: Graveside Memories of Hollywood Greats, 1927-1950"

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