January 2, 2017


Leslie Howard [Leslie Howard Stainer] (1893-1943) b. London, England.

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard was a Hollywood and Broadway star in the 1930s and represented the best of Englishness for Americans, and on his return to Britain came to represent England’s ideals for the English. Howard’s English qualities come together in ‘Pimpernel’ Smith (1941), which he also produced and directed. A Cambridge professor who uses archaeology as a cover for rescuing intellectuals and artists from Nazi Germany, Smith (Howard) evades his captors at the end by vanishing, quite literally, in a cloud of smoke. There is much in the film which suggests that Howard’s identification with the struggle against fascism was idealistic rather than political, and when asked by an American student how he got into the racket Smith responds, ‘When a man holds the view that progress and civilisation depend in every age upon the hands and brains of a few exceptional spirits it’s rather hard to stand by and see them destroyed.’ The film also throws light on Howard’s platonic attractiveness: Smith’s only love is for ‘the one sublime woman’, a Greek marble of Aphrodite.

That he had a great deal of respect for real women, however, is demonstrated by his last film as a director, The Gentle Sex (1943), co-directed with Maurice Elvey), it centres on women’s contribution to the war effort. Howard’s best known part may be as Ashley in Gone With the Wind (1939), but he was best loved as the ideal Englishman: patriotism with a light touch, often whimsical, sometimes comic, never too serious to be jingoistic. He died in 1943 after his plane was shot down by the Luftwaffe.

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