Name: Leslie Howard (Steiner)
Birthdate: April 3, 1893
Number of Films Leslie Howard Made With Humphrey Bogart: 2
If you were going to make a “Top 3” list of actors that deserve to be listed under “The Usual Suspects” portion of this blog, first on the list would probably have to be Lauren Bacall. (I’m getting to it!) Second, perhaps, might be someone like Peter Lorre – who was not only a common collaborator, but also a close friend to Bogart. And while other actors might be able to argue for the third spot, I would personally have to give it to Leslie Howard.
Friends with Bogart since their time together on Broadway, it’s generally accepted that Howard was the one who insisted that Bogart get the chance to play the role of ‘Duke’ Mantee in the filmed version of the play that they’d appeared together in on Broadway. While Bogart had big roles in a number of movies prior to Forest, the role of ‘Duke’ Mantee was arguably his “breakout role.” And while it would take another thirty or so films to cement his place into Classic Hollywood history, Bogart was so grateful for the friendship and the opportunity that Howard provided him, that he and Lauren Bacall named their daughter Leslie Howard Bogart in honor of their good friend.
Born in London to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, Howard began his theater career in London, eventually moving to the U.S. where he would go on to gain his greatest success on Broadway and in Hollywood before finally returning to his home country during World War II. Howard’s career was unfortunately cut short when a squad of German Luftwaffe shot down his commercial airliner on a trip from Portugal to the United Kingdom. Howard was just fifty years old.
It’s with great pleasure that I can add Leslie Howard to the growing list of “The Usual Suspects.” Without his support, Bogart’s film career would likely have never reached the legendary heights and worldwide accolades that it did, and Classic Hollywood might have missed out on recognizing its greatest star!
The Petrified Forest – 1936
Howard plays Alan Squier, a drifter/writer/rambler who’s hitchhiking his way across the U.S. when he walks into a little gas station café in the Arizona desert for a “bar-bee-cue.” He meets Gabby Maple (Bette Davis), the daughter of the café’s owner, and she quickly falls in love with him. Squier knows that it’s not a good match and moves on, only to find himself returning to the gas station to use his intellect and wits to save the day when notorious gangster ‘Duke’ Mantee (Bogart) commandeers the café while on the run from the authorities.
Howard’s Squier is a depressed wanderer at heart. He’s loaded down with emotional baggage and seems to be struggling to find a reason to keep on living. Why is he headed to the ocean? To throw himself in? Perhaps. . .
Howard portrays the depressive intellectual wonderfully, and his playful banter with Bette Davis is both the heart and the backbone of the film. We believe that Howard’s mind is stimulated by Davis’ ingénue intellectual-in-the-making. Do we believe that he’d really turn down her advances and move on with his journey? Well, the script says that he must, so I guess we have to believe it too. But doggone it, I wouldn’t have been able to walk away from that smile.
Squier eventually makes the ultimate sacrifice as he strikes a deal with Duke to ensure that Gabby will be able to achieve her dream of escaping the café.
My original write up on the film can be found here . . .
Stand-In – 1937
Howard plays Atterbury Dodd, the math-obsessed bank accountant who’s sent to Hollywood so that he can audit a studio.
I don’t know when Asperger’s Syndrome was first diagnosed as a legitimate condition, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that Atterbury Dodd has a classic case of it. He’s completely oblivious to many common social cues, he has trouble feeling empathy, and he becomes obsessed over logic and minutia. Howard’s great in the role, but unfortunately, all the chemistry between him and Joan Blondell suffers because, well, people who don’t feel empathy have a hard time garnering sympathy. It’s hard to understand why Blondell is in love with him. It’s hard to understand why he finally returns the affections for a woman that he cannot identify with.
All that being said, there are a few really great scenes in the film between Howard and Blondell, and between Howard and Bogart. When Blondell tries to teach Howard judo, we get perhaps the greatest laugh in the film. And when Howard finally teams up with Bogart to save a movie production, it’s the camaraderie that we’ve been waiting for since the beginning of the movie.
Also, the scene at the end where Howard is literally overrun by unemployed studio laborers, only to finally learn how to talk humanely to his fellow man, is handled very well, and it’s one of the few moments of believable character growth that we’re given for his Atterbury Dodd.
You can read my original write up on the film here.
The Usual Suspects is an ongoing series of posts about some of Bogart’s more regular collaborators. You can check out other entries in the series here.