One of the great things about participating in the classic film blog community is that I get to meet and chat with so many great folks who are passionately writing about their favorite film topics.
This week I was lucky enough to talk with Ginevra Di Verduno (a pen name), an Italian who runs the Leslie Howard fan site, The Inafferrabile Leslie Howard. Leslie Howard had such a huge influence on Humphrey Bogart’s success, that when I came across Ginevra’s site I couldn’t resist making contact to learn a little more about Howard from someone who’s working hard to keep his legacy alive.
Ginevra apologized for English not being her first language – but as you’ll see, her English is probably better than mine, and most certainly better than my Italian!
Bogie Film Blog: Ginevra, can you tell us a little about yourself? What you do, where you are, who you are, etc. . .
Ginevra Di Verduno: I do not like to talk about myself, and I think my story is not so important, after all. I am Italian, English is not my mother language. Ginevra Di Verduno is a pen name, but I think my identity is not relevant. I have been studying and researching Leslie Howard’s life and career for years, he has become the centre of my interests.
BFB: Fair enough! The Bogie Film Blog keeps a few similar secrets, after all! Can I ask how you became a fan of Leslie Howard? What was the first film you remember seeing?
GDV: In my preadolescence years, I met for the first time the character of Sir Percy Blakeney, invented by Baroness Orczy in her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel. The incredible adventures of the English baronet who braved dangers to save the French aristocrats from the guillotine, hidden behind the mask of a spineless fop, fascinated me and remained impressed in my memory. Some years later, when I became an avid spectator of the old black-and-white cinema, I met my childhood crush again in the famous film version of The Scarlet Pimpernel produced in 1934 by Alexander Korda. Korda’s movie was adapted quite freely from baroness Orczy’s novel, and the main character, Sir Percy Blakeney, was played by Leslie Howard.
Like most Italians of my generation, I already knew Leslie Howard for his role of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. I was not enthusiastic about that film, and Ashley had not impressed me so much. In that role, Leslie Howard inspired me mixed feelings. I certainly loved him better than Clark Gable’s Rhett, because of my instinctive antipathy for Rhett and his type of male character. Nevertheless, though I admired Leslie Howard’s aristocratic elegance in Nineteenth Century clothes, there was something peculiar about his beautiful face that made me feel uneasy. His face was veiled by a sort of painful melancholia, perfectly suited to the sad, resigned character of a Southern gentleman who saw his world disappear. I did not know Leslie Howard loathed that role [and] that he had even refused to read Margaret Mitchell’s novel. I did not know that the making of Gone With the Wind coincided with a crucial moment in his personal and professional life, with the turning point that had forced him to leave Hollywood and go back to England. That melancholia was not only a matter of acting skills.
As Percy Blakeney, Leslie Howard was sensational. I realized that he must have been exceedingly amused when playing that role. The ravishing grace of his movements and the unequaled irony of his speech won me over. His slender, elegant figure was enhanced by the Eighteenth Century clothes, and the close-ups on his youthful face – actually, he was forty-one, but he looked ten years younger – highlighted his eyes, so intensely expressive. He fully embodied my Percy Blakeney, as I had fancied him when I was eleven. I discovered a great actor I have never ceased to love.
BFB: What made you take the leap from fan to blogger in order to honor Leslie?
GDV: I am convinced that Leslie Howard is incredibly underrated by today’s public. The present generation knows him only as Ashley Wilkes, a role he did not love. Many people have never watched classic movies like Berkeley Square, Of Human Bondage, [and] The Petrified Forest. They do not know what a shining Broadway star he was when Hollywood producers started to lure him by offering him the most flattering roles opposite the greatest female stars. He even said no when offered a leading role with Greta Garbo. Under his suave appearance, he was stubborn and strong-willed; he knew perfectly well what he wanted and did not hesitate to put pressure on producers to get it. That is what he did to help Humphrey Bogart to get the Duke Mantee role in The Petrified Forest.
I think it is a shame that after Leslie’s death his name has been almost forgotten. I wonder why the British Film Institute has not taken the initiative of preserving his memory. He chose to leave Hollywood and go back to England to make his films there in very hard times, when many English actors, directors, and producers went the opposite direction. I think his Country should be more grateful to him.
Before I created my blogs (Inafferrabile Leslie on WordPress and Leslie Howard Forever on Tumblr), there were only a few web pages about Leslie Howard. I felt I needed to fill that gap; I wanted to bring him back into the spotlight. I am still working hard, because he deserves a greater recognition than my personal efforts can obtain.
BFB: Can you talk a bit about Leslie’s history? Hollywood has a habit of mixing myth and truth. For instance, is it true that he got into acting for trauma therapy after the war?
GDV: Leslie Howard’s life is a fascinating and rather mysterious history, mainly because the truth about him is still partially hidden behind the public image carefully built up by the Hollywood studios during the Thirties. He was an unconventional man, who refused to adapt himself to the rules of the star system. His behavior was really a thorn in the flesh for producers, and still is for researchers. He rarely appeared at social events, he was very keen on his privacy, he scarcely gave interviews, and when he did, he only talked about acting and film-making.
His interest for the stage had started when he was still a boy. His sister Irene described him as an avid reader of any kind of plays, “from Shakespeare to Sutro,” often shut in his room writing stories and plays. He firstly wanted to become a writer, and later a director and producer. He always thought his success as an actor was just an outcome decided by chance.
Before the First World War he had worked as a bank clerk, but he was extremely unhappy in that position. So when he left the army in 1916, he decided he would not come back to his old occupation. He had recently married Ruth, who shared his love for the stage and was very supportive. Leslie’s mother was a warm supporter, too; she loved theatre and had even acted in several amateur productions. So Leslie haunted a theatre agent until he got a role in a touring company, and that was the beginning of his extraordinary career.
The story about Leslie Howard taking acting as a trauma therapy is absolutely fantastic. In spite of all the tales about his being shell-shocked during the war, there is no evidence that he even went to the front. Of course, this was an uncomfortable topic to be discussed during the Twenties. The First World War was a real massacre, and those who escaped death felt somewhat guilty. Leslie never talked about his war experiences. When asked about this, he always changed the subject.
I am particularly interested in Leslie Howard’s career on stage. Today, this is probably the least known part of his life, though he was extraordinarily popular on Broadway during the Twenties. His first Broadway role was Sir Calverton Shipley in Just Suppose at the Henry Miller’s Theatre in 1920. In 1927, he became a matinée idol as André Sallicel in Her Cardboard Lover, stealing the show from the famous actress Jeanne Eagels. Then Berkeley Square made a real star of him, in 1929. Hollywood producers could no longer ignore his great popularity.
Anyway, Outward Bound was not his first film. In 1919, when he was still in England, Leslie Howard had founded a film production company with his friend Adrian Brunel. Their company had a short life, but they produced several short films, and Leslie played the leading role in two comedies, Five Pounds Reward and Bookworms. He was always interested in film production.
BFB: Of all the films that Leslie Howard acted in, which one would you say is your favorite and why?
GDV: This is a very hard question for me, because I love all his performances, for different reasons. He was such a great actor; he really could play convincingly any kind of role. Hollywood producers tried to cage him in romantic roles, but he was not easy to handle. After his first movies, he had signed strong contracts which allowed him to go back on stage when he wished and to say the last word about a story or a character or a partner he did not like. Today we may discuss his choices, but he surely made them because he was convinced that he could perform on a high level, and because he thought the film was an interesting experiment, as he did when accepting to play Romeo in Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet. The only role he accepted without being convinced is Ashley Wilkes.
If I have to choose just one film, maybe my favorite one is Pygmalion. Henry Higgins is the perfect Howardian role. Though G.B. Shaw did not agreed on the choice of Leslie Howard as Higgins, I think Leslie gave such an inimitable performance in that role that he has become the unavoidable reference for the following generations of actors.
BFB: How about the films that he directed? Is there a favorite?
GDV: Apart from Pygmalion – that he co-directed – my favorite is Pimpernel Smith. There is so much of Leslie Howard’s soul and wit in that film. It is almost prophetical.
BFB: Can you talk a bit about the circumstances surrounding his death? If I’m remembering right, his plane was shot down by the Germans during WWII, and there is some suspicion that he might have been a decoy for Winston Churchill. Do you have a theory on the rumor?
I am afraid that all these speculations about Leslie Howard’s death have been distracting the attention from his life and career. I do not believe that the shooting down of his plane was a case of mistaken identity. Churchill was too conspicuous; I am convinced that the Germans knew all his moves perfectly well. Leslie’s son, Ronald, believed that his father was the real target of the attack. Leslie had an active and prominent role in English propaganda, his radio broadcasts had made a sort of national symbol of him.
Some theories hint that Leslie Howard was on a secret mission when travelling to Portugal and Spain. I do not know whether he was really involved in intelligence activities or not. He surely was a convinced and fierce opponent of Nazism.
BFB: One of the things I love about Classic Hollywood blogs is that they’re a great jumping-off point for many folks who are looking for more info on their favorite actors and films. If there’s a fan out there that really wants to know more about Leslie’s life, is there a book, website, or documentary that you’d recommend for them?
My favorite book about Leslie is Ronald Howard’s In Search Of My Father. In my opinion, Ronald caught his father’s personality better than anyone else. There is a deep understanding and empathy running through those pages; I have read Ronald’s book several times, and I always feel sincerely moved.
Leslie Ruth’s book A Quite Remarkable Father is very entertaining. She was a lively, outspoken person, and Leslie adored her.
Another important book is Trivial Fond Records, a collection of Leslie’s writings edited by Ronald. Leslie was really a gifted writer. I hope his writings will be reprinted, in a complete edition, including his play, Murray Hill.
And of course, I am looking forward to watching Tom Hamilton’s documentaries. I hope they will be released very soon.
BFB: Can you tell us a bit about Hamilton’s campaign to fund the Leslie Howard documentaries?
In 2006, while visiting Toronto for the International Film Festival, Tom Hamilton met Leslie Howard’s grand-daughter who invited him to visit her mother – Leslie Howard’s daughter. At Leslie Ruth’s home, Tom Hamilton discovered some 4 and a half hours of home movies which were in danger of decaying. Leslie Ruth’s stories of her father were so fascinating and illuminating that Tom had the idea of making a documentary about Leslie Howard using the interviews and the home movies.
The small-scale project evolved into a larger one when Tom started to interview Leslie Howard’s colleagues, as well as writers and historians who had studied his life. Besides, each interviewee had strong views and opinions relating to Leslie’s death. In the end, Tom decided to create two distinct films, one – Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn – illustrating Leslie’s life and career, the other – The Mystery of Flight 777 – examining the 70 year old mystery surrounding the attack and shooting down of civilian passenger Flight 777 over the Bay of Biscay. A special contribution is the comment provided by Derek Partridge, who was only a child in 1943 and escaped a tragic death because he had to give way to Leslie Howard aboard the ill-fated Flight 777.
The two documentaries are now in the post-production phase and should be released in 2014. There are still costs to be covered, so Tom Hamilton has launched a new campaign on Indiegogo to raise the funds needed to complete post-production and legal clearance. All contributions, even small ones, can help to reach the goal. I am actively participating in this campaign, and I hope we will have the support of all Leslie’s fans.
BFB: Can you tell us something about Leslie Howard that most people don’t know?
GDV: Leslie always wore a signet ring on the little finger of his left hand, with the Blumberg family crest on it (his mother’s maiden name was Blumberg), and a gold sovereign Ruth had given him, at a chain around his neck. He was rather superstitious.
BFB: Ginevra, I just want to thank you again for letting me talk to you a bit, and I look forward to following your site and eventually seeing the Leslie Howard documentaries! Thank you!