★ British actor and film director, Leslie Howard, was born on this day in 1893. One of the biggest box-office draws and matinee idols of the 1930s, his relatively short career was cut tragically short by his death in 1943, aged just 50.
Born and raised in an upper-middle class household in Forest Hill, London, Howard was educated at Alleyn’s School, Dulwich, before finding work as a bank clerk. Enlisting in the British Army at the outbreak of the First World War, he served with the Northamptonshire Yeomanry as a junior officer, but relinquished his commission due to shell shock in 1916. Having married Ruth Evelyn Martin in March 1916 (with whom he would have two children, Ronald and Leslie Ruth), Howard began his acting career in touring theatrical productions such as Charley’s Aunt (1917), before moving into stage-work in London.
In 1920, Howard formed a film production company with his friend, Adrian Brunel, which they named Minerva Films Ltd; a move which saw Howard take on the role of producer for several films. The venture was short-lived, however, with the company running into serious financial trouble and dissolving in 1921. Entering the world of Broadway theatre with roles in plays including Aren’t We All? (1923), Outward Bound (1924), and The Green Hat (1925), it was his acclaimed performance in Her Cardboard Lover (1927) which cemented him as an undisputed stage star. After another successful stage role as a time traveller in Berkeley Square (1929), Howard made the leap to Hollywood in a movie version of Outward Bound in 1930, but was less than enamoured by the Los Angeles movie-making experience, vowing never to return.
Despite his initial skepticism about the Hollywood movie industry, Howard went on to accept roles in many American-made films throughout the 1930s, including A Free Soul (1931) opposite Norma Shearer, and a film version of Berkeley Square (1933) for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Alongside the various stage plays he continued to star in, other notable film roles during this period included playing the title character in a British production of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), as well as parts in Of Human Bondage (1934) and The Petrified Forest (1936) both with Bette Davis. Although his role in Pygmalion (1938) would earn him another Academy Award nomination, it was his surprisingly overlooked performance as Ashley Wilkes in 1939’s epic romance Gone With the Wind for which he is best remembered. The Civil War epic would prove to be his last American film, with Howard subsequently returning to Britain to help with the Second World War effort.
Having already branched out into radio beginning in 1935, with a CBS show entitled The Amateur Gentleman and various other productions (he’s pictured above, in publicity for a radio presentation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, 9th July 1937), Howard returned to the airwaves in 1940 with a series of appearances on the BBC’s Britain Speaks, which were broadcast to the United States, urging America to enter the war in support of Britain. In addition, he took starring roles in a number of Second World War films, including 49th Parallel (1941), “Pimpernel” Smith (1941), and The First of the Few (1942) in which he appeared alongside David Niven.
Active in anti-German propaganda and rumoured to have been involved with British Intelligence, Howard embarked on a tour of Spain and Portugal in early 1943, in order to spread goodwill and shore up support for the Allies. While returning to Britain from Lisbon, Portugal, on 1st June 1943, the Douglas DC-3 airliner on which he was a passenger was attacked and shot down by German Luftwaffe fighter planes over the Bay of Biscay. A search was undertaken the following day, but the bodies of Howard and the other 16 people aboard were never recovered.
Frequently regarded as a quintessential English gentleman, Leslie Howard was every bit as talented as he was charming. A gifted actor, director and producer, his untimely death cut short a compelling and varied career, shocked fans on both sides of the Atlantic, and robbed the world of one of Britain’s best actors.