Yes, he was one of the major international stars of his era.
Today most film lovers only remember him in Gone With the Wind, but Leslie Howard was a box office draw and an influential player — and producer — on both sides of the Atlantic.
What do we mean by “influential”?
Try this on for size: he was directly responsible for furthering the career of one of the screen’s biggest stars, Humphrey Bogart.
And Ann Harding also benefited by Howard’s onscreen presence. She plays the rejected fiance of Howard’s in 1932’s The Animal Kingdom.(There’s the happy couple pictured above.) No wonder the early phase of Harding’s career got off to a real start.
Although, as British critic David Thomson notes, Hollywood adopted him as its shyest English gentleman, the London-born Howard (ne Leslie Howard Steiner) was actually the son of Hungarian father and a German-Jewish mother.
His acting career began after he attended Dulwich College and worked at a bank. He had also served in the Army during World War I, but was mustered out in 1917, diagnosed as a shell shock victim. He took up acting as therapy.
Howard turned to the stage on both sides of the Atlantic where his talent was quickly recognized. He found himself elevated to being cast opposite Tallulah Bankhead in something titled Her Cardboard Lover. (The two were rumored to have had an affair.)
When Warner Brothers decided to film the 1930 screen version of the stage production of Outward Bound, the studio invited Howard to star in it. MGM stepped in soon after, casting Howard in leading roles in a series early 1930’s titles. His role as Ashley Wilkes in GWTW was among his last in Hollywood; another was the male lead opposite Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo.
His two best actor Oscar nominations were for Howard’s performances in 1938’s Pygmalion and 1933’s Berkeley Square.
Howard married only once to Ruth Evelyn Martin, who had a strong hold on her husband. She was described by no less than Marion Davies as “forty and rather fat” in contrast to her dashing younger husband with a playful nature.
Leslie was like a naughty boy and his wife (Ruth) would yell at him…she treated him like a child, Marion remembered.
Well, you ask about the Howard-Bogart connection. The two were friends dating from their early-career Broadway days when both appeared in the stage version of The Petrified Forest. It was Howard who pushed hard for the casting of Bogie in the 1936 film version. His portrayal as the vicious gangster Duke Mantee ignited Bogart’s career as a screen actor.
Like our earlier blog subject, Glenn Miller, Howard’s career and life were cut short during World War II in 1943. The actor was a passenger on board a BOAC flight from Lisbon, Portugal to Bristol, England. Unlike Miller’s plane, which disappeared without a trace, Howard’s craft was attacked and shot down by German fighter planes off the northern coast of Spain over the Bay of Biscay.
Howard was just 50 years old.