This is about a personal enthusiasm - although I might not be the only one, if you're into older, classic movies - and it's also a little bit about eating crow.
Leslie Howard was a big star, between the wars. He made his bones as a stage actor, and then hit the big-time when he came to Hollywood. His best-known pictures are THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, PETRIFIED FOREST, and, of course, GONE WITH THE WIND. As it happens, he hated playing Ashley Wilkes. He thought he was way too old for the part, and he remarked that when they got him in costume, he looked like "that sissy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire." Which raises the following question.
I always thought Leslie Howard was kind of effeminate. He certainly camped it up in SCARLET PIMPERNEL. But it turns out, in real life, that he was a disarming charmer, who may very well have slept with most of his leading ladies. ("I don't chase women, but I couldn't always be bothered to run away.") That languid persona he developed for the movies wasn't him at all. He was in fact an earthy kind of guy.
He was also extremely loyal to his friends. The story goes that when PETRIFIED FOREST was made into a movie, from the stage play, Warners wanted Eddie Robinson for Duke Mantee - the character based on Dillinger - but Howard held out for Bogart, because they'd done the play together. Bogart runs away with the picture, and it made him an A-list star.
Howard was deeply loyal to England, as well. He described himself as a man with two homes, America, which had made his fortune, and the UK, where he was born. When the war broke out, in 1939, he went back, and he wasn't the only one. There was a big Brit colony in Hollywood, and some of the guys who could have made a bundle, sitting the war out, went home instead and applied for active service. David Niven, for one, had been to Sandhurst, and was commissioned in the Highland Light Infantry, before he got into movies, and he got his commission back. Noel Coward, who was arguably the most famous of the Brits expats at the time, volunteered for war work, and found himself seconded to the Secret Service. All three of them wound up making propaganda pictures, too. Niven did THE WAY AHEAD, Coward wrote and directed IN WHICH WE SERVE, Leslie Howard put his shoulder to the wheel with 49th PARALLEL.
Niven and Noel Coward survived the war. Leslie Howard didn't. He was on a civil aircraft, flying to Lisbon, when the plane was shot down by German fighters over the Bay of Biscay, in 1943. There's a lot of speculation about this incident. For one thing, the Luftwaffe pilots were operating well beyond their normal patrol zone. For another, did German intelligence know Howard was aboard the plane? Evidence suggests they did. A lot of the German spy nets in Britain had been rolled up or turned, but some were still active, and it wouldn't have been that hard to get the passenger list. Howard was regarded by the Germans as a very able and dangerous propagandist for the British war effort, even possibly a covert agent. But maybe he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Knowing how he died, if not exactly why, puts a different spin on things, in retrospect. Here's where I eat crow. Maybe he really was the Scarlet Pimpernel, masquerading as a hapless fop, an exaggerated stage Englishman, languid and fey. Far from it, it appears.
The line-up of cameos is pretty amazing. Laurence Olivier, Finlay Currie, Anton Walbrook, Glynis Johns, Raymond Massie, Leslie Howard himself. They play the characters whose lives the German interrupts, and it's no stretch to imagine Howard, as unnamed executive producer, getting them on board. What - a couple of days on the shoot, and ten minutes of screen time? Olivier, bless his heart, is terrible, phony French trapper accent and all. But when, near the end, you get to the Leslie Howard scenes, it's incredible. He plays his trademark lightweight, silly and dandyish, a sheep to be sheared, and then he suddenly turns into an Old Testament revenge figure, iron in his bones.
So who was he, really? A shape-shifter. A guy who worked at his trade, enjoyed it enormously, and made good money at it. He once remarked that an actor can't conceal himself. He did a fair job of it, though. The mystery of Leslie Howard isn't in his self-deprecating appeal, but in what he didn't often show. The naked steel.