The “Gone with the Wind” Question
December 15th 2014 marked the 75th anniversary of the premier of “Gone with the Wind” in Atlanta, Georgia – an event so great, that the city devoted a week to celebrating the film’s arrival and played host to over a million visitors – eager to be present at the most exciting film event in Hollywood history.
As seen in Repo Films documentary “The Man Who Gave a Damn” (and as told by the film’s narrator Derek Partridge) no expense was spared in organising the opening and a number of the key stars and personnel involved with “Gone with the Wind” flew in for the occasion. Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were all present, as was the man behind it, David O. Selznick. But one of the stars of “Gone with the Wind” did not attend, and in fact was not even in the United States.
Leslie Howard, (Ashley Wilkes in the film) had left for England months previously, immediately after finishing the last of his retakes for the film. Leslie Howard’s resistance to being cast as Ashley Wilkes is well documented, turning down each of Selznick’s approaches until Selznick eventually offered not only $75,000 to appear, but 2% of the profits as well as a starring role and a position as Associate Producer in “Intermezzo” (1939), the film which introduced Ingrid Bergman to American audiences.
Likewise, as Leslie Howard’s daughter Doodie recalls in “The Man Who Gave a Damn”, her father felt distinctly ill at ease in the part of Ashley, and took a detached approach to his performance, often arriving on set without knowing his lines.
“There was one scene which I rehearsed with my father because I think Vivien Leigh was cross with him. She said it was a bore to wait for him to come up with his lines. So he came home and said: “I want to practice this scene for tomorrow. And if you’ll just do it with me I’ll get it right and then we’ll really fix it.”
I remember the scene well because it’s the one when they both come back to Tara and they’re both in terrible old tattered clothes and they’ve lost the war and she throws herself at him in this ridiculous way and he says: “No, no, I must be faithful to Melanie. I am married to Melanie.”
And so he came home that night and I said: “How did that dreadful scene go, dad?” “Oh,” he said, “it was wonderful. Vivien didn’t know any of her lines and I kept saying: ‘that’s all right, darling, don’t worry, just, you just go along, do your best. Don’t … Well, let’s just do it again, Viv, it’s no problem.’” He got a certain malicious pleasure out of things like that.”
In The Man who Gave A Damn, we see exclusive home movie footage of Leslie Howard on the “Gone with the Wind” set. The footage reveals a surprisingly modern looking Howard taking a last minute peek at his script and generally giving the impression of a man whose mind is elsewhere.
Many accounts of Leslie Howard’s relationship with “Gone with the Wind” paint a picture of an actor who felt disdain for the project – a point re-enforced by the absence of Howard or his family from the film’s UK premier on April 15th 1940.
The Man Who Gave a Damn delves more deeply into the life and thoughts of Leslie Howard and we reveal that it was Ashley Wilkes, not the film, which he disliked – a point made clear in a July 1939 letter to his son Ronald.
When the picture was nearly completed I was permitted to see some fifteen edited reels. I must say it is a most impressive production. It is, for the most part, wonderfully played against a most moving panorama of the American Civil War. But I was still a little mystified by Mr. Wilkes.
This character appears for a brief scene about once every three reels–regularly announces that the old south will never be the same again, that his world has gone for ever–and then vanishes into a private limbo for another three reels.
Repeatedly throughout the film, Mr. Wilkes returns with the same lugubrious pronouncement. The only variation to all this was my southern accent, which I suspect was not entirely consistent (the south of England crept in occasionally) – and my costume which became more and more ragged with each successive appearance. I finished up literally held together with bits of string, which entirely befitted a veteran of the Confederate Army.
So if not Gone with the Wind, what did Leslie Howard really give a damn about?
In “Pimpernel Smith”, his 1941 update of “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, Leslie states his position clearly:
“When a man holds the view that progress and civilisation depend in every age upon the hands and brains of a few exceptional spirits, it’s rather hard to stand by and see them destroyed.”
Howard was acutely aware of the rising tide of Fascism across Europe in the 1930’s. His background was Jewish and he had family members and artist friends living in Austria and Hungary at this time, so for Leslie this was a threat to the well being of those he cared for. In late February 1938 he and his production crew had taken a working vacation in Austria prior to filming “Pygmalion”. While there the country seemed peaceful and secure. Yet within days of their return to England, Austria was annexed into Germany in what would soon be recognised as the first major step in Adolf Hitler’s attempt to create a “Greater German Reich”.
Through 1938 and into 1939, the situation worsened. After Austria, Hitler turned his attention towards Czechoslovakia, and as Gone with the Wind was being filmed, Hitler’s gaze fell upon Poland. As filming proceeded, Leslie was preoccupied with the fates of family and friends in those countries at risk, as well as what would happen if and when England went to war. Howard decided if there was to be a war, he would be in England.
Flash forward 9 months and Leslie was fully engaged in his war work – he had begun the weekly broadcasts to America, which would keep him constantly in the minds of his American fans, and he was striving to convince backers within the industry and the seats of power of the need for effective propaganda films.
Although April 1940 was still the period referred to as the Phony War, this was a tense time for Britain with a sense that attack could come at any time (the Blitz began in September that year). Rationing was in full force and the people of Britain were suffering a variety of privations. America was still at peace and when “Gone with the Wind” had its UK premier – Selznick made a critical tactical error by insisting first run tickets sell at premium prices – as they had in the States. Howard was so outraged by what he saw as an act of greed, exploiting a beleaguered nation’s need for escapism, that he refused to attend the premier and insisted none of his family see the film.
And here the enigma of Leslie is strongest. For while many saw Leslie as the wistful and ambivalent figure he sometimes played on screen, there were those who saw the real Leslie, one Michael Powell describes as being “a man of steel”. Intriguingly when Repo Films interviewed Howard’s daughter, 70 years later, she admitted that she had yet to see “Gone with the Wind” in its entirety – and had only seen a few sections of it. For his daughter, Leslie Howard’s decree still held sway.
2015 sees the long awaited public unveiling of Thomas Hamilton’s film on the life of this neglected figure, “Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn”. Produced by Monty Montgomery, this is the culmination of 8 years work, telling the story of one who was more than a film star, and whose greatest role was played not on a Hollywood sound stage but, from 1939 before the microphones of the British Broadcasting Corporation, speaking to millions of listeners in Britain and America. It was a voice that gave its listeners hope and valuable self belief in the midst of a devastating war. In fact beyond its function as a biography, “Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn” can be seen as the story of any artist who, discovering their true calling in a time of great danger suddenly achieves all the goals that had eluded them, when life was more sedate. And as such it’s a tale for all times.