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Leslie Howard - Star of the Month
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Leslie Howard - Tuesdays in July

Although his genteel manner and air of dreamy romanticism now seem dated, there was a time in the 1930s and early '40s when Leslie Howard was considered among the most charismatic and capable of British leading men. Although he displayed some range as an actor and had a winning way with comedy, Howard will forever be remembered as the aristocratic, effete, melancholy Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (1939).

Born Leslie Howard Stainer in London in 1893 to Hungarian immigrants, he worked as a bank clerk before serving in World War I and being sent home suffering from shell-shock. Taking up acting as therapy, he quickly moved from stock productions to successes in London and New York - notably on Broadway in such plays of the late '20s as Outward Bound, The Green Hat and, in a star-making part opposite Tallulah Bankhead, Her Cardboard Lover. He had made his film debut in the British silent The Heroine of Mons (1914), but his movie career began in earnest when he was signed by Warner Bros. for the film version of Outward Bound (1930).

His first Hollywood period also included duty as the leading man of Norma Shearer (A Free Soul, 1931), Marion Davies (Five and Ten, 1931) and Ann Harding (Devotion, 1931). Repeating another stage role, he starred opposite Harding and Myrna Loy in Philip Barry's The Animal Kingdom (1932), a sophisticated study of romantic relationships deemed daring for its time. The historical drama Secrets (1933), Mary Pickford's final film, has Howard and his fading costar progressing from young love to old age.

Howard enjoyed an Academy Award nomination for his performance as a man transported back to the 18th century in Berkeley Square (1933). He also had strong roles in Warners' British Agent (1934), Alexander Korda's popular version of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and, especially, opposite Bette Davis in RKO's screen treatment of the Somerset Maugham classic Of Human Bondage (1934).

The Petrified Forest (1936) allowed Howard to repeat yet another Broadway role to striking effect, playing a vagabond poet in a desert cafe terrorized by escaped convict Humphrey Bogart. By insisting that Bogart also repeat his stage part, Howard so endeared himself to his costar that Bogart named his baby daughter Leslie. Later in 1936, Howard turned to Shakespeare, playing opposite Norma Shearer as rather overaged lovers in MGM's Romeo and Juliet before taking on the title role of Hamlet on Broadway.

A second Oscar® nomination came for Pygmalion (1938), in which Howard was outstanding as Professor Higgins opposite Wendy Hiller's Eliza Doolittle. His sensitive work with Ingrid Bergman in the romantic drama Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939) helped make her American debut a smashing success. Despite its status as a great classic, Howard disliked both the film Gone with the Wind and his character of Ashley, maintaining that he never bothered to read Margaret Mitchell's novel.

With the advent of World War II Howard devoted himself to British causes including acting in such powerful pieces of propaganda as Michael Powell's 49th Parallel (1941), in which he plays an aristocrat shaken out of his complacency by the Nazi threat. His final film appearance (aside from voice-over narrations) was in The First of the Few (1942) as R.J. Mitchell, the inventor of the WWII fighter plane the Spitfire.

Howard died in 1943 as he was returning to England from Lisbon and the plane in which he was a passenger was shot down by the Germans over the Bay of Biscay. The ostensible purpose of his visit to Lisbon was to lecture on theater, but he also had been involved in intelligence-gathering activities and was a prime target because of his status as a symbol of English patriotism. He was greatly mourned by his fellow countrymen and film fans on both sides of the Atlantic.

Howard was married to Ruth Evelyn Martin from 1916 until his death; they had two children including the actor Ronald Howard.

by Roger Fristoe

* Films in bold type will air on TCM

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