Robert Osborne on Leslie Howard
Further, it was a secondary role--the film's focal male character was being played by Clark Gable, officially acknowledged as "the King" of the movies. Eight years earlier Leslie Howard had co-starred with Gable in another film (1931's A Free Soul, which we'll be showing on July 17), with Gable wiping Howard off the screen; he wasn't eager to have it happen again. But most importantly, Ashley Wilkes, to Mr. Howard's thinking, was a vapid part, a character with no backbone--dull, wispy, uninteresting. "I'll come off like the sissy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel," he moaned.
Playing the role, he felt, would definitely be a step down for him at a time he was one of the most admired and sought-after actors on screen, the star of such lofty film successes as Of Human Bondage (1934), The Petrified Forest (1936) and Romeo and Juliet (1936). And, he wondered, would fans who admired him as the dashing, charismatic fleet-of-foot swashbuckler The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1934 buy him as the wimpy Mr. Wilkes? David O. Selznick, the producer of the Wind extravaganza, reasoned that they would. He also felt it was essential he sign a star of equal stature to Gable in GWTW's other male lead, and no one fit that bill better in Selznick's mind than Howard, who had a reputation as a great ladies man and the seducer of some of the world's great beauties both on and off screen.
Selznick, of course, ultimately got his way and signed the reluctant actor for the role, something Selznick accomplished by making Howard an offer the actor couldn't refuse: knowing Howard had long been wanting to get into film production, Selznick told him if he played Ashley Wilkes, Selznick would let him not only star in Selznick's next film, the American version of the Swedish film Intermezzo, he'd also let him co-produce the film as well. That cinched the deal.
This month, we'll be showing Howard films, 23 of them in all, including that Civil War epic he sniffed at doing; it airs on July 3. Ironically, Howard is the only member of that film's cast never to know what an iconic film GWTW would become: he was killed June 1, 1943, in a plane shot down by German fighters over the Bay of Biscay during World War II. At that time, no one had a clue any film would ever have the legs to still be gripping audiences for as long as five years after it was made, much less 72 years and counting. How shocked Mr. Howard would be to know the movie he wanted to avoid like the plague would make him a true screen immortal--in spite of himself.
by Robert Osborne