What a dramatic start to the documentary , “LESLIE HOWARD, THE MAN WHO GAVE A DAMN” :
A voice-over tells us:
“June 1st, 1943. A Dakota D.C. 3 awaits take off on a routine wartime passenger flight. Among its passengers, a small boy named Derek, excited, looking forward to his first flight.
Suddenly, Derek and his companion are asked to vacate their seats.Two British V.I.P’s need to travel urgently.
The boy and his companion leave the plane while the two V.I.P.’s take their place. At 9.35 am ,flight 777 takes off with its new passengers.”
BBC radio announcement : ” The British Overseas Airways Corporation regrets to announce that a civil aircraft on passage between Lisbon and the United Kingdom is overdue and must be presumed lost.”
Back to voice-over :
” The boy never forgot the man who took his seat and saved his life that day. I was that boy. This is the story of that man.”
The velvet -voiced narrator of the documentary about Leslie Howard is that boy, Derek Partridge.
What a wonderful bonus for Scottish writer/director Thomas Hamilton to find the boy whose life was saved by Leslie Howard, and to find that the adult Derek was a broadcaster with a rich speaking voice perfect for the documentary’s narration.
The plane that Leslie Howard took that day in June 1943 was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by the German Luftwaffe , killing all 17 passengers and crew on board. Flight 777 was not a military plane and was not armed.
The documentary quotes from the tragic last messages from the plane:
“We are being followed by enemy aircraft.”…….”We are now being attacked.”
The making of this film about the life and career of Leslie Howard proved a long and difficult journey for Thomas Hamilton, not least in the funding of the project.
But the result is a fascinating piece of cinema history about actor/director Leslie Howard who is probably best known as Ashley Wilkes in “Gone With The Wind”, but whose career on stage and screen was varied and complex.
This is the man who turned down the chance to costar with Garbo in “Queen Christina” and who insisted on Humphrey Bogart being in the film version of “The Petrified Forest”. ( Leslie had starred in the Broadway production with Bogart).
Howard cabled Jack Warner : “Insist Bogart play Mantee. No Bogart, no deal.”
( Warner was considering Edward G. Robinson for the role of Mantee.)
Leslie Howard was one of the biggest stars of the 1930s without ever having a long term contract with any studio. He costarred three times with Norma Shearer (who asked for him to be with her in “Smilin’ Through”), Myrna Loy, Bette Davis ( also three times) , Marion Davies, Mary Pickford, Kay Francis and Merle Oberon.
At the 1939 Atlanta premiere of “Gone With The Wind”, one face was missing. Leslie Howard was facing a different kind of audience back in the U.K. – broadcasting for the BBC.
At the start of the sound era, Hollywood looked to Broadway for plays and performers who could learn quickly how to adapt from stage to screen. Leslie Howard starred on stage in “The Animal Kingdom”, “Berkeley Square” and “Outward Bound”, all of which were snapped up by Hollywood and filmed with Leslie.
Leslie had enough clout so that when RKO bought “The Animal Kingdom” ( which Leslie had directed and starred in), he insisted that William Gargan and Ilka Chase from the stage cast be in the film version.
In OF HUMAN BONDAGE, Leslie was at first shocked by the casting of young American actress Bette Davis in the Cockney part. But when Bette showed her tremendous talent, he did everything he could to help her.
The documentary’s director Thomas Hamilton had extensive interviews with Leslie’s daughter, Leslie Ruth Howard who provided him with some rare home movies – Leslie carried a movie camera with him from the 1920s on.
There is some rare footage behind the scenes of “Animal Kingdom”, “Secrets” and “Romeo and Juliet”. Also, Leslie and his family staying at San Simeon.
Leslie co-directed PYGMALION, with Anthony Asquith.
In order to return to the U.K. at the outset of World War 2, Leslie gave up his share in GWTW box office – he couldn’t return to Britain while holding foreign interests . I wonder what that might have amounted to over the years. (He sold his shares to David Selznick for £20,000.)
Love this casual photo of the two stars. This would be Leslie’s last Hollywood film. He returned to the UK and directed PIMPERNEL SMITH (1941) in which he played an archaeology professor travelling in Europe and rescuing refugees from the Gestapo. Hitler banned the film in Europe.
His other wartime work included broadcasts for the BBC and acting and directing THE FIRST OF THE FEW, the story of R.J.Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire.
On that fateful day in 1943, Leslie had been a guest of the British Council in Lisbon. The Home Office regarded him as an unofficial cultural ambassador and had invited him to tour Portugal and Spain on speaking engagements.
Leslie was supposed to travel back to Britain on June 2nd, but he was anxious to see his family and insisted on being booked on Flight 777 on June 1st. He was 50 years old at the time of his death.
Derek Partridge, that boy whose life was saved when Leslie Howard took his place on Flight 777, is 82 later this year and is still working. He will feature in and co-narrate the companion piece that Thomas Hamilton is making about the enigma of that flight.
There is so much to enjoy in this excellent film which has been screened twice already on the U.K. Talking Pictures channel . ( and will be shown again).
TCM in America will be screening it in June,2018 when Leslie will be the Star of the Month. Don’t miss it!