The Scarlet Pimpernel/A Quite Remarkable Father
He was the son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who became the pattern of quintessential Englishness, a matinee idol who called film acting “a dreary life”, a chronic hypochondriac who played heroes on stage and in film and possibly even was a hero. Leslie Howard’s life was sometimes as enigmatic as the Scarlet Pimpernel he portrayed in 1934, but it was his enigmatic death that sealed his legend.
Howard is most famous in the U.S. as Ashley Wilkes, the Southern aristocrat of Gone with the Wind. But before GWTW, even before perhaps his best role as enigmatic self-sacrificing drifter Alan Squier in The Petrified Forest, he played the lead in the movie version of Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, portraying the self-sacrificing, enigmatic aristocrat, Sir Percy Blakeney.
Orczy’s romantic adventure told the story of patrician Percy Blakeney, in England a fashionable inanity, in France a rescuer of aristocrats during the excesses of the French Revolution.
The film in which matinee idol Howard played the dashing hero was actually lauded by U.S. critics for its comedy. And although Howard's daughter, Leslie Ruth Howard, reported in her 1959 biography, A Quite Remarkable Father, that Howard relied on technique instead of emotion in his roles, it’s hard to believe he wasn’t enjoying himself while twitting Raymond Massey as Chauvelin in the still from the film that illustrates this post.
As a young man, he had served as an officer in the First World War until shell shock forced him to resign his commission. The aftermath of that disability would overshadow the rest of his life, causing hypochondria, panic attacks and a recurring nightmare “that sent him flying from his bed turning on lights and shouting in an effort to wake himself up,” Leslie Ruth Howard wrote.
But as he neared fifty, Howard appeared to be making a smooth transition from the role of romantic leads to that of film director. Then World War II plunged the world into darkness, and Howard assumed the last role of his life, propagandist, and perhaps, spy.
In June 1943,he was returning from a tour of Spain, ostensibly a lecture tour but more probably intended to keep Spain out of the Axis alliance, in a civilian aircraft over neutral territory. With the possible exception of Howard, there was no one important to Great Britain’s war effort aboard the plane when it was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by German fighter planes. The question was: why?
Howard’s daughter subscribed to an initial theory that the Germans mistakenly believed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was aboard Howard’s plane. Others blamed Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, ridiculed in a Howard film. A darker take was that Churchill knew Howard’s plane was being targeted and withheld the information so the Nazis wouldn’t realize their wartime Enigma code had been broken.
Still another theory: that Howard knew he was slated for death and still chose to fly straight into the face of his nightmares.
“Almost at once, and for years after, the reasons for his death were debated,” Howard’s daughter wrote. “To us, they were not important¼ It is his life that was important.”
(Next Friday, Adventure classics concludes a March of thrills and suspense with a peek at that other book about revolution, daring and sacrifice, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.)