Intimate and insightful, Thomas Hamilton's "Leslie Howard - The Man Who Gave a Damn" offers a rare detailed examination into the life and career of stage and film star Leslie Howard.
Though the film covers all the highlights of his film career, including his most famous role as Ashley Wilkes in "Gone with the Wind", it is really the new understanding of the man himself that makes this film so compelling.
The documentary is generously endowed with clips of home movies showing Howard in his off-screen life in everything from frequent trans-Atlantic traveller to devoted father of two children, Leslie Ruth Howard known as "Doodie" and her older brother Ronald Howard known as "Wink".
Although I had read and thoroughly enjoyed the biographies written by his children ("A Quite Remarkable Father" published in 1959 by Leslie Ruth Howard and "In Search of My Father" (1981) by Ronald Howard), it did not prepare me for the candor of their revelations in this film. Both appear frequently in interviews. They demonstrate through their recollections a balance of love and respect for their father but also an understanding of the complicated man. A man who appears to have been able to enjoy both a home life with his wife and children and at the same time relationships with other women which frequently kept him away from that home.
Doodie's recount of being so disagreeable to Merle Oberon, who Howard had introduced to his daughter as her future step-mother, is priceless. A few days after the Doodie meeting with Oberon the relationship which was to cause a divorce for Leslie and his wife Ruth was off and her parents reconciled. Wink's recounting how he, like his father, also fell for Howard's great love, his assistant Violette Cunnington is matter of fact and charming.
This meticulously researched film brings many rarities to the project which classic movie fans may have known about but had long assumed were lost. A sound recording of Howard saying the immortal words "to be or not to be" from his stage version of "Hamlet" from 1936 is stunning. Also of interest are the snippets of BBC wartime broadcasts that Howard made and even interviews with the star himself.
But for this reviewer it's the lighter moments depicting a warm character that I had only read about previously that are so enchanting. Home movies of a devoted father kissing the cheek of his adult daughter, playing in the snow with her as a young child are both touching and revealing. Even the home movies taken on the sets of films he appeared in show a more lighthearted side. A soft shoe dance with fellow actor William Gargan on the set of "Animal Kingdom" (1932) is a great example.
Hamilton's film expertly captures and shines a light of the principles and convictions of the man who truly gave a damn. Unwilling as many Brits in Hollywood were to ride out WWII in the United States, he returned immediately in 1939 to his home in England to help out the war effort in any way he could. He spent the rest of his life working on projects in film, radio and finally the ill-fated lecture tour of Portugal and Spain on behalf of the British government.
The desire to return from that tour one day early by a strange twist of fate saved the life of Derek Partridge this film's narrator and one of its authors. Partridge as a small boy was returning to England with his nanny when he was removed from the June 1, 1943 civilian flight at the last minute to make room Leslie Howard and his travelling companion. All the crew and passengers perished when this flight was shot down by Nazi warplanes over the Bay of Biscay. The motive remains a mystery to this day.
Although it is easy to speculate over what the future would have held for Howard, this intimate portrait of the man, expertly and lovingly crafted in this film, shows us what we did have of him - a remarkable man brought back to life in this remarkable film. I strongly recommend this film for not one but several viewings.