Monday, April 4, 2011

One of Those Guys Named Leslie

Leslie Nielsen had a long and varied career as, well, Leslie Nielsen.

Leslie Townes Hope thought "Leslie" sounded girlish, so he thought of shortening it to "Les," as in "Lester." (In fact, some early records of his show him as having the name Lester!) Somewhere around the time he became an entertainer, he quickly saw that "Les Hope" could be twisted to "hopeless." He went with "Bob Hope" instead.

But Leslie Howard used his own name -- well, kinda (and more on that soon) -- with pretty good results, I'd say.

I think it's safe to say that he (and admittedly, a few other actors of his ilk) defined the genteel British gentleman in the eyes of America during the 1930s and beyond. He was far more than just an "actor," having produced and directed films as well. I've enjoyed many of his works.

Admittedly, I found 1934's Of Human Bondage -- the star-making vehicle for Bette Davis, whom I must admit has never been a huge favorite of mine -- to be a bit over-bearing, but that's just a personal taste (and this is, after all, my personal blog, right, fellow babies?).

I loved The Petrified Forest, the 1936 film which co-starred him with (again) Bette Davis, and provided a great springboard for a motion picture newbie named Humphrey Bogart. (Legend has it that after having appeared with Bogart on Broadway, Howard insisted on Bogie's casting in the film, against the wishes of the studio which desired a bigger "name" actor in the role of Duke Mantee.) Howard's character (and his noble sacrifice) might have been a great role model for me... if only I'd first seen the film at a more impressionable age.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I saw Howard's take on The Scarlet Pimpernel, another of his movies from 1934. I was drawn to it by the "secret identity" aspect later utilized by such childhood heroes of mine like Zorro, Batman, and so many others. (By the way, when I refer to Zorro as having "later utilized" the secret identity aspect, I'm referring to the fact that the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel, published in 1908 after premiering as a play in 1903, pre-dated the first Zorro story , which appeared in 1919!) So when I encountered a listing in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide a few years ago for "Pimpernel Smith," a 1941 updating of the original Pimpernel tale with Howard again in the title role, I determined to search for it on video... a search which took me until a few months ago.

My locating Pimpernel Smith coincided with my finding a copy of Howard in 1938's Pygmalion (the film precursor of My Fair Lady), which was highly recommended to me by fellow Blogger-blogger Willow. This acquisition was also made a few months ago.

Typically, for me, I didn't actually make time to watch either film until a very short time ago. And, as the anniversary of Howard's 1893 birth was on April 3rd, I decided to watch the two back-to-back, and possibly craft an April 3rd post from this double viewing. (The fact that I'm posting this on April 4th says that I have a life outside this little blog.)

Pygmalion, as Willow promised, was a delight. Although I'm very familiar with the plot of -- and songs from -- My Fair Lady, I've never seen that whole movie! (You may pick yourselves up, now!) Therefore, there were a lot of surprises for me. (Actually, I'd read Pygmalion in a high school English class, but it didn't make that much of an impression on me then.)

I must admit, I was very amused by the fact that the British allowed the liberal use of the word "damn" in that 1938 film, while we in America -- thanks to the Hays Code -- would be scandalized by its single use in 1939's Gone with the Wind only a year later... a film which also featured Mr. Howard! (And I'll bet you thought I was going to leave his appearance in GWTW unmentioned, eh?)

Of course, I've read that the word "bloody" -- a word which is totally inoffensive to most Americans, who don't know its slang etymology to the British -- was used in Pygmalion to no little controversy!

Pimpernel Smith is also a fun flick, albeit more seriously handled, for the most part, as befitting its anti-Nazi subject matter. Once you get past the Nazi soldiers speaking in heavy British accents, the movie draws you in admirably.

The real-life Howard was quite involved in fighting against Nazism, both prior to and during World War II. In fact, said involvement may -- or may not -- have lead to his untimely death in June of 1943... a fascinating controversy, discussed at great length here. Howard's anti-Nazi feelings may have been exacerbated by the fact that he was born Leslie Howard Steiner, son of a Hungarian Jew and his British wife (herself the granddaughter of a Jewish immigrant from East Prussia).

In fact, the only thing I didn't like about Pimpernel Smith was that my copy of the movie ended right before the emotional final speech given by Howard's character, as promised by the notes on the back of the VHS tape's box! I've never seen the freakin' ending! And at this late date, I really doubt I could finagle a free replacement copy of Pimpernel Smith from the video company.

Well, at least I now know that it's available on DVD...

What's this? Why, it's nothing more
or less than a DVD rewinder! Heh.

Thanks for your time.


  1. So glad you mentioned that you read Pygmalion in High School as it's a play by Shaw before it was a flick. Great story about Leslie Howard, I had no idea. As an avid GWTW fan, I just know him from that.

  2. @Kate: Shaw himself wrote most of the screenplay -- he had some uncredited help -- including new bits just for the film!

  3. Well just wrote a long comment and inadvertantly deleted it. arrrghh.

    I didn't know about Howard's WWII work nor that it contributed to his early death. He was in so many movies in those days. My problem with him was he always seemed a bit of a wimp.
    "Petrified Forest is a big favorite of mine. "GWTW" has always been one of my top 3. I've seen "Scarlet Pimpernel" & "Pygmalion" but not the other Pimpernal. Have to keep an eye out for that.

  4. @Cali Girl: "Wimpy?" Haha. Well, true, his roles were often soft-spoken gents who had strength of character, rather than what we Americans would view as the more obvious standards for "toughness."

  5. Well, would you believe I didn't know Bob's name was originally Leslie? Yes, I agree Leslie Hope would have turned into Hope Les. LOL!

  6. @Betsy: A lot of male stars have changed their names to more masculine-sounding names. Probably the most famous example was Marion Morrison becoming John Wayne. And Harry Lillis Crosby became Bing Crosby, but presumably not to sound masculine. What's masculine about "Bing?" Better than Lillis, true, but still...

  7. I have to admit that most of my movie watching has been like 70's and forward movies, I don't think I've watch my fair lady in a full sitting either, don't even think I watch GWTW either. I know should get on that.

    Yeah lots have changed there names but never knew he did. Leslie Neilson made some good movies, but I'll always remember him from Due South, love that show.

    Oh and the DVD rewinder hahaha, I used to work at a convience store and rented movies there, back before netflix and all that crap haha, and I actually had people ask me if they had to rewind the dvds or how to rewind the dvds..I had everything I could do to keep from laughing right in front of them

    Oh wait that wasn't in rhyme
    Are you going to strike me down in my prime

  8. @Pat: Actually, it's always a pleasant surprise on those few occasions you don't rhyme. And I get a kick out of seeing that you've "corrupted" so many others, like Betsy! She's constantly rhyming lately, haha!

  9. We used to have a separate rewinder like that...funny how things are obsolete now. Not, you though, Silver. :)

  10. Betsy: I assume you mean a rewinder for TAPES, right, haha? Yeah, I have one, too. It saves wear and tear on the VCR motors, and it's handy when you want to watch another movie right away.

  11. Yes, sorry...for video tapes. :)

  12. They seek him here, they seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.

    I've never seen The Petrified Forest. Must remedy that.

    I have a copy of Pimpernel Smith that we taped off cable tv waaaay back in the day - I wonder if the tape has held up? I wonder if the VCR still works?

  13. @Megan: Bring that tape to Massachusetts and I will have your children. Or write a poem in your honor, something like:

    Megan's so effin' cool,
    She's such a precious jewel,
    She brought me a copy of "Pimpernel Smith,"


    Oh, well, by the time you actually get here, I know I'll have a rhyme for "Smith."

    (And yes, I am sober.)

  14. How about...

    And if I had a lisp, I'd say 'Thank you, mith!'


    Okay, okay, I'll keep working...

  15. I was at school with a lad called Leslie, but he never became an actor nor did he become an English gentleman. As I am hopeless at films it was the best I could come up with as a comment on your post.
    By the way, your postcard has arrived (thanks) and will feature on Twitter for Gentlefolk next week.

  16. @Alan: So it did arrive! Good, I was getting worried. Looking forward to what you'll write. Enjoying the whole informal "series" thus far!

  17. Yes it's fun to corrupt
    And watch each rhyme they erupt

    Maybe I'll designate your blog the place I don't rhyme
    While at least most of the time

  18. @Pat: Whether you rhyme or not is totally up to you, of course. But my next two posts should be odd enough to inspire you!

  19. Wow you got two posts ready, guess your muse has hit you good this week

  20. @Pat: Not just "two posts." Two odd posts!

  21. Did you know that Howard was also the names of the 3 Stooges? Ha ha! Bert you didn't know that! There was Mow, Curly and Larry Howard. They were brotrhers of Leslie Howard I bet. Next time do better reserch! So sad...

  22. @Sharoie: *sigh* Let's do this by the numbers, shall we?

    1. The "Howard" brothers -- Moe, Curly, and Shemp --were, IIRC, originally named Horwitz. Leslie Howard, as revealed in the post which you just read so thoroughly, was named Steiner.

    2. Larry's last name was Fine (originally Louis Feinberg), not Howard or Horwitz.

    3. It's Moe, not Mow. You know, as in "moe your lawn?"

    4. Don't call me Bert.

  23. Oops. My turn for a typo. I meant "Sharpie," not "Sharoie," of course.

    I haven't slept since Monday morning. What's your excuse?


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