by Allan Fish
This is an appeal on behalf of a friend who has been working on a documentary project for several years about the life and death of Leslie Howard entitled Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn. Just below is a link to a fundraiser kickstarter appeal where Tom is trying to raise money to pay off all rights clearances and the like to get the docuimentary out there. He also hopes to have it included as part of the upcoming 75th anniversary Gone With the Wind DVD and Blu Ray boxsets in 2014.
Firstly, this is an article he wrote for his Newsletter back in early 2009. Since then the film has gone through various cuts and had a slight title change and there have been three private screenings of the film, while I was lucky enough to be sent a rough cut of the film to view myself.
“Over the last year or two when I’ve been in touch with individual members on this database I’ve occasionally referred to a project of mine on the life and mysterious death of Leslie Howard. Many of you have expressed interest in knowing about this. So, here I present an account of the project to date, a project which has basically taken over my life.
When film fans today refer to Leslie Howard, the most common memory is of the ineffectual Southerner Ashley Wilkes, which he played in Gone with the Wind. It’s ironic that he’s forever associated with a part he fought against in a movie that he never watched. It’s equally unfortunate that his somewhat colourless and disinterested acting in that film is often assumed to be typical of his career. For Leslie Howard captivated a generation of theatre and film-goers through the 20’s and 30’s with his beautiful voice, poetic appearance and low key acting style, and his performances on film are equally compelling and mysterious today.
But acting was far from being his only talent and at the time of his death, on June 1st 1943, Howard’s reputation was higher than that of any British… or really any “movie” star. By that time he was one of the most influential figures in England’s war effort, a film producer, director and actor. But his most important contribution were his weekly radio broadcasts aimed at both Britain and still neutral America. Every week his voice was heard in thousands of American homes, telling them what it was like in London, reassuring them that Britain was not about to fall under the Nazi war machine. As a former matinee idol his popularity in America was an invaluable asset in getting his and Britain’s message across…
When he died in 1943, the passenger plane he was travelling in was shot down by a Luftwaffe squadron, killing all 16 passengers and crew, he had just finished a lecture tour of Lisbon and Madrid, doing essentially the same work he’d done on radio, extolling the British way of life, culture and freedom from tyranny.
For myself it all started a couple of years ago when my wife and I attended the Toronto Film Festival. We were there in the hopes of attracting investment for a couple of projects we had in development. I had an idea for a documentary about the early Hollywood musicals made between 1928 and 1931 – based on the book A Song in the Dark. A second idea was about the later career of director Michael Powell, which I thought would be fascinating. On the Powell documentary I’d even shot a rough interview with collector Charles Doble, who restored several Powell films and screened them for us in his private cinema. In the meantime, Tracy, the rock ‘n roll side of our partnership wanted to make a documentary on the Rolling Stones.
While none of these found immediate takers, we each met many interesting people in the process – some of who genuinely cared about our ideas. One, Ambrose Roche, became particularly close at this time.
After the festival we stayed on for several weeks – I had a few University Lecture bookings at the beginning of October – talking about film history topics, so the plan was to leave for London after these.
But though on the surface our work was done in Toronto – we couldn’t shake the sense that we shouldn’t go home yet, that if we stuck around long enough something major was going to occur. Returning to London felt like it would end any possibility. Tracy and Ambrose attended my last lecture and afterwards we discussed this problem over coffee. Finally I said, “if it’s going to happen we’ll know before our flight, and we’ll just have to deal with it”. Ambrose seemed to share that belief. But for now he had promised to attend a friend’s art opening at a nearby gallery and invited us to join him. Although we were rather tired and preoccupied with our dilemma we decided we should.
A Reason to Stay
We’d only been at the gallery about twenty minutes when a lady in her early 50’s overheard my British accent and said “You don’t sound like you’re from here, what are you doing in Toronto?” I told her we’d been in town for the film festival and she asked what kind of films we made. I told her about my interest in 20’s and 30’s film.
”Really” she responded, “my grandfather shot a great many home movies in the 20’s in 30’s – some in Hollywood and New York, as well as England. You should see them.” I’m automatically intrigued by mention of any old film material and I wanted to know more. “So was your grandfather in the film industry?” I asked.
“He was an actor… you probably wouldn’t know him!” she smiled “Leslie Howard”
I think I gasped! “Leslie Howard… ofcourse I know him… he was a wonderful actor”
“Oh – well then you should meet my mother, she’d love to talk to you – she has all the home movies – here in Toronto. But I don’t think she has a projector. You could come round for tea on Sunday”
I couldn’t believe I was being invited so casually. But I certainly wanted to meet her mother. We talked some more, traded phone numbers, I introduced her to my wife. Her name was Vicky Dale Harris and her mother was Doodie, Leslie Howard’s daughter. She lived about an hour outside of Toronto and Vicky even offered to drive us there.
So, two days later we were being entertained and fed by the delightful Doodie Stirling. Although Doodie was 82 at the time I met her she loves to entertain and spent the day regaling us with stories of her father’s exploits. Doodie, it should be added, bears a striking resemblance to her father, just as her children, her brother, and her brother’s children do. And as she talked with humour and warmth about her father, in a crisp pre-war English accent, I could almost feel his presence.
Late in the afternoon Doodie pointed my way to the basement where all her father’s home movies were stored. I spotted a big wooden case and carefully carried it up into the living room. As I opened it, Doodie remarked that they hadn’t been able to view the films for some time – since their 16mm projector was broken. “I hope they’re alright” she said as I finally opened the case.
What greeted me was a sight and smell to chill the heart. The smell was pungent & vinegary – never a good sign when dealing with film. Looking at the metal cans of films – they were extensively corroded. I picked up one and tried to open it – it had welded shut. Finding another I tried that, and the can literally broke apart in my hands revealing what looked like a half eaten spool of film inside.
“This doesn’t look good” I muttered.
Laying some newspapers to protect the carpet I picked amongst the spools and to my distress found that many were completely decomposed. Some rolls had reduced to dust or were rotting lumps of celluloid, glued to the spools. It had been 1979 when these films had last been projected and it was sad to think they would never be seen again. As I continued it got slightly better, I started finding rolls where the decay was not so advanced – rolls which might actually be salvageable.
“Hasn’t anyone offered to transfer these to video for you?” I asked.
“One person did” recalled Doodie “but he said it would cost $20-$25,000 – we don’t have that kind of money.”
I was flabbergasted – “They should be paying you…” I said, adding “It’s such a shame these couldn’t be caught in time – who knows what’s been lost”
Doodie looked thoughtful “I could’ve sworn there were more downstairs – you should take another look…”
So I went back to the basement. Looking round I saw what at first I took for a box of paint pots, but then recognised as a box stacked high with 16mm canisters.
I approached this lot, not expecting much – at least they looked in better shape on the outside. I took one at random, tried to open it. It opened easily. No vinegar this time, just a spool of 16mm film – carefully wound and in excellent condition. Returning it I fished out another can to check. Another in perfect condition. Just to be certain I took a third from elsewhere in the stacks – it too was intact.
I uttered a silent “Thank you” to whatever benevolent God of film had allowed these to survive, and then I went back upstairs.
“Well Doodie, you’re right – and they seem okay. But given the state of those other reels I think we need to get these transferred as soon as possible, just to be sure they’re saved. I have a contact in England who might be willing to pay for it to be done.”
Doodie responded “Get a projector and come back in a few weeks and we can watch the films – you can see if there’s anything worthwhile.”
Tracy and I looked at each other “We’re supposed to fly back to London the day after tomorrow… but if we can chang our tickets we will .”
Doodie was blithely certain “You’ll come back with a projector and we’ll look at the films together – and if you think it’s worth while then we’ll go ahead.”
“Well okay then, I guess we will”
We drove back to town in a high state of excitement. Here was our reason to stay.
Now up to this point – all I was thinking about was saving the films. The friend I was referring to was my business partner Alistair, with whom I was working on the musical documentary. He was very much into the 1920’s so it seemed natural that he would be interested in this discovery.
Over the next few days I was busy. We postponed our flight home and contacted various people who might lend us a projector, All the time in the back of my mind I was thinking about these films. With what purpose, apart from Leslie’s family and history, was I trying to save them? Finally it dawned on me. “I could make a film out of them!”. Doodie had written a biography of Leslie entitled “Leslie Howard: A Quite Remarkable Father” and I thought if I interviewed Doodie and inter cut the home movies it could make a very nice film – but would Doodie agree? She’d told us that first day that people were always bothering her to help with their biographies and that she simply wasn’t interested. But perhaps she’d feel different about this. I had her phone number so without further ado I rang and told her.
“That sounds splendid! Lets talk it over when you come back with that projector.”
Brief and straight to the point, one of the things I like about Doodie – and in fact the entire family so far, brisk, clear and decisive.
A few days later I spoke to Alistair about the idea – saying I thought we should try to shoot the interview by the end of the year. His response was tepid. Mention of Leslie Howard didn’t exactly make him whoop with enthusiasm. “Hmm – Possibly next summer – but I can’t see us doing it any sooner.” Of course this wasn’t the project he’d hoped to make – so it was a bit much to expect an instant response. I was crestfallen, but vowed to carry on – seeking alternative sources of funding. I started making a lot of calls.
A week and a half later we had borrowed a projector and headed back to watch the films. Doodie didn’t seem at all surprised saying “I said you’d be back”.
Since there were so many to choose from I selected 3 or 4 rolls at random – and one that I knew to be in colour.
We started with a black and white one. As the first images appeared I was startled by the visual quality, razor sharp black and white, with barely a scratch to indicate the age of the films. We were in the midst of one of the famous Hollywood all star Polo matchs – beautifully shot. So clear you could make out the scoreboard and, despite the silence, feel the hooves of the horses thundering past. I’ve never been a polo fan but the footage – some of it in slow motion – was unexpectedly exciting. Howard’s team, which won, included Will Rogers & Charles Farrell. In the watching audience was Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. Then we saw Mary Pickford give the prize to Will who did a bit of business for Ruth’s camera.
Next roll was from a can labelled 1930. As pristine black and white images of Broadway in April 1930 unfolded before our eyes everyone instinctively sat up. There was the theatre where Berkeley Square was having a special matinee, there was Doodie, 6 years old, mugging for the cameras. There were Leslie and Ruth – enjoying a day out on a tourist bus. Then as night fell and the lights got brighter Leslie focused on the theatre fronts – I felt a thrill of excitement as the titles of long lost films appeared. Tracy and I started shouting out the titles “The Rogue Song”! – “General Crack” “The Man from Blankleys.” Knowing that those films were probably being screened at the very moment Leslie was filming – just beyond the camera’s sight – added to the excitement. It was like being in a time machine.
Whoever was shooting these films (Leslie was in some of the shots so it wasn’t always him) had a real eye for composition. Next we were on a holiday tour of Cannes in the late 20’s – Leslie was driving and had mounted the camera on the steering wheel. Down by the sea – a very small Doodie pensively watched her brother hare off into the ocean. These films had a tender, intimate quality that seemed to telescope time.
“He filmed absolutely everything” Doodie remarked.
Then the screen burst into colour as we moved forward to some family fun at their Beverley Hills home. Ronald, Doodie and Leslie clowning in and around the swimming pool. Judging Doodie to be around 12 in this so I figured it to be 1936-37. The colour though somewhat faded – was very nice and I reckoned I could alter it back to the correct hues.
These films were just the tip of a very large iceberg – I calculated there were at least another 30 x 8-10 minute rolls (Leslie had helpfully compiled many of the original 2 minute rolls into themed reels.) I already knew there was colour footage from the filming of Romeo and Juliet but I had avoided screening this as it seemed rather fragile. So it seemed there would be a good deal of really valuable footage in there.
Doodie asked if I thought there was anything worthwhile.
“Absolutely” I said. “…and I’m sure when Alistair see’s it he’ll want to be involved.” That was why, with Doodie’s agreement, we had camcorded this screening.
Change of Heart
Two days later I decided to phone Alistair again. Something told me it was worth another try. This time his attitude was completely different. “I’ve been reading about Leslie Howard and I’m fascinated with him. I’m sorry I was so negative before but I think we’d be fools not to take this forward. You say Doodie is back in Toronto for Christmas? If she’s agreeable to being filmed then I’m willing to cover the costs.”
It was a fantastic note to end what had been an incredible visit. I phoned Doodie that night, as well as Risa Shuman, a producer I’d met who had joined us for the previous Sunday’s screening. “We’re on.” I said.
We flew back to London in high excitement and it felt like we continued flying for the next 6 weeks. I made dozens of transatlantic calls to arrange the details of the shoot. Obviously this had to be done to broadcast standards so we recruited a crew from colleagues of Risa’s, whom she’d worked with for many years on her show “Saturday Night at the Movies”
We returned to Toronto on December 9th and I continued making arrangements to get the 4 and a half hours – approximately 16,000 feet – of Home Movies transferred to tape from which I could then carefully log the contents.
The only time we could film Doodie was between Christmas and New Year since at any other time our crew would’ve been otherwise engaged.
This time Doodie was surprised – “I didn’t think I’d hear from you again” she said – but I could see she was pleased it was actually happening.
Dec 24th – 26th Tracy and I manage to cram in a quick Christmas visit to her mum in Chatham – several hours from Toronto – it’s a relief to get a slight break from the documentary.
December 27th – just under 3 months after my first meeting with Vicky and I call action for the first take on the Leslie Howard doc.
Over 2 days and Doodie and I cover every conceivable aspect of Leslie’s life and career. Doodie has wonderful recall and looks great on camera. She’s funny, warm and trenchant in her views on her father. As we progress she moves far beyond what she wrote in her book, discussing many aspects of her father’s life – including his mistresses – Violette in particular and his somewhat selfish treatment of Ruth.
Returning to England I spent the next month or so logging the interview footage and the home movies – which contained many surprises. Doodie had more than once expressed surprise that an interview with her would be of interest to anyone and repeatedly said :”Don’t feel you have to stick to my book” As I assemble the footage it slowly becomes apparent that as good as Doodie is, I need more interviews to illustrate the many sides of Leslie, some location work, and a way of telling the story that will appeal to more than just the hard core fan.
I continue filming interviews in England, first thanks to Kevin Brownlow (a friend of the project) I’m put in touch with Norman Spencer, Leslie’s wartime assistant director. Then we discover a number of recordings of Leslie’s propaganda broadcasts – when his voice reached into the homes of America, telling them in his own unique way about how Britain was dealing with the war. These broadcasts – not heard for almost 70 years vividly illustrate the effectiveness of Leslie’s wartime work.
Then I was contacted by Professor Doug Wheeler, an expert on the events leading up to the Flight 777 disaster. We interview Doug and it becomes apparent that there is possibly enough material for a second documentary – dealing specifically with the shooting down of Flight 777 (you can view a trailer for this at http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&VideoID=36389733)
At the same time I continued exploring different avenues for funding. However I was repeatedly disappointed in this. Leslie Howard was not considered a “hot enough” subject to fund a documentary and the one producer who did seem interested began making suggestions which I felt would sensationalise and cheapen the project. I felt I owed it to Leslie’s memory to make this as good a documentary as I could.
The crux of the problem was how exactly to present Leslie’s story and who should narrate. It was the key to engaging the viewer. I toyed with using Leslie’s nephew, the actor Alan Howard – which would have given the film a family tie in – but somehow the idea didn’t grab me.
Months passed, then I happened to hear a radio play by writer Mark Burgess. It was called The Wrong Hero and was based around events surrounding Leslie’s fatal last flight. It’s a little known fact that Leslie was not supposed to be on that particular flight. He was booked to fly the following day. But he was anxious to get back to England and as a VIP was able to demand an earlier flight for himself and his manager, Alfred Chenhalls.
2 people were taken of the flight to make room for them, a 7 year old boy and his adult companion. The radio play imagined the boy and his companion reminiscing many years later about the events and how a chance encounter had saved his life. I wondered if the real boy was still alive and whether we could interview him.
I contacted the author of the play and asked him if he knew any more. Mark said the boy’s name was Derek Partridge, and he thought he lived in from Las Vegas, but wasn’t sure. He did think that as an adult Derek had done some acting in film and on tv.
I started googling until I found someone who appeared to be the right age and then fired off an email saying “were you the boy who should’ve been on flight 777.” And then asked whether he’d be willing to be interviewed. I didn’t expect to hear anymore about it and my wife and I went out to do some errands. When we came back about an hour later there was an email in my Inbox entitled “Wow & How”. It was Derek, confirming that not only he was the boy and would be happy to be interviewed, but since he was a tv presenter by profession – if I liked he could present it. I responded with an immediate yes to his offer – it was the perfect hook, the boy whose life Leslie inadvertently saved should tell the story.
Derek has since proven to be amazingly committed and loyal to the project – travelling at his own expense to England for 9 days of filming last year and he did an excellent job of presenting and interviewing. We shot a number of new interviews for the documentary, visited Leslie’s old home, returned to Bristol airport where Leslie’s plane would have landed but never did and filmed at other important places in Leslie’s life. Aside from this we also filmed a few interviews for the side project Mystery of Flight 777 (designed to look at the lives of all of those on board) and on this project, amazingly, we found another person who should have been on Flight 777 – Frank Plugge, who had clear memories of one of the other victims of the attack.
This completed about 85% of the shooting, though there were still some pieces to pick up. We wanted to film in Lisbon, and try to interview any people who remembered Leslie from that time – we still had one or two of Leslie’s colleagues whose views would be great to have on film – including Olivia De Havilland – who is alive and well and living in Paris.
Time is very much the issue. 2009 is the 70th Anniversary of the release of Gone With the Wind, and as such it’s the best possible time for this documentary to be seen and get distribution.
4 weeks ago I learnt that plans are afoot for a memorial plaque to be installed at Lisbon airport to the memory of those shot down on board flight 777. The dedication is due to happen on the 66th Anniversary of the disaster – June 1st 2009. A perfect point at which to conclude our documentary on Leslie – and also to film around Lisbon and interview any surviving people he knew there.
There are a number of international film festivals to which this documentary would be ideally suited – the London Film Festival, a Lisbon documentary festival and ofcourse the Toronto International Film Festival.
OK, hope some of you can spread the word. The kickstarter appeal is only running for another week, so time is of the essence.