Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The effete Leslie Howard

Turner Classic Movies has been spending Thursday nights in January showing some of the great love stories. Among the movies coming up this week is Intermezzo: A Love Story, airing at 1:15 AM ET on February 1. (Note that for those of you in the Pacific time zone, this is 10:15 PM on Thursday, January 31.) Ingrid Bergman stars in her first American movie, as a piano teacher who is asked by the professional violinist father (Leslie Howard) of her pupil to be his accompanist on his next tour. Needless to say, while on tour they fall in love, despite the fact that he's already married.

Ingrid Bergman looking at Leslie Howard's violin in Ingrid Bergman is radiant as always, despite the fact that she has to suffer going through a good portion of the movie dressed up in an old-fashioned overall-style dress. (This may have been appropriate for a young Swedish woman of her social class in the 1930s, but really, we'd rather see Bergman in the outfits she wore in Notorious.) Leslie Howard, on the other hand, seems typecast: he's weak and needy (although not as bad as, say, Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, airing just before Intermezzo, at 11:15 PM ET January 31), and indecisive too. And this is by far not the only role in which Howard played the weak man:

All the way back in 1931, he was engaged to Norma Shearer in A Free Soul, but she fell for the much more interesting and dashing Clark Gable.

Fast forward a few years to 1934, and Howard's role as Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage. As Bette Davis says in the movie, when she kissed him, she used to wipe her mouth -- [insert hammy gesture of Miss Davis wiping her mouth on her sleeve] -- WIPE HER MOUTH! Although Of Human Bondage is a fine movie, and the cast does an excellent job as long as you don't have anything against Bette Davis's scenery-chewing, it's difficult to find much sympathy for Howard.

The Petrified Forest. Howard is again paired with Davis, but spends most of the movie having his decided lack of masculinity put on full display by Humphrey Bogart. (Then again, who in the 1930s could have competed with Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart?)

Gone With the Wind. Howard plays Ashley Wilkes, the man Scarlett O'Hara supposedly wants, although again, it's the much stronger Rhett Butler who really gets O'Hara's heart racing.

49th Parallel. Howard has a relatively small role in this ensemble cast, but it's of an anthropologist in Canada who goes in for Thomas Mann and artists the Nazis would consider degenerate -- and can't be bothered to stand up for himself until the Nazis try to destroy some of Howard's precious artwork.

What did poor Leslie Howard do to get himself consistently cast as such weak men?

One final note about Intermezzo: this is a remake of a 1936 Swedish movie, which also starred Ingrid Bergman in the same role.

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