By F. KEITH
THE world was shocked in June, 1943, when
news came that screen star Leslie Howard had been killed in a mysterious aircraft
Even though death was all around during that year of World War II, the report of Howard's death hit the public with added impact.
They knew him as a great artist and a sensitive, gentle-mannered person of outstanding acting ability,
which the screen could ill afford to lose.
He was everybody's favorite -and he had done a wonder- ful job for the war effort with his propaganda films.
Never a great lover, never an aggressive personality, and "nice-looking" rather than handsome, Howard had contributed something rather "special" and artistically satisfying to the rugged, sometimes crude, business of film-making.
Everyone who had seen him in films had a sense of personal loss in the death of Leslie Howard.
Added to this emotion there was a burning sense of indignation that his life had been sacrificed, with- out purpose, to a circumstance which should never' have arisen - that, somehow or other, this great and gentle actor had been a pawn in a shrewd strategy of war which had involved a civil aircraft being shot down ruthlessly by the Ger-
Why the Germans should have picked on this Dakota Ibis, carry- ing 13 passengers from Lisbon to London on a regular flight, which had been left unmolested so many times before, was a mystery that inflamed the minds of many who knew the flight well.
There was the immediate rumor that the enemy had shot down the plane because it believed that Brit- ish Prime Minister Winston Chur- chill was on board.
Many other theories were ad- vanced - that Howard had aroused German hatred because of his ef- fective wartime propaganda work.
But officialdom supplied no answer to all these conjectures. It was understood that there had been some sort of private inquiry into the incident, but it had evi- dently drawn a blank.
Even Howard's relatives and next-of-kin got nowhere at all with their efforts to find out what had happened, and why.
And so the story of the death of Howard, and of the shooting down of the plane, would have remained a closed book - just one of those inexplicable mysteries - had not an English journalist, lan Colvin, started to play at cloak-and-dagger and do some investigation of his
Colvin had heard all the theories about why the particular civil air- craft bearing Howard and 12 other passengers should have been selec- ted as a target for the German guns.
Colvin wondered why there had been no war- crime trials of Luft- waffe officers for what had un- doubtedly been a atrocity killing.
Less barbarous killings had been thoroughly investigated.
Why had everything, apparently,
been smothered up so completely?
This was the 64-dolIar question for which Colvin wanted to find the
So he started to find out all he could about the identity of the aircraft.
THE Dakota, he discovered, A had been hired by B.O.A.C. from the Royal Dutch Airlines, and was running on a regular, scheduled commer- cial service.
The crew of four had been picked men of the R.D.A.
Captain Tepas, of K.L.M., had been at the controls of the plane bringing Flight 777 to London - as he had been many times be-
So far as the flight was con- cerned, everything seemed to be in order, and there had been no deviations from routine on that fateful day in June . . . but no papers concerned with the flight could be found in England.
But Colvin, his appetite for in- trigue now thoroughly whetted, pressed on with his investigations
in other places.
It was in Amsterdam that he hit the jackpot.
In a small hut near Schipol air-
port he found 12 box files which yielded vital information.
In them were the papers of a gallant little group of Dutchmen and Englishmen who had kept an unarmed airline running through- out the war.
Among: the flies were the papers of the Ibis herself.
The papers provided official re- ports of the fateful incident.
There were reports showing that airline officials KNEW that the plane was in imminent danger.
In fact, there was evidence that officials were contemplating a switch to night flying the day be- fore the Ibis was lost.
These reports gave Colvin the lead he was looking for. He went on from there to unearth a story which might well have been a script for one of Howard's own screenplays ... a play in which, unwittingly he might have re- peated his famous role of Pimper- nel Smith - but in much more serious vein - and without any of the make-believe.
Pimpernel Smith! That was one of the roles In which Leslie How- ard's great army of admirers like to remember him . . . gay, poised, insouciant, suave, quietly courage- ous, and with that indefinable pol- ish with which Howard invested all his portrayals.
But it's doubtful if Howard ever played any part which could re- motely be considered a "flop."
He was never stylised; he was never quite the same personality in any two movies; and yet all his work bore the distinct brand of a Leslie Howard interpretation.
He could play Shakespeare's Romeo with conviction - even in the somewhat incompatible atmo- sphere of a Hollywood movie.
He could bring poetry to his role of a peace-loving fellow harassed by gangsters in a desert service sta- tion in "The Petrified Forest."
Light comedy was equally his meat - as when he burlesqued the Great Lover in "It's Love I'm After," with Bette Davis, playing a jealous Juliet to his tongue-in
And Howard could even lend greatness to the negative role of Ashley Wilkes in Hollywood's epic "Gone With the Wind," so that at no time was he overpowered by Clark Gable's blustering, showy interpretation of Rhett Butler.
He has left behind just as in delible an impression upon the cinema as John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Mary Pick- ford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Snr., and any other of the more "showy" film personal-
The 53-year-old actor had plans for a number of films to be made in England, in the spirit of his wonderfully entertaining propa- ganda films - "Pimpernel Smith," "The 49th Parallel," "The First of the Few."
They were plans which could have injected a special sort of vitality and purpose into the Brit- ish film industry.
One of Howard's ambitions was to make a truly outstanding movie about Bonnie Prince Charlie.
He envisaged it made on location in Scotland, in color, and with all the sweep, sincerity, and spectacu- lar action which would make it an historical film to be remembered.
The film was eventually made - but Howard was dead by then.
David Niven took the title role, . with Old Vic. actress Margaret Leighton playing opposite him.
But fine actor though he was (and is) Niven could, not invest the role of Prince Charlie with that characteristic tenderness, humor, and inward fire which Leslie How- ard would have brought to the part. The film was a failure.
HOWARD . . . smooth, imperturbable, the "true Englishman" in his famous role as Pimpernel Smith.
Howard could have made it a movie to remember.
When Howard was lost to the screen, it was hoped that his son, Ronald, would follow in his foot- steps sufficiently to fill a similar position on the screen.
He was the image of his father. His mannerisms were almost identical; his way of speaking was reminiscent; and the studios did everything possible to foster the likeness in publicity stills and in the type of part given him.
But, perhaps, it was a pity for Ronald that he looked so much like his father. For the resemblance was purely superficial. The Leslie How- ard magic was missing from his work. Ronald just didn't get any where in the movies. Playwright LESLIE HOWARD was born
in London on April 3, 1890. He worked as a bank clerk but in between times wrote short stories and plays. This play-writing diversion led him to thoughts of the stage - and eventually, in 1912, he broke into the theatre in Manchester.
His stage work took him to New York in 1920 - and from there it was just a step to Hollywood, and into such memorable films as "Out- ward Bound," "Berkeley Square," "The Petrified Forest," "Gone With the Wind," and "Inter-
In the last-named picture, Howard introduced a new leading lady, who gave promise of going a very long way on the screen.'
Her name was Ingrid Bergman. Leslie Howard was a quiet, dreamy, and, somewhat fey person with an agelessness in his appear- ance and personality which gave no suggestion of incongruity when he played juvenile lead to an actress who might have been al- most 30 years his junior.
It seemed only natural that the youthful Wendy Hiller should have
STEADILY . . . with little thought of danger, the Dakota flew towards Lon- don from Lisbon. Why, when it had gone unmoles- ted so long, did it - and Howard - become the tar-
get for Nazi bullets?
fallen for his charms (mature they might, have been) in that de- lightful British comedy, "Pyg-
George Bernard Shaw can thank Howard, just as much as his own literary gifts, for bringing his play to the public in a manner which made it a box-office hit in all parts
of the world.
Today "Pygmalion" is one of the greatest successes Broadway has ever known in its new, musical comedy form, titled "My Fair Lady."
One can't help feeling that Leslie Howard's influence in the film played a big part in produc- ing this transition.
Leslie Howard possessed many special, individual qualities.
One of them was made of the stuff that Inspired W. S. Gilbert to write the lyrics for the famous song in "H.M.S. Pinafore": "But he is an Englishman - yes, he IS an Englishman!"
Not even long years in Holly- wood could change Howard's "Eng- lish" quality one iota.
In spite of all temptations to belong to other nations, he re- mained an Englishman - and the Americans liked him all the more for it.
In his acting there was another special quality. "He brought out the mother in women," it was said, "and the brother in men."
Here then was a man and an actor which the screen, and the stage, was all the poorer for los- ing.
No wonder the world felt dis- mayed when the news of his un-
timely death was reported . . , and no wonder journalist Ian Col- vin probed on and on into the rea- sons for the fatality.
After his startling discovery in a little hut in Amsterdam, Colvin pressed on along a trail of intrigue to Portugal, Spain and Germany.
In London he consulted Air Ministry historians; senior pilots stopped off world flights to add their pieces to the jigsaw; even wary officers of the Luftwaffe; Goering's Iron Cross' aces, helped with unpublished evidence.
But, the most fascinating part of the story was brought to light in Madrid. Here a brilliant and extra- ordinary woman stepped into the picture - a German countess, who was a veritable Mata Hari.
SHE had been specially com-
missioned to check-up on Howard during his visit to Spain and Portugal and report on the REAL reason for his trip.
From it all, Ian Colvin pieced together a truly remarkable story of what occurred when Leslie How- ard made his fateful lecture tour for the British Council of Portugal and Spain in the spring of 1943.
The story, in all its amazing de- tail, will be told in several instal ments in The Argus, commencing on Monday.
If you were an admirer of Leslie Howard and his work, the explana- tion of the circumstances which, led to his death will fascinate you.
And even if Howard was "a little before your time," or if you just weren't a picturegoer, the story can well stand on its own legs as an unusually exciting narrative.
REMEMBER, THE STORY OF THE DEATH OF LESLIE HOW ARD - "THE MYSTERY OF FLIGHT 777" - STARTS IN THE ARGUS ON MONDAY.
IN YOUR ARGUS ON MONDAY