Director and Producer Tom Hamilton is going to launch – this September – a documentary about the actor Leslie Howard. “The Man who Gave a Damn” puts together the home-movies still in the hands of the Howard familie and also testimonies of the life of this main character from “Gone with the Wind”.
Tom Hamilton is also preparing another movie about the desapearence of the actor in June 1, 1943, when he was flying from Lisbon to England in a flight that was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by Luftwaffe fighters.
Land in Portugal: What attracted you in this two projects?
Tom Hamilton: Actually they started life as just one project – “The Man who Gave a Damn” - on the life and career of Leslie Howard. That came about almost by accident. My wife and I were visiting Toronto (attending a film festival there) and trying to set up other projects. It came about through a chance encounter with Leslie’s grand-daughter Vicky at an art gallery one evening.
I didn’t know who she was but we were chatting about my interest in old films and she happened to mention that her grandfather had shot lots of home movies in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s in Hollywood, The Riviera, Broadway and other places. When she told me who her grandfather I don’t think she expected me to recognise the name – and was so pleased when I did that she invited me to meet her mother, Leslie’s daughter Doodie for Sunday tea that very weekend.
So less than 48 hours later my wife and I were meeting the wonderful Doodie and being entertained by some great first hand Hollywood tales.
She’s a great raconteur and I found myself increasingly interested in this dimension of movie star as a father. Of course Leslie was much more than just a movie star and I found that the more she told me of his attitude to life and parenting the more I wanted to somehow preserve her words.
Part of the reason we were invited round was on account of my interest in the Home Movies that Leslie had shot. But they didn’t have a projector and I discovered that some of the films were already badly decayed. So we re-arranged our flights home and stayed an extra few weeks until we could borrow a projector to see the films.
When we finally viewed them, they were stunning and I started trying to think of ways in which these precious films might be preserved. I quickly realised the only way to justify the considerable outlay (£5-6,000) necessary to transfer these was if we could then put them to some sort of use – and at that point I began seriously thinking of a documentary built round Doodie and the home movies.
Doodie had long refused to be involved in anyone’s biographies of her father – but I belief she saw – right away – that my motives were quite different – and that first an foremost it would allow the home movies to be preserved free of charge.
For myself I thought it would be a nice little project (I still have emails saying I expected to finish it in 5 or 6 months – that was back in October 2006 and now it’s June 2011!!!)
As I soon discovered – a project such as this needs to be done properly – and it grew.
Obviously the manner of his death is something that interests a lot of people – myself included – but I was anxious that my film look at his life – rather than his dwell on his death.
Of course the questions surrounding the shooting down of the Ibis are deeply intriguing and I found that as I filmed the interviews much attention was focused on what exactly happened that day.
This is why - relatively early in the production of Man Who Gave a Damn, I realised I had to make a second film which could deal with the disappearance.This is called "The Mystery of Flight 777" and by doing this and having it be a companion piece I can concentrate on the other individuals who were on that flight or involved.
This is still only about half shot – since all my energies have been on The Man Who Gave a Damn, but now that this is almost complete I’ll push forward with Flight 777.
LP: What exactly are looking in one and in the other documentary?
TH: "Leslie Howard: The Man who Gave a Damn" is a feature length look at the life, career and passions of Leslie Howard. Whilst we see a great deal of his Hollywood film career, particularly Gone with the Wind, we also see much of the informal Leslie - through never before seen Home Movies and the memories of his daughter Doodie.
The film also takes an in depth look at his role and importance in the British war effort and the events leading up to his disappearance in 1943.
Leslie Howard is one of those stars whose star seemed in danger of extinction – only being remembered for the part and film he liked least, Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the wind. But in the last two or three years several new books have come out which are either about or are inspired by the man’s life and I hope my film will help bring his name to a new audience.
His daughter, Doodie, wrote an excellent biography of Leslie (A Quite Remarkable Father), published in the late 1950’s. It’s a great read but due to when it was written she left out quite a bit of detail on Leslies extramarital affairs – mainly because her mother was still alive.
Now however, Doodie has written new chapters which offer a much franker account of his affairs – and a deeper insight into what made Leslie tick. I’ve read these chapters and can confirm they give the book a fresh perspective – there are several publishers interested and I feel a tie in between the launch of the documentary and a new edition of Doodie’s book could stir up a great deal of media interest...
Asside from Doodie we interviewed in the documentary are - Leslie's assistant director (on Pimpernel Smith and The Gentle Sex) Norman Spencer, Wartime expert Professor Doug Wheeler, British Film Historian Matthew Sweet, Playwright and fan Mark Burgess, Biographer Quentin Falk, Propaganda Expert Prof Nick Cull and Maude Queirós Pereira, who I interviewed at the Ritz Hotel in Lisbon.
Maude was a teenager when Leslie came to Portugal and she attended all of his lectures in Lisbon. Maude also relates her memories of meeting Leslie when her father invited Leslie and his manager to their home for an evening meal.
Our narrator of course is Derek Partridge - in whose life Leslie played a brief but incredibly important role - since it was he who gave up his seat so the actor could fly on June 1st 1943. Derek has been an absolute gem throughout the very long production this film has gone through – never failing in his support and even on the day I wrote these words filming a new piece of on-camera narration to be used in the film. So in a real sense the production has just this moment wrapped.
With “The Mystery of Flight 777”, I’ll be looking exclusively at the circumstances surrounding the shooting down of the Ibis – as well as the wider implications of what was happening in Lisbon at the time.
We’ll be bringing some previously unknown material – such as a recorded interview with Herbert Hintze (one of the Junker pilots) into the open as well looking more closely at the work of Wilfred Israel and Ivan Sharp.
Doug Wheeler naturally plays a major part with his 25+ years of research on the subject. Additional interviews are with Ben Rosenvink (son of the Ingbertus Rosenvink - the Navigator on Flight 777) and Frank Plugge, another child who narrowly missed being on Flight 777 (due to an attach of tonsilitis) interestingly he has clear memories of one other child who was on the flight - Petra Hutchence.
There is still considerable work to be done on this project - hopefully once The Man who Gives a Damn is being shown I'll attract the necessary backing to complete this.
And of course there’s the personal aspect of the story – of the families who were suddenly struck by tragedy – Frank Plugge remembers going with his mother to meet the father of Petra Hutchence, a man who had been expecting to see his daughter for the first time in 2 years and his infant son for the first time ever.
LP: Leslie Howard is the link between this two documentaries. Besides being one actor, who was this man?
TH: He really is an enigma - a multi-faceted figure - and very hard to pin down. His daughter was as close to him as anyone could be and yet even she admits that there were sides of her father she never saw. However in The Man Who Gave a Damn I think we've managed to unearth a few sides of his character that people might not be aware of.
On the one hand he seemed very unassuming - a man who liked to stay in the background observing, and quite uncomfortable with the idea of acting - whilst the other side of his nature was very strong willed - prepared to go up against moguls such as Jack Warner in order to have his way on a project – one of the very few freelance stars in the thirties. But he was also someone who was driven to create.
Throughout the 1920’s he was writing very funny articles for Vanity Fair and a number of plays – one or two of which he produced – anything in fact which could make him more than just an actor.
And he was able to win the support of notable collaborators. Everyone knows about Bernard Shaw in the late 30’s but as early as 1920 he had formed a film production company with backing from such figures as H G Wells and A A Milne – when Howard himself was hardly a well known actor. Although Minerva films folded Howard would return to film production in earnest at the end of the 30’s someone who found the whole star system in Hollywood ridiculous.
I also admire the way he abandoned a lucrative Hollywood career to work for the British War Effort.
LP: Was there something that surprised you while collecting material for the documentaries?
TH: When I started these projects, I didn’t know a great deal about Howard’s life. I knew of most of his films and of his help towards Humphrey Bogart. I think most people know about the fact that Bogie named his daughter Leslie in honour of Howard - but I discovered that before The Petrified Forest, he had helped other co-stars in similar ways – William Gargan (who named his own son Leslie Howard Gargan), Ilka Chase to name a couple.
Of course the Home Movies provided their own revelations – showing an informal, playful and mischevious side to Leslie, you wouldn’t expect from the man who played Rhett Butler.
LP: You talked with some Portuguese people that contacted with Leslie Howard in Portugal. Is there any particular story that surprised you?
TH: Most histories describe Leslie Howard in mid 1943 as a broken man (one who never really recovered from the death of his mistress) – even his son and daughter describe him as being distant and preoccupied with spiritualism.
But when Maude Queirós Pereira she described a man who was bubbling with enthusiasm for his new film idea – a British-Portugese co-production about Christopher Columbus.
That was a real surprise and suggests his adventure in Lisbon had much revived his appetite for life and creativity.
LP: There is still a discussion about the moment when Flight 777 was shot down. Was it one accident or one intentional ambush? Where you able to reach some conclusion from the information you collected?
TH: It’s a question I haven’t reached a conclusion on – mainly because I still have interviews and research to carry out on the Flight 777 documentary.
So far I've heard the recorded testimony of Herbert Hintze - one of the Junker pilots who was involved in the actual shooting down in which he insists that they came upon the plane unexpectedly – with the direction of the sun making it hard to decipher it’s markings and that 2 of the squadron immediately opened fire before he realised it was a passenger plane and - too late - ordered a halt the attack.
Then again there are other reports – which have recently resurfaced of captured German pilots boasting to each other of shooting down the Ibis – so even from the German side the messages are mixed.
One thing is clear - from the timings of the radio messages received from the Ibis in the moments leading up to and during the attach – there’s a space of several minutes – surely a long enough period for the Junkers to identify the plane.
Ultimately we may only get the full story when the classified papers are released.
LP: Have you any idea when the documentaries could be released?
TH: Well we’re planning the premier screening of “Leslie Howard: The Man who Gave a Damn” at present. We’ll be showing it in mid- July at a special press conference at Leslie’s former home of Stowe Maries in Dorking – where the current owners hope to erect a plaque in Leslie’s honour. We’re hoping to have a VERY special guest at that event – if her health allows – but I can’t say any more than that for the time being.
After the launch we’ll be entering the project into some of the key film festivals – in order to secure the best distribution deal for it.
Turner Classic Movies in the US will be showing it probably at the end of the year – possibly around Christmas – but for broadcasters outside of the US it’ll depend on what distribution we get.
However I hope we can have Mystery of Flight 777 wrapped rather faster than “Man Who Gave A Damn” but watch this space.