Howard was educated at Dulwich College, and after working in a bank and suffering shell shock in the First World War he recalled that that school had been founded by an actor.
He established himself as a leading player in London and New York, playing Her Cardboard Lover opposite Tallulah Bankhead and producing a play of his own. Tell Me The Truth. One of his stage successes had been in Outward Bound, a strange postwar blues production about a liner full of dead souls. Warners elected to film it in 1930 and invited Howard to take the lead, directed by Robert Milton. After that, MGM acquired him for Never the Twain Shall Meet (31, W. S. Van Dvke), Five and Ten (31, Robert Z. Leonard), and A Free Soul (31, Clarence Brown). For a few years he shifted between England—Service for Ladies (32, Alexander Korda) and The Lachj Is Willing (34, Gilbert Miller)—and America— Devotion (31. Robert Milton); Smilin' Through (32. Sidney Franklin); The Animal Kingdom (32, Edward 11. Griffith); Secrets (33, Frank Borzage); Captured! (33, Boy del Ruth); and Berkeley Square (33, Frank Llovd).
In 1934, he signed for Warners and made British Agent (Michael Curtiz) before being loaned to RKO for Of Human Bondage (34, John Cromwell, with Bette Davis), and to Korda for Sir Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel (34, Harold Young)—a costume romance in keeping with Howard’s fragility. He was well cast as the half-baked writer in The Petrified Forest (36, Archie Mayo), and partly responsible for Bogart’s being in that film; but horribly exposed in MGM's Romeo and Juliet (36, George Cukor), a film that, remarkably, did not harm his reputation. Warners limited him to modern-day dress comedy: It’s Love I’m After (37, Tay Garnett) and, in 1938, Howard returned to Britain to act in and codirect (with Anthony Asquith) Pygmalion. His Higgins is cold, like so many of Shaw’s intellectuals, but he carried the film’s wit with great ease.
His last films in Hollywood were both for Selznick: Gone With the Wind (39, Victor Fleming) and Intermezzo opposite Ingrid Bergman (39, which he coproduced with Gregory Ratoff)—the latter as generous to Howard as the former was unflattering. At this point he returned to England at war and became not only one of the most active ol producer-directors, but something ol an emotional figurehead: Pimpernel Smith (39, actor and director); 49th Parallel (41, Michael Powell) in which he is a humanist in a wigwam, reading Thomas Mann and gloating over a Picasso; The Lamp Still Bums (41, producer); The First of the Few (42, director and actor—as B. J. Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire); and The Gentle Sex (43, codirector, with Maurice Elvey).
The great reputation that Howard enjoyed seems remote to a generation that knows him only through revivals of Gone With the Wind. His Ashlev Wilkes in that film is such a nonentity, and the comparison with Gable so diminishing, that one winders not only what people saw in Howard, but how Selznick’s epic ever survived. No matter that central Europe haunted his features.
Hollywood adopted him as its shyest English gentleman and as the epitome of class. Britain fell for this image a little later but devoured it wholesale after his patriotic wartime movies and his death, shot down in a plane from Lisbon to London. There has always been the scent of mystery about that death. Had Howard been used as a decoy- he was on a government mission—to divert attention from Churchill who was also flying that day? It is the sort ol heroic sacrifice that a whey-faced exile from land-locked Hungaiy might have dreamed of.