If remembered at all, the name Franchot Tone usually comes up only when someone lists Joan Crawford’s series of husbands. Never mind the fact that Franchot Tone appeared in about 60 films, countless plays, and dozens of television shows.
Though never a major Hollywood star, Franchot Tone (born in Niagara Falls on Feb. 27, 1905) was a reliable leading man and second lead in numerous motion pictures of the 1930s and 1940s. He was also a respected Broadway actor, playing (in roles of varying importance) opposite stage luminaries such as Katharine Cornell (in The Age of Innocence), Ruth Gordon (in Hotel Universe), and Lenore Ulric (in Pagan Lady). In the early 1930s, Tone was a member of Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman’s innovative Group Theatre, a sort of precursor to Strasberg’s better-known Actor’s Studio.
After an MGM contract brought him to California in late 1932, Tone saw his stage training go to waste in melodramas and comedies that usually focused on the female star, including Joan Crawford, Miriam Hopkins, Loretta Young, Janet Gaynor, Jean Harlow, and Bette Davis.
Tone’s most important films during his tenure at MGM are the Academy Award-winning seafaring drama Mutiny on the Bounty (for which Tone, along with stars Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, received a best actor Academy Award nomination); Dorothy Arzner’s romantic melodrama The Bride Wore Red, opposite Joan Crawford; George Stevens’ Quality Street (at RKO) with Katharine Hepburn; and Frank Borzage’s Three Comrades, with Robert Taylor, Margaret Sullavan, and fellow MGM second-lead, Robert Young.
Also in the 1930s, Tone was loaned out to Paramount for one of his best-known films, the rousing adventure tale The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, in which he fights alongside Gary Cooper and Richard Cromwell so that the sun would never set on the British Empire. Academy Award-nominated Henry Hathaway directed.
In his A-pictures, Tone usually lost the girl to the male star – Cary Grant, William Powell, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery – but in the 1936 Joan Crawford vehicle The Gorgeous Hussy he did win the girl (even though his role was small). On the set, however, the relationship between boy and girl – by then husband and wife off-screen – was anything but winning. In her autobiography, Crawford recalled that the film “marked the breaking point in [Tone’s] career and in our marriage,” remarking that his late appearances on the set were “unprofessional and intolerable.”
Male ego issues aside, a crucial problem was that Tone was unhappy with his “stuffed shirt” roles at MGM, even when he happened to get the girl before the final fadeout. In 1939, the year his marriage to Crawford came to an end, the actor finally called it quits with the studio. He returned to the stage, but shortly thereafter resumed his film career at other studios.
In the 1940s, Tone’s film roles varied widely. One moment he was involved in fluffy affairs with the much younger Deanna Durbin (in Nice Girl?, His Butler’s Sister, and Because of Him), the next he was up to his neck in some sort of dangerous business in, say, Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo, with Erich von Stroheim and Anne Baxter; Robert Siodmak’s classic film noir Phantom Lady, with Ella Raines; and André De Toth’s psychological drama Dark Waters, opposite Merle Oberon.
By the turn of the decade, Tone was once again playing mostly second leads, supporting Cary Grant and Betsy Drake in the mild comedy Every Girl Should Be Married; and playing second fiddle to Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman in Frank Capra’s 1951 musical comedy Here Comes the Groom.
Tone’s film career came to an abrupt halt at that time. Once again, he returned to the stage while also keeping himself busy with dozens of television appearances.
His most remarkable film role during the latter part of his career was the ailing U.S. president (by then, the heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking Tone looked the part) in Otto Preminger’s classy 1962 political drama Advise & Consent.
Franchot Tone’s last feature film was Nobody Runs Forever, released in 1968, the year of his death of lung cancer. At the time, Tone had been planning to star in a film adaptation of Jean Renoir’s book of memoirs, Renoir My Father. (The father in question was Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.)
Journalist and writer Lisa Burks, currently working on a Franchot Tone biography (check out her Franchot Tone site), has been researching the actor’s life for several years. Lisa – we’ve known each other for quite some time; I can’t refer to her as “Burks” – has consented to answer a few questions about the subject of her biographical project, “Urbane Rebel: The Franchot Tone Story.” Additionally, she has kindly provided the photographs found in this piece.
Why did you pick Franchot Tone as a biographical subject?
Back in 1996, I was focused on Jean Harlow, taping all her films off Turner Classic Movies to get up to speed with her work because I was launching a Harlow website, The Platinum Page.
That’s when I first noticed Franchot, in The Girl from Missouri (above). I kept rewinding the tape to watch his scenes over and over again because he played the stereotypical rich playboy (who tries to seduce Harlow) with a sense of mischievous, boyish charm that I hadn’t seen before. He pumped soul into an otherwise one-note character, and I thought he stole the show from her. I was hooked.
Later on, I found Franchot mentioned here and there in Hollywood- and Broadway-related books, and I felt he was shamefully treated like a footnote in entertainment history: Gentleman-born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Ivy League educated Franchot Tone defected from the Group Theatre in New York to do film work in Hollywood where his failed marriage to superstar Joan Crawford hindered his ability to realize his full potential as a movie star. In the ensuing years, Tone slipped into near oblivion before dying of cancer in 1968. That type of summary. While true on certain levels, it’s simplistic and misleading, and just the tip of the iceberg as far as who Franchot Tone was as an artist and as a human being.
Franchot had many professional and personal ups and downs, most of which were dramatically chronicled in the press of the day, but central to his character was that he never quit pursuing his passion for acting, for expressing the human experience through character, and for living life to the fullest on his own terms. His story is really one of gallant perseverance, of rebelling against what was expected of him, rebounding from seeming disaster, and staying true to his own vision of success whether that landed him on the A-list or not.
That’s the broad-strokes reason why I’ve championed Franchot Tone as a biographical subject. He had a complex personality and lived a very full 63 years. It’s taken me ten years to get to know him and I’m still learning new things every day.
How did Franchot Tone come to MGM?
Stories have circulated that Franchot went to Hollywood on the command of Lee Strasberg in order to make in-roads for the Group Theatre. While there may have been some informal conversations as to how he could help do that, Franchot left because he was hungry for new experiences, a recurring theme throughout his life. Plus, Franchot had an incredible voice, perfect for talkies.
He had done several screen tests for various studios in 1931, while also appearing in several Group productions and getting solid reviews. Paramount signed him to a one-picture deal to appear in The Wiser Sex [starring Claudette Colbert and Melvyn Douglas] which was filmed at the Astoria Studios [in Queens, NY], and he enjoyed the experience. That fueled his fire to try Hollywood full time. Paramount executives on the West Coast considered signing him to a longer contract, but ultimately passed because they felt he was too similar to another actor on their roster, George Raft.
Talent scout Al Altman had Franchot on his radar for several years after seeing the actor on stage with a Buffalo stock theater company. A screen test for Altman eventually led to an MGM deal. In September 1932, the studio signed Franchot to a 20-week contract at $750 a week, with options for up to five years.
Once in Hollywood, he spent a lot of time waiting for role assignments – something that drove him a bit stir crazy. Finally, in December he began working on [the war & romance melodrama] Today We Live [right]. That’s where he first met Joan Crawford.
By early April 1933, he’d done only one other film, Gabriel Over the White House with Walter Huston. At that point, Franchot notified MGM that he was ready to go back to New York if the trend continued. That year, however, he ended up appearing in six more films, including Dancing Lady with Crawford and Clark Gable, and Bombshell with Harlow and Lee Tracy.
Franchot Tone was Joan Crawford’s second husband (1935-1939). What was that marriage like? And what was it like for Tone to play opposite Crawford, then one of MGM’s top stars, in no less than seven films?
Franchot and Joan’s marriage was her second (or third, depending on who you talk to†) and his first, and it was a passionate one. They remained friends after their divorce and until Franchot’s death; I think that connection speaks for itself. A true love story even though the marriage didn’t work out. They came from two different worlds, and had different approaches to acting, but they each had an artistic drive that the other could relate to.
Franchot was immediately smitten with Joan, who on the other hand was not interested in marriage so soon after her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Franchot had told friends before leaving for Hollywood that he was going to marry a movie star, but it would be three years before he and Crawford would say “I do.” In the meantime, Franchot offered her the opportunity to relax away from the studio because he loved to go out at night to kick up his heels with her at nightclubs after a day’s work.
This would later cause problems because Joan was famously devoted to her strict schedule of memorizing lines at night and getting rest. Franchot, on the other hand, had a photographic memory and needed little study time. What he craved was on-set rehearsal time as he was accustomed to in the theater – though he did not get it when making movies. That frustrated him to no end. So when he was done shooting for the day, that was that. He was then ready to have fun, whether it was on the town or around the house. Eventually, the differences in their work habits contributed to the strain on their relationship.
Working together [with Crawford] was educational, especially for Franchot who had been a hit on Broadway but had no idea how to act in front of a camera when he arrived at MGM. He always credited Joan for teaching him the ropes. For his part, Franchot brought to the table his knowledge and love of culture – literature, classic plays, opera[, while]. Joan was an avid student of anything that she felt would [help her] better herself.
He also got her involved in politics, particularly with the Screen Actors Guild of which he was first vice president. Franchot had a pattern of educating his women, so to speak. He was raised by a suffragette mother so he was very much a feminist who encouraged women to be all that they wanted to be. At one point [earlier in his life] he considered becoming a teacher, so this was his natural inclination with just about everyone he met.
As the marriage deteriorated, working together became a challenge. The press rode him for being sullen on set and blamed his lack of star power compared to his wife’s. I really don’t believe that was the case, because Franchot was not the type of person to resent someone else’s success. Also, he – more than anyone – would know how much work Joan put into her career. The marriage was not working on a personal level, and it showed because Franchot was open about matters of the heart. The end of his marriage hurt him deeply and he suffered that in a very public way.
Franchot’s frustration with his career hit an all-time high when [MGM’s second-in-command] Irving G. Thalberg died in 1936. Thalberg had felt MGM was wasting Franchot’s talent and was planning to personally develop his career as a leading man. After Thalberg’s death, Franchot was stuck with [MGM head Louis B.] Mayer, who felt Franchot’s future at MGM was that of a character actor in the mold of a young Lewis Stone [Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy series with Mickey Rooney].
Franchot told Mayer in 1939, “With all due respect to Lewis, he doesn’t get the girl. I get the girl.” With that, on the heels of his pending divorce from Joan, Franchot declined an offer to renew his contract. He returned to Broadway to appear in the Group Theatre hit production of The Gentle People with Sylvia Sidney.
† Lisa Burks explains: Joan was known to be married to four men during her lifetime: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Franchot, Phillip Terry, and Alfred Steele. Author Patricia Fox-Sheinwold wrote in her 1998 book, Gone But Not Forgotten, that Joan had been secretly married to sax player James Welton in New York in 1923. That marriage allegedly lasted less than a year and was kept hush-hush when Joan joined MGM because, as Patricia wrote, “starlets in those days testified that they were unmarried, which was the rule.” Joan never listed him as one of her husbands in her many books and interviews, and I’ve never seen any documented proof such as a marriage or divorce certificate. It’s a topic of debate among her fans to this day.
Franchot Tone starred in one of the best-known examples of film noir, “Phantom Lady.” How did he get involved in that? And what was filming like for Tone, co-star Ella Raines, and director Robert Siodmak?
When Franchot returned to Hollywood in the early 1940s, he was determined to take a proactive approach to his career. He knew that if he wanted to break type he would have to approach the business not only as an actor but also with the mindset of a producer. He had independent deals with three studios – Columbia, Universal, and Paramount – and was constantly on the hunt for material that challenged him (and would surprise audiences), and new talent to collaborate with.
More so than any other studio, Universal [then a mid-level film company] afforded him this opportunity. There, he had already experimented with a comedy Western (Trail of the Vigilantes, for which he hand-picked [minor Universal contract player] Peggy Moran as his leading lady) and, being a huge opera fan, had completed two of eventually three films with Deanna Durbin (Nice Girl? and His Butler’s Sister.) [The third Durbin-Tone vehicle, Because of Him, was released in 1946.]
Apparently, it was Joan Harrison, Universal’s first female producer and former screenwriter for Alfred Hitchcock, who brought Phantom Lady to Franchot’s attention. He admired her talent, trusted her instincts, and was eager to learn from her.
Also, Franchot loved both working with newcomers (such as co-star Ella Raines) and trying new forms of cinematic expression. Phantom Lady would prove to be Robert Siodmak’s breakthrough film at Universal, and it set the early standard for film noir. But when it came down to it, Franchot was hungry to play a dark role and Jack Marlow fit the bill.
(SPOILER) His character’s transformation from, on the surface, a supportive friend to a deeply disturbed and manipulative murderer was something film audiences had never seen him do before. It disturbs me to see it no matter how many times I see the film, so I guess he did the job he set out to do!
Unfortunately, all the principals involved in Phantom Lady had passed on by the time I started serious research on Franchot’s life so I was unable to ask specific questions regarding the making of that film. But people who knew Franchot at that stage of his career have told me that he had nothing but praise for the experience, his director, and co-star, always saying, “I may have gotten the star billing but it was truly Ella’s film.”
On screen, especially in his MGM films of the 1930s, Franchot Tone often played the second lead who lost the girl to the star. Off screen, what was Tone like?
As he told Mayer, he got the girl! Franchot loved women. Loved. His sexual appetite was an integral part of his identity. He was most happy when he was married because those relationships gave him stability – except for his short, tumultuous union with [minor leading lady] Barbara Payton [1951-1952]. He also loved family life; he had two sons with his second wife, actress Jean Wallace [1941-1948; Wallace later married Cornel Wilde]. But when he was single, he was never lacking in female companionship. [Tone’s fourth – and last – wife was actress Dolores Dorn, 1956-1959.]
Mostly, he dated actresses because they had that lifestyle in common; those included Carole Landis, Hedy Lamarr, Gloria Vanderbilt,and Zsa Zsa Gabor. I have a file folder that’s about three inches thick of news clippings devoted entirely to Franchot’s dating activities. The women I’ve spoken to who dated him have told me that he not only made them feel beautiful, but that he was also keenly interested in their minds and in what they wanted to do with their lives.
Off screen he was what his godson, John Strasberg, described to me as a Renaissance Man. He was equally at home wearing a tuxedo in a nightclub or wearing jeans and a flannel shirt in the woods of his Canadian retreat. He had a working knowledge of literature, music, sports, politics, history, current events – he could have an intelligent conversation on just about any topic. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was loving, loyal, and generous toward his friends and family.
Additionally, Franchot required very little sleep. He would spend an entire day at the studio, and then go out to dinner at a nightclub in the evening, enjoying drinks and dancing. Later on – maybe in the last ten years of his life – the drinking became a problem. And he was a very heavy smoker, upwards of five packs of filterless Camel cigarettes a day. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer in the 1960s, he quit [smoking] cold turkey, but unfortunately it was too late. The smoking and drinking contributed to a multitude of health problems that aged him quite a bit toward the end.
Franchot Tone’s film career came to a halt in the early 1950s. Why?
That decade got off to a rocky start with his marriage to Barbara Payton, which took a huge toll on him both emotionally and physically. (After the fisticuffs with his romantic rival, boxer/actor Tom Neal). He felt betrayed and publicly humiliated by Payton’s infidelities. But he had to keep going, for his sons and for himself.
Franchot had put a lot of money and effort into producing and starring in the film The Man on the Eiffel Tower in late 1949, [a flop at the time that] has evolved into a cult classic today. But after that experience, as always with Franchot, he needed to balance his film work experience with the theater. He believed that you couldn’t be a well-rounded actor if you didn’t do both throughout your career. Plus, after financing The Man on the Eiffel Tower he needed to generate more cash flow. So, he did plays – on Broadway and on the road – most notably Edward Chodorov’s Oh, Men! Oh, Women!, William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life [left, with Gloria Vanderbilt] and Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten.
His pet project in the late 1950s was a simultaneous theater and film production of Uncle Vanya. He starred in and directed both versions, performing onstage at night and filming on a sound stage during the day. He always believed that film entertained and theater enlightened, and it was his hope that by bringing Chekhov to both the stage and the screen he could bridge the gap. [The attempt] was critically acclaimed, but not a commercial success.
Franchot Tone appeared in numerous TV productions since the early days of television. Are those available for viewing? If so, how good are they – and how good is Tone?
Television work kept him very busy. Thus far, I’ve accounted for 78 productions between 1950 and 1967. TV work paid well for the short time commitment it required, plus he was able to play a wider range of roles than was available [to him] on film at the time – cowboys, lawyers, doctors, gangsters, and figures from history like Mark Antony, Steinmetz and outlaw Frank James – just to name a few examples.
Many of his performances were live dramatic presentations that included at least a week’s worth of rehearsal time – something he loved. The live element gave him a similar thrill to being on stage, but with television you just had one shot to get it right.
Most all the shows I’ve seen are bootleg copies from collectors, but hopefully more will become available on commercial DVD in the future. One of my favorites is an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents titled “The Impossible Dream” (1959), in which Franchot stars as an aging has-been actor being blackmailed by a starlet’s mother, wickedly played by Mary Astor. Earlier in their careers they never co-starred in films, so it’s a treat to see them here where they play off each other to great effect, with a wonderful script and multi-layered characters.
The UCLA Film and Television Archive has some of his performances on tape. One that I particularly recommend seeing is the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1956) with Greer Garson. Again, a great actress he never worked with in films [Garson was an MGM contract player in the 1940s] but he had the opportunity to [do so] on television. Additionally, the Museum of Television and Radio has a recently discovered print of the entire production of Studio One‘s “Twelve Angry Men,” well worth seeing, too.
Franchot particularly loved being able to get behind make-up to become a character. One of his best performances, and one of his favorites, was as Mark Twain for Playhouse 90‘s “The Shape of the River” [right, with Janet McArthur] in 1960. Unfortunately, like so many of his television performances, it’s not currently available commercially but I’ve seen a bootleg copy and it’s incredible how he literally becomes Mark Twain.
Academy Award-winning screenwriter Horton Foote, who wrote the teleplay, told me that Franchot was painstaking in his rehearsals as Twain in order to get every nuance right, and that he [Foote] remembered being quite moved by the resulting performance.
Shows that are more readily available on eBay and from other sources are his guest appearances from the 1960s on Bonanza, Wagon Train, and The Twilight Zone, and as a series regular on Ben Casey.
Heaven Help Us… In Gabriel Over the White House, Walter Huston is the unelected U.S. president who can read God’s mind and who advocates the use of American military might to solve the world’s problems. Franchot Tone and Karen Morley are his acolytes.
To the best of my knowledge, Franchot Tone was liberal-minded. What did he think of the theocratic 1933 melodrama “Gabriel Over the White House,”† in which he plays the secretary to the Angel-President?
I’ve found that most of Franchot’s published opinions about his early films were more about the acting process than the material. Gabriel Over the White House was only his second film at MGM, third overall, and I think at this point he was more interested in learning the technical side of acting in front of the camera than in making any sort of political and/or religious statement. I haven’t found anything so far that would indicate he thought religion should play a role in politics.
Several years before her death, I met one of his co-stars in this film, Karen Morley‡, at a collector show, hoping she would shed light on this precise topic since I found nothing in Franchot’s personal papers that gave his personal opinion on the film. Sadly, she turned me down. That was not surprising, as several writers had warned me that she was averse to giving interviews because of her [McCarthy era] blacklisting experience.
Franchot, who came from a wealthy Republican family, was indeed liberal-minded – something he got from his very progressive mother who was interested in, among other things, what was happening in Russia. Over the years, he contributed so much money to various liberal and suspected Communist-related causes that he was interviewed (but not formerly charged) by [first Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee] Martin Dies in 1940 (along with 17 other Hollywood notables, including Gregory La Cava, the director of Gabriel Over the White House) and again by the FBI in the 1950s.
In both cases he successfully defended his pro-American stance and was cleared. For instance, he contributed money to the Salinas Valley salad workers who endured a violent strike in 1934; at the time, he was less concerned with the politics of the group collecting the money than he was with helping those families who needed to eat and keep roofs over their heads during the crisis.
An interesting juxtaposition to Gabriel Over the White House – a film that one writer described as a “love letter to the destruction of democracy” – is a radical 1931 play Franchot did with the Group Theatre: 1931-± (originally titled Son of God), about a worker’s revolution against mass unemployment. Franchot got rave reviews in this controversial production as the male lead, Adam, a warehouse laborer who bottoms out after losing his job and ends up joining a riot in the final scene.
His co-star, Phoebe Brand, told me that at the final performance the audience went wild and someone shouted out a pro-Communist cheer to which Franchot waved a flag and replied “I am an American!” Basically, though he lived a comfortable life, he was also pro-worker and he loved America; he believed in the democratic process and thought the two should be able to co-exist.
† In the theo-fascist Gabriel Over the White House, the archangel Gabriel joins the White House staff by taking possession of an ailing U.S. president. As an emissary from God, Gabriel knows exactly what is right and what is wrong for the United States and for the world – and to hell (pun intended) with petty human concepts such as democracy and due process of law. A scenery-chewing Walter Huston stars as the heaven-sent Commander-in-Chief. Surprisingly, this highly unusual MGM production brought in solid profits, though chiefly because of its lower-end budget.
‡ I also approached Karen Morley while I was working on my biography of actor Ramon Novarro. Morley’s was the most mean-spirited “No, I won’t help you” I had the displeasure to hear. (The most curious thing was that, while spitting out a barrage of venomous putdowns, she maintained the sweetest grandmotherly smile.)
± 1931- was written by Paul Sifton and Claire Sifton. Lee Strasberg directed. Also in the opening-night cast were Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, J. Edward Bromberg, and Clifford Odets. The play ran for 12 performances in Dec. 1931.
Photos: Lisa Burks Collection
Joan Crawford quote regarding The Gorgeous Hussy: David Shipman’s The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years