Franchot Tone: Sophisticated Gentleman, Debonair Rebel

When you see him now, you know you are witnessing a physically handsome embodiment of sophistication. A true actor in every definition, he gave himself freely to the roles he portrayed onscreen. Sadly, it was his four marriages that brought the most Hollywood press and not his exceptional acting abilities. It’s such a sad note considering his only Academy Award nomination helped change the method in which votes are cast for exceptional portrayals in the Best Actor and Supporting Actor categories.

Stanislas Pascal Franchot Tone was born into a well-to-do family on February 27, 1905 in Niagara Falls, NY. His mother, Gertrude Franchot Tone came from a socially and politically prominent up-state New York family. His father, Dr. Frank J. Tone was a pioneer in the electro-chemistry field and was president of the Carborundum Company of America. Tone traveled the world with his parents and attended various schools including The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania from which he was dismissed “for being a subtle influence for disorder throughout the fall term.” He entered Cornell University, studying romance languages – his first career ambition was to be a language teacher – and soon joined his brother’s fraternity. He joined Cornell’s drama club, and before graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1927, became its president his senior year.

Neglecting to follow in the family business, Tone joined a Buffalo stock company earning fifteen dollars a week, determined to succeed in life as an actor. He toiled hard playing bit roles and educating himself in the theater business. He moved to Greenwich Village and auditioned for the New Playwrights’ Theater, making his Broadway debut in 1929 with Katharine Cornell in The Age of Innocence. Tone portrayed Curly in the Broadway production of Green Grow the Lilacs, a story later developed into the now-famous musical Oklahoma! He later joined the Group Theatre, a New York theatre company formed by Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman. In late September of 1931, the theatre presented its first production, The House of Connelly, with Tone and Morris Carnovsky in the leading roles. Tone appeared in Big Night and later appeared in Success Story. His performance in Success Story led MGM to offer him a deal after Strasberg had just named him the best actor in the company. He moved to Hollywood in November 1932 although he had no true ambitions to begin a movie career.

He made his screen debut in Paramount’s The Wiser Sex (1932) starring Claudette Colbert but Paramount didn’t have faith in his acting abilities and released him. His first work with MGM was on the set of Today We Live (1933), a William Faulkner co-scripted WWI romance also starring the beautiful Joan Crawford. Tone found himself fascinated by Crawford’s beauty, and fell in love in with her. Crawford was freshly divorced from Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and accepted Tone’s affections. They dated seriously throughout the year and Tone was kept busy at MGM. He would star in a total of seven films, including Gabriel Over the White House, Midnight Mary, Bombshell (as the amorous suitor Gifford Middleton, who declares he wants to run barefoot through Jean Harlow’s hair), and Dancing Lady, (romancing John Crawford). Although Tone missed an opportunity to star in the role of Dr. Ferguson (a role given to Clark Gable) opposite Myrna Loy in MGM’s hospital melodrama Men in White (1934), he was provided with quite a bit of work in 1934. Tone made convincing appearances in Moulin Rouge, The Girl from Missouri and Sadie McKee, playing an earnest employer opposite Crawford. During the filming of Sadie McKee, Crawford and Tone were observed holding hands. Studio head Louis B. Mayer easily entertained the idea that the Crawford-Tone romance could draw big box office payouts, so he oversaw the casting of the pair in another four films in the next two years.

However, Tone’s acting talents weren’t solely desired at the studios of MGM. He was loaned to Paramount in late 1934 to star opposite Gary Cooper in the adventurous The Lives of a Bengal Lancer as the feisty Lieutenant Forsythe. The January 1935 release was well received and Tone’s performance in the film led Irving Thalberg to cast him in 1935’s marvelous sea-epic Mutiny on the Bounty with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. MGM had originally wanted Cary Grant for the role, but Grant was under contract to Paramount, which refused to release him. Tone garnered an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor for his portrayal of Roger Byam, the midshipman torn between his loyalties, and is later court-martialed. Along with co-stars Laughton and Gable, he made Oscar history, as Mutiny on the Bounty was the only film in that ever had three nominees for Best Actor. None of the men won, losing out to Victor McLaglen of The Informer however Bounty was chosen as Best Picture. The Academy of Motion Pictures later reviewed their voting strategy for Best Actor and incorporated the award for Best performance by an Actor in a supporting role – first awarded in 1936.

That same year Tone was on loan to Warner Bros., appearing in director Alfred E. Green’s Dangerous with Bette Davis. Davis portrayed Joyce Heath, a neurotic self-centered, self-destructive alcoholic ex-Broadway actress determined to make a comeback as an admiring young architect (Tone) struggles to keep her off the bottle during her climb. Davis, with her first nomination, won the Academy’s Best Actress award. Consequently, rumors quickly developed about a possible Davis-Tone affair. Davis later would admit to falling in love with Tone during filming, but Crawford had done everything she could to keep her engagement to Tone. Of course Davis was furious with Crawford and even more envious of the held engagement, realizing her affections were lost on Tone. Film historians believe this was the beginning of the long-lasting feud between the two renowned actresses. Finally, on October 11, 1935, Joan Crawford agreed to marry Tone.

Tone could never quite escape the shadow of his first wife Joan Crawford.

The life off screen for the married couple was a trying one at best. Tone was an actor from the East and tried to direct western-bred Crawford towards culture and the arts. His sophisticated world was new and stimulating for her. He looked down on the Hollywood lifestyle but Crawford constantly sought the limelight of publicity as she was experiencing so much success in her career. Hollywood journalists unfortunately dubbed Tone “Mr. Joan Crawford,” assuming he should have become a cinematic superstar after he married one. Journalists and the public were eager to see what kind of sparks Tone and Crawford could create onscreen. Yet MGM had made the serious mistake of casting him opposite Crawford in thankless roles in which in he played “the other man” in the pair’s films. The MGM star-studded historical drama The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) was the first movie to feature Tone together with Crawford after their marriage, but he played a less-dominant role unlike his other male co-stars. So public appearances were the highlights of the celebrity marriage and the two were also given some opportunities to appear on radio: noteworthy performances include adaptations of the films Chained (1936) and Mary of Scotland (1937) for Lux Radio Theatre.

Tone soon followed with more significant silver screen performances like The Bride Wore Red (1937), opposite wife Crawford, director George Steven’s comical romance Quality Street (1937) and the F. Scott Fitzgerald coscripted Three Comrades (1938), with both Robert Taylor and Robert Young in a moving account of post-Word War One Germany).

Still, Tone’s film career never really took off in a major way. Crawford’s, on the other hand, was on a meteoric rise. He was faced with the unpleasant reality that their careers and other factors – the need to send money earned from his film work back to the Group Theatre to help support their productions – were tearing the marriage apart. In truth, Crawford’s career was just too much for him; divorce papers were filed in March 1939. The surprise to come was that Tone also decided to ‘divorce’ Hollywood to return to the Broadway stage. He made headlines in 1940 starring in the critically acclaimed role as a newspaperman in Ernest Hemingway’s The Fifth Column. But MGM execs had not been pleased with Tone’s sudden Hollywood departure and declared that he still had contractual obligations to fulfill. Reluctantly, he returned to Hollywood to finish out his days with MGM.

Tone starred opposite Deanna Durbin in his first job back in Hollywood in the romantic comedy Nice Girl? (1941). Tone still felt unsure about his return and was still troubled over his divorce to Crawford. Before long Tone was taken by the beauty of former model Jean Wallace, who’d entered films at seventeen, playing a bit part in Paramount’s Louisiana Purchase (1941). Tone and Wallace married that same year.

Tone starred in the exciting wartime spy movie Five Graves to Cairo (1943) as a secret agent trying to extract war secrets from Nazi Field Marshal Rommel (played by Erich von Stroheim) in a game of intrigue and wit. It was Billy Wilder’s second time behind the camera, and Cary Grant had turned down the lead, saying he didn’t feel like going on location in the desert near Yuma, Arizona in August. So Tone accepted the role as Cpl. John J. Bramble. Audiences and critics alike applauded his performance but he garnered no award nominations.

By 1944 he had left MGM and was working for other studios such as Paramount, Warner Brothers and Universal. Taking a step away from his gentleman roles, Tone first starred as a psychotic killer in Universal Picture’s first-rate Phantom Lady (1944), a smart slice of film noir that launched European director Robert Siodmak’s American career.

After he survived a fairly bitter divorce from Wallace in 1948, Tone received good marks for his role as private eye Stuart Bailey, (the character played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., on the TV series “77 Sunset Strip”), in the low budget film noir I Love Trouble (1948), co-starring opposite femme fatale Adele Jergens.

But Tone was always looking for something different, something fresh that would make him feel important again. He worked on a new film, producing and starring in the post-war psychological B noir, The Man on the Eiffel Tower. His dear friend Burgess Meredith directed the film, the first ever to be shot on location at the historic landmark. Tone shined as the intelligent and egotistical Radek, a suspected murderer, in this Inspector Maigret thriller, which also co-starred his ex-wife Jean Wallace and Charles Laughton.

In 1950, Tone met actress Barbara Payton, an accomplished stage and screen star since the 1930s. He was instantly hooked on her buxom beauty, they were soon seen together everywhere. Tone’s friends and colleagues disapproved of Payton, well aware of her seedy reputation around Hollywood. Tone’s associates, including ex-wife Joan Crawford, did their best to discourage the actor from putting all his attention on Payton. All their efforts were for not, indeed Tone was mesmerized by the seductive, outrageously appealing starlet, and soon announced their engagement at a party held at the Stork Club in New York City. No one could understand why Tone, known his sophisticated gentlemanly ways would be seen cavorting around with such a woman.

Payton was becoming well known for her insatiable appetite for men, rumored to having a fling with Gregory Peck during filming of Only the Valiant (1951). Soon after it was reported that she and Drums in the Deep South (1951) co-star Guy Madison were seen about town. Tone by this time was very aware of his fiancée’s extracurricular activities. In fact, he had taken to spying on her. He watched his fiancée and her latest fling enter her apartment and he intuitively knew something wasn’t right. An angry Tone confronted Madison, abruptly asking if Madison had plans of marrying Payton. A scarlet-faced Guy Madison replied, “No, I can’t. I’m already married.” Later in 1951, Tone and actor Tom Neal had a dispute over the on-again, off-again affections Neal and Payton were sharing. Neal made tabloid headlines after Tone was beaten unconscious and rushed to the hospital with a fractured cheekbone, broken nose, and brain concussion. Payton and Tone still married that year, despite all the unsavory history, but the two were divorced in 1952.

Like most former members of the Group Theater, Tone had difficulty making films in Hollywood during the 1950s. He turned to television and theatre to keep an active acting career.

The majority of his TV appearances were in the era’s numerous hour-long dramatic anthology shows, many performed live. He starred many times on Studio One including a notable performance in “12 Angry Men”. He also co-starred in the “Ben Casey” TV series 1965-66 and did a classic Twilight Zone episode entitled “The Silence”.

His stage work was equally impressive and gave one of the most exceptional performances of career in 1957’s as the lost alcoholic in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon For The Misbegotten. It was also around this time that he co-directed, produced and starred in Uncle Vanya Off-Broadway and for film. He filmed by day while running the play for evening shows with then wife, Dolores Dorn. The film version of Uncle Vanya (1958) was seen as an unsuccessful comeback vehicle although Tone held sole directing responsibilities on the project.

Tone had decided to unofficially retire. He returned to the cinema with the lead role of The President in Otto Preminger’s triumphant drama, Advise and Consent (1962), also co-starring the likes of Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon and Gene Tierney. He followed it with an appearance opposite John Wayne and Kirk Douglas in Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965) as Adm. Husband E. Kimmel.

His health had begun rapidly deteriorating shortly after he ended his onscreen career. Tone, ill and wheelchair bound, could be seen visiting his ex-wife Joan in her New York apartment. Despite all that had gone between them she was genuinely concerned for him. He remained active despite his illness – partnering with theatre legend Jean Dalrymple in 1967 to purchase Theatre Four to use for experimental play productions – and at the time of his death he was planning to produce and star in a film about the life of artist Pierre Auguste Renoir.

Franchot died on September 18, 1968 at his Manhattan home from lung cancer however his efforts on the stage and screen will always be highly regarded.

Today, in coincidence with the 77th Academy Awards, we at celebrate Franchot Tone, one of the more well-known but less-respected actors of the 1930s. He may have been once recognized as “Mr. Joan Crawford”, but given the chance, Tone would’ve truly fit in with the familiar faces like Cary Grant and William Powell. No matter what role Tone was offered, he was always the gentleman, putting everything he knew into a performance, even if at times he rebelled against the over-glamorized notions of Hollywood fame. Whether cast in films as the suave, society playboy or the manic serial killer, Tone had presence onscreen.

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