Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Trail of the Vigilantes (1940)

Warren William and Franchot Tone. Scan from my collection.

Franchot starred in the western comedy Trail of the Vigilantes in 1940. I love this movie for many reasons. It allowed Franchot to take on a role in a genre not offered to him in the previous decade. It paired Franchot with my other favorite actor of 1930s films, Warren William. Finally, it's a fun movie full of physical comedy and Franchot shines in it. Unfortunately, a high quality print of it is not available to watch, but you can view the movie in its entirety on Youtube (click here.)

Author George Fenin, in his 1962 book The Westerns, wrote that the film:

happily disposed of its somewhat witless lampooning in the first four reels, and thereafter got down to the serious business at hand. Much of the action was admittedly tongue-in-cheek, but it was so well-staged with all the customary Universal zip, that no one really minded.

The 1940 publication The Movies...And the People Who Make Them deemed the picture a:

delightful comedy-action western...wild brawls, hectic pursuits and forthright romance handled with a light farcical touch lift the proceedings far above the conventional level.

Even reviewer Bosley Crowther, notorious Franchot detractor, seemed to enjoy Trail of the Vigilantes. He wrote:

And now it seems to be getting so any one who sits long enough in a movie theatre will see every actor he ever knew appear up there on the screen in a Western. This time it is Franchot Tone, that erstwhile Group Theatre hopeful and star in many a super-soigné Eastern, who is playing the rootin' tootin' hero in Universal's "Trail of the Vigilantes," which pulled up yesterday at the Rialto. And, believe it or not, he's okay...The story is pretty routine, but performance is better than average. Mr. Tone wins his spurs in a good, fast Western. 

At the moment splitting his time between the stage and the screen, Franchot told reporter George Benjamin that he was enjoying being back on a studio lot and appreciative that he was being offered different roles this time around. He said:

I enjoyed immensely playing in my first Western, Trail of the Vigilantes. Why didn't someone tell me about the horse operas before?
Franchot Tone and Peggy Moran. Scan from my collection.

Franchot's leading lady Peggy Moran, in an interview with Mike Fitzgerald for Western Clippings, shared that she was surprised to find Franchot was not a known entity at conventions in which she participated. Peggy recalled:
It was a spoof and of course a big picture—much bigger than the Bs I usually did. A few years ago, I went to Knoxville to a film festival. The late Robert Shayne had told me about stills—getting my best shots reproduced and all. I took some from each of the westerns. The scenes with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were big sellers. But when it came to the shots of me with Franchot Tone, the fans would ask ‘Who’s that!?’ At first I was so taken aback, because he was a big star, much more so than Gene or Roy, at least at the time. But these fans know who they like—it’s Gene and Roy, not Franchot! But in its day, ‘Vigilantes’ did very well, especially in New York and the sophisticated areas. It was funny, with jokes. A real farce. Franchot would fall off a horse every time he tried to get on it. The dialogue was cute and the metropolitan areas ate it up. But at the festival, I could see what the other westerns meant in that part of the country. Franchot Tone and I dated for a while, but that was before I started going with my future husband.

I think the fact that this was a western convention had something to do with Franchot not being recognized. If it had been a pre-code or 30s-related convention, I think Franchot would've received more love. Also, had the stills been of Franchot's television work in the 1950s and 60s, convention attendees would have surely recognized the older gentleman who starred in episodes of Bonanza, Wagon Train, The Virginian, and Bitter Heritage.

The Film

After a newspaperman is murdered, special investigator Tim Mason, known as Kansas, is assigned to the case. Kansas (Franchot Tone) is required to trade in his tuxedo and city life for western wear and a horse. When Kansas arrives in the western town, it is in complete chaos. Horses, wagons and men run wild in the streets and there seem to be gunshots coming from every direction—the sheriff is even handcuffed to a building! Within minutes of arriving, Kansas finds himself strung from the ceiling of the saloon. Ill-prepared for battle, Kansas fends off the posse in a mixture of pushing, quips, and occasional punches. 

Franchot in Trial of the Vigilantes. Scan from my collection.

During the squabble, ranch hands Meadows (Andy Devine) and Swanee (Broderick Crawford) befriend Kansas and get him a job as a ranch hand on Mr. Thornton’s farm. When Mark Dawson (Warren William) arrives on the scene, it is clear to Kansas that Dawson’s word is law and his influence important. He learns that Dawson is the head of the Cattlemen’s Protective Association and receives a payment from every single rancher in town in order to keep in his good graces. But Thornton, Kansas’s new employer, has refused to join the CPA and faces regular vandalism on his property from Dawson’s gang. 

While learning the ropes (literally!) on the ranch, Kansas falls for the ranchman’s daughter Barbara (Peggy Moran). Investigating a hunch, Kansas breaks into Dawson’s office and is arrested—but not before he discovers that Dawson has been stealing money from the Cattlemen’s Protective Association. Soon, the other cowboys learn that Kansas is an undercover investigator and help him take the Association’s money (a whopping $20,000) before Dawson can steal it for himself. When Dawson attempts to paint him as the bad guy, cowboys vouch for Kansas's character and testify on his behalf.

As the movie progresses, the local sheriff becomes wise to Dawson's devious ways and Kansas must make an important decision: whether to return to the city life he's always known or remain a cowboy with Barbara by his side.

Source: The Movies and The People Who Make Them (1940)


Benjamin, George. "Smoothie!" Modern Screen. June 1941
Crowther, Bosley. "The Screen." New York Times. December 6, 1940.
Fenin, George N. The Westerns: From Silent to Cinerama. Orion Press. 1962.
Interview with Mike Fitzgerald: Peggy Moran.
Trail of the Vigilantes. The Movies and The People Who Make Them. 1940.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Her Husband's Affairs (1947)

Her Husband's Affairs. Source: my collection

1947 was Franchot's year for marriage-related comedies. He starred in Lost Honeymoon with Ann Richards and Tom Conway, Honeymoon with Shirley Temple and Guy Madison, and Her Husband's Affairs with Lucille Ball. Her Husband's Affairs was directed by S. Sylvan Simon, who would direct Franchot again in the film noir I Love Trouble the following year.

In Her Husband's Affairs, Franchot plays Bill Weldon, an advertising man looking for his big shot at wealth and fame by latching on to the hare-brained schemes of inventor Emil Glinka (Mikhail Rasumny). Bill is clever and creative, but his wife Margaret (Lucille Ball) is the real innovative problem solver in the marriage—a fact that irks Bill and causes a great deal of marital tension throughout the film, which is currently available to watch on Youtube.

Franchot, Lucy, and director S. Sylvan Simon
clown around in this on set candid. 
Source: my collection

The comedy received mixed reviews when it was released in the fall of 1947. Bosley Crowthers, New York Times reviewer and never a big Franchot fan, called the movie a "featherweight farce" and wrote:

To try to make any sense of it would be the most arrant foolishness, for it plainly was not intended to follow a coherent line. It is simply a lot of nonsense about a husband, his buttinsky wife and a thoroughly eccentric inventor...Except for occasional incidents which are good for explosive yaks—and in most of which, significantly, Mikhail Rasumny is involved—the humor is pretty labored, the going pretty rough. Lucille Ball, an able comedienne, works hard and adroitly as the wife, and Franchot Tone springs about as the husband, but they labor to little avail.

Independent Exhibitors reviewers gave the film a mere two stars and called it "an insult to audience's intelligence" and said it was "based on a premise that might have been considered funny in the days of silent two-reel comedies." But The Film Daily disagreed. Film Daily praised the film:

Tone and Ball have a field day in this wild and merry farce which rates plugging by wise exhibitors. This is one of the wildest, merriest farces to come to the screen in many moons. In addition to its laugh-provoking zany capers, it has a love story, with one or two near-censorable situations. In all, it adds up to an attraction that deserves plugging by wise exhibitors. 

The "near-censorable situations" that Film Daily refer to are many sweet, cuddling scenes in the Weldons' bed—definitely occurring more frequently than in other films of its time, and Franchot and Lucy look and act fabulous together. However, as forward as these scenes may seem in retrospect, the premise of the film—concerning a man jealous of his wife's creative ideas and not wanting her opinions, only her approval—is certainly of its time. Let's just say that the character Bill Weldon will never be upheld as an early feminist. 

 Bill (Tone) comes up with advertising ideas in the middle of the night, looking for the next big craze. He tells Margaret (Ball) that he is sick and tired of hats being sold for their durability, because what men require is a lightweight hat. As he weighs and tries on the hat and fires off possible slogans, Margaret responds with great feedback and suggestions for improvement. Bill replies:

I love you very much, but these are my slogans. Let's not collaborate...Learn to respect my ability. I don't need any creative help from you, just your approval.

Bill's so preoccupied with his work that he's postponed their honeymoon cruise to Bermuda four—soon to be five—times! With his latest lightweight hat notion, Bill knows he must stage a stunt for publicity. He aims to convince the mayor to wear the hat at the ball game and have a cameraman ready for the perfect shot. But the mayor refuses and without consulting her husband, Margaret decides to place the hat on the mayor's head during the national anthem. People grow angry with the mayor for keeping a hat on during the anthem and he responds, "I didn't know I was wearing one," exactly as Bill wanted, and all thanks to Margaret's quick thinking.

 As Bill's colleagues and supervisors praise Margaret, Bill grows jealous and embarrassed. He loses his temper and questions her, "You keep thinking I'm not able to handle my own affairs?" Margaret makes peace by calling him a genius and kissing him.

Later, Bill meets with professor Emil Glinka, who has invented an embalming fluid that "converts people into glass...Every man will serve as his own headstone." Bill is smart enough to turn this new fluid down, but is swayed by Glinka's other new formula that removes hair effortlessly and destroys the gland extract. Bill convinces his company to move quickly on the product which he has named Off Again and Mr. Winterbottom (Gene Lockhart) shuts down his shaving cream plant immediately and plans a gala that very evening, inviting 750 prominent guests and requesting that they arrive unshaven.

At the event, everyone applies the cream to their faces and is smitten with the results. Faces are soft, supple, and hairless across the room. Off Again is a success and Bill is a hero!

Bill and Margaret stay up all night dreaming of the money, maids, butlers, and trips they will soon have. But morning brings chaos. Every person who applied the cream the night before now has a full, bushy beard! One that grows back instantaneously when shaven or cut. 

Winterbottom grows angry when he realizes that he will have to compensate every single person who tried the balm and threatens to throw Weldon in jail. Margaret, as always, saves the day. She suggests that Winterbottom simply change Off Again to On Again and use it as a hair growth balm for bald men. Everyone applauds the idea except Bill, who is embarrassed that he's been rescued by his wife once more. The men laugh and tell Bill he should just go home and knit while his wife takes care of business, which causes Bill to threaten divorce. Winterbottom cautions him, "Instead of standing here bellowing like an ape you ought to go down on your knees to your wife for what she’s done.”

Film still. Source: my collection.

Soon, men all over town have full manes of hair, but Margaret's plan quickly hits a far-fetched snag. Because the formula is made of embalming fluid, it begins turning scalps into glass! Bill hides out with Professor Glinka and lets Margaret face the backlash this time.

Instead of giving up on Professor Glinka's embalming fluid inventions entirely, Bill is enthralled by the inventor's latest revelation—an unbreakable rose. Glinka may not be able to preserve human life, but he can preserve plant life! Bill enthuses, "A perpetual flower...wait! I've got a name for it. The Forever Flower!"

More outlandish hijinks ensue leading to a murder trial and more necessary meddling by Margaret.

About her husband, who is so loving and devoted at home but terribly jealous of her successes in the office, Margaret explains:
He’s really a brilliant man, Mr. Brewster, but like so many brilliant men he just runs off the track. He gets hold of an idea and it gets bigger than he is. I know he’s working on something very brilliant right now but, you see, when a man’s a genius you can’t trust him…

 As long as you can suspend reality for 84 minutes, you'll enjoy Her Husband's Affairs.  Always a skilled comedian in my eyes, Franchot is very funny in his role as Bill and does some humorous bits imitating a horse, losing his cool, and performing physical comedy. It's a silly romp that includes a lot of sweet moments and great screwball collaboration between Franchot and Lucy. The pressbook for Her Husband's Affairs had some clever ways to entice viewers and build up the film. It suggested that local radio stations hold a contest for "the most helpful wife" in which a husband submit a 50-word essay on a time his wife helped him out of a jam. Beauty parlors were encouraged to hold a contest for the married couple with the most beautiful hair. Since the film focuses on the misadventures of an advertising man, it was suggested that cinemas stage special screenings for their local advertising clubs.

Film still. Source: my collection.

 Crowthers, Bosley. "Her Husband's Affairs' Has Its Premiere at Capitol -- 'Heaven Only Knows' Opens at Broadway." New York Times. November 14, 1947.
"'Her Husband's Affairs' Insult to Audience's Intelligence." Independent Exhibitors. 1947.
"Her Husband’s Affairs." The Film Daily. July 22, 1947. 
"The Selling Approach on New Product." Motion Picture Herald. November 1947.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Mutiny on the Bounty

The filming of Mutiny on the Bounty was delayed and rescheduled several times in 1934 and 1935. In September 1934, Motion Picture Herald reported that two different ships were being constructed as scenery and for crew commuting purposes and that 90 percent of the film would be recorded in the South Seas. In fact, shooting locations would include Catalina Island and multiple spots in the South Seas.

Franchot was not originally slated to play the role of Roger Byam. At one point, Cary Grant was in talks to play the midshipman In 1934, Hollywood Reporter and Hollywood Filmograph both reported the film would star Wallace Beery, Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery. When it came time to shoot, Gable remained but Beery and Montgomery were replaced by Laughton and Tone, respectively. On July 10, 1935, Variety reported that the start of production was contingent upon "Franchot Tone's washing up" on location.

The shoot was exhausting and not without tragedy. As a barge being used for scenes sank off Miguel Island, cameraman Glenn Strong attempted to rescue a camera of shot film and lost his life. Fifty other crew members had to be rescued from the sinking. After the picture was finished, actor Charles Laughton responded to an interviewer by saying:
I'm worn out. You'd be worn out, too, if you'd just finished Mutiny on the Bounty. What a picture. Such work. The location was at Catalina. We climbed up the rigging and sat on guns, and bits of mast kept falling on us.

Franchot was reported as having put on twenty pounds during filming, but if he did, it certainly doesn't show in the final footage. When writer Muriel Babcock visited the set, she found Franchot a bit standoffish. Muriel spent most of her experience fawning over Gable and wrote:
Franchot is invariably bored. He had no scenes on board ship that day, but I saw him in the evening on land nonchalantly putting nickels in the marble machine. He looked surprised at my appearance and inquired, "What for heaven's sakes are you doing here?" And when I told him he said, "My, it doesn't seem possible anyone would deliberately choose such an assignment! When Clark asked to go on a speed boat that night Franchot "wouldn't be bothered". 

However, I think Muriel caught Franchot on an off day—possibly she may have visited when he had a painful tooth that had to be extracted—because Franchot and other cast members bonded over shooting and fishing. In fact, Franchot and Clark—often considered rivals because of their mutual love for Joan Crawford—became fast friends on the set and held admiration for one another because of the experience. For example, New Movie Magazine wrote in September 1935:

And so to a hectic day with the Mutiny on the Bounty company at Catalina aboard an exact replica of the old Bounty that was sunk by mutineers 150 years ago in the South Seas near Tahiti. Discovering that it was really great sport to shoot fish, Clark Gable could be found hanging over the ship's rail any time of day drawing a bead on any herring or filet of sole that happened to be unfortunate enough to swim that way. Watching the fun Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin and Donald Crisp were so intrigued that they sent ashore for some rifles and in no time at all the placid Bounty sounded like nothing so much as a man-o-war going full blast!

Following the film's release, Mutiny was heralded as the picture of the year. Movie Classic deemed it: 
an epic of man's struggle for justice and peace, embracing every emotion of mankind, with the restless, tireless, ageless sea for its setting. 

The National Board of Review agreed:

In its best and predominate sequences it fills the screen with cinematically visualized imagination. It opens up the sea, and the sea moves or lies placid. It brings the wind and it lets it go. It brings the ship, her sweat, blood, and vigor, her sadness and the sorrow of her people, in a word, her spirit, her adventure, and her end—it brings these succinctly, visually, movingly, as only the motion picture can, and must do.  

And Franchot was praised as a star to watch. Topper's Film Reviews in Hollywood Magazine noted:
Franchot Tone emerges as the big hit of the picture. He drew the only burst of applause at the preview upon completion of his defense in the Admiralty Court on mutiny charges.

Hollywood magazine predicted that Franchot would emerge an in-demand star in 1935:

The role of Roger Byam was one of the biggest plums of the year in Hollywood, and it fell to Franchot Tone by the sort of accident that put him in Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Another actor withdrew to take a different picture assignment and history repeated itself when the Bounty was cast. Robert Montgomery was broken-hearted when other work interfered and Tone got the job. The role fits him glove tight, and depend on it, Franchot will emerge a star when the Bounty is shown. He, too, did his share of suffering for the sake of Metro, to make the Bounty. A paining tooth was no fun, marooned as he was a the isthmus, but a boat finally was hired and he had the tooth yanked without delaying production. Metro chose wisely in casting Franchot, for bear in mind that Gable leaves the picture after the mutiny, and so does Captain Bligh. Laughton and Tone must carry the picture from then on.  

Yet, after this major, critically-acclaimed performance and an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, Franchot was relegated back to a lot of tuxedo roles and programmers after 1935. (I've noted before that if it had been up to Irving Thalberg, MGM's support of Tone would have been substantial.) Many critics and fans (still today) were frustrated at how Franchot's career was treated following such a brilliant performance in Mutiny. Franchot consistently noted that Mutiny and Bengal Lancers were his favorites of his performances and expected those roles to give his film career the momentum he desired. Silver Screen, in 1936, wrote:  
Franchot Tone's studio kept him in white tie and tails most of the time and never gave the poor guy a chance to act. But Paramount borrowed him for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and he gave such a good performance that his home studio gave him the third most important part in Mutiny on the Bounty and dead indeed is your soul if you did not thrill to his speech before the big shots of the British Navy. But, unfortunately, Franchot's reward for this magnificent bit of acting was one of the dullest parts of the year in a very dull picture called Exclusive Story.

Mutiny was the highest grossing film of 1935 and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Franchot, Clark and Charles were all nominated as Best Actor for their performances, yet all lost to Victor McLaglen for The Informer—in future years the Best Supporting Actor award would be introduced. The film also received nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Music Score and Best Film Editing. 

I would be remiss to write a post on Mutiny without including these three photos which I spotted in past online auctions, but sadly (nearly inconsolable about the first one) I did not win.

Un-retouched candid photo of Franchot on the set

A candid of Franchot with a fan on the set.

Another candid of Franchot with fans on the set.

The Film

Set in England in 1787, Mutiny on the Bounty begins with laboring men of all ages being forced into two years of naval service on the HMS Bounty. In stark contrast to the men unhappy to have their freedom taken away, wealthy Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) is eager to board the ship. Byam is very green and idealistic—so much so that Christian (Clark Gable) remarks "A little child shall lead them" when Byam asserts that the ship is safe under his command. Unlike the other men, he has no clue as to how traumatic the next two years of his life will be. After all, Byam is going along for scientific study. Because of his societal position and his family's prominent naval history, Byam has been assigned the task of writing a dictionary of the Tahitian language. When he is warned that Captain Bligh is a "seagoing disaster," the good-natured Byam laughs.

On boarding, Byam discovers that the ship is not as large as he expected and that he will bunk with Hayward and Stewart. As they cross the Pacific Ocean,  the crew is subjected to flogging, severe food and water rationing, chains and other brutal punishments for any perceived infraction by the ruthless Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). Bligh makes his position known before the ship leaves port, saying:
Discipline's the thing. A seaman's a seaman. A captain's a captain. And a midshipman
—Sir Joseph or no Sir Joseph—is the lowest form of animal life.
Byam quickly learns the ropes and adjusts to life at sea. Unaware that an amused Christian is listening, Byam brags to his bunkmates:
We're off around the world, boys. Light hearts and tight britches off around the world...Don't worry, Stewart, if you get tangled, I'll jump in and pull you out...Mr. Christian holds no terrors for me. I can wade the seven seas and never wet my shirt. They have whales down there that can sink a ship but I can sink the whale. Behold the face that launched a thousand ships!

For all his playful talk, Byam truly does pull his weight and immerse with the crew from the start. When Bligh forces him to hold the masthead during a brutal rainstorm, a sick and freezing Byam holds tight through the night.

Byam remains respectful of the captain although he abhors his practices and becomes good friends with Lieutenant Fletcher Christian. Christian is the voice of reason throughout the film, the man that all other characters (and we, the viewers) look to for guidance and compassion. Still, Christian's been trained to follow the orders of his captain completely and is cautious about challenging Bligh's increasingly brutal practices. When he does defend his fellow men, Christian is punished.

The ship arrives in Tahiti where Byam works with the chief (William Bambridge) to create his Tahitian dictionary and quickly falls in love with the chief's daughter Tehani (Movita Castaneda).  The men finally have an opportunity to enjoy themselves without restraint. After having two passes on the island denied by Captain Bligh, Christian defies him to enjoy a day on the island with Maimiti (Mamo Clark).

As the ship leaves Tahiti for its voyage back, the crew grows weaker and Bligh's punishments intensify. After a man dies and the men continue to starve, Christian can stand by no longer. He incites mutiny and, with the aid of the crew, seizes the ship and forces the Captain and his allies into other boats.

Byam has been locked in his cabin and does not agree with Christian's actions. When Christian asks him for his word that he will not try to take the ship back from him, Byam responds:
You may have it but I'll escape if I can.
Christian has to hit Byam in order to restrain him from stopping the mutiny. When he apologizes, Byam replies:
That didn't hurt. What hurts is that you and I can never again be friends.
Christian sets the ship back to the island where he and Roger return to their loves. With time, their friendship and trust in each other is restored. 

When a British ship is spotted, Byam and other men decide to return to England and allow Christian to escape to another island with his new family and crew. Byam and the loyal crew are shocked to find that Captain Bligh is aboard the new ship as he takes immediate action to imprison them for mutiny.  Upon return to England, the men are court-martialed and found guilty by the court. 

As Byam, Franchot delivers one of the most memorable and powerful speeches in film history. He states:
Milord, as much as I desire to live, I am not afraid to die. Since I first sailed on the Bounty over 4 years ago, I've known how men can be made to suffer worse things than death
—cruelly, beyond duty, beyond necessity. 
Captain Bligh, you've told your story of the mutiny on the Bounty, how men plotted against you, seized your ship, cast you adrift in an open boat. A great venture in science brought to nothing. Two British ships lost. But there's another story, Captain Bligh...of ten coconuts and two cheeses and  a story of a man who robbed his seamen, cursed them, flogged them not to punish but to break their spirit. A story of greed and tyranny and of anger against it, of what it cost. 
One man, milord, would not endure such tyranny. That's why you hounded him, that's why you hated him, hated his friends. And that's why you're beaten. Fletcher Christian's still free.  But Christian lost too, milord. God knows he's judged himself more harshly than you could judge him. I say to his father, he was my friend, no finer man ever lived. I don't try to justify his crime, his mutiny, but I condemn the tyranny that drove him to it. 
I don't speak here for myself alone but for these men you've condemned. I speak in their names and Fletcher Christian's name and all men at sea. These men don't ask for comfort. They don't ask for safety. If they could speak to you they'd say "Let us choose to do our duty willingly, not the choice of a slave but the choice of free Englishmen." They ask only the freedom that England expects for every man. If one man among you believe that, one man, he could command the fleets of England. He could sweep the seas for England if he called his men to their duty not by flaying their backs, but by lifting their hearts, their...that's all. 
Because of his familial connections and pressure from influential friends, Byam receives a pardon by the king and his life is spared.  As the film ends, we see Byam returning to life on the sea and Christian inhabiting a new island.

Asher, Jerry. "Franchot tells on himself." Picture Play, 1935.
"A New Log of the Bounty." Hollywood. Jan-Nov 1935.
Babcock, Muriel. "The Only Girl on a Gable Location. Screenland. November 1935.
The Year's Best Pictures and What They Brought Us." Silver Screen April 1936.
Variety, 1934.
Motion Picture Herald, September 1934.
Hollywood Filmograph. January-June 1934.
"Topper's Film Reviews." Hollywood Magazine. June 1935.
Movie Classic. February 1936.
Hollywood. January-November 1935.