Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Virginian: The Old Cowboy (1965)

On March 31, 1965, the 28th episode of the 3rd season of The Virginian aired. "Old Cowboy" starred Franchot Tone and Billy Mumy and featured The Virginian's regular cast, including Doug McClure and James Drury (who had worked alongside Franchot in 1958's Bitter Heritage.)

Franchot is Murdock, the old cowboy who struggles to come to terms with his age and limitations. Billy Mumy (who you will recognize from Twilight Zone episodes among many other things) is Willy, Murdock's grandson and under his care. Murdock and Willy set out to find the biggest ranch because they need money and according to his stories, Murdock is the best cowboy and ranch hand that ever lived. Grandson Willy is his grandfather's biggest fan and proud of his grandpa's past. Willy sees that Murdock has trouble keeping up and doesn't make the smartest decisions with their money, but he still adores him.

Murdock's stories always make him out to be the hero and come back to the Double Eagle $20 coin that he was rewarded and keeps in his boot at all times.




When they reach town, Murdock quickly gambles away their money. Trampas (Doug McClure) feels sorry for the old man and his grandson and offers him a job at Shiloh.






At the ranch, Murdock doesn't fit in. He expects to be the top ranch hand and given the most important jobs, but the young cowboys view him as weak. Murdock's boastful ways alienate him from his coworkers and Willy begins to look up to Trampas. Trampas is Murdock's biggest supporter on the ranch, but Murdock only views him as competition.





Murdock is an enthusiastic, hard worker but continues to make mistake after mistake at Shiloh. He brands the wrong cattle, causes a dangerous stampede, and accidentally burns down the barn. But when he is needed on an important mission to move cow herds in a treacherous storm, Murdock proves what he's been telling everyone all along: that he is the most reliable, brave cowboy and will stop at nothing to get the job done. 

Franchot is the star of this 1.25 hour-length episode and he shines as the aging cowboy struggling to prove his worth to a changing generation.  This is some of his best television work (I truly believe that all his television work is really great) and I highly recommend it, especially if you enjoyed his performances in Bonanza and Wagon Train.





 Old Cowboy is available on The Virginian Season 3 dvd. It's also currently playing On Demand if you have DISH as your provider.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Piecing together the technical story of Jigsaw

In late 1948, the publication American Cinematographer revealed the unique method in which Jigsaw was recorded. Jigsaw differed from the majority of American films being made at the time and was able to use a small budget to its advantage.

A film noir about a district attorney whose investigation into a suicide leads to a much more sinister plot involving political extremists,  Jigsaw starred Franchot, Jean Wallace, Myron McCormick, and Marc Lawrence. The film was made on a small budget, but what it lacked in budget it made up for in a Who's Who of cameo appearances. It featured cameos by Henry Fonda, John Garfield, Marlene Dietrich, Marsha Hunt, and others.

American Cinematographer praised Don Malkames, director of photography, for his skill at creating a lighting quality expected in studio films without fancy equipment and special-made sets. Journalist Norman Keane wrote:
This production demonstrates that feature films can be photographed in natural settings and locations...The natural locations were used because they afforded economy in production. Not a single set was built for the entire picture. Even the props were those found on the locations. The sites and locales used included interior of the Brooklyn Museum, a Fifth Avenue pet shop, a prominent night club, its dressing rooms, a large restaurant of unique design, an apartment house interior, elevators, and a warehouse...Every set was a challenge...none of the luxury lighting equipment of Hollywood studios. He [Don Malkames] had to get around the limitations of low ceilings of the apartment in which a great deal of the action took place, of the fixed walls of narrow halls and of elevators, and of the immovable fixtures, furniture, etc., which he invariably found in such locations as the pet shop. Before starting to shoot the picture, he had considered using mostly photo spot lamps and R-2 photofloods, but he found that even after building a number of barn doors and hangers for use with these lights, they would not give the precise lighting control necessary. 
Malkames used Mole-Richardson light spots, "inky dinks" for key lighting, and "150 watt broads for fill in light." Malkames secured lighting to ceiling beams to give scenes a more natural look and photographed the entire film with a fast lens in "exceptionally low key." He also used shafts of light to enhance the more suspenseful scenes.

Franchot said:
It is doubtful that there are many cameramen who could achieve the excellent quality of lighting that Malkames did, considering the lighting equipment he had to work with and the limitations of his sets.
Keane's article also uncovered another interesting element to Jigsaw's photography. The film was recorded entirely without sound!
Another thing which greatly simplified the photography was the absence of sound equipment—especially the mike boom which, under the lighting conditions used...most certainly would have involved unwanted shadows...It was the belief of the producers Lee and Danziger, based on long experience of dubbing foreign versions, that it is possible to get greater dramatic feeling into the dialogue when it is post-recorded and dubbed in after the picture is cut.
After the film was recorded, the cast reassembled at the recording studio. As scenes were projected on a screen, Franchot, Jean, and the rest of the cast spoke their lines. Other sounds such as the ringing of telephones, footsteps and so on were also recorded at that time. 

The cast and crew were excited to think of how this method would be studied by future producers and students of low-budget movies. They also thought it would prove a successful method for television movies in the future.

I knew the film was low-budget and that the producers, director, and Franchot himself took pride in its originality, but I had no idea of the lengths they went with natural lighting and post-filming dubbing. After learning how much the film was praised for its lighting and how the crew felt it would be studied by film students and television producers, I am even more frustrated that it fell into public domain. As a public domain title, the film has been neglected and is in bad shape. All of the copies you watch online and even the DVD I own are such poor quality in sight and sound. Can you imagine if we could see it in its original theatrical glory?

I rewatched the film after reading the American Cinematographer article and took notice of all the lighting tricks and was impressed by the effortlessly seamed dubbed video. I've always felt this was a very good performance of Franchot's (I wish he'd made more film noirs like this and I Love Trouble) and I like Jean's femme fatale character as well.

Here's the full movie on the Internet Archive. (If the embedded video doesn't play, click here.)



Source:

Keane, Norman. "'Jigsaw' Filmed Without Sound or Sets." American Cinematographer. December 1948.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Franchot, 1905-1968

Franchot Tone 
February 27, 1905 - September 18, 1968


In 1936, Franchot shared this:
I'd like to stay with acting for the rest of my life. When I'm middle-aged—well, then I'll take middle-aged parts. And when I'm old I can always be a character actor...I wouldn't give up pictures. The stage is better, offers more opportunity for sustained moods and continued work; but it would be swell to come out to Hollywood for a part of every year, and then go back to the footlights.
It is easy to lament that Franchot did not end up with more prominent, starring roles in films throughout his entire life. I think about the big roles he didn't get that would've made a perfect fit, the awards I wish he'd been bestowed, the attention his talent deserved but never fully received. This is the wrong way to think of Franchot though.

Look at the massive amount of work he did! The words he shared with a reporter in '36 held true. He stayed with acting and had no qualms about transferring to middle-aged parts and later, character roles. In fact, Franchot seemed to relish his parts more as the years passed.

He lived the life he wanted—dividing his time between the New York stage and a California studio. He worked through professional successes and disappointments, personal triumphs and struggles, health and illness. Acting was clearly his true love and one to which he forever remained faithful.

Franchot's life is not a sad story. It's the story of a man who lived on his own terms, who didn't measure his worth on the amount of top billings he received, who continues to positively impact a woman 79 years his junior on a daily basis.



Thank you, Franchot.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Franchot and Sylvia Sidney

Sylvia Sidney was born on August 8, 1910 in New York and, like Franchot, never abandoned her first love of the theater. In fact, Franchot and Sylvia had a lot of connections throughout the years as you'll see. Sylvia successfully juggled theater, film, and television from the mid-1920's all the way up to her last role the 1998 tv reboot of Fantasy Island. (Sylvia would argue with me that it was simply a "part," not a role...she was particular about that.)


Sylvia is a member, along with Loretta Young and Natalie Wood, of my trio of favorite actresses. I could watch her work without end. I'm fortunate that Franchot worked with all three in his lifetime. I've watched a lot of Sylvia over the last several years and wrote about the Tone-Sidney 1939 play The Gentle People back in 2016 (here.) This summer I finally read Scott O'Brien's biography Sylvia Sidney: Paid by the Tear which I highly recommend. Sylvia was beautiful, driven, talented, and very outspoken. As she grew older, she became especially cantakerous, but sometimes her quips to reporters and fans were delivered with an ounce of humor and mischief. If you've ever watched 1990's interviews of her on Youtube, you know what I am talking about here. Let's just say if I had had the opportunity to meet her, she may have very well made me cry. O'Brien writes that when a fan approached Sylvia in Bloomingdale's and told he had hundreds of photos of her, Sylvia replied, "You're f'***ing crazy! Your house must be a mess!" Reading that passage made me laugh out loud, but if I were that fan, I would've been shocked. Without further ado, all of the Sylvia Sidney photos and play-related scans in this post are from my own collection. I assure you I'm not crazy and my house is mostly tidy.




Sylvia was so much more than a grouchy workaholic (look how exuberant her smile is in the candids above) and O'Brien's biography really delves into her familial and professional experiences and her dedication to her son, dogs, and career. I also think it's telling that Sylvia liked to attend celebratory film events and then criticize its attendees for living in the past. She didn't have to attend these events or be interviewed. But she did and I think it's because she secretly liked it. There were disappointments throughout her life that I believe hardened her shell a bit so that she increasingly spouted these harsh, irascible comments as a shield of protection. As a fan myself, I wish that she would've been more receptive to and outwardly appreciative of her fans' interest in her, but I must admit that I really admire how she lived her life on her own terms. I wish that I had an ounce of the audacity she possessed. 

Like Franchot, Sylvia grew up in a household without financial issues and very early on dedicated herself to being an actor. Both Franchot and Sylvia could've coasted through life, but possessed the drive to embrace their own paths and be discovered through hard work on the stage instead. They would both state how disenchanted the film world made them feel at times and continuously worked at improving their skills while delivering plays with important social messages through the Group Theatre. Both Franchot and Sylvia refused to take fame too seriously and embraced their transformation into character actors. On top of their personal and professional similarities, Franchot and Sylvia simply liked each other.

Ten years before they teamed up for their Group Theatre comebacks in The Gentle People, 24-year old Franchot and 19-year-old Sylvia acted together in Cross Roads. It ran for 28 performances at the Morosco Theatre in November and December 1929. Written by Martin Flavin, the play would be adapted into the 1932 film The Age of Consent. Eric Dressler played a first-year medical student Michael who wants to quit school to marry Pat. When Pat (Sylvia Sidney) wants to wait, Michael is caught in a clandestine evening with a waitress and his life at school and with Pat is threatened.

On November 6, Variety called it a "poignant, wistful little comedy...Excellently acted, the dialog, easy and natural, and it has all been staged superbly." By November 27, the play had grossed $8,500 (Measuringworth.com rates that around 1 million today.) 

The dialogue may have not been the only aspect that came "easy and natural" to its actors. Author O'Brien reveals that Franchot told interviewer Gladys Hall in 1933 that he had been "seriously in love" with a co-star:
We didn't marry, because I felt it would be unfair to the girl. She was very talented. She had a big career ahead of her. We broke it off and she has gone on, as I knew she should. She is a very successful star right now.
Although Franchot didn't name the costar, Hall then and O'Brien later guessed that Sylvia may be the girl. By 1933, Sylvia had become a big star in Hollywood. 1931 to 1933 saw Sylvia in such classics as An American Tragedy, City Streets, Merrily We Go to Hell, Street Scene, Madame Butterfly and Jennie Gerhardt. In 1934, movie magazines declared that Sylvia was the Hollywood beauty with the most ideal face. I believe that it is very likely that Franchot is referring to Sylvia in this interview. Although a great deal of his costars were very successful in theater, Sylvia's the only one of his early theater costars that comes to mind who had that level of stardom in Hollywood in 1933. Franchot had many, many love affairs—some not so serious and some very serious, some well-publicized and some very secretive. But I have a feeling he may be talking about Sylvia here, too. 




In 1939 after many years focused on films, Franchot returned to the stage in The Gentle People, a Group Theatre production co-starring Sylvia. On February 6, 1939, Life magazine reported:
Where The Gentle People lags, it is supported by radiant acting from Franchot Tone, Sylvia Sidney and Sam Jaffe, all returned from Hollywood to Broadway, and from the Group company who have become past masters at U.S. realism.
Variety, on January 11, 1939, reported:
Franchot Tone returned from Hollywood to play Goff, giving the part a clear reading and believable type of tough guy...Sylvia Sidney is the willful Stella, an assignment which she excellently delivers.


During the play's run that included 141 performances from January to May 1939 at the Belasco Theatre, Franchot and Sylvia were frequently seen out together socializing for fun as well as for a cause. Sylvia was married to actor and director Luther Adler at the time and would give birth to their only son Jody whom she absolutely adored by the end of the year. Still, Franchot and Sylvia were photographed together in restaurants and many wondered if a romance was afoot.



Franchot and Sylvia took the social causes that drew them to the Group Theatre to heart. They were committed to using their fame to bring awareness to injustice. Just two months before The Gentle People's opening night, German Jews were brutally attacked by paramilitary and civilians in retaliation for the assassination of a Nazi German diplomat. We know now that this horrific persecution would only get worse. To encourage the United States government to take a stand against Nazis and brutal acts such as these, Franchot and Sylvia hosted a fundraiser for Committee of 56. The 56 was named for the number of original signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Committee aimed to rally against acts of Nazism and boycott anything associated with Germany until those acts were prevented.

Franchot and Sylvia also traveled to Washington, D.C. together. They met with President Roosevelt to protest the budget cuts against the Federal Theatre Project.

Having spent a great deal of time together in 1939, Franchot and Sylvia went their separate ways but still took such similar paths. Sylvia had her son Jody with Luther Adler. In 1946, Sylvia divorced Luther and was married to Carlton Alsop from 1947 to 1951. Franchot would marry actress Jean Wallace in 1941 and have two sons. He and Jean would divorce in 1948 and he would later marry Barbara Payton and then Dolores Dorn. Franchot would balance a life in films, theater, and television as would Sylvia.

When I'm asked which two actors I'd liked to have seen in a film together, I've always immediately answered Franchot and Sylvia. I'm so disappointed that they didn't do something together in the 1930's. I think they would've been perfect in a romantic drama together. Look at Franchot's movies that include messages about the human condition and moral dilemma. I could easily picture Sylvia as Franchot's leading lady in Exclusive Story or Gentlemen are Born or Straight is the Way. Equally, I could envision Franchot as Sylvia's leading man in Street Scene, Jennie Gerhardt, and One Third of a Nation.

It seems I was almost granted my wish in the 1940's. O'Brien's book reveals that Franchot and Sylvia nearly did co-star in a film in 1946. They both signed on to co-star in the film Repeat Performance. After the film was delayed, Sylvia dropped out to film Love from a Stranger instead. Franchot would film Honeymoon, Lost Honeymoon, and Her Husband's Affairs in 1947. Repeat Performance went on to star Louis Hayward and Joan Leslie and was released in 1947. It as a film noir that includes elements of time travel and science fiction.

In 1956, Luther Adler and Sylvia reunited to co-star in the play A Very Special Baby. There was a lot of tension and bickering between the two exes and although the play was noted for Sidney and Adler's superb acting, critics found the play to be "overwrought." Playwright Robert Alan Aurthur witnessed the battles and ended up writing The Thundering Wave, an episode of Playhouse 90. The Thundering Wave was about two exes who are reunited on the stage and clashes ensue. Those two exes, based on Sylvia and Luther, were performed by Joan Bennett and....Franchot Tone.


Sources:

  • "Cross Roads." Variety. November 6, 1929. pg 63.
  • Doherty, Thomas. "Remembering the Hollywood Mogul who Rescued Hundreds of Germany's Jews." The Hollywood Reporter. December 29, 2015.
  • "Low Tide Totals of Between Holiday Period Expected by B'way Legits." Variety. November 27, 1929. pg 59.
  • O'Brien, Scott. Sylvia Sidney: Paid by the Tear. Bear Manor Media, 2016.
  • Smith, Wendy. Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940; New York: Knopf, 1990.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Girl from Missouri (1934)

I'm happy to be covering The Girl from Missouri (1934) as part of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood's 4th Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. You can enjoy all of the other wonderful entries that have been submitted here.


The Girl from Missouri is one of four films costarring Franchot Tone and Jean Harlow and one of two films costarring Franchot and Lionel Barrymore (the other is 1933's The Stranger's Return.) It is my favorite of the Jean-Franchot pairings, which include Bombshell, Suzy, and Reckless.

Eadie (Jean Harlow) wants to escape her brow-beaten mother and bully of a stepfather so best friend Kitty helps her catch a train. She's saved her money and wants to show the world she has "ideals." On the train Eadie reveals that she will get married for money and a good life, because she doesn't want to end up like her mother who married for love.

When they discover that the wealthy Frank Cousins (Lewis Stone) is throwing a party, Eadie and Kitty, both dancers, make sure they are included in the entertainment. When he realizes T.R. Paige (Lionel Barrymore) has arrived, Cousins' countenance completely changes. With shaky hands, he lights a cigar for T.R. and privately asks him for financial help. T.R. denies him because back in the day Mr. Cousins had refused to help T.R. Eadie wanders into Frank Cousins' office and he gives her ruby cufflinks and tells her he will miss her dance number because he has something to do. After she exits his office, Cousins commits suicide. T.R. comes in to see what the commotion is and ends up protecting Eadie from an investigation.




After Eadie suggests marriage, T.R. gives her money but assures her that he is no "ladies' man" and should be taken off her list of possible husbands. Eadie is not easily swayed and secretly follows (with Kitty in tow) T.R. to Palm Beach. Patsy Kelly is wonderfully humorous as Kitty, the wise-cracking best friend who falls for manual laborers and service operators while Sadie digs for gold. Kitty refers to herself as "just an old-fashioned homegirl like Mae West."


At T.R. Paige's Palm Beach office, we are introduced to his son T.R., Jr. or Tom (Franchot Tone), a fun-loving playboy immediately attracted to Eadie. Tom is surprised when the secretary tells him Eadie is after his dad and when he tells Eadie and Kitty that he, himself, is T.R. Paige, they don't believe him. Eadie believes Tom is just a clerk at the bank and tries to get rid of him. Unbeknownst to her, Tom is pedaling her and Kitty across town and eavesdrop as she reveals her goal to marry wealthy.


At the beach, Tom and Eadie kiss, but she says she won't fall in love with him. Tom points to the Paige yacht and tells her he will sneak her on, but Eadie and Kitty leave Tom behind on the dock.


On the yacht, Eadie is shocked to learn that Tom is T.R.'s son. In his portrayal of T.R., Lionel Barrymore makes it clear that he is amused by Eadie's antics, but that he will attack anyone who might take advantage of his son. He becomes less tolerant of Eadie as the film goes on and Lionel perfectly captures this transformation in his character. In one scene, T.R. reveals his need to be near and protect his son, saying:
Come out to Washington tonight with us, Tom. We're going to have a lot of fun...You know how often I've seen ya since you picked up that blonde chiseler?
When he sees the diamond bracelet Tom's purchased for Eadie, T.R. realizes how far Tom's fallen in love and decides it's time to teach his son a lesson.










T.R. pleads with his son:
Tom, she's not worthwhile. Drop her at her hotel and come on north with me.
Tom agrees to meet his dad at the station after he seduces Eadie. Both T.R. and Tom still think that because she's out for a millionaire that Eadie is also a promiscuous woman. Tom is shocked when Eadie rejects his advances and he learns she's on the level about wanting marriage before sex. She tells Tom she truly loves him and begs him not to make her "cheap" and so Tom asks his driver to take her home.

After his toast at a banquet in his honor, T.R. is interrupted by a visit from his son. We learn that Tom is deeply in love with Eadie and will marry her at any cost. Still certain his son is being played, T.R. says he won't let his son make a fool of himself by marrying Eadie. He tells him he's never denied him anything and Tom's all he's got in the world. Lionel and Franchot are wonderful in this scene. It shows the natural father-son bond the characters have and the sentimentality is not overwrought. It hits just the right note. (Lionel and Franchot performed similarly as rival neighbors who actually respect and like each other quite a lot in 1933's The Stranger's Return.)

T.R. reluctantly agrees to the marriage, but we soon see that the care he's exhibited toward his son has now turned into contempt for Eadie. T.R. immediately arranges a deal with a district attorney to bring scandal down on Eadie and sever the relationship before she becomes his daughter-in-law.

I won't spoil the ending in case you haven't seen it, but Eadie puts up more of a struggle than T.R. expects. As the golddigger who already possesses a heart of gold, Jean Harlow turns in an excellent performance.

The dialogue, camerawork, and characters capture the best qualities of the three main actors. This is one of my favorite of Lionel Barrymore's roles, because it superbly shows off his ability to be debonair and endearing in one scene and calculating and ruthless the next.





If you don't have the Jean Harlow-Franchot Tone films on DVD yet, I suggest buying the Region 1 Jean Harlow box set by Warner Archive. The box set includes the four Franchot films (Bombshell, The Girl from Missouri, Suzy, and Reckless) as well as Jean's films Riffraff, Personal Property, and Saratoga. Warner Archive has not released Suzy as an individual DVD, it's only available in the set, so it's an economical and enjoyable option to buy the set. This is not a sponsored ad or anything like that, just good sense if you're planning to add all four Jean-Franchot titles to your collection eventually.

I love the Barrymores and am so pleased that In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood has hosted another blogathon celebrating them. Again, to read all the wonderful entries, please click here.