Friday, April 22, 2016

Franchot & Joan: A Lifetime of Love

Fresh from the New York stage and with only one film (The Wiser Sex with Claudette Colbert) under his belt, Franchot Tone was assigned the role of Ronnie in the 1933 war drama Today We Live. The leading lady of the picture would be Joan Crawford, flapper-turned-dramatic actress, who was well-respected and a public darling after her most recent successes in Grand Hotel and Possessed. Vying for Miss Crawford's attention in the film were the handsome and talented Gary Cooper and Robert Young. A Hollywood unknown, Franchot was cast as her brother. With a marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. on the rocks and divorce looming, Joan and Franchot acted on their mutual attraction for one another.

Magazines were abuzz with "Are they or aren't they?" columns before the end of 1933, but neither Joan or Franchot would give journalists the satisfaction of a confirmation. (Amusingly, in one personal telephone interview in which Joan refused to address a relationship, she put Franchot who happened to be at her house on the line so he could talk to the reporter, too!) By 1934, moviegoers had already seen two more romantic dramas starring both Joan and Franchot. In 1933's Dancing Lady, a tails-and-tie Franchot competes with Clark Gable (Joan's real life on-and-off lover) for Joan's affection. And although Clark always wins Joan (the three were combined again for 1936's Love on the Run), Franchot certainly gives him a run for his money in the steamy swimming scenes. They may have been concealing their relationship off-set, but there was no hiding the electricity between Franchot and Joan in their Dancing Lady scenes. The swimming scene is, to me, one of the sexiest love scenes in classic film. The 1934 romantic drama Sadie McKee teamed them up again. Joan's character Sadie has grown up in the servants' quarters of Michael Alderson's wealthy home. Sadie and Michael (Franchot) have had a flirty attraction since they were kids, but a thoughtless, snobby comment from him turns Sadie off and Michael must find a way to repair their relationship. They respected each other's acting ability and reflected on the ways in which they influenced one another in an interview with Ben Maddox for Screenland in December 1933.

Joan said of Franchot's acting technique:

"From all appearances, Franchot is the most indifferent person in the world. Then you begin your scene with him and are astounded to find you are working with the keenest of actors. Technically, he is perfect. He knows how to express every kind of feeling instantly! I have no technique at all myself. I'm all emotions and when I cry, for instance, I keep on until I'm cried out. I'd give anything to be as skilled in acting as he is...I have learned peace of mind from Franchot. He has taught me to have faith in my own judgment." 

Franchot was grateful to the film-experienced Joan for providing him with the following tips:
"On the stage it was a negligible factor, I felt that posing for portraits and autographing books for fans was a form of exhibitionism. At premieres I used to blush violently when noticed...Joan showed me how wrong I was. She convinced me that a picture player is not making a fool of himself when he acknowledges the public's curiosity. She believes one should be very grateful to the fans for their approval. I agree now that I've reasoned it out...My gestures were quicker than they should be for the screen and Joan slowed me down...Joan is fair to everyone. She wants each person to do his best."

1935 was an important year for the couple. Franchot had now gained his own following in pictures with Jean Harlow and Loretta Young and starred in 3 Oscar-nominated films in '35 alone: Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable, Lives of a Bengal Lancer with Gary Cooper, and Dangerous with Bette Davis. 11 years before Joan would earn her first nomination for Mildred Pierce, Franchot was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Byam in Mutiny. (I actually didn't realize that he beat Joan to a nomination until I was writing this post. I can't believe Joan was not nominated multiple times in the 30's. She absolutely deserved to be.)

Now public with their romance, the couple opted for a private marriage ceremony on the morning of October 11, 1935. According to the New York Times, Mayor Herbert Jenkins performed the ceremony with just a handful of witnesses present. Joan wore a dark blue ensemble and Franchot a gray-striped suit. The ring Franchot placed on Joan's finger was in white gold band set with emeralds and diamonds.

In her autobiography, Joan gave a loving description of her husband:
"Franchot Tone had a quiet way of looking at me across a set, a capacity for giving more than a scene required... He was a tonic to me, this remarkable young man with his individuality of thought and imagination, who understood and was very patient with me, whose two hands were always filled with beauty. Franchot was of a different fiber from anyone in Hollywood."

Although he got the girl in real life,  Franchot was relegated to second leads in their next three film collaborations, which saw Joan preferring Robert Montgomery (in 35's No More Ladies), Robert Taylor and then Melvyn Douglas (in 36's The Gorgeous Hussy), and Clark Gable (in 36's Love on the Run) over Franchot. In 1937's The Bride Wore Red (my personal favorite of their films), Franchot's sweet and caring mailman loves Anni despite her focus on the wealthy character Robert Young portrays. Franchot is finally given a substantial part opposite Joan and wins his girl in the end.

MGM always cast Franchot and Joan in love triangle plots. I wish the Tones had been given a romantic drama to star in together, instead of Franchot always being sort of an afterthought character in a Crawford picture. Franchot shines in his film romances with Miriam Hopkins (The Stranger's Return), Loretta Young (The Unguarded Hour), Katharine Hepburn (Quality Street), Franciska Gaal (The Girl Downstairs), and Deanna Durbin (His Butler's Sister). It's a shame that he was not given more of a lead role in the films he and Joan made together. There's so much magnetism in their scenes together. Can you imagine if they had been given a full romance film starring just the two of them? The screen would've positively sizzled!

At home, Franchot and Joan enjoyed their tennis court, pool, dogs, and nights on the town with friends, often Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck. In photographs of the couple taken during their marriage, they always look so happy in each other's company. I've noticed, too, how adoringly Franchot gazes at his bride in many of the pictures.

In my research of Franchot, I tend to come across two alternate assumptions that have been published online and in books. The first assumption people make is that Joan dominated Franchot. Told him what films to make, what to wear, who he was allowed to see, etc. The opposite assumption made is that Franchot dominated Joan. Pushed her into opera lessons and literature study, and asked her to leave Hollywood for theatre. I don't think either party dominated the other. In 1937, Franchot addressed the rumor of his grooming Joan for the stage in Screenland:
"...that myth about the little theatre we have in our garden should be exploded. It is not for Joan to learn stage acting in, and never was so intended! I've read that it was built so I could teach her the technique of the footlights. That's a sample of the incredible situations I've been in since I've been here. Joan doesn't require any special coaching from me or anyone else to be able to act on the stage. She is an actress."

As in most relationships, I feel that Joan and Franchot simply tried to introduce each other to their own interests and supported each other in new endeavors. Joan taught Franchot what she knew and Franchot did the same for Joan. I believe, and they both said, that they always had a mutual respect for one another. On top of the obvious physical attraction, it is clear that they were intrigued by one another's personalities.

In the beginning of their relationship, Joan and Franchot were drawn to each other because of their different backgrounds and approaches to their careers. Eventually, these different personalities caused them to grow apart. Here's what I think. Joan endured a tumultuous childhood and worked tirelessly to become the star Joan Crawford. She never wanted to be poor again. She never wanted to not be Joan Crawford. She had come too far to risk losing it.  She enjoyed being a star and the responsibilities that came with it. Franchot and his friend Burgess Meredith, at separate times, mentioned that Joan needed a lot of approval. She was very sensitive to people's response to her and wanted to please the public. She filled her days with film preparation, exercise, dance lessons, and the like so that she could maintain her talent and physique. Her film career was important to her and she made it a top priority. Franchot came from a well-to-do background, a stable family life, and educational and social opportunity. But he was no loaf, either. He worked relentlessly in plays from the time he graduated college until his death in 1968 (excepting the years in the 30's when he focused solely on his film career). In one year alone, he made 7 feature films. Franchot's craft was important to him and he was always interested in expanding his technique and exploring new characters. But, and here's the difference, Franchot did not need to be the star Franchot Tone. Although I'm sure he enjoyed being liked, Franchot didn't seem to care if anyone approved of what he was doing or not. He didn't feel the pressure that Joan must have felt in Hollywood. Yes, he wanted good roles and was frustrated when he didn't get them. Yes, it must have been hard being referred to as Mr. Joan Crawford and having gossips ridiculously claim that you are only in pictures because of your marriage to her. But, I don't think that they broke up because he was spiteful of her success, but rather, because he didn't always understand her consuming need to maintain it.

When Franchot and Joan parted in the summer of 1938, they released a statement that they were separating on the friendliest of terms. When Joan filed the divorce suit in February 1939, the New York Times reported that although Franchot knew how many hours Joan dedicated to her film career at the studio and at home, he still insisted that she "go out with him socially", "continually objected to her activities....and made unreasonable demands upon her time." This gap between them caused Franchot to be "sullen and angry" and he often went days without talking to Joan. In the end, there were whispers of infidelities on both sides and even physical fights.

They were seen out dining and dancing following their divorce, and eventually went on to wed others (Joan two more times, Franchot three) and have children. Following Joan's divorce from Phillip Terry and Franchot's from Jean Wallace and Barbara Payton, Franchot and Joan were seen in each other's company. In 1950, Joan shared with Modern Screen:

"I still worship Franchot—worship, you understand, not love—for his ability to talk very intelligently about our profession. I've never been able to do that. I can only feel my roles...Franchot would never deliberately use his ability to harm another player."

In the 1950's

In 1954, Joan told May Mann of Screenland:
"Franchot Tone knew I was coming to New York (we always correspond) and he was completely wonderful. He sent flowers and had tickets for me for his play and several other shows. And we talked, and danced, and laughed, and recalled the time when we both studied singing. We were serious about it; we studied opera. Now with the bitterness all gone, I thought to myself, 'If I'd only been more mature, and had had a sense of humor when we were married!' However, one cannot go back—not even wishful thinking could make it so."
Throughout the 1950's and 60's, Franchot was seen at parties in Joan's honor and Joan was spotted at the opening nights of Franchot's plays. When asked about his relationship with Joan in 1964, Franchot remarked:

"[We] have dinner every once in a while and Joan is always stunning. She's very busy with her executive work for Pepsi-Cola and with pictures. She's good at anything she does."
In her autobiography, Joan reflected on their continued friendship after their divorce:

"I have the utmost trust in Franchot and regard for him. It took courage for us both to walk away, courage I didn't know I had. Somewhere I had once read, 'Let your courage be as keen but at the same time as polished as your sword.' We walked away. We retained a mutual respect." 
Their companionship continued while Joan gained new success with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Franchot with plays such as Strange Interlude and becoming a series regular on Ben Casey. In early July 1965, Franchot and Joan visited together at his home in Canada. They were photographed at the airport in Quebec and you can view that candid shot at The Concluding Chapter of Crawford website. They remained close until Franchot's death on September 18, 1968.

In August 1967, a little over a year before his death of cancer, Joan received this letter from Franchot in which he apologizes for something unknown (to us) that he did and writes the exceptionally romantic line, "I pray never again to let you for a moment think I do not love and glorify and thank you for all your kindness and thoughtfulnesses (is that a word???)". Here's the letter which is available on The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia:

I'm always stunned when I read comments that suggest Franchot used Joan to gain movie roles or Joan browbeat Franchot into being a submissive husband. It's obvious to me in the words and photographs of them which span over thirty years that Franchot and Joan simply enjoyed each other's company and that their relationship was one of understanding and devotion.

This post is a part of Phyllis Loves Classic Movies' Star-Studded Hollywood Couple Blogathon. To read about other famous couples, please visit the roster on the Phyllis Loves Classic Movies blog.

  • The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia.
  • Clark, Frances. "Joan Crawford's Other Life." Modern Screen. 1950.
  • The Concluding Chapter of Crawford:
  • Crawford, Joan and Jane Kessner Ardmore. "Courage to Part From Love." The Miami News. August 17, 1962. Page 5A.
  • Crawford, Joan, and Jane Kesner. Ardmore. A Portrait of Joan: The Autobiography of Joan Crawford. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962. Print.
  • "If You Were Joan." Movie Classic. 1935.
  • "Joan Crawford Asks for Divorce." New York Times. February 11, 1939. p. 18
  • "Joan Crawford Married to Tone: Wedding of Film Stars Friday by Mayor." New York Times. October 14, 1935. p. 19.
  • Kerr, Martha. "What's Wrong with the Man?" Modern Screen. 1935.
  • "Leaves Joan Crawford: Tone Agrees to 'Friendly' Separation in Hollywood." New York Times. July 20, 1938. p. 22.
  • Maddox, Ben. " Joan Unmasks Hollywood for Franchot Tone." Screenland. December 1933. p. 28, 70-72.
  • Maddox, Ben. "The Truth about Tone." Screenland. April 1937. p. 77
  • Mann, May. "I Live an Exciting Life." Screenland. August 1954. p. 42.Morehouse, Ward. "No More Toney Roles for Franchot Tone." The Toledo Blade. May 31, 1964. Page 2.
  • Stars and Letters: Letters from Hollywood's Golden Age:
  • Walker, Danton. "Hollywood on Broadway." Screenland. June 1954. p. 44
  • Wilson, Earl."Joan Crawford Would Try Anew with Franchot Tone." Milwaukee Sentinel. March 18, 1954. Page 21.

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