Sunday, August 28, 2016

Pilot # 5 (1943)

Pilot # 5 is a 1943 propaganda war film directed by George Sidney and told in flashback form. The film stars Franchot Tone, Marsha Hunt, and Gene Kelly. The New York Times called it "tedious, overlong" yet praised its actors, saying that Franchot gives an "intelligent performance," Marsha is "sweet and earnest," and Gene is "convincing." The Showmen's Trade Review predicted that it would "create more than average interest because of a story that is original when compared with the majority of other war dramas now being turned out." Warning: In the film summary below, there will be some revealing plot details. No ending spoiler, of course, just story details up to that point.

George Collins (Franchot Tone) insists on running a bombing mission against an enemy Japanese carrier. As they wait on him to report his progress, fellow pilots describe George Collins to their new major who says that although it is clear George is seen "much struggle and defeat," that he still approaches life with the "look of a victor."

In the first flashback, Winston Davis (Alan Baxter) recalls how he originally rejected George Collins for the Air Corps after the Dean of George's law school reported him to be a brilliant man who turned out to be a "cheap opportunist." Seeing how much this pains George, Davis goes to George's hometown to find out more about the man.

Henry Claven (Dick Simmons) remembers the proud and dignified college-aged George. At that time, George was top of his class, engaged to his high school sweetheart, and working hard to achieve personal and professional success. When Claven last saw him, George and Freddie (Marsha Hunt) were happily building their dream house.

Vito (Gene Kelly) graduates law school with George and although George starts from the bottom after graduation, Vito quickly gets a position with a large law firm. Vito employs Freddie as his secretary and hopes that she will fall in love with him, but Freddie only has eyes for George. Vito takes on George as a partner and they gain representation of sleazy Governor Durban (Howard Freeman). Observing George's awe of Durban's rhetoric and power, Freddie asks, "Can you mix with his kind of people and still be you?"

George and Vito represent Durban as he takes land from poor farmers with the promise of placing thousands of farms in their place. Durban swears that this will aid the community in production and progress. Everyone except George knows that Durban plans to take the land and its profits for himself. Blinded by Durban's public position and his own rising professional status, George doesn't realize just how culpable he is himself until a horrible tragedy strikes.

 George loses everything. Freddie leaves him because she cannot face the "cheap, wart-healing, would-be fascist" he's become. When George confronts Durban, the slimy politician has his lackeys physically beat him. George is treated like scum by the townspeople. Even after he succeeds in getting Durban kicked out of office and works hard to restore his own name, George is still treated unkindly by those who once respected him. Although Vito was involved in the scandal as well, he disappears to New York and never loses the respect and position he gained. Vito regrets not being "man enough to fight" with George and leaving George to handle the repercussions by himself.

When George is finally accepted into the Air Corps, Vito (a pilot, too) sets up a reunion between George and his lost love Freddie.  We discover that by the time he heroically volunteers to go on the bombing mission, George is the beloved husband of Freddie, friend to Vito, yet his character is still under question by his community.

I will not tell you how the film ends, but fortunately you can see for yourself with the DVD Warner Archive released in 2012. This would mark Gene Kelly's third film and you'll spot Van Johnson and Peter Lawford in small roles as pilots. I rewatched it a few days ago and was struck again by the film's originality and powerful story. It's one of Franchot's finest (and an underrated) performances.

New York Times. June 25, 1943.
Showmen's Trade Review. April 10, 1943.

Friday, August 26, 2016

John Strasberg on Franchot Tone

Actor, director, and writer John Strasberg (son of Lee and Paula Strasberg) was Franchot's godson and wrote about Franchot in his 1996 book Accidentally on Purpose:

I don't remember feeling any peace or harmony from the moment we moved back to New York in 1947 until I began spending summers in Canada with Franchot Tone when I was twelve. We hunted and fished, camping in Quebec's wilderness country.
Franchot's wealthy industrialist family owned three houses that sat on a ridge of land between two lakes that were part of the Gatineau Fish and Game Club, near Gracefield, Quebec. We portaged deep into land that he owned, smearing honey under the canoes of poachers so that the bears would destroy them.  Franchot became one of my heroes, once I realized that heroes could be human...Normally quiet and reflective, he could be very temperamental. He was a movie star, but to me, above all, he was a Renaissance man. He thought about more than just the theater. He gave me books he loved, like the writings of the Comte de Rochechouart and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and a Marlin .22 lever action rifle, the gift of which startled my parents and endeared Franchot to me even more.   
He exposed me to a world that I loved and felt at home in, and that my parents knew nothing about. He loved women, smoked two packs of unfiltered Camel cigarettes a day, and drank double vodkas.  So did I, but some years later. He was definitely more of what I wanted to be than was my own father, and I often wonder what kind of father he was to his own children. Franchot's humanity touched me deeply.  It was due in part to his influence that I learned to define success on my own terms. Above all, he taught me that work is part of one's natural respect and love of human life, but it is not a way to ignore or dominate it.

Strasberg, John. Accidentally on Purpose: Reflections on Life, Acting, and the Nine Natural Laws of Creativity. New York: Applause, 1996. Print. 8-9.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Stranger's Return 1933

Today's post has been written especially for In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood's Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon.

The Stranger's Return is a film that is overwhelmingly hard to track down, because MGM did not renew the rights to Phil Stong's original story. Back in 2014, Warner Brothers did clear the rights to show it at TCM's Film Festival and TCM aired it on their television station at that time. I was fortunate to catch the television showing of it that year and hoped that increased showings and a Warner Archive DVD release were in the works. Sadly, I've not seen or read anything else about the movie since then.

It's always disappointing when a film is lost to the public due to rights issues, but it is devastating when said film is as exceptional as this one. Directed by King Vidor, The Stranger's Return is a masterful pre-code with commanding performances by its leads Lionel Barrymore, Miriam Hopkins, and Franchot Tone. Top-notch secondary actors Stuart Erwin, Beulah Bondi, Grant Mitchell, and Irene Hervey round out the cast.

Divorcee Louise Storr (Miriam Hopkins) arrives on the Storr family farm in need of fresh air and a new life. The farm is maintained by the crotchety Grandpa Storr (Lionel Barrymore), who has a manipulative and gossipy bunch of family members living with him. Stuart Erwin plays Simon, a drunken, but big-hearted farmhand. Grandpa Storr warms to his granddaughter Louise immediately. Louise is fearless and quickly identifies with the land as equally as her grandfather does. With Lionel turning in an outstanding performance as the curmudgeonly patriarch, Grandpa Storr lovingly softens when he interacts with Louise.

Masked in rivalry, Grandpa Storr also maintains a soft spot for neighboring farmer Guy Crane (Franchot Tone). An educated man, Guy is torn between his love of the family farm and his ties to tradition and the forceful pull of great adventure in other lands of which he's read. Guy and Louise recognize this common duality in their characters and are attracted to one another. Bound by integrity, Guy and Louise must decide whether or not to abandon the stable goodness of their families (Guy is a husband and father) and the land in order to pursue the passion they feel.

Barrymore's performance is incredible throughout the film, but viewers will really be impressed when his character pulls a great ruse on everyone that reasserts his control. It's a fantastic scene that is perfectly tailored to Barrymore's strengths as an actor. The Stranger's Return features superior performances by all its actors. Guy Crane is a stand-out performance of Franchot's. It's one of those films I'd recommend to those who know Franchot only as the wealthy love interest to Joan and Jean. Just as Grandpa Storr is perfectly tailored to Barrymore's strengths, the sensitive, complicated Guy Crane is an ideal character for Franchot to inhabit. Likewise, Miriam Hopkins is flawless as the torn, but courageous Louise Storr. It's a shame that this film has been tossed aside due to licensing rights. It deserves to be recognized as the exemplary pre-code film it is. I sense that a DVD release is in the future. I just hope it's not as far off in the future as I fear.

The New York Times reviewed:
Mr. Barrymore, in a part that was made in heaven for him, plays with lusty vigor and humor, and his performance is entirely delightful. Miriam Hopkins, as his granddaughter, has never been more effective. Franchot Tone is intelligent, honest and sensitive as the educated farmer from next door.
If you'd like to read more about The Stranger's Return, check out the great write-ups at TCM, Leonard Maltin's site, and at—although I obviously wasn't too crazy about Pre-Code Danny's "Franchot Tone is no Clark Gable" quip. (He's not supposed to be Clark Gable. There already is a Clark Gable. Clark and Franchot have two completely different acting styles and that's OK. Hollywood is big enough for a Clark Gable and a Franchot Tone!...end of rant.)

To read all about the wonderful Barrymore family, check out all the entries over at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

All images are from movie magazines digitized at Media History Digital Library

Saturday, August 6, 2016

On Record: This is the UN

Franchot had a distinctive voice which grew more resonant and authoritative with age. Fortunately, Franchot's voice was captured in many radio programs and used to great effect as narration on records. When I began collecting Franchot-related items, I knew that I wanted to obtain all of the old records featuring Franchot. Currently in my collection I have The Jazz Age of F. Scott Fitzgerald: Readings by Franchot Tone, the full 1963 cast recording of Strange Interlude, and This is the UN: Its Actual Voices. Franchot also appears on the "If Men Played Cards the Way Women Do" skit with Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray and Lynne Overman on the soundtrack album for Star Spangled Rhythm. (If you are aware of another album featuring Franchot's voice, please comment on this post. I may be missing some!)

My copy is a bit worn, but the record plays fine.

This is the UN: Its Actual Voices was a 1950 audio documentary produced by Tribune Productions and written by Saul Carson and Eleanor Gardiner. The documentary was released on 33 1/3 rpm nonbreakable, long playing microgroove under the supervision of the United Nations Department of Public Information. A compilation of 40,000 official recordings, the record highlights historic speeches of world leaders "placed in perspective against the U.N.'s aims and achievements by the sensitive and clear narrative of Franchot Tone." The LP is divided into 10 parts:

1. San Francisco; the Charter
2. Proclaiming Principles
3. Facing Atomic Energy
4. Independence for Indonesia
5. Parade of the Nations
6. Toward Economic and Social Progress
7. Toward Economic and Social Progress (continued)
8. Trusteeship Council
9. Universal Declaration of Human Rights
10. Permanent Headquarters; the Korean Situation

I took a video of Franchot's first track of the album as it played on my record player this morning. If you can't see the embedded video below, you can watch it on Youtube.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

August Update

Franchot on TV
Sunday, August 7th
  • 9:30 PM Eastern on TCM: Bombshell, 1933 comedy starring Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, and Franchot Tone. 
Monday, August 8th
  • 1:00 AM Eastern on TCM: Reckless, 1935 romance starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Franchot Tone
  • 4:15 AM Eastern on TCM: Suzy, 1936 drama starring Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, and Franchot Tone.
Saturday, August 12th

  • 4:15 AM Eastern on TCM: Three Loves Has Nancy, 1938 comedy starring Robert Montgomery, Janet Gaynor, and Franchot Tone.
On the Blog in August
I will be writing about the 1933 pre-code The Stranger's Return for The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Due to a busier work schedule in July, I wasn't able to post as often as I wanted. I am planning to post more frequently this month.

I did get a chance to work on my Finding Franchot fansite at in July and will continue to develop it in August. I've added quotes, some photos, and film listings, but I need to work on many more pages.