Thursday, April 20, 2017

Playing Against Type: Discovering Franchot's Characters

Franchot would once protest that he was not "one of those fanatics who is always yelling for a chance to prove his versatility and yapping about being 'typed.'" The truth is that throughout his career Franchot would yearn for and express a desire to play a more wide variety of characters. And rightly so. Early on, Franchot did get put in the category of the glamorous, wealthy man who is in the film mainly to support the leading lady and to this day, many people associate Franchot solely on this character alone. However, there are many unique characters sans top hat and tails hidden in Franchot's filmography and I want to highlight those films and some of Franchot's comments regarding being typecast today.
"Of course, it's fine for those Park Avenue playboys I've done to death. I dislike that kind of part intensely. I've played so many, people actually think I'm that kind of smug chap. I agree with them, and if I weren't so lazy, I'd have done something about it long ago."
The Stranger's Return. Source: original from my collection.
The Stranger's Return (1933)
Franchot is Guy, a well-respected farmer who has given up a promising academic career to tend to the family land. This pre-code drama stars Lionel Barrymore as Guy’s neighbor and Miriam Hopkins as the stranger who comes to town and shakes up Guy’s life.

The World Moves On (1934)
The World Moves On is glamorous and Franchot is well-dressed, but it’s an epic drama directed by John Ford and with Franchot playing two men of different generations. The lengthy film also stars Madeleine Carroll.

Straight is the Way (1934)
Franchot is Benny, a criminal newly out of prison and ready to live a straight-and-narrow life in his Jewish tenament. May Robson is touching as Benny’s long-suffering mother while Gladys George and Karen Morley rival for his affections. The film is at just 59 minutes long, but left a lasting impression on me.
"If I ever had an image, it was the playboy, the white tie and tails, the elegant fellow with the good tailor. That was my image for the mass movie audience. But not for the theater audience. They saw me as an actor. Now my television image is the character actor. And then they see my old movies on the late show and I'm the rich playboy again."

Gentlemen Are Born. Source: original from my collection.

Gentlemen Are Born (1935)
Gentlemen Are Born is refreshing because it places Franchot in an ensemble cast of talented young actors, including Ross Alexander, Dick Foran, and Charles Starrett. They play four recent college graduates who struggle to come to terms with the grim reality of the Depression-era workforce.

Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Source: original from my collection.

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)
Nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, this adventure film features Franchot, Gary Cooper, and Richard Cromwell as British officers who must defend their base in Bengal. Franchot often cited this as one of his favorite films (the other two were Mutiny on the Bounty and Man on the Eiffel Tower) and was known to privately screen it for his own enjoyment throughout the years.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Franchot was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in this Best Picture winner. As midshipman Byam, Franchot must submit to the tyranny of Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) and accept tough decisions made by Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) in this classic sea adventure.

They Gave Him a Gun. Source: original from my collection.
They Gave Him a Gun (1937)
Jimmy (Tone) is fearful of his World War I army duty and relies on the encouragement of soldier Fred (Spencer Tracy). After being heralded for his wartime kills, Jimmy’s personality changes and he faces difficulty returning to civilian life.
"Since I've had my own gray hair and wrinkles, producers have been willing to recognize me as a character actor. There was a long spell in Hollywood where I appeared in nothing but bad romantic comedies. They were 'dress suit roles.' Acting talent didn't matter. The important thing was to have a good tailor. That was in the days before a dissatisfied movie star was free to refuse to work at something he didn't like and take a suspension. Maybe it's just as well because I'd have been under suspension more often than not if I had had any option to exercise. I was a leading man making an outrageous salary. But I was jealous of character actors with three-line bit roles. At least, they enjoyed their work."
Three Comrades (1938)
Three soldiers must cope with a changing Germany following World War I. Franchot plays a sensitive mechanic who looks after Robert Taylor and Robert Young with brotherly affection in the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story.
Trail of the Vigilantes. Source: original from my collection.

Trail of the Vigilantes (1940)
A western comedy costarring Warren William and Broderick Crawford, Trail of the Vigilantes gives Franchot the opportunity to ride a horse and face the bad guys, but in a comical manner.

This Woman is Mine (1941)
An 1800's sea adventure about a timid organizer of a fur expedition (Franchot) who falls for a stowaway (Carol Bruce) and gains courage on the voyage.

Five Graves to Cairo. Source: original from my collection.

Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
In this Billy Wilder-directed war drama, Franchot is the only survivor of a tank battle who finds himself assuming the identity of a German spy.
"Wait a isn't the only kind of life with which I'm acquainted. I can't remember the time, before I came out here, that I didn't spend the summer months in the woods, hobnobbing with wood-cutters, Indians, and Canadian guides, etc. I know as much about those phases of life as I do about drawing rooms. The biggest personal success I had in New York was as a cowboy in 'Green Grow the Lilacs.' Stage producers never felt that I was the ideal type for the man-about-town."-Franchot in response to a reporter who accused him of playing wealthy playboys because it was all he'd known in his real life.

Pilot No. 5 (1943)
Told in a series of flashbacks as he undergoes a vital war mission, a group of pilots (including Van Johnson and Gene Kelly) reflect on the ups and downs in Franchot’s character’s life.

Phantom Lady (1943)
He may be debonair and suited up, but Franchot also happens to be a murderous psychopath in the 1943 noir with Ella Raines.

The Hour Before the Dawn (1944)
A conscientious objector to the war, Franchot is a pacifist professor who must uncover the truth about his mysterious wife, played by Veronica Lake.

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)
In this color noir that he produced, Franchot plays a murderous loner in post-war Paris. This movie was a labor of love for Franchot and costarred two of his best pals, Burgess Meredith (who also directed) and Charles Laughton.
"Most actors pay too much attention to the size of a role anyway. One good, biting scene is worth more than hours of drivel. Well, I got older, and eventually I reached a point where I looked ridiculous bounding through a bay window with a tennis raquet in my hands. I went into television at a time when the industry was hungry for movie names. I could be demanding. For instance, when one video producer offered me the romantic lead in a murder mystery, I held out for the role of the killer—a marvelous psychopathic character—and got it."
Twilight Zone. Source: original from my collection.
Uncle Vanya (1957)
Franchot and the cast of Uncle Vanya both performed the play on stage and recorded it for film. This independent film was produced by Franchot. As the alcoholic, aging doctor, Tone turns in perhaps his most authentic performance. It's definitely the closest we'll ever get to seeing Franchot perform a live play.

Advise and Consent (1962)
Franchot is the ailing president of the United States in this star-packed drama directed by Otto Preminger.

Television (1950-1968)
In my opinion, if you want to see Franchot at his best, most diverse work, you need to see his many television appearances. Television allowed an older Franchot to play every type of character imaginable and he excelled in this new medium! My top recommendations are the following episodes:
The Silence-Twilight Zone
Impossible Dream-Alfred Hitchcock Presents
The Award-Four Star Playhouse
The Little Foxes-Hallmark Hall of Fame
Along About Late in the Afternoon-The Eleventh Hour
Denver McKee-Bonanza
Old Cowboy-The Virginian
Tell It Like It Is-Run for Your Life

For all the great posts on Franchot Tone, check out the roster of participants in the first Franchot Tone Blogathon!


  1. A nice overview of the many films worth checking out. Some I have already seen and some sound like I need to track them down. Also made me think I really need to revisit Five Graves to Cairo, it's been far too long. I have a copy of that Tracy film so that one is due for a first time viewing and I'll have to tack down that John Ford film. Lastly I see old Denver McKee made the short list. :) Once again, Thanks for hosting.

  2. Great list! I think I first saw Franchot in The World Movies On, and that film surprised me so much! I agree that, now that I know more of his career, he had a big acting range.
    Thanks for hosting this fun event!