Saturday, July 29, 2017

Irving Thalberg's Support and Ultimate Surrender of Franchot's Career

Irving Thalberg began his film career immediately following his high school graduation. While still a teen, Thalberg became a secretary for Universal and remained there until 1924, when the promise of a more lucrative salary drew him to Louis B. Mayer and MGM. There, Thalberg helped to turn (some would argue that he alone turned) the studio into the powerhouse it became in the late 1920's through the 1940's. He had a knack for knowing the public's tastes and expertly creating stars out of MGM's players, yet yearned for a studio that created only solid, important films.

Prone to illness since childhood, Thalberg's immune system was as weak as his mind was strong. He was forced to take an extended rest after a heart attack in 1932 and during this time, Mayer demoted him from production supervisor to unit producer. From 1933 to his untimely death in 1936, Thalberg produced some of MGM's most successful films. During this period, the "Boy Wonder"—as he was termed by his colleagues—would fight for Franchot Tone, but would ultimately fail to convince Louis B. Mayer of Tone's worth.

In a letter written in October 1933, Irving writes of his initial push for support of Franchot and his defeat by Mayer:
I made a request of Louis, inasmuch as Franchot Tone was dissatisfied with the treatment he had been receiving and was insisting on abrogating his contract, that I be permitted to take him over for a certain length of time. Since he's been with us, he's been used only in bits and means nothing, and I believed I would be rendering the company a great service in taking over this man, meaning nothing, and making him into a star—which I felt I could do. Louis couldn't see it—and rather than press the matter, I dropped it completely.
In this letter, Irving expresses frustration over MGM executives' "demoralized and uninspired" attitude and their readiness to produce "juvenile, immature" films instead of taking the time to focus on their talent (like Tone) and the scripts represented.

Irving expected Franchot's contract to include an availability clause that would give him first rights to Franchot and other artists he believed in. Despite his calls to MGM's legal department, Irving lost this contract dispute and other producers and studios were able to use Franchot first—further alienating Franchot from the more mature, star-making films Irving may have had in mind.

Thalberg, of course, bought and produced Mutiny on the Bounty, which would be a huge success for MGM and win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Mutiny on the Bounty turned out to be Franchot's most successful film and would earn him esteem in the film community in addition to a Best Actor nomination. Even though Irving lost control over Franchot's image and career, he does deserve credit for helping to land Franchot in this career-defining role. It provided the perfect character in which Franchot could show his unique acting skills to his advantage. (Strangely though, Franchot was not Thalberg's first choice for Byam. It was offered to Franchot after Cary Grant turned it down.) In 1947, Franchot would tell the Saturday Evening Post that he knew Mutiny on the Bounty would be an important film because Irving was "behind the wheel."

1935 should have been a pivotal career year for Franchot. He starred in three films with Oscar nominations in that year alone: Mutiny, Dangerous, and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. I'm certain that these opportunities made Franchot feel that his career was on the right path and that he'd be offered more substantial parts in the future. However, 1936—the year Irving Thalberg died—only brought more second leads for Franchot. Following his Oscar nomination, MGM placed him right back as a supporting actor in vehicles for Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant. I enjoy his '36 films, but I'm sure they are not what Franchot had in mind for himself following such success the previous year.

I can only wonder what may have become of Franchot's career had Irving Thalberg survived and gained his previous power at MGM. I only wish that Irving had fought harder for Franchot and his rights to him in 1933. Had Irving been able to have his say in the pictures Franchot starred from 1933 on, Franchot's popularity and lasting legacy today may have looked very different. I feel like Irving had a keen eye for an actor's strengths and—had he fought harder against Mayer early on and Franchot fought harder for himself—could've placed Franchot in the right films to build him up as an actor and as a more prominent star.

Franchot and Joan at Irving's funeral. Source:
  • Crowther, Bosley. Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer. Dell, 1960. p. 241.
  • "Irving G. Thalberg." TCM.
  • Tone, Franchot. “The Role I Liked Best,” Saturday Evening Post, June 7, 1947, p. 132
  • Viera, Mark. Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince. University of California Press. 2010. p. 182-183.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Candid Apology

To any faithful readers out there in the world, I apologize that this blog has not been regularly updated this summer. Due to personal/professional scheduling reasons, I did not have the time I so desperately wanted to research Mr. Tone in June and July. Now that August is around the corner, I should be able to return to my previous habit of posting at least once per week and after quite a hiatus, have already signed up to participate in a blogathon (always a fun way to discover classic film enthusiasts and their blogs) this September.

I'm currently working on a post for later this week, but wanted to go ahead and share something today. Enjoy this assortment of clipping candids and check back this weekend for a real post!

Franchot with the Stooges

Backstage on the set of The Gentle People

With Joan

Franchot and Deanna on the set of Nice Girl

Franchot dining with Virginia Bruce
Franchot with Jean Wallace

With Martha Raye

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Franchot: A Wealthy, but Sensitive Comrade

Three Comrades. Source:
Sonia Lee, in a July 1938 piece on the stars of Three Comrades for Hollywood Magazine, was impressed at how well Franchot Tone, Robert Taylor, and Robert Young created "the illusion of being products of the same world, the same thought, and the same troubled times" when they all had come from such different backgrounds and represented such different types in Hollywood. These distinct types Lee described as follows:

Franchot—the idealist, the man with the philosophical turn of mind; the cultured product of New England, whose reserve and balance has not been lessened by fame and fortune.
Robert Taylor—the Horatio Alger hero, if there ever was one. A youngster who achieved world adulation overnight, became king of a million feminine hearts, but still retained the liking and respect of the men who know him.
Robert Young—the enthusiastic lad to whom fame came slowly; who worked for what he has achieved over a period of years, who is similar in many respects to ambitious men his age in every walk of life.
If you have not yet watched Three Comrades, you must find it. I agree with Lee when she writes that Tone, Taylor, and Young play their scenes with "tenderness and integrity. They make the story unfold vividly and brilliantly. They make of friendship a tangible thing." I enjoy Franchot's films so much that I don't know that I will ever be able to definitively state which one contains his best performance. I find that I toss up Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Uncle Vanya, Mutiny on the Bounty, Man on the Eiffel Tower, The Bride Wore Red, Advise and Consent, Gentlemen are Born, The Stranger's Return, and Three Comrades as the many contenders for Franchot's best performance as an actor. Each time I watch Three Comrades, I find myself ready to announce it as THE finest performance of his career. The part of the sensitive mechanic who feels a brotherly need to take care of those around him is the perfect role to highlight Franchot's strengths as an actor. I wrote a film summary with screen captures back in 2015 which you can find here.

Franchot in a rare color portrait. Scanned from my collection.

In her examination of the film's male stars, Lee shares this personality sketch of Franchot:
By the very nature of his character, Hollywood knows Franchot least of these three. He is sensitive and intuitive. He is not one of those hale and hearty individuals who slaps a person on the back on short acquaintance, tells the story of his life, or reveals his cherished thoughts at the drop of a hat. As a matter of fact, his sole complaint about the business of being an actor is that the private affairs of a player become the property of the world at large. The one thing which made his courtship of Joan Crawford less than ideal was the minute report of its progress in the public press.
His circle of intimates is small. Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck are frequently on the guest list of those attending the charming dinners given by Mr. and Mrs. Franchot Tone, when they entertain a famous musician, a world-renowned savant, or others who have distinction outside the Hollywood world.With the exception of the reception Joan and Franchot gave for Leopold Stokowski, they have never entertained on  a large scale. That is in keeping with the graceful, gracious background of Franchot's. Son of an important figure in America's business world, his childhood was serene, his education comprehensive.
He attended private schools here and abroad. He had tutors during the time when family travels made school attendance impossible. He is a graduate of Cornell University. He has been awarded the Phi Beta Kappa key—the mark of scholastic excellence. Franchot Tone is serious and studious—with deep, untapped wells of reserve. He makes friendships slowly, but once his allegiance is given, it is lasting and loyal.
Few know him, for he is not an easy person to know well. But his brilliant mind, his deep understanding of human nature, his fine artistry as an actor have achieved for him a deep respect in Hollywood, which is unmixed by envy or resentment. His interests are wide. Books, the progress of the theatre, music, new trends in thoughts and world events, engage his attention. He takes his life and his work seriously, but not himself.
Lee's assessment of Franchot rehashes the same "wealthy son with an impressive education and cultured background" story that we read time and time again, and it's true, of course. But I love the description of his personality as being sensitive and guarded and how he accrued respect among his peers in Hollywood. These are facts about Franchot that many of his colleagues have shared about him as well. My favorite part of the article is that last sentence, "He takes his life and his work seriously, but not himself." What a perfect way to describe Franchot's attitude in 11 words! In my research, I've seen evidence of this many times. Franchot cared about his career (even if his career choices did seem inconsistent to others and at times, even to me) but seemed to remain this down-to-earth guy who never boasted about his talents—he actually comes across as quite self-deprecating in interviews—and had strong beliefs about human rights and political matters and stuck to his convictions, and who—apart from his out-of-character publicity whirlwind with Barbara Payton—maintained his private life, a life he lived and enjoyed to the fullest.

Lee, Sonia."Three Comrades—On the Screen and Off." Hollywood. July 1938.