Saturday, September 23, 2017

Jean Dalrymple on Franchot and The Country Girl

In the fall of 1966, Jean Dalrymple had secured Franchot and Jennifer Jones as the leads in an upcoming production of The Country Girl. In addition to The Country Girl, Jean had also planned The Rose Tattoo (starring Maureen Stapleton) and Elizabeth the Queen for the fall season for City Center. Jean recalled:
To have it all go as planned was too much to expect. Just the week before rehearsals for The Country Girl were to start, Franchot went into the hospital for a routine checkup. A day later his doctor called me with tragic news. Franchot would be in the hospital for several weeks. A tumor had been discovered in one of his lungs.
My first impulse was to cancel the play, but Jennifer Jones had already come on from California and Lee Strasberg, although as shaken by the terrible news as I was, said he would personally find a replacement. Then Franchot himself called me from the hospital and said in a voice choked with emotion and tinged with his usual irony, "The show must go on, you know."
Although Franchot sadly missed out on The Country Girl (wouldn't he have been absolutely fantastic in that role?), he would soldier through the treatments and pain, never giving up on his professional projects. Between 1966 and his death in 1968, Franchot continued to appear in television and also did a play and a movie.

Dalrymple, Jean. From the Last Row. New York: JT White, 1975.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Jean Dalrymple on Franchot and The Time of Your Life

Recently, I wrote about the Theatre Four, which was the theater Franchot and Jean Dalrymple purchased together in 1967. In her memoir of her time spent at the New York City Center, producer Jean Dalrymple talks a lot about Franchot's involvement there from the 1940's to his death in 1968. I learned about several plays Franchot really desired to do, but the productions fell through for one reason or another.

For example, Franchot wanted to do the play Arms and the Man, the George Bernard Shaw comedy that deals with war's futility. That plan disintegrated, because Shaw refused to cut his 15 percent royalty, a cost that the sometimes financially-struggling City Center could not afford.

Franchot Tone and Jose Iturbi kiss Jean Dalrymple.
Another play that Franchot had his heart set on was Mister Roberts. Dalrymple was enthusiastic about Franchot's abilities and benefited from his participation at City Center. First of all, Franchot was considered a big name and would draw an audience. Secondly, Franchot was a dependable and capable actor that she admired but often struggled to find the perfect part for. Third, Franchot and Jean were very good friends and had been since Franchot starred in Dalrymple's Broadway production of Hope for the Best in 1945. Mister Roberts' original producer Leland Hayward approved the Mister Roberts project, provided the set pieces, and the promotional mailers were set to go.

When the announcement appeared in papers, Josh Logan, angry, called and forbid the play to go on. Logan was directing the film version which would be premiering around the same time as Franchot's performance in the play and felt the play's revival would damage the returns on the film. The film would go on to be nominated for Academy Awards (Jack Lemmon won one for his performance) and grossed 8 million, so I don't feel his reasons were justified. There's no way, in my mind, a City Center theater performance would be a spoiler for a big budget film starring Cagney, Powell, Lemmon, and Fonda. Logan wouldn't budge. He refused to approve and said Hayward had no right to give his approval. Dalrymple understood and needed to maintain a good relationship with Logan (he often directed plays for her), so she had to break the news to Franchot: was I to break the news to Franchot, who already was busy studying the part? He was the first one I ran to and after his first outburst of anger and disappointment,  good friend that he was, Franchot agreed to do some other play—if I could come up with one he liked.
Franchot Tone and friend Jean Dalrymple on the Maid of the Mist,
in Franchot's hometown Niagara Falls.
Dalrymple relates that she pored over play anthology over play anthology in her personal library, but couldn't find a project that she felt was suitable for Franchot. In the middle of the night, an exhausted and discouraged Dalrymple threw a book down onto her bed and it opened to a page and the lines jumped out at her:
Joe: Out of the twenty-four hours at least twenty-three and a half—my God, I don't know why—are dull, dead, boring, empty and murderous.
It was a middle of the night hallucination, but I heard Franchot say those words. Whoever Joe was, it had to be a part for Franchot.  It was Joe in Saroyan's the Time of Your that moment I knew it was for him and could hardly wait for morning to come, Franchot to wake up, and the good news to reach him.
I was right. No sooner had I said to him,"How would you like to play a man sitting in a bar, drinking champagne, philosophizing and trying to set other people's lives to rights?" than he exclaimed, "Joe! The Time of Your Life! Wonderful! I'd love to do it!"
I enjoyed this backstory of how The Time of Your Life came to be and I'm glad that it turned out to be such a perfect fit for Franchot. It was a great success and over the next week, I will be writing in more detail about its production, both on the stage and on television. There's another, sadder story that Jean tells of her time with Franchot that I'll also share in short time.

In the meantime, you can learn more about Jean Dalrymple by reading her obituary here or brush up on your knowledge of City Center here and here.

Dalrymple, Jean. From the Last Row. New York: JT White, 1975.
City Center's All-Star Winter Play Festival theater program. 1955.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Reflecting on Franchot this September

Franchot in the 1930's. Source: my collection.

September 18th marks the 49th anniversary of Franchot's passing from lung cancer. Though our lifetimes didn't coincide, Franchot, for a handful of years now, has been a major part of mine.

This summer as part of a reading challenge, I read seven film-related biographies—on Dolores del Rio, Lupe Velez, Judy Holliday, Mary Martin, Glenn Ford, Dana Andrews, and Lew Ayres. I enjoyed them all and I found I admired all of the subjects for one aspect or another. The books inspired me to watch more of these actors' works and truly appreciate them in a new light. Recently, I was having a conversation about my readings and pondered the reasons why, despite the accomplishments and intriguing lives of other stars, they do not grab me the way Franchot has. Even if a full biographical book on Franchot was published by someone and I read it, I feel like my hunger for researching him would remain unquenched. I never hit that point of believing my examination of Franchot is complete. I've been actively researching for several years now and I have so many unanswered questions and gaps in his timeline. But I love the hunt! There's no better feeling in this world than to stumble across the one photo or interview you never expected to uncover.

But it's not just the thrill of research that keeps me tethered to Franchot—it's the man himself, of course. I remain fascinated by his life and his work. Like many film fans, I've had phases of intense devotion throughout my life. There was my childhood and pre-teen fascination with Shirley Temple and Doris Day which transformed into a teenage obsession with what I'd term the "Hollywood Big Hitters": Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, and Natalie Wood. My college years were spent delving into books on Greta Garbo and Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth. As an adult, the people who've interested me the most are Franchot, Loretta Young, Sylvia Sidney and Warren William. So yes, I've traveled through the experience of researching one star or another, but other than Natalie Wood and Loretta Young—who have remained and I feel always will remain lifelong fixations for me—Franchot is the star that I cannot escape (don't worry, it's a prison of total happiness!) And I've come to the conclusion that there are several reasons as to why:

Screen Quality

In my opinion, he possessed a different screen quality than other male actors of that time. His performances speak to me in a distinctive way that those of his contemporaries fail to do. There's a gentle and steadfast quality in his performances and unmatched sincerity in his delivery of his characters. I believe in every single character he played and find them compelling. This is especially true in films like Gentlemen Are Born, The Bride Wore Red, and Three Comrades. I've never personally identified with the performances of another male actor of that generation until Franchot came into my life.

Polarity in Career Choices

The polarity in his career choices can be astounding. Franchot expressed that he felt most at home on the New York stage and received more critical acclaim and professional respect in that area. In interviews, he said he liked being a working character actor and that he wished to do realistic, gritty plays. Franchot was never quite comfortable with the publicity angle of Hollywood and was rather private. In spite of all this, Franchot left the Group Theatre in order to pursue a very public Hollywood career. In the early interviews, Franchot continued to say he would return to the stage and would form no lasting ties in Hollywood. But the truth is, Hollywood always had his heart. The movie star lifestyle reeled him back to films time and time again, even the lower budget and lower publicized ones.

His Personality
There's a kindness and tenderness in Franchot as a person. You can hear it in the words of his well-articulated interviews and in the reflective memories of those who knew him. Those who knew him seemed to like him and respect him. They enjoyed working with him and commented on how modest Franchot was about his own talent—and they talked of what a natural talent he had. Despite growing up in a successful, wealthy family, Franchot identified with the everyman. He supported causes that protected the people who did not have the fortune or status to protect themselves.

He's a Survivor

Although he was a quiet, private man who enjoyed classical music, reading, and would rather be fishing and hunting in the Canadian woods than anywhere else, a nightlife of beautiful (sometimes notorious) women, scotch, and dancing was also a major pastime in Franchot's life. He's an interesting case to me, because he was an intricate human being with conflicting needs and wants. He didn't want publicity, but he engaged in one of the most highly publicized relationships (i.e. trainwreck) in Hollywood with Barbara Payton.  He could be incredibly self-destructive both personally (with his romantic liasons and heavy drinking) and professionally (accepting roles in B-movies that further typecast him instead of demanding important roles in substantial films.) Yet, he was a survivor. Despite being blacklisted and sometimes ridiculed and often misunderstood, Franchot kept working. He maintained his dignity and elegance through everything. He worked up until his death and he left an abundance of amazingly well-done performances for future generations. And it's his perseverance that, I think, keeps me permanently attached. I admire Franchot for not letting any disappointments tear him down.  There were bumps in the road, but he continued to dedicate himself to his craft. In interviews he did in the 1960's, you never get the sense that Franchot has lost touch. He constantly says that he is so excited for the opportunities he has and that he's continuously working on his performances. Franchot comes across as thrilled to be a character actor on television. I like that. Despite wealth and fame, Franchot never adopted a superiority complex, never threw power in other's faces, and never felt like he was too good to learn and to improve.

He Wouldn't Mind It?

True, Franchot wasn't crazy about publicity and he was modest about himself. But I feel like he would appreciate my dedication. And I sense that older Franchot was more open to publicity than younger Franchot. In a 1966 interview with Janet Roach, Franchot was delighted to talk and said:
I could talk for hours about the tricks, but nobody asks me.
The first time I read that statement, it made me feel incredibly sad and it's stayed with me. More people should've interviewed him, should've asked him to share his thoughts in those later years. He seemed willing and ready to share his tricks of the trade and I regret that no one thought to pursue him on the record. I am happy that this blog does belatedly attempt to finally get Franchot on the record. I am by no means trying to assert that I am the biggest and best Franchot devotee out there, because I've met some wonderful people who share this common interest. But I do enjoy what I'm doing with this blog and how much I've learned about this dynamic man in the process. I like to think Franchot would get a kick out of it.

Franchot in the 1960's. Source: my collection.

In concluding all the reasons why Franchot has captured me, I'd like to share again how actor Christopher Plummer characterized him. It's the description that fits the Franchot I've encountered and includes all of those anomalies in his being that make him such an interesting study:
Franchot had a weakness for the movies and a penchant for domineering, glamorous women...He seemed to search for this kind of self-destructive alliance, and alliance that could not but help inflict certain pain. Indeed, Franchot Tone was a handsome, sensitive, highly educated and tremendously talented gentleman who was, nevertheless, motivated and driven by pain. His hard living had somewhat diminished his former brilliance, but every so often his work showed strong evidence of great depth and nobility of spirit...His sense of humor, as one might guess, was seeringly self-deprecating, drawn as always from this inexplicable inner torment. These vulnerable qualities were to make his Chekovian performances (Uncle Vanya and A Moon for the Misbegotten), both of which I later saw, so memorable—a rare combination of lightness and poignancy...we shared an unspoken bond.  
We were both romantics—incurable to the last—and our separate upbringings shared the same confusion of identity. He may have seen in me, occasionally, his younger self. I'm not sure and I wouldn't wish it on him; but I saw in him someone I could perhaps aspire to; not the hidden sad, pained man that was part of Franchot but the part he couldn't conceal, no matter how hard he tried, the part that was refined, noble and infinitely kind—the man of golden promise.
I never lived when he lived, but a day doesn't go by that I'm not "Franchot-ing" whether it's reading about him or watching him. There's an eternal bittersweet feeling that lingers around him. Some dreams were unrealized, but the body of work he left behind is superb. I miss him.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

One New York Night (1935)

One New York Night is a 1935 mystery-comedy directed by Jack Conway and starring Franchot Tone, Una Merkel, Conrad Nagel, Harvey Stephens, Steffi Duna, and Henry Kolker. The film's tagline was "Fun - Romance - Mystery - It's all of these rolled into one merrily exciting entertainment!"

We are introduced to several characters in the lobby of the Hotel Diplomat and a man named Mr. Carlisle appears to be involved with everyone. A couple approaches Mr. Carlisle demanding that he right the wrong he has done them. It appears that Carlisle has backed out of a stock deal and hurt the finances of a former partner. A well-dressed man named Kent works for Carlisle and agrees to meet him in room 309 later that evening. A gorgeous countess is also there to meet with Carlisle, but is desperate that her fiancée not find out. A man wanders around the lobby with his invisible dog looking for his invisible plane. Two men watch the comings and goings of the Hotel Diplomat until they notice the "tip off" that indicates a deal is on. All the while, Phoebe (Una Merkel) witnesses everything while running a very busy hotel switchboard.

Amidst this Grand Hotel-esque bustle, Foxhall Ridgeway (Franchot Tone) arrives. Old Foxy is a Wyoming rancher there for a "room with lots of windows and a shower." When asked his business, Foxhall answers "women." Foxhall is frustrated when Phoebe bumps into him and then blames him for it. Soon though, the rancher and the switchboard operator become fast friends. Foxy tells Phoebe that he came to the hotel in a "very friendly spirit" and that he was there in New York to "corral a girl." In addition to the countess whom he briefly spies in the lobby, Foxy has three good wifely prospects written down in a notepad and asks Phoebe to get them on the phone. Excited, Foxy remarks, "I've been in New York twenty minutes, here I am going right into action. Pretty good, I say!"

Prospect 1 is married. Prospect 2 is expecting a baby. Prospect 3 has disconnected her phone.

Phoebe can nearly hide her contentment. Foxy is oblivious to her attraction to him, because to him, blondes are just "alright," not "dynamic" like brunettes. With a slow cowboy drawl and large eyes that express his incredulity at the chaos of the big city, Franchot plays Foxy perfectly. It's a role that, had it been made in the late 30's, could've ended up a Jimmy Stewart vehicle. But I'm so glad it's Franchot's. He blends the naïve cowboy persona with that of a man who, when faced with a murder in an adjoining room, takes charge of the situation. And that's exactly what happens. Mr. Carlisle's body is discovered and then mysteriously vanishes. When he tries to alert others, Foxhall is either ignored or threatened with silence. His only sidekick in the investigation is Phoebe, who abandons her seat at the switchboard to help Foxy track down the murderer.

Although he is quick in action, old Foxy still can't believe he's gotten mixed up in this mess. In that slow, warm drawl, Foxy protests, "I didn't come to New York to look for bodies and bracelets! I came here to find a girl. And I haven't even had my supper yet." Of course, viewers can see that Foxy is unknowingly telling this to the perfect girl for him, Phoebe. Eager to return to his ranch, he proudly boasts, "Say if all my cows were lined up nose to tail, they'd reach all the way from Columbus Circle to Albany."

Both Franchot and Una's characters are tremendously endearing and you find yourself rooting for them to find the killer and for Foxy to realize that Phoebe is the girl for him. The film is short (just 71 minutes) and there's a chance you'll figure out the murderer before Foxhall, but it is a truly enjoyable little whodunit—more for the fun teaming of Una and Franchot than anything.

One New York Night is not yet available on DVD, but it does play on TCM from time to time and has occasionally popped up on Youtube.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Beyond Desire and a Theater of His Own

Beyond Desire cast. Source: Theatre Arts Monthly/scan from my collection.

Beyond Desire opened at Theatre Four in New York City on October 10, 1967. Unfortunately, the play was not a hit and closed just five days later on October 15th. The play, written by Constance Loux and based on Pierre La Mure's novel, was produced and directed by Franchot's friend and frequent collaborator Jean Dalrymple. The cast included Franchot Tone, Betsy von Furstenberg, Richard Sterne, Jay Barney, Mary Bell, Norman Budd, Jo Flores Chase, Richard Kuss, Andrew Plamondon, Jane Marla Robbins, John Scanlan, Ethel Smith, Ben Yaffee, and Jay Velie.

Seemingly plagued with issues from the start, Beyond Desire's opening date had been postponed and it ran for only seven previews and eight performances before closing. The New York Times reported that Franchot would be both narrating and performing a separate role in the play, but from all accounts, it appears that Franchot, with star billing, only performed as the play's on-stage narrator. (I wonder if this was just the part as intended, if Franchot wanted to lend his name to this production, or if his sitting to the side as narrator had something to do with his cancer diagnosis.)

The play was based on the life of composer Felix Mendelssohn. Dan Sullivan, for the New York Times, reviewed the play this way:
"Beyond Desire" might well be titled "Beyond Recognition."...romantic slush, and worse than that, stale romantic slush...the play is a collection of Lines You Thought You'd Heard the Last Of, lines you thought they'd never dare use again.
Regarding Franchot, Sullivan remarked:
Franchot Tone has star billing, but only sits to one side of the stage, trying to tie together the 50 or so scenes with some kind of coherent narration.

The negative reviews and swift run of the play surely were a disappointment to Franchot and director Jean Dalrymple, since Beyond Desire was the first play they chose to produce at Theatre Four. You see Theatre Four had just recently been acquired by Ms. Dalrymple and Franchot, longtime friends and colleagues.

Just two months prior to Beyond Desire's opening, Jean and Franchot partnered to purchase the theater for a price between $200,000-500,000 (that's a minimum of 1 million plus today.) Theatre Four had first been a church, before David Ross transformed the property to include a theater in the 60's. Jean and Franchot planned to produce plays and musicals in their new theater.

Owning a theater had been a lifelong dream for Franchot and this must have been a happy career milestone for him. Dolores Dorn, Franchot's costar in Uncle Vanya and fourth wife, talked about this aspiration in her memoir (my original post on that is here.) On their very first date at a French restaurant in 1956, Franchot confided in Dolores that his dream was to eventually own his own theater. Franchot told her that his vision for his theater was to be a home for plays with real issues and that he was influenced by his time with the original Group Theatre in the early 30's.

Sadly, Franchot would die of lung cancer just a little over a year after acquiring the theater. I have not been able to track down what became of the theater immediately following his death, but I'll assume that it remained in Jean Dalrymple's possession for the time being. At some point, it became known as the Julia Miles Theatre and known as the home to the Women's Project and Productions. Citidex describes the theater as a "small space with under 200 seats is located just north of Manhattan's Theatre District."

Another blow discovered in my search: It looks like Franchot's theater at 424 West 55th has since been demolished to make room for an affordable housing building.  In a 2014 article for Curbed New York, Zoe Rosenberg reported that the lot was formerly the site of a "three-story church with a 3,000 square foot theater" which sold for over 8 million in 2013.

Although the first play "Beyond Desire" wasn't well-received, I can only imagine what might have been had Franchot not passed away at the age of 63 just a year later. I can picture a future Franchot, in his late 60's through his 80's even, stepping into the role of respected director and producer of hard-hitting plays presented in the theater he co-owned with Dalrymple. I envision an aged Tone mentoring young actors and possibly teaching his own acting classes there.

I've been reading Dalrymple's memoirs which are focused solely on her work with City Center and, because of this focus, do not mention Theatre Four. However, there are some nice passages about Franchot at City Center that I'll share soon.

Sources: "'Beyond Desire Closes.'"The New York Times. October 16, 1967. pg. 56.
"Franchot Tone in Dual Role." The New York Times. August 29, 1967. pg. 26.
"Jean Dalrymple Buys a Theater: Franchot Tone is Partner in Off-Broadway Venture." The New York Times. August 3, 1967.
Lortel Archives:
Sullivan, Dan. "Theater: Mendelssohn in a Flat Key." The New York Times. October 11, 1967. pg. 36.
Lasson, Robert and David Eynon. "The Poll's the Thing." The New York Times. October 8, 1967. pg. X1.
Rosenberg, Zoe. "Small Structure to Replace Church on West 55th Street." Curbed New York.
"Theatre Four."
"Two Plays Set New Dates." The New York Times. September 25, 1967. pg. 55.