Although Franchot and actor Morris Carnovsky were already both on contract with the guild, they were allowed to participate in the Group Theatre's intensive project to create a community of actors that tackled social justice and the world within its plays. In his book The Fervent Years, Clurman explained the group's goal:
...to go away to some country place with twenty-eight actors and rehearse two plays till they were ready for production in New York. We would pay no salaries, but we would provide meals, living quarters, laundry expense.
We had chosen our actors before we knew what play we would do. They were our actors, and they would have to suit our plays. That is what we directors were there for. Nor did we have any money to finance our ambitious plan. We only had the will to carry it out. When the Guild agreed to let us have The House of Connelly and a thousand dollars, they were our only concrete assets.
On the morning of June 8, 1931, a group of over 30 people (including actors, spouses, children, directors, friends) traveled to Connecticut to begin working. On moving in day, Franchot started a baseball game “to overcome the natural self-consciousness of the occasion.” Clurman also noticed that Stella Adler looked sadly on her fellow actors, as it looked more like a “camp for overgrown high-school kids.”
The actors rehearsed morning, noon, and night, and in between rehearsals played piano, cards, and debated. During the card games, Franchot led the others in pranking a young member of the group. They would deal him unbeatable hands until he gained confidence in betting and then deal him terrible hands. Lee and Harold observed this one night and found it “very funny, particularly since the hoax was executed with consummate sangfroid and deftness by Franchot Tone.”
Although Franchot was a respected man and actor within the group and had helped to make the group feel comfortable, there came a time when "some of the actors began to be troubled by Franchot Tone’s attitude." Clurman went on:
He was, of course, one of the original 1928 group. Since then he had had the opportunity to feel his oats. He had played leading parts on Broadway, he was in demand, and the other actors sensed in him a general resistance that at times manifested itself toward the directors and at other times toward the influences prevailing among the group. Actually he was suffering from a variety of growing-pains, but our work as such was not in question.
He was lonely. Though he had been raised in easy circumstances, and had been popular at college, he was not a good mixer. He was shy, with a tendency toward suspiciousness when ill at ease. He particularly suspected that he was not liked because, being more privileged than others, he was regarded as somewhat inferior in character. There was perhaps a mite of truth in his suspicions, but, for my part, I believed they lay chiefly in his distrust of himself. The tension that gripped him made him rude, almost insolent. He was unconsciously revenging himself on us, testing both himself and us. Thus he demonstrated little courtesy to Strasberg, although he had real admiration for him.
Franchot, intelligent and sometimes psychologically keen, said to me, 'In the old days we talked only when we didn’t work. Now we work only when we don’t talk!' I was somewhat taken aback by the remark and repeated it to Strasberg. He agreed at once: Yes, we talk a lot because we are not simply rehearsing a play; we are laying the foundation for a theatre. Our theatre is more than just a matter of getting one or two plays produced.
The actors, I repeat, watched Franchot with increasing misgivings. Why was he allowed to get away with little breaches of politeness and discipline? He rarely came to the afternoon talks. He lumbered into rehearsals, sat aloof, whittled away at the side of the barn as he rehearsed. No one reprimanded him. Was he a favored child among the directors? Was he to be treated as a star? Was Lee afraid of him? These disturbing questions were never openly put because the actors had an abiding confidence in the directors’ good sense in handling the problem—if it was a problem.Despite Franchot's turn to loneliness and rebelliousness, Clurman refers to him at this time as "the finest young actor of recent arrival." Franchot continuously contributed his own money to help fund the group's endeavors, often giving $1,000 or more for each play. With the Group, Franchot starred in 1931, House of Connelly, Night over Taos, Red Rust, and Success Story.
Beginning in 1932, Clurman noticed that the group began "turning in on itself." Actors became more confrontational and suspicious of one another's motives. The bubble started to burst. Clurman recalled the changes in Franchot at this time:
In Franchot’s case the matter was special. The girl Franchot was attached to at the time, the one who worked with us in the old Riverside Drive days, visited him one weekend. Somehow we didn’t think she was Group material. Franchot’s life with the Group would have been much easier if she had spent more time with us, but Franchot was too proud to say so, and we were too one-tracked in our thinking to notice it. The girl felt separated from Franchot by us and would have been pleased if we had asked her to remain and work with us, even as an apprentice. We disregarded her very existence, and Franchot was irritated by our tactlessness.Franchot was very emotionally attached to the Group and, in spite of or perhaps witnessed in his rebellious nature, was desperate for the Group's leaders to care about him, to show him that he was needed, that he mattered. The more I read about Franchot from those who knew him personally, the more I see that he had this dichotomy about his personality. On one hand, he was a confident, private individual who seemed to live and love easily. On the other hand, he felt a great deal of melancholy, of not fitting in, and wishing for more approval and assurance from those in his circle and the public at large. In his book, Clurman devoted a lot of time to the complicated personality of Franchot. Clurman said:
Franchot’s problem, however, was deeper than this. In Boston, when I finally got around to talking to him about his refractoriness, he asked me questions relating to my estimate of him as an actor. By my lights, how good would he become? In answering him I dwelt on his need to stick by what was strongest and most alive in himself. Tears came to his eyes. He confessed later that when I left he had actually sobbed, but he added with a sly grin: 'It didn’t do much good. The feeling didn’t last.'
Franchot loved us out of a great need, a feeling that we were good people who were bringing him just that supply of his sound work and clear faith that despite the advantages of his background, he had missed all his life. But he was very much part of the world that had provided him with these advantages, and he could not, would not, turn his back on it; it was the big world, the substantial world, in which all of us, willy-nilly, were living.
Of course, even in his attachment to the big world there was a contradiction. Franchot’s father, though associated with business, was basically a scientist; and Franchot’s mother was as much of an aristocrat as we ever get in America. Both of them were glad that Franchot preferred the Group to the ordinary commercial thatre. But the entertainment channels of the big world lie in the commercial theatre. We have no national theatre for our “best people.” We have Broadway, and Broadway has Hollywood. The cradle of opinion with theatre folk was not some Mermaid Tavern of intellectuals or artists, but the speakeasies of Fifty-second Street.
There they laughed at Franchot’s devotion to the Group. Franchot probably thought Lilyan Tashman and her crowd who came to see him in Taos lacked taste, but he did not, for all that, feel particularly comfortable at their seeing him in a flop that had been preceded by another, whose most enthusiastic audience sat in the balcony uttering strange cries of approval. Franchot was torn between the Group of tactless people, led chiefly by two exasperated hotheads who offered a way of life that was personally real and perhaps part of the mainstream of the time, and a Broadway plus Hollywood which, though he knew it to be shoddy, actually possessed the only power and glory the world could offer today.
Franchot seemed to behave more strangely during the final summer with the Group. (In all fairness, if you read Wendy Smith's book Real Life Drama, it seems a lot of the members were acting strangely during this time.) Clurman remembered:
Franchot behaved more peculiarly this summer than the last. He was remarkably fine at rehearsals of Success Story, but he was rather antisocial in other ways. He drank stiffly, and carried off some other pretty good bottlemen to drink with him almost every night after rehearsals. When he came back he sometimes took delight in driving his car over the main lawn and crashing all the garden furniture left there during the day. He grew a beard, walked about in a loincloth, went shooting fairly close to the rehearsal grounds. He shied away from most of us, alternating between a distant courtesy that implied an insult, and the manner of a cagey maniac.
With all this, Franchot was always shrewd and observant. He saw what was going on. What was going on was a subtle transformation with the Group as a whole. The very air was fermenting with something that blew from we know not where, but which roused everyone to doubts, questions, wonder, eagerness, dispute. ….
The day came when Strasberg was no longer able to tolerate the disruptive ambiguity of Franchot’s behavior. He decided to have the showdown I had recommended the year before, and both us now confronted Franchot with ultimatum written on our faces. Franchot admitted at once that he had decided to quit the Group, that he was going into pictures. I do not know whether he had already made arrangements or whether our severity at this meeting finally decided him. I am inclined to believe that some of his mischievous conduct arose from an anger with himself, and some was designed to provoke us to such a discussion as we were having. Perhaps, however, he expected a gentler approach, for people like Franchot, always want evidence that they are loved. Strasberg, hurt himself, lashed forth a white-hot 'We don’t care' when Franchot disclosed his intentions. 'I know you don’t care,' Franchot answered quietly but painfully, as if to say: 'That is exactly why I wish to go.'
That day the bad news of Franchot’s resignation was announced to the Group at a special meeting addressed by Strasberg. It was the first resignation of any importance from our organization. The actors were shocked, for they appreciated Franchot’s value. Strasberg’s talk was calculated to affirm the strength and integrity of the Group, which could ill afford to keep a member whose spirit had turned against it. When the day came for Franchot to leave, he told me he was going to try Hollywood. At Tony’s, on West Fifty-second Street, he wept over his drink. …I find it interesting that, according to Clurman, Franchot was pushed out of the Group for "disruptive ambiguity" much like he was pushed out of The Hill School as a teen for "subtle influence for disorder." And both of these punishments only led to more success for Franchot—leaving The Hill School led to success at Cornell University while leaving the Group led to success in films.
Clurman goes on to address the difficulty the Group had replacing Franchot in their plays. I think it's telling that despite his causing trouble, the other actors always appreciated Franchot's value and that Clurman was able to see that some of his rebelliousness was due to Franchot's schrewd observation of the inner shifting of the group.
Although he'd worked himself into a corner with Strasberg and Clurman, Franchot was definitely torn in leaving the Group for Hollywood and would never be able to definitely choose one over the other for the rest of his career. Actress Ruth Nelson shared in the documentary Broadway Dreamers:
I remember the night, his last Saturday night with Success Story. He came to me to say goodbye. He leaned over, kissed me, and had tears in his eyes. I said, 'Franchot, if that's the way you feel, why are you leaving?' And he said, 'Well, Ruthie, I just have to find out what it's [Hollywood] all about.'Actors Sandy Meisner and Robert Lewis went with Franchot to Grand Central Station. As they said their goodbyes, an emotional Franchot:
...stood on the steps of the famous Twentieth Century Limited club car, teary-eyed, and as the train started to pull out of the station, he called to us, 'Keep your line.'
Walking across Forty-second Street, I turned to Sandy and observed, 'Did you hear what he said? Here we are, going back to our struggling new Group while he's off to Hollywood to make a movie with Lilyan Tashman and he tells us to keep our line.'
Said Sandy, 'He meant keep it for him.'I think Clurman's belief that Franchot "expected a gentler approach, for people like Franchot, always want evidence that they are loved" is valid and that his statements about the emotional contrasts in Franchot's character echo those of Gloria Vanderbilt and Clifford Odets and Christopher Plummer.
Franchot, of course, would maintain an association with the Group Theatre, both publicly as an actor and privately as a benefactor. Much more on the post-1933 involvement with the Group coming soon!
- Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties. Knopf, 1950.
- Kramer, Joan, David Heeley, Joanne Woodward, Steve Lawson, Stella Adler, Harold Clurmaan, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg. Broadway's Dreamers: The Legacy of the Group Theatre. New York, N.Y: PDR Productions, 1994.
- Lewis, Robert. Slings and Arrows: Theater in My Life. Stein and Day, 1984.
- Smith, Wendy. Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940. Knopf, 1990.