Every year when fall comes around, I always ask where did the year go? For me, this year is a little different. It’s been a whirlwind! I moved and started a brand new job three months ago and I’ve had a hard time catching up ever since. Sorry blog readers! (All two of you! :P) But I have had a productive summer in another arena, I watched A LOT of Franchot Tone movies.
This summer was meant to be the “Summer of Bette and Joan.” I was intrigued to watch more of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s films after the You Must Remember This series on Crawford and the public’s newfound fascination with Davis and Crawford thanks to the FX miniseries Feud. I only caught half of the episodes of Feud but unfortunately, didn’t get to finish it. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t good either. I just didn’t find it gripping and felt it was more caricature than introspective study on these women and the double standards of Hollywood. A friend of mine lent me a copy of the book The Divine Feud which is one of the source materials for the miniseries and one thing struck me was learning that Franchot Tone may have been the catalyst for one of the most iconic rivalries in cinema history. Franchot Tone. This guy:
It makes sense! Look at that classy gentleman! Legend has it that Davis fell in love with Tone on the set of Dangerous but he was engaged to Crawford at the time setting off this most famous feud. Of Tone, Davis wrote in her autobiography, “I fell in love with Franchot, professionally and privately, everything about him reflected his elegance, from his name to his manners.” When it comes to Davis’ lovers, Tone is way more dashing than that dog Gary Merrill. Crawford and Tone were only married for 4 years but if you do a Google image search, JoanTone was one of Classic Hollywood’s most glamorous couples. They apparently became better friends after the divorce and Crawford took care of Tone during the final months of his life. It’s quite a sweet story in the end despite their differences.
Tone was actually a discovery for me earlier this year when Clark Gable was Star of the Month on Turner Classic Movies. I saw him in Dancing Lady and was smitten with his sophisticated charm. I actually didn’t put two and two together that he portrayed Archie Taylor, the wealthy man who bets another man to keep quiet for a year for $500,00, in a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone. I binge-watched the entire Twilight Zone series in January so it was only a matter of time that I would fall into a rabbit hole of Franchot Tone.
Tone is an interesting actor whose name isn’t as recognized as it should be in the canon of Classic Hollywood. His wealthy background served him well in his roles as he was often cast as the rich guy who wooed women. During this great binge-watch, I noticed a pattern in his films: he turns up the charm to our heroine, she resists him because she can’t be bought, and in the end he either does a caddish thing and gets rejected or is a wealthy man with heart of gold who proves himself and gets the girl. This was true in many of his MGM films but these were rather limiting of his talents. I’m so glad I didn’t write Mr. Tone off because I discovered this man possessed a wide range that didn’t get the opportunities it should have. Tone was a trained theater actor who was part of an elite, groundbreaking group of performers in his home state of New York before coming to Hollywood.
Here’s the list of films I watched:
Today We Live Bombshell
Mutiny on The Bounty The Unguarded Hour
Advise and Consent The King Steps Out
Uncle Vayna Between Two Women
Exclusive Story The Girl Downstairs
Gentlemen are Born The Wife Takes a Flyer
The Girl From Missouri Pilot #5
The Bride Wore Red Quality Street
Fast and Furious Love on the Run
But wait! There’s more! The great Franchot Tone binge-watch didn’t end with 22 films. I even watched a tv movie he did where he starred as Natalie Wood’s father, Too Old for Dolls, and his Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode that pairs him with Mary Astor. It was a lot of Tone. It helped that Tone was one of the stars honored during Summer Under the Stars so I had access to many of the film mentioned above but then I found other films of his during other Summer Under the Stars days, Warner Archive and two Tone films aired last week on TCM.
It was great to have so many resources at my disposal but I almost wish I didn’t watch them all so quickly because now, I don’t have that many left! Towards the end it felt more like a weird obsession where perfect Franchot Tone was following me and appearing in my thoughts! Actually, why am I complaining? He’s wonderful.
Tone has a very different look compared to his contemporaries. He does look like a member of NY’s elite and it’s striking compared to the Clark Gable’s and Robert Young’s of his era. I just wish his characters had more meat on them like William Powell’s. He got to shine and was recognized by the Academy with an Oscar nomination as the idealistic Ensign Byam in Mutiny On the Bounty where he got a meatier role to showcase a character’s moral struggle. At the time of this Oscar ceremony, Best Supporting Actor wasn’t a category yet and some historians credit Tone as being a catalyst for it saying he would have won if the Best Actor field hadn’t been crowded with his Bounty co-stars Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. Even if he didn’t get the biggest parts in his pictures, I will say this, for every “lousy” character Tone played, he made the most of them and brought a natural quality that made him stand out. When you go away from the rich playboy roles and into roles like the poor mailman in The Bride Wore Red, a doctor in Between Two Women, and a devoted member of the military in Pilot #5, he’s able to unfold a lot more layers to these men even if the material he was given didn’t show it on the page. In the comedies Fast and Furious, Honeymoon, and The Girl Downstairs, Tone is able to let loose and a lot of that comes through in his face. He makes so many great faces in comedies that fuses through in his body language, I think he would have done well in a screwball.
In his later years, hard drinking and an infamous, near fatal fist fight hardened his looks but he was able to use that in his performances. One of my favorites is as the aging president in Advise and Consent. On his Summer Under the Stars day, TCM aired the rarely seen adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Here, all that theater training shines through in a production that was a labor of love for Tone who not only acted in it but co-produced and co-directed. The film has the pace of a play with a lot of dialogue that feels slow moving at times but it’s one you have to stick with because it feels as close to seeing Tone on the stage and the results are worth it.
If you look at Tone’s body of work in the 30’s, he worked with every great leading actress in the era from Davis, Crawford, Jean Harlow, Myrna Low, Loretta Young, Rosalind Russell, Maureen O’Sullivan and Ann Sothern. Of all his collaborations, I love his films with Jean Harlow best. He made four with her: Bombshell, Reckless, The Girl from Missouri and Suzy. The two were gorgeous together, had excellent chemistry and matched wits. Whereas in some of the films of JoanTone, Crawford’s characters steamroll over him because of the way they were written which was the case for many of her films. But in the JoanTone films, it’s sweet to see their offscreen love come through. I’d even say the same for Dangerous. There are scenes in that where you can sense Davis was smitten with her costar especially in this scene where they’re playing cards.
As the summer of Tone comes to an end, I’m hoping to visit his roles in Phantom Lady and Five Graves to Cairo, and if you have any suggestions on films I should watch or revisit, let me know in the comments. Tone has a body of work with a wide range of characters and films. His television work is also great and it’s impressive that he was still a working actor in some fashion up until the decline of his health. Not that many stars were primed to survive the 30s era or even television so the fact that Tone was able to take chances and get a new life as a character actor speaks to his talent. While it rouses our interest to read the salacious stories, Tone should be remembered for his work but the fact that two of the most gorgeous and powerful women ever in Hollywood fell for his charms tells us Tone definitely had a lot going for him.