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Franchot Tone: From Pre-Code Romance to Film Noir

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On June 13, 1934 (80 years ago), an amendment to the Motion Picture Production Code was adopted, establishing the Production Code Administration (PCA). It required all films released after July 1, 1934, to obtain a certificate of approval. The first film to receive an MPPDA seal of approval (endorsed by studio executives) was The World Moves On (1934), a historical drama directed by John Ford, starring Madeleine Carroll and Franchot Tone.

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Franchot Tone is particularly significative as an actor who would make a very interesting progression from his early roles as a debonair playboy during his stay at MGM Studios to obscure and impenetrable characters on the wrong side of the tracks. His tristfully mischievous smile and penetrating dark eyes would serve him to accentuate this metamorphosis. Although Tone’s first big screen appearance was for Paramount Pictures in The Wiser Sex (1932) opposite Claudette Colbert, MGM. saw potential in his refined image, and offered him a long- term contract. Tone’s privileged upbringing and high-profile education (Rennes University in France, President of the Dramatic Club at Cornell University, where he graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors) led him to play the aristocratic variations for which he was routinely cast in the popular romantic dramas and comedies of the 1930s. In seven of those film, he costarred with MGM Queen Joan Crawford (his first wife); he also did four movies with the Platinum Bombshell Jean Harlow. Louis B. Mayer didn’t think Tone had enough “star appeal” to be a leading man, so he frequently played supporting roles, often as the leading lady’s wealthiest suitor.

After appearing in 29 motion pictures over six years, Franchot left MGM after completing Busby Berkely’s Fast and Furious (1939), a light detective story starring Ann Sothern. His role in that film presaged his series of on-screen cynical investigators, including Stuart Bailey in I Love Trouble (1948) and Howard Malloy in Jigsaw (1949). “Even angels can get their wings clipped!” says District Attorney Howard Malloy to party girl Barbara Whitfield (Jean Wallace, Tone’s second wife in real life). Wallace’s Barbara retorts, “You got the scissors?” Tangential to his conflicted detectives, Tone would display dangerous psychopathic tendencies in Phantom Lady (1944), and The Man on the Eiffel Tower (produced by the actor’s company A&T Film in 1949). This astonishing transition into the noir “underworld” could seem almost inexplicable, but for Tone, it seemed quite natural, given the connection between pre-code films and noir, two genres that have been, at times, marginalized and even persecuted by the official censorship systems.

“I’m the intellectual type. Sometimes, my baser nature gets the better of me,” Tone’s character Tom confesses to Loretta Young’s Mary in Midnight Mary (1933). “Your hair is like a field of daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair” (Tone wooing Harlow in Bombshell, 1933). “You did a pretty good job of outgrowing a lot of things,” or “You jump at the same cheap conclusions that all cheap people do,” to Joan Crawford in Sadie McKee (1934). These are all tantalizing dialogue snippets whose style would not have survived Joseph Breen’s 1934 Code.

In Bombshell and The Girl from Missouri (both included in the Jean Harlow’s 100th Anniversary Collection), we can appreciate the subtle divergences between two outwardly similar scions, differentiated by Tone’s highly perceptive acting. While in Bombshell,  his character Gifford Middleton is a fake aristocrat (played with a straight face) hired to placate Lola’s longing to escape her oppressive career demands, in The Girl from Missouri the insolent T.R. Paige Jr. feels so disconcerted by Harlow’s refusal (“You can make me cheap and common like a million others but, gee, I wish you wouldn’t”), that we see literally Paige’s cynicism dismantled for good when Eadie (Harlow’s ‘hotsy totsy’ chorus girl) disarms Tone’s character using only her sincere tears. No doubt, the final (tender and arousing) scene when Paige forces Eadie into the bath stall never ceases to touch me, seeing how Tone’s spoiled heir transmogrifies into a devoted Romeo under the purifying shower rain. It  was really a watershed moment from his Pre-Code films, and one of his most emotive performances as romantic saviour.

Maybe the duality inherent to a stage-trained actor which Tone reckoned so well (“Actors suffer from being half narcissistic and half self-critical”) conferred upon him a complexity from which he would never shy away. Franchot Tone was one of the original members of the Group Theater (1931-1940), the first acting company to bring Stanislavski’s revolutionary “method acting” technique to America. Tone was also the first to leave Group for Hollywood, shortly followed by John Garfield. Stanislavski’s concept of “emotional memory” proved to be decisive in a number of Tone’s dialethic portrayals, which made him stand out from histrionic Hollywood performances typical of his era. One master example appears in Borzage’s Three Comrades, scripted by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which Tone’s character Otto Koster shows us his internal dialogue surreptitiously, but without leaving room for doubt about his love either for Patricia (Margaret Sullavan) or his Comrades (Robert Taylor and Robert Young). In 1957, Tone recorded a reading of Fitzgerald’s classics in The Jazz Age of F. Scott Fitzgerald: Readings by Franchot Tone – The Great Gatsby, This side Of Paradise, The Crack-up, their mythical quality heightened by his suggestive voice. That same year, Tone received acclaim for his thespian talents in the Broadway play A Moon For The Misbegotten. During this time, he was married to actress Dolores Dorn; it was his last marriage (1956-1959), and it repeated the same tumultuous pattern of his previous failed marriages.

The most lacerating of his four complicated marriages was to the maligned actress Barbara Payton (1951-1952). The romantic trio Payton-Tone-Neal made gruesome headlines when Tone suffered a cerebral concussion and facial injuries caused by a fistfight with B-actor Tom Neal. Irony is not lost on those noir stalwarts, because the most noirish film (Detour, starring Tom Neal) would pale in comparison with the real thing. Plastic surgery was needed to restore Tone’s broken nose and cheek, and Tone would divorce Payton after a string of unsavory arguments. “I was engaged to the actor with the most class in Hollywood-Franchot Tone,” remembered Barbara in her memoirs I Am Not Ashamed (1963), “my biggest moment was 1950 on St. Valentine’s Day. I went with Franchot Tone to the opera. It was heaven.”

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Franchot, like the jaded and cryptic protagonists from the gritty pulps, felt irresistibly attracted to provocative beauties. In I Love Trouble (based on Roy Huggins’s novel The Double Take), the flaxen-haired temptress (Adele Jergens) who lies on his bed amuses him to no end. However, Stuart Bailey is love struck over Janet Blair’s character, who rectifies his deductions and guides him on the right track. Franchot actually becomes Bailey by virtue of a prodigious performance, rendering the insouciant detective persona (clearly inspired by the iconic Philip Marlowe) in an enigmatically acerbic fashion. “I’d like to play it like the bored detective who knows everything before it happens,” Bailey jokes. The incisive way Franchot submerges into the laconic wisecracks and hard-boiled gestures puts him in the same league than Bogart in The Big Sleep or Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet. In fact, Huggins’ novel is very reminiscent of Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, centering around the deceitful identity of a fallen woman (in this case, Janie Joy, “luscious as a pomegranate, and twice as acid”). This is my favorite performance of Tone in the 1940s decade, superseding the old gumshoe’s cockiness by enacting an almost inert representation of masculinity, notwithstanding charged with prolonged sexual desire. Norma Shannon (Janet Blair) ponders: “You’re a highly improbable character, Mr. Bailey. Did someone just dream you up?,” while Bailey adumbrates her image inside his mind: “Her cobalt eyes had widened. Then her eyebrows raised and she took on a look of earnest sympathy. Acute cynicism. I suppose it’s an occupational disease, isn’t it?”

Franchot Tone was, paradoxically, a feminist, and “he encouraged all the women in his life,” as Lisa Burks (who is planning a biography on Tone) affirms. In Uncle Vanya (1958) “Mr. Tone contributes a thoughtful, sensitive and wholly striking portrayal. Although he knows it is the fate of intelligent men to be called ‘odd,’ he is lucid and straight about his approach to truth,” The New York Times praised, “a subdued but shining performance that registers just as clearly as Chekhov’s words.” Tone continued performing throughout the 1950s, combining his Hollywood career with his devotion for Broadway theatre.

Tone pushed the limits and constraints of Hollywood, portraying an entire spectrum of psychologically inescapable reactions, opposite to the good guy/bad guy dichotomy prevalent in the Golden Age. Mysterious, suave and mentally keen, Franchot Tone managed to create conflicted heroes and charming villains empathising with their inevitable flaws, unafraid of the benighted human condition through which those diverse (yet akin) portrayals present themselves. The means whereby the actor approached these characters was beyond any acting system or method, he just relied on his personal journey; as he’d say, “through this jungle of illusion each and every one of us are living in.”

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About Kendrac

I'm a Catalonian freelance writer, poetress and film critic. My favourite genre is Noir. My real name is Elena Gonzalvo.