Monday, October 25, 2010

Franchot Tone (1905-1968)

The American born actor found his passion for the stage while attending Cornell University. His career path was to be pre-determined by working for his families business, an electro-chemical company. Born to an affluent family in upstate New York he attended private schools and traveled extensively before settling down to college at Cornell. But it was his joining the drama club that his career made a detour and his passion for the stage began.

Google image

After graduation Franchot joined a stock company in Buffalo making only $15 a week during the mid 1920's. After studying the stage and dedicating himself to his craft he made his Broadway debut in The Age of Innocence 1929.  He gained leading roles in the plays Green Grow The Lilacs which was later turned in to the musical "Oklahoma" and in Big Night. But it was his performance in Success Story in 1931 that got him noticed by Hollywood producers. He was offered a contract by MGM and moved to Hollywood at the end of 1932.

His first screen appearance was in "The Wiser Sex" 1932 opposite Claudette Colbert. Then in "Today We Live" 1933 co-starring MGM star Joan Crawford. (She was recently divorced from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and I will do a post on Joan later. I'm still trying to steady my nerves in order to tackle it). Romance blossomed between the two so MGM took advantage of their on screen chemistry, pairing them in several films together during the 1930's. Franchot was loaned out to Warner Bro's in 1935 to star opposite Bette Davis in "Dangerous".  Bette fell for her leading man but was stone walled. Franchot was already engaged to her rival Joan Crawford.  (I would love to have heard some of that conversation between Bette and whoever crossed her path upon finding out). Bette was envious and ashamed of her actions and sources say this is what caused the venomous rivalry and long standing feud between the two actresses that lasted the rest of their lives.

with Joan Crawford

Joan and Franchot we're married in 1935 but their chemistry was short lived. Franchot with his blue-blood upbringing (His father was a prominent doctor and his mother with her place in New York society) did not mesh well with the uneducated Joan, and her simple Oklahoma roots. Although theres no doubt this caused issues at home rumors swirled that it was Franchot's steady career while Joan's star power and top billing continued that caused jealousy and resentment. Whenever Franchot was mentioned in the press he was referred to as "Mr. Joan Crawford". I'm sure taking second billing to the phenomenon that is Joan Crawford couldn't be easy for anyone.  

with Joan during happier times.

Franchot received great reviews for his roles in "The Lives of Bengal Lancer" and playing Ensign Byam in "Mutiny on  the Bounty" in 1935. He was nominated for Best Actor along side his co-stars Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. Out of embarrassment the Academy introduced the Best Supporting Actor category the following year. Franchot turned out a few more films throughout the 1930's but wanting a break from film and missing the stage he returned to Broadway in 1940 starring in Ernest Hemingway's The Fifth Column. He had divorced Joan in 1939 but was called back to Hollywood at the end of 1940 by MGM where he was still under contract.  Tone churned out a few more movies during the 1940's often loaning himself out to other studios to get back at MGM for not letting him out of his contract. He married actress and co-star Jean Wallace in 1941 and they had two sons together. They divorced in 1948.

with Joan in a publicity still for MGM

In 1951 a scandal over shadowed Franchot's acting and ruined the careers of actors Tom Neal and Barbara Peyton who Tone later married. Tone got involved with actress turned prostitute Barbara Peyton against the advice of his friends and even ex-wife Joan Crawford. It was known throughout Hollywood that Barbara slept with all of her leading men, did heroin and was known for her promiscuity over her acting. Franchot suspected Barbara was cheating on him with several men so he hired a private investigator to have her followed. Tipped off that she was meeting with actor Tom Neal for a rendezvous Franchot busted in on the couple during the act announcing that Neal was sleeping with the woman he was engaged to. All hell broke lose and ended with Tone and Neal duking it out on the front lawn. It wasn't a fair fight with Neal having a background in boxing and Tone found himself with a broken cheek bone and a broken nose that required plastic surgery and a week long hospital stay. Hollywood sided with Tone and Neal and Peyton's careers we're finished. Oddly Franchot forgave Barbara and married her anyway. But the marriage was short lived and Barbara went on to a life of prostitution with her drug abuse escalating. She died a few years later flat broke of a heart attack at the age of 36.

newspaper headline from the Los Angeles Herald Express in 1951

Franchot continued acting throughout the 1950's and found a way to juggle his Hollywood career with his love for Broadway. He received critical reviews in the Broadway play A Moon For The Misbegotten in 1957.  It was during this time that he fell in love with stage actress Dolores Dorn, they we're married in 1956 and the union lasted until 1959. Tone went on to appear in bit parts in several TV shows and a memorable guest spot on The Twilight Zone in 1959.  Franchot died from lung cancer in 1968. At the time of his death he was preparing to star in and direct a film about the life of artist  Auguste Renoir. He was cremated and his ashes we're scattered by loved ones. During his career he starred in close to 40 films over 20 plays and appeared in over 10 television shows.

Interesting Franchot Tone facts:

He is related to Theobald Wolfe Tone, a famous Irish patriot.

He graduated from Cornell University with Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1927 and Rennes University in France.

He quoted about ex-wife Joan Crawford "She's like that old Philadelphia story, First prize 4 years with Joan, Second prize 8 years with her". (First prize should have been a lifetime without her but who am I to judge)

His father Dr. Jerome Tone, a pioneer in the electro-chemistry field was the President of the Carborundum Company of America. 

He divorced his wife Barbara Payton after obtaining incriminating photos of her proving she was still carrying on an affair with actor Tom Neal. 

*Unless stated otherwise all publicity stills, photos, postcards and autographs are from my personal collection.

Until next time find yourself an old classic film and take a couple of hours for yourself,


  1. I have no doubt that Joan was always a handful, but in fairness, it should be stated that it was she who tended to Franchot in his final year. It is well documented that he stayed in her New York apartment during his last months.

  2. It was also Joan who arranged and paid for Franchot's funeral.

  3. Yes, unbelievable as it may seem, after the MOMMIE DEAREST run, Joan came through with some genuine humanity. One writer tells of a guest in Joan's apartment who stopped by for a brief visit. The guest saw a bony, sad figure crouched in a chair in a corner, and asked who it was. Joan didn't want him embarrassed, and shooed the guest out the door, saying only, "Oh--it's Franchot." As noted above, she gave him a home until his death.