Franchot Tone and the Golden Age of Cornell Theater (Unpublished 1990)

The production was remarkably done, the high standard set by other offerings was equaled, if not surpassed, and many new leaves were added to the actors’ laurel crowns.
Robert T. Henkle ’27 of New London, Connecticut as Bottom carried along the laughter of the audience–Franchot Tone ’27 of Niagra Falls as Oberon, Herbet Crony ’28 of Brooklyn as Demetrius and Ulric Moore ’28 of Montvale, New Jersey vied for honors as the three other leading men–

–Cornell Drama Club review of A Midsummer Night’s
Dream
in Cornell Alumni News, April 28, 1928

“My God! Could he act!”

That’s the way Ralph Seward ’27 remembered Franchot Tone ’27. Seward ought to know: Seward understudied Tone in the role of Buntschili in George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” the first production the talented thespian appeared in, in the long ago and faraway spring of 1924.

That opinion is seconded by Tone’s other extant comrades-in-greasepaint from the Twenties–the so-called golden age of theater at Cornell, of which Tone was the most storied product. And so it is too by the still bedazzled theater and cinema-goers who remember the debonair Cornellian from his dazzling performances in such Broadway hits of the 1930s as “Success Story” and “The Fifth Column,” as well as his roles in the films “Mutiny on the Bounty”–for which Tone received a 1935 Oscar nomination for Best Actor–and “Three Comrades,” and from the days when the tall, dashing actor was touted as the heir to John Barrymore.

Unfortunately, Tone would up following the Barrymore’s lead in more ways than one. Somewhere between his stormy first marriage to superstar Joan Crawford, and his even stormier second one to starlet Jean Wallach–or was it between his second to Wallace and his third to starlet Barbara Payton?–his work began interfering with his drinking, as they used to say. Thus the story of Franchot Tone is at once a triumph and the tragedy.

But how his star once shone–especially where it all began, on the stage of the Little Theater (as it used to be known) at Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall!

***
Ironically, like so many of those who wound up making their mark at Cornell, Tone, arguably the most talented thespian to come out of Cornell nearly didn’t come to Ithaca at all. His father, Frank Tone ’95, a prominent Buffalo industrialist and millionaire who was president of the Carborundum Company, had already sent one son, Jerry, up the Hill, while Franchot was prepping and horsing around at the Hill School in Pennsylvania. Originally, Tone senior had wanted Franchot to go to Harvard. However, after his rambunctious second son, who was also known by his childhood name of “Pamp” (which he detested), ran afoul of the Hill School’s rules committee one too many times, it was decided that Cambridge was too far away, and that perhaps Franchot would be better off in Ithaca where the family could keep a better eye on him from Buffalo. And so Harvard’s loss was Cornell’s gain.

The campus men were excited when the word came down that Tone Junior would be coming to Ithaca. Tone’s brother Jerry had already established himself as an expert third baseman. Baseball was big at Cornell in 1924–a lot bigger than dramatics, actually. Perhaps it was thought Franchot would follow his brother into the Cornell nine.

Hence the general disappointment–especially among Tone’s fraternity brother at Alpha Delta Phi–when the younger Tone, who entered Cornell in February 1924, instead made a beeline for dramatics.

The future matinee idol’s interest in acting apparently was first piqued when he happened to see a flysheet in Goldwin Smith Hall calling for students to try out for the Cornell Dramatic Club’s upcoming spring production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man.” On the face of it, the campus group didn’t have much to offer. It didn’t even have a theater–only Goldwin Smith B and a stage (if you could call it that) so small that in the words of the Ithaca Journal, “the actors had always to keep their sense of balance as well as their lines in mind, lest they lose their equilibrium and join the surrounding audience.”

But what the club lacked in the way of equipment it made up for in enthusiasm and camaraderie. “We were a family, really,” said Emily Grams ’27. “We did everything together.”

The head of this close-knit family was Alexander M. Drummond, the legendary iron-willed professor of public speaking, who taught public speaking and directed the Dramatic Club at Cornell from 1912 to 1947. Under Drummond’s leadership the CDC had already garnered a reputation as one of the more exciting such troupes in the country by the mid-1920s, dedicated as it and Drummond were to bringing the finest European classics to the Hill. No elitist, the theatrical educator was also a pioneer in the rural dramatics movement of that period, and sent his actors around to perform populist theater at backcountry schoolhouses and country fairs. At his insistence the CDC also became the first Cornell organization to completely recognize the equality of men and women.

Hence th entoxicating elan which the wide-eyes freshman from Buffalo found when he showed up to audition for a part in the production which Drummond had chosen for that spring, “Arms and the Man,” at Goldwin Smith D.

To be sure, all that Drummond really needed to truly acheive his dramaturgical vision at that point in the winter of 1924 was a real theater and a real star. The former would come soon enough in the form of the Willard Straight Theter, which was then still under construction. Drummond realized he had found something special as soonb as the handsome, confident eighteen year old with the mellifluous voice and suave good looks began reciting his lines. “He knew he had a star,” said Ralph Seward, who was present at the memorable stage test. “He was so pleased.” And so were those who ultimately saw the play in May.

Eager to make use of Tone, Drummond pressed his discovery into service as either the lead or one of the leads in most of the CDC’s productions over the next year. The enthusiastic student responded with a series of performances which astounded Cornellians and visitors alike.

With his suave good looks and flair for repartee Tone at first blush was well-suited for light, comic roles like that of Buntschli. At the same time, as the growing audience squeezed into Goldwin Smith D could see, he did equally well with heavier dramatic roles. As on admirer later wrote of the versatile performer, “he was the type who would make you forget that he was a college boy untried by life.” Jacques Caupeau, the visiting head of the French Art Theater, exclaimed to Drummond that he thought Tone was a “genius!”

If any of Tone’s clubmaters were jealous of the rising star in their midst, they were quickly disarmed by his engaging personality and elegant manners. Lillian Schumacher ’27 recalled the gracious, almost regal way Franchot (“don’t call him Franshot!”) presented his mother to the rest of the club when she visited them.

Tone wasn’t a snob, although he could have been; Ralph Seward thought that he was the tichest man at Cornell at the time. But if indeed Tone was, he certainly didn’t flaunt it. Thus he drove a Model A, when he easily could have afforded something much more expensive.

Tone’s greatest indulgence was a massive collection of rare, old books that he enjoyed showing to and reading aloud to his friends; that and an enviable trove of “orthophonic” records of classical French and Russian music with which Tone would amuse himself during spare moments in his elegant room at Alpha Delta.

But what impressed his Cornell peers the most about Franchot Tone was his utter unquenchable love for and dedication to the theater itself. “He would forego any pleasure, any previous engagement,” one reporter later wrote of this period, “for the chance to read a new part of any work….[Drama] became a kind of religion to him and he never allowed anyone to interfere with it.”

Did that include the co-eds? Certainly, said CDC alumnus Emily Grams ’27. “He wouldn’t look at us,” she says. “He was too busy–and so were we. Anyway, Cornell men didn’t look at Cornell women in those days.”

***

So, when MGM offered him a contract after his success in the Group’s play “Success and Glory” Tone was ready. Or, as Collier’s declared: “It was a hit and he was a hit and Hollywood decided that it had been debating about the young man long enough. The salary offered was high and Mr. Tone was of an [agreeable] mind.” Of course, Tone certainly didn’t need the money. His personal wealth was a well-known fact. MGM billed him as the “Millionaire Star.”

The New York theater community took Tone’s “defection” to the silver screen as a major blow. The New Republic’s theater critic, Stark Young, even devoted a stern essay to the event. Tone, Young felt, “Is the best of the young actors in the New York theater, and the most promising in terms of development. He does not have to go to Hollywood. Many roles in the theater are open to him. He is not hardened, blase or without a faith any longer in the theater. The combination, therefore of such a player and the films might serve as a curious kind of test of Hollywood.”

If it was, Hollywood won.

To be sure, things went well for the millionaire star at first–too well.

In a sense, Tone was the right man at the right time. Tall, wealthy, witty, intelligent, gracefully handsome, he was the perfect male matinee idol for the early 30s. Or, as Collier’s ominously put it, “The Fairbanks gentleman are gone. Mr. Gable insists on remaining married and Mr. Tone is in jeopardy.” Indeed he was.

Typecast in playboy or successful man-about-town roles which agreed with his well-bred looks and manners, Tone sailed through such cinematic bonbons as “Today We Live,” “Gabriel Over the White House,” “Midnight Mary,” and “Dancing Lady,” sending female temperatures aflutter. By 1935 at the tender age of 29 he was the seventh-biggest box office attraction in America, after Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, William Powell, Marvyn LeRoy and Bette Davis.

Tone handled his stardom with the same grace he had accepted his stardom at Cornell and on Broadway.

At the same time–and this is what he really was unprepared for–he became the very real bone of contention between two of Hollywood’s reigning female stars–Bette Davis and Joan Crawford–who also happened to be sworn enemies. Davis loved him. Crawford wanted him. Crawford won out. And the whole star-crazed country, fueled by the press, knew the score.

Or, as Collier’s dryly put it, “He became almost immediately a screen star in his own right and he was also the fellow who was seen at nightclubs with Joan Crawford.”

Tone’s screen career reached its short acme in 1935 when he delivered back-to-back knock out performances in two of that memorable cinematic year’s great historic epics, “Lives of a Bengal Lancer,” in which he out-gallanted co-stars Gary Cooper and Robert Montgomery, and most unforgettably, “Mutiny on the Bounty,” in which he outshone Clark Gable in the supporting role of Byam, and held his own against Charles Laughton’s imperious Captain Bligh.

Tone received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his role in “Lives of a Bengal Tiger,” in which category he was ultimately beaten by Victor McLaughlin and that titanic actor’s performance in “The Indian.” If he had been nominated for Best Supportung Actor, as he ought to have been, there is little doubt he would have won.

That year, Tone married Joan Crawford. That’s when the turbulence in Tone’s life really began. Unfortunately, it never really ended.

***

It was one thing to squire “Hollywood’s most ambitious woman,” as Crawford was accurately known. It was quite another to be married to her. Tone couldn’t compete; after awhile he didn’t want to.

“Crawford ruined Franchot Tone,” said Sean Considine, author of Bette and Joan. “Before he married her he had his acting career and had been doing very nicely. Then she began to eclipse him–which was fine with her–and he became an also-ran.”

Tone gave one more Oscar-level performance in “Three Comrades,” the poignant 1938 film about war and companionship adapted from Eric Maria Remarque’s famous novel.

To Tone’s dismay, he found himself re-typecast in the playboy mold. His marriage to Crawford disintegrated. In 1939 “Mr. and Mrs. Joan Crawford” were acrimoniously divorced. He began to spend too much time at the Cocoanut Grove an Trocadero. He began to make headlines–the wrong kind of headlines.

In 1940 Tone returned to Broadway to star in the Group’s production of Ernest Hemingway’s play about the Spanish Civil War, “The Fifth Column.” He received superb notices as the grizzled ex-journalist and counter-espionage agent of that play, acting “with maturity and a disregard for romantic attributes that would never have got him anywhere in Hollywood,” according to The New Yorker. “If you have seen Franchot Tone only as a routine cinema juvenile you wouldn’t recognize what he is truly capable of” raved Richard Watts in The New York Post.

Now Tone had the critical momentum to revive his theatrical career, perhaps even to fulfill his original promise as the rightful heir to Barrymore. But Hollywood had gotten to his soul. Tragically, he returned to movieland and to slow ruin.

With the exception of “Five Graves to Cairo,” “Advise and Consent,” and a few other the films Tone appeared in for the remainder of his career ranged from mediocre to poor. Meanwhile, his personal life grew even more turbulent. The nadir probably occured in 1951 when a drunken Tone got into a public brawl with actor Tom Neal over starlet Barbara Payton that left him disfigured. In the end, Tone won Payton, who became his third wife, but he lost the affection of his few remaining fans.

Tone’s classmates and clubmates were particularly broken-hearted over Pamp’s public demise. “Hollywood spoiled him,” said his classmate Ralph Seward. Tone’s former understudy remembers recoiling at his friend’s ravaged appearance. “My God…he was only in his fifties himself, but he looked like an old man.”

Fellow actor Burgess Meredith was one of Tone’s staunchest defenders. “His problem, aside from his obsession with lovely women, I suppose, was that he really had too many graces,” Meredith said after his friend’s death in 1968 at the early age of 63. “If he had had a little less money, a little less looks, he might have made a bigger mark.”

And yet, through it all Tone’s original love for the theater, as well as his love for Cornell, never dimmed. In 1957 Tone returned to the scene of his original glory days to screen his film “Uncle Vanya” before an excited, sold-out crowd of past and present Cornellians at Willard Straight Hall.

“Vanya,” a pet project of Tone’s, had been made directly from a successful and well-received off-Broadway production of Chekov’s play, in which he also had starred. It was the first movie in English of any of the legendary Russian playwright’s works. Proceeds from the world premiere were slated to benefit the Alexander Drummond Fund, as a memorial to Tone’s former muse, who had died the previous November.

As Tone explained it, upon briefly taking the stage before the lights went down, the occasion was designed to “acknowledge collectively” both Drummond’s legacy and that of the CDC–of which Tone had once been president and leading light.

Little wonder Tone was in a “very boyish” mood (as The Ithaca Journal described it); this was the same theater where the cane-wielding, gimlet-eyed Drummond had goaded his protege into greatness, the same proscenium where Tone had shone in some of the Club’s greatest productions. It was almost possible for the teary Club alumni in the audience that memorable night to forget and forgive the lurid headlines and scandal that had come to be associated with their talented classmate’s name over the decades.

Almost, but not quite.

Shepard Traube, Tone’s old director in “A Thousand Summers,” saw the same reassuring fire in his friend’s eyes when he found himself seated opposite the old trouper on a train bound for Waterford, Connecticut. “As I sank into my chair and looked around, there was Franchot, grinning at me quizzically. He was preparing for an experimental production of a play about Gordon Craig, and he was spilling over with excitement about it. There was fire and purpose in him. We babbled to each other during the entire train ride, and continued to talk throughout the day in Waterford.”

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