Monday, May 1, 2017

What "Feud" Didn't Tell You: The Loving Relationship of Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone

If you're a Joan Crawford or Bette Davis fan, I'm willing to bet that you watched Ryan Murphy's newest FX program over the last eight weeks, titled Feud.  I certainly did.

I was in adoring awe over the costumes and set design (I really was born during the wrong time) and thought the leads were brilliant.  And by leads I mean not only Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon but also Albert Molina (as director Robert Aldrich), Stanley Tucci (as Jack Warner) and Jackie Hoffman (as the devoted Mamacita.)

Where I felt the series came up short, however, was the portrayal of Bette and Joan - - but most especially Joan - - as sad, pathetic women who truly had no one.  Now Bette Davis was always a "keep it moving/plow straight ahead" type of woman who would never feel pity for herself nor want it.  Even the less dedicated Davis fans can read this off her.  Joan also never wanted pity but Murphy egregiously (in my opinion) played her as a sad sack of a woman after her acting career was over.

Based solely on the show, Crawford shut herself away in her New York apartment and saw no one other than her devoted housekeeper/confessor Mamacita.  This simply wasn't true.  Her film career came to an end in 1970 with the letdown flick Trog. But Joan kept herself busy as a Pepsi executive until her forced retirement in 1973 (due to her age.)  She was also still active with her charities and had many friends she kept in contact with, both in Los Angeles and New York - - actresses Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Rosalind Russell Ann Blyth; actors Cesar Romero, Cliff Robertson, Jimmy Stewart, William Haines (who became a very successful interior designer.)  These are just a few.

During their marriage
One of those friends was actor Franchot Tone who also had the distinction of being Joan's second husband.  Franchot had been a New York stage actor who traveled to Hollywood when the talkies were still in their formative years and the studios were looking for thespians who, thanks to the stage, could enunciate well.  He fit the bill - - he was a nicely handsome man with an eloquent speaking voice and he turned out to be a splendid actor.

Despite a contract with MGM and appearing in some stellar films alongside Clark Gable, Loretta Young, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and Charles Laughton, Franchot never became a huge star. Part of it was the casting - - when paired with Harlow or Crawford, he was invariably chosen to play the sidekick or second lead.  When costarring with his own wife (Crawford), he would never get the girl.  Louis B. Mayer infamously told Tone that Joan Crawford could not walk off into the sunset with an unknown.  This, despite the fact that Joan Crawford went home every night with Tone as her husband.  For someone as sensitive and serious minded about his craft as Franchot Tone, that remark must have stung.

In 1935, Franchot made a little picture called Dangerous with Bette Davis. Bette fell and fell hard for her leading man, who at that time only had eyes for his girlfriend - - Joan Crawford.  Many believe this was the seed that grew into the eventual "feud" the two actresses had together. Plain old jealousy over a man.  Bette may have gotten Franchot in the film but Joan got him offscreen, marrying him in October of 1935.   That same year, he appeared in the excellent Mutiny on the Bounty, where he was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actor, alongside his costars Clark Gable and Charles Laughton.  All three would lose to Victor McLaglen.

Throughout his movie career, Franchot longed to return to the stage.  Newly married to Crawford, the two built a theater, complete with a stage, in the backyard and would host friends with play performances.  The couple idealized about living in New York for six months out of the year with Franchot returning to the stage and Joan making her debut.

It wasn't meant to be.  Joan's Hollywood career continued to accelerate while Franchot's plateaued.  He grew weary of playing second banana and grew resentful over his wife's immense success. The two would divorce in 1939; the evening before their divorce was final, they were seen dancing together.  Joan would tell the judge granting her divorce that she hoped she (Joan) would have the good sense to remain friendly with her soon to be ex-husband.

While both went on to other marriages, it appears they still held each other in high regard.  In early 1954 the two were spotted out on the town together.  Columnist Earl Wilson asked Joan if she and Franchot were going to reconcile.  She responded with a "we haven't discussed it but I wish it could be so. I just adore this man!"   Adoration or not, they did not officially reconcile and the following year Joan would marry Pepsi executive Alfred Steele and have a happy four years with him before he died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

In the 1950s. No longer married but close friends.

When Joan wrote her autobiography Portrait of Joan, she mentioned Franchot. "I have the utmost trust for Franchot and regard for him."

In 1964 Franchot was appearing in an off-Broadway play called The Dirty Old Man.  His first wife was in attendance on opening night to support him and wish him well.  At that time, he commented that he and Joan had dinner every once in a while (both were living in New York) and he always found her stunning.  He also stated that she was good at everything she did, from her movie work to her work with Pepsi.

Sadly, the two would not have much longer together.  Franchot was a chain smoker and it finally caught up with him.  He was diagnosed with lung cancer. Joan immediately moved her wheelchair-bound former husband into her apartment, where she would not only care for him during the better part of 1967 and 1968 but paid for his medical expenses as well.  He reportedly also asked Joan to remarry him - - either before he fell ill or during his illness - - but she turned him down, believing it was not the best idea.

Franchot Tone died on September 18,1968.  He was sixty-three years old.

Joan paid for his funeral expenses and arranged to have him cremated and his ashes scattered over Muskoka Lakes, Canada, not far from his birthplace.

Whatever their issues may have been during their marriage - - resentment, ambition, infidelity - - they remained friends until the end and neither ever turned their back on the other.  This love and friendship is rarely mentioned when Joan is discussed whether because Franchot was not as well known as Joan and some of her other relationships or because it simply doesn't fit the narrative subscribed to by some of Joan being a terrible person.

As good as certain aspects of Feud were, I'm disappointed that this fact was omitted.  It shows a very different Joan Crawford - - a caring woman, one that wasn't desperately lonely and one that wasn't painfully self absorbed.

During their film careers, Joan and Franchot starred in seven movies together - - Today We Live, Dancing Lady, Sadie McKee, No More Ladies, The Gorgeous Hussy, Love on the Run and The Bride Wore Red.   While he was never a leading man in Joan's films, I am partial to Dancing Lady and Love on the Run (because he always played well off Clark Gable) and Sadie McKee (because it's simply a good film).

Have you seen any of the Crawford-Tone films?  Do you have a favorite?

During the filming of Dancing Lady - - in love and both beautiful


  1. Excellent post !! I did not see FEUD but read comments about and found the bias it had towards Bette, and the way it presented Joan. Though I say that what is important is their legacy, i.e. what we can see on the screen, Joan is always referred mostly for her temper, egotism, drinking and negative points, which mostly started as she grew older and not to her generous gestures ( which for the same people were only " for the press" )Congratulations once again. I also agree that Franchot maybe the beginning of the famous "feud" also (my theory) that these two were in essence quite alike, and that Joan envied that Bette's talent came out so natural ( while she had to work so hard to bring out hers, almost as great), and Bette, Joan's physical beauty and GLAMOUR.

    1. Paul BarchilonMay 1, 2017 at 7:29 PM
      Very interesting post! Sadie McKee is one of our favorite Crawford flicks. Heard Tone beat her when they were married somwhere else though. Does anyone know if this is true

    2. Hi Paul,
      I don't think there is absolute verification that Franchot was abusive toward Joan but she supposedly mentioned it to a friend herself. Absolutely not excusing physical abuse in any way but Franchot was known to be confrontational and he was extremely sensitive. I think Joan said too that he was moody. Combine that with resentment, alcohol and Hollywood and you've got a recipe for disaster.

      I love Sadie McKee! Such a splendid little film.

    3. Thank you for the compliment, arlissfan!

      I enjoyed Feud but it was very clear to me that Murphy had a bias toward Bette. It's perfectly fine to prefer one over the other but for storytelling purposes, he should have come more down the middle. That said, he devoted more time to Lange as Crawford and I don't think he got Joan's personality right. I think Joan herself would be saddened or even horrified at how she was portrayed.

      If you watch some of her interviews from the 60s, you see a charming, lovely woman who was very engaging and not at all the sad, depressive recluse that appeared in Murphy's program.

      I completely agree with you that Joan and Bette were spirit sisters. Joan was envious of Bette's talent and ability to be taken as a serious actress; Bette was envious of Joan's beauty and glamour and movie star status. It's too bad these ladies couldn't realize how much they had in common and support each other, especially since Hollywood was a cesspool crawling with chauvinists and idiots who believed women's careers were over by 40.

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  3. I find that most of Hollywood's leading ladies have a rough time of it, reputation wise. I think we are simply envious of them, and so we cut them up a bit. Perhaps the thing that drew them to Hollywood was a certain sensitivity and a longing for a different, more free lifestyle. Because these women had affairs, and controlled their own careers for the most part, our judgment of them can sometimes be terribly harsh and moralistic. I'm thinking of comments I've read about Garbo, Dietrich, Loretta Young, Jennifer Jones, and of course, both Joan and Bette, plus many more.

    Morality is subjective, and these women all had a sense of it, it's obvious from their actions throughout their lives. But because people in general buy into the idea that Hollywood was nothing but sex and alcohol fueled parties, we've become blind to the complexities of the human beings who worked there. While idolizing them, we also impose a stricter code on them, especially on the women who simply lived a bit differently than you or I.

    Marlene Dietrich, like Crawford, was a sultry, sexy star who had many lovers, but she also could be selfless and giving. She spent months nursing both John Gilbert at the end of his life, and Robert Donat, who suffered from a crippling asthma in 1936 or 1937 on the set of one of their movies together. She refused to let the studio cast someone else in Donat's role and helped him return to the set as a healthy man. She helped many jews flee Hitler, and worked tirelessly for the war effort.

    ALL these women worked selflessly for others at different times, in the war effort or for charities, or to help individuals get on their feet. But somehow, the long term affairs, the cover ups of misdeeds, and the scandals are all we think about when their names are mentioned. It's a real shame that we cannot see the other side of these stars as well.

    1. Hi Jack,

      I think the bottom line is that women could not have it all. We loved the actresses who played sexy seductresses but when their reel life overlapped with their real life, we cried foul. We loved those who wanted to be mothers but we also wanted them to continue making movies for our benefit - - but then criticized them for not being full-time parents.

      The men, of course, could get away with this. They could have affairs - - they were men, they were famous, what did we expect? They could father children and be uninvolved or little involved because they were men, working.

      Thank you for sharing the info about Marlene Dietrich. I didn't know about her charitable actions, especially helping John Gilbert and Robert Donat. Like Crawford's actions with Tone and with keeping hospital rooms open for behind the scenes industry workers, in which she picked up the tabs, it's unfortunate that these aspects of their character aren't publicized more instead of the tawdry stuff.

      Thanks for commenting!

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