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23 March 2018

Beyond Ambition, Beyond Success: Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford and Franchot Tone photographed by George Hurrell

"A man's reach should be beyond his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Robert Browning.


Joan Crawford is still a controversial figure to some classic film fans, largely, as everyone knows, because of posthumous book written about her by her adopted daughter and the sensational movie made from it. I don't usually write about stars' private lives in this blog. It is difficult enough to judge the reality of relationships of people you actually know; I think it's impossible to know the truth about intimate relations of people long dead.

But I do feel that Joan Crawford has gotten quite a raw deal, and I base this conclusion not on gossip or newly revealed secrets but on what she actually did. I'm specifically referring to her lifelong relationship with Franchot Tone, who was her husband foe a few years, but who remained part of her life until his death from cancer at the age of 63.

It's little wonder that their marriage was hard to sustain; it would have been difficult to find two people with more different backgrounds. Crawford came from a hardscrabble, lower-class background, often denigrated in those days as "white trash." Her mother worked as a laundress, and her father deserted the family when she was a child. Crawford had to work her way through school, but never graduated from high school. All her life she regretted her lack of formal education. She recalled reading scripts with a dictionary by her side, because she didn't understand so many of the words used.

Crawford's beauty, talent, and determination led to early success in Hollywood but she still struggled with feelings of social inferiority. She blamed this social inadequacy for the failure of her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., (with whom she also remained friends). She said at that stage in her life she never enjoyed a dinner party, because she was always worried about which fork to use.

Franchot Tone and Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty

Crawford, like Mae West, was her own creation. From a plumpish little starlet and the perfect flapper of the 1920's to the shop girl's delight and fashion leader of the 1930's to the composed, adult working woman of the 1940's and beyond, Crawford remade herself with iron determination and a real instinct for style. Her figure became svelte and graceful, she completely retrained her speaking voice, lowering it by an octave and inventing for herself a classy but region-free accent. The hard working little teenager scrubbing floors in Texas transformed herself into a convincing symbol of elegance and glamour.

Franchot Tone came from a wealthy, cultured background; the scion of an old family with pre-Revolutionary roots in the northeast, he attended prep school and Cornell University. He left this secure environment for New York City and life as an actor, and became one of the founding members of the progressive Group Theater, along with Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Cheryl Crawford.  When Hollywood called he went west, but continued to support the group financially.

Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford with their dogs

Tone met with early success in Hollywood, bringing great skill and intelligence to his roles, as well  as a unique personality. From the start he managed to avoid type casting, playing a wide range of  roles. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935, the same year he and Joan Crawford married.

From this distance, it seems like marriage of great innocence and optimism. You can see what they saw in each other, and you can also see the seeds of the problems they were eventually unable to overcome. First among these was the fact that Crawford was at her height as a top box-office star; Tone was being cast as a second lead as often as not. He also began to drink heavily, not all the time but it was still a strain. Crawford put it succinctly, "husbands don't like second billing."

They were very much in love. One thing they shared was a yearning for continuing education; Tone, who had a wonderful speaking voice, studied classical singing. They studied Shakespeare together. They shared an interest in progressive theater, and attended the opening night of the precedent shattering Dead End together, a stunning and inspiring experience.

Crawford later wondered if their marriage might have worked if she had given up her career. But she couldn't really do this. Work meant more to her than anything else. Eventually the strains became too much, and they divorced in 1939.

Both Tone and Crawford went on to other serious relationships and other marriages, but apparently they remained close friends. As the decades went on, both relocated to New York City. Tone did some important work in early television, especially in the first broadcast of 12 Angry Men. Crawford, as the widow of the company's chairman, famously took on promotional duties for Pepsi Cola.

In the 1950's

Tone became ill with lung cancer in the late 1950's. As his condition worsened, Crawford took charge of his care, made sure he had appropriate medical treatment. and even had him stay in her apartment. When he passed away in 1968, she supervised funeral arrangements as he would have wished. having his ashes scattered in one of his favorite natural spots.

I've always found this story very moving. These two accomplished, dedicated people could not be everything they wanted to be; nobody wants to be divorced four times. But whatever had happened between them, they could forgive each other and be true to the love they had shared. In her autobiography she described him as "a beautiful person," and as very much the finer actor. You can see respect and affection in the way they look at each other in these photos.

Joan Crawford in the 1960's

Franchot Tone in the 1960's

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