Franchot Tone (1900-1974)

Franchot Tone
Franchot Tone

Franchot Tone was an American actor who had a highly successful career appearing on stage, in movies and on television. He is best known for his role as Midshipman Roger Byam in the 1935 classic movie drama 'Mutiny on the Bounty' with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton for which he received a nomination for the Best Actor Academy Award.


He was born Stanislas Pascal Franchot Tone in Niagara Falls, New York, on 27 February 1905, into a well off and socially prominent family. His father was Frank J. Tone, an engineer and industrialist and President of the Carborundum Company in Niagara Falls. His mother, Gertrude Franchot Tone, was from the well known Franchot family. Tone used her maiden name as his stage name.

Tone was educated at The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania and on graduation in 1924, studied at Cornell University where he first developed his love for acting and became President of the drama club. In 1927 he studied briefly at Rennes University in France and on his return to America, determined to have a career on the stage and ignoring the soft option of following his father into the family business, he joined the McGarry Players stock company in Buffalo, New York.

Stage Actor

He worked hard at his new vocation, playing mainly bit roles and learning every aspect of the theater. In 1928 he moved to Greenwich Village and joined the New Playwrights Company, with whom he made his professional New York stage debut in 'The Belt', followed shortly after with his Broadway debut with a small role in 'The Age of Innocence' starring Katharine Cornell.

He became a member of the Theatre Guild and was cast in several productions for them, including 'Red Dust', and 'Hotel Universe' in 1930 and the unsuccessful 'Green Grow the Lilacs' in 1931. Also in 1931 Tone joined the Group Theatre in New York, which had just been formed by Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman. It was one of the first schools of "Method" acting and Tone appeared in leading roles in several of the Theatre's early productions, including 'The House of Connelly', 'Big Night' and 'Success Story'. He was rapidly making a name for himself as a first class actor. Strasberg hailed him as the best actor in the company and it was not long before he came to the attention of Hollywood.

Hollywood Actor

After 'Success Story' Tone received an offer of a movie contract with MGM, which was rapidly becoming the pre-eminent studio in Hollywood. He was still more intent on success in the theater rather than on screen, but he moved to Hollywood in late 1932 and began the most successful and memorable period of his career.

His first screen appearance was on loan to Paramount in 'The Wiser Sex' in 1932, starring Claudette Colbert. His scenes had to be filmed during the day as he was still working in the theater at night. His first movie for MGM was 'Today We Live' in 1933 which, although a loss maker, was notable for marking the meeting on set of Tone and the film's star, Joan Crawford. The two would marry within two years (see Personal below).

Hollywood Star

Over the next few years Tone became one of Hollywood's top male stars, appearing in a number of quality movies with the top leading ladies of the day, including 'Bombshell' with Jean Harlow and 'Dancing Lady, again with Joan Crawford, both in 1933, 'Moulin Rouge' with Constance Bennett in 1934, 'Dangerous' with Bette Davis in 1935 and 'The Unguarded Hour' with Loretta Young in 1936. In addition he appeared in movies which are now regarded as classics, such as 'The Lives of a Bengal Lancer' and 'Mutiny on the Bounty' in 1935. He received a nomination for the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Byam in 'Mutiny on the Bounty'.

In 1939 Tone had a break from movies when he returned to the Broadway stage with great success in Ernest Hemingway's 'The Fifth Column'. Still under contract to MGM he returned to Hollywood to appear in the weak Western comedy 'Trail of the Vigilantes' and during the ensuing decade he made few films of note. Exceptions to the very average movies he made are the World War II drama 'Five Graves to Cairo' in 1943, the critically acclaimed 'Phantom Lady' in 1944 and the 1949 noir 'The Man on the Eiffel Tower' which he produced himself.

Television Career

As Tone's movie career began to wind down after 1950, he became one of the first Hollywood stars to make the transition to television, recognising the potential of the new medium for both live and recorded works. His first television appearance was on the 'Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse' series in 1950 and for the rest of his career he continued to make regular appearances on prestigious television drama series such as 'Studio 1 in Hollywood', 'General Electric Theater, and 'Playhouse 90'. He also appeared regularly on episodic adventure series such as 'Bonanza', 'Ben Casey', 'Wagon Train' and 'The Alfred Hitchcock Hour'.

During the latter part of his career Tone returned to his first love, the theater, and did so with distinction. In 1957 he co-starred with Wendy Hiller and Cyril Cusack in Eugene O'Neill's 'A Moon For The Misbegotten' and in the same year he starred in an adaptation of Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya', which he also co-produced and co-directed.

During the 1960's Tone appeared occasionally back on the big screen in character roles as in Preminger's 'Advise and Consent' in 1962, playing the President of the United States and as the menacing nightclub owner in the surreal drama 'Mickey One' in 1965.


It could be argued that Tone's personal life was of considerably more interest than his movie career. He certainly had a fondness for movie actresses and it proved to be a weakness which caused him problems throughout the early part of his life.

He was married four times in all. His first wife was Joan Crawford whom he met on the set of 'Today We Live' in 1933. She was already a successful Hollywood star after 'Grand Hotel' the previous year and and was coming out of a marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. The couple courted for two years until 1935 when Tone began filming 'Dangerous' with Bette Davis. When Crawford heard that Davis was becoming romantically attached to Tone, she quickly made the decision that she (Crawford) and Tone should get married.

They married in 1935 and made in all seven films together, but before the last three were made, after four years of ups and downs, they were divorced in April, 1939.

Tone's second wife, Jean Wallace, was also an actress. They married in 1941 and had two sons before divorcing in 1948.

Tone met Barbara Payton in Hollywood in 1950. She had acted in a number of Hollywood movies with top stars such as James Cagney and Gregory Peck, but already had a reputation for immoral and dissolute behaviour. Tone's friends, including ex-wife Joan Crawford, tried to dissuade him but he let his infatuation get the upper hand. He paid for an apartment for her on Hollywood Boulevard and he and Payton got engaged in October, 1950. In the meantime, and, unfortunately true to type, Barbara, whilst engaged to Tone began an affair with actor, Tom Neal, an ex boxer, and she even told friends she was engaged to him. Eventually, in 1951, Tone and Neal had a violent fist fight which resulted in Tone being hospitalized for almost a week and needing plastic surgery to repair a broken nose and cheekbone.

Incredibly he still married Barbara, in September, 1951, but unsurprisingly the marriage ended after just eight weeks. She and Tone divorced in May 1952 which ended a sorry period in his life. Barbara Payton within a few years was an alcoholic skidrow prostitute and she died in 1967, age 39. Tone's fourth and final marriage was in 1956 to another actress, Dolores Dorn. It lasted three years and the couple divorced in 1959. Tone was a chain smoker and was wheelchair bound in his final years, suffering from lung cancer. He had remained on good terms with his first wife, Joan Crawford, and during his final illness she cared for him lovingly, even paying for food and medical treatment herself.

Franchot Tone died in New York on September 18, 1968. As he requested, his ashes were scattered at Muskoka Lakes, Canada.

Franchot Tone Academy Awards

No Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Actor ... Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Franchot Tone Filmography

The Wiser Sex
Today We Live
Gabriel Over the White House
Midnight Mary
The Stranger's Return
Stage Mother
Dancing Lady
Moulin Rouge
Sadie McKee
The World Moves On
The Girl from Missouri
Straight Is the Way
Gentlemen Are Born
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
One New York Night
No More Ladies
Mutiny on the Bounty
Exclusive Story
The Unguarded Hour
The King Steps Out
The Gorgeous Hussy
Love on the Run
Quality Street
They Gave Him a Gun
Between Two Women
The Bride Wore Red
Love Is a Headache
Three Comrades
Three Loves Has Nancy
The Girl Downstairs
Fast and Furious
Trail of the Vigilantes
Nice Girl?
She Knew All the Answers
This Woman Is Mine
Star Spangled Rhythm
The Wife Takes a Flyer
Five Graves to Cairo
Pilot #5
His Butler's Sister
True to Life
Phantom Lady
The Hour Before the Dawn
Dark Waters
That Night with You
Because of Him
Lost Honeymoon
Her Husband's Affairs
I Love Trouble
Every Girl Should Be Married
Without Honor
The Man on the Eiffel Tower