Saturday, July 29, 2017

Irving Thalberg's Support and Ultimate Surrender of Franchot's Career

Irving Thalberg began his film career immediately following his high school graduation. While still a teen, Thalberg became a secretary for Universal and remained there until 1924, when the promise of a more lucrative salary drew him to Louis B. Mayer and MGM. There, Thalberg helped to turn (some would argue that he alone turned) the studio into the powerhouse it became in the late 1920's through the 1940's. He had a knack for knowing the public's tastes and expertly creating stars out of MGM's players, yet yearned for a studio that created only solid, important films.

Prone to illness since childhood, Thalberg's immune system was as weak as his mind was strong. He was forced to take an extended rest after a heart attack in 1932 and during this time, Mayer demoted him from production supervisor to unit producer. From 1933 to his untimely death in 1936, Thalberg produced some of MGM's most successful films. During this period, the "Boy Wonder"—as he was termed by his colleagues—would fight for Franchot Tone, but would ultimately fail to convince Louis B. Mayer of Tone's worth.

In a letter written in October 1933, Irving writes of his initial push for support of Franchot and his defeat by Mayer:
I made a request of Louis, inasmuch as Franchot Tone was dissatisfied with the treatment he had been receiving and was insisting on abrogating his contract, that I be permitted to take him over for a certain length of time. Since he's been with us, he's been used only in bits and means nothing, and I believed I would be rendering the company a great service in taking over this man, meaning nothing, and making him into a star—which I felt I could do. Louis couldn't see it—and rather than press the matter, I dropped it completely.
In this letter, Irving expresses frustration over MGM executives' "demoralized and uninspired" attitude and their readiness to produce "juvenile, immature" films instead of taking the time to focus on their talent (like Tone) and the scripts represented.

Irving expected Franchot's contract to include an availability clause that would give him first rights to Franchot and other artists he believed in. Despite his calls to MGM's legal department, Irving lost this contract dispute and other producers and studios were able to use Franchot first—further alienating Franchot from the more mature, star-making films Irving may have had in mind.

Thalberg, of course, bought and produced Mutiny on the Bounty, which would be a huge success for MGM and win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Mutiny on the Bounty turned out to be Franchot's most successful film and would earn him esteem in the film community in addition to a Best Actor nomination. Even though Irving lost control over Franchot's image and career, he does deserve credit for helping to land Franchot in this career-defining role. It provided the perfect character in which Franchot could show his unique acting skills to his advantage. (Strangely though, Franchot was not Thalberg's first choice for Byam. It was offered to Franchot after Cary Grant turned it down.) In 1947, Franchot would tell the Saturday Evening Post that he knew Mutiny on the Bounty would be an important film because Irving was "behind the wheel."

1935 should have been a pivotal career year for Franchot. He starred in three films with Oscar nominations in that year alone: Mutiny, Dangerous, and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. I'm certain that these opportunities made Franchot feel that his career was on the right path and that he'd be offered more substantial parts in the future. However, 1936—the year Irving Thalberg died—only brought more second leads for Franchot. Following his Oscar nomination, MGM placed him right back as a supporting actor in vehicles for Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant. I enjoy his '36 films, but I'm sure they are not what Franchot had in mind for himself following such success the previous year.

I can only wonder what may have become of Franchot's career had Irving Thalberg survived and gained his previous power at MGM. I only wish that Irving had fought harder for Franchot and his rights to him in 1933. Had Irving been able to have his say in the pictures Franchot starred from 1933 on, Franchot's popularity and lasting legacy today may have looked very different. I feel like Irving had a keen eye for an actor's strengths and—had he fought harder against Mayer early on and Franchot fought harder for himself—could've placed Franchot in the right films to build him up as an actor and as a more prominent star.

Franchot and Joan at Irving's funeral. Source: sangfroidwoolf.tumblr.com
Sources:
  • Crowther, Bosley. Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer. Dell, 1960. p. 241.
  • "Irving G. Thalberg." TCM. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/person/190595%7C73388/Irving-G-Thalberg/
  • Tone, Franchot. “The Role I Liked Best,” Saturday Evening Post, June 7, 1947, p. 132
  • Viera, Mark. Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince. University of California Press. 2010. p. 182-183.

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