WEIRDLAND: Dolores Dorn & Franchot Tone: Letter From A Hollywood Starlet - Uncle Vanya clips

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dolores Dorn & Franchot Tone: Letter From A Hollywood Starlet - Uncle Vanya clips

I got a call from my agents for an Off-Broadway play called “Burning Bright” by John Steinbeck directed by Matt Cimber. On the second day of rehearsal I got another call from my agents telling me that Max Arnow and Columbia Studios wanted me to fly to California, all expenses paid, to do a test for the lead in “Underworld U.S.A.” to be directed by the charismatic Sammy Fuller. The next day Columbia sent a car and driver to take me to the studio to do the test. I met Sammy Fuller who I liked immediately. He introduced me to Cliff Robertson who’d already had the leading male role and would do the test with me and the four other girls. had the part in “Underworld U.S.A.” and could I be in Hollywood the following week. I would have to sign a two picture deal with Columbia.

“Underworld U.S.A.” being one and another the studio would choose at a later date. I could live in New York and do whatever projects I wanted in between which meant I could go back to “Plays for Bleeker Street.” Another irony. I almost didn’t get there to do the test. The circle had completed itself and I had won. I was no longer the indentured little starlet. I was the star of a movie with a picture deal. Yeah!

I got cast as the lead opposite Walter Abel in ‘Oh, Men, Oh, Women,’ a play that had recently closed on Broadway with Franchot Tone in the role Walter was to play. It was to open in Clinton, Connecticut for one week.


Uncle Vanya is a 1957 American film adaptation of the play Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov. Filmed concurrently with an Off Broadway production, it was both co-produced and co-directed by actor Franchot Tone, who starred as Dr. Astroff. Tone's wife at the time, Dolores Dorn-Heft, co-starred as Elena Andreevna, appearing in the only role not featuring an actor from the stage version in New York, where the part was played by Signe Hasso.

I had one night to become familiar with some very long, complicated scenes. The play was “Uncle Vanya” written by Anton Chekhov. Not contemporary, but a period piece of great fame. The part was one of the leads. The audition was to be in the penthouse of the Warwick Hotel where Franchot Tone lived. David Ross would be there. I had let my agent know about the audition and he was thrilled for me. He told me that David Ross had an earlier success with another Chekhov play, “The Three Sisters.” He told me that “Uncle Vanya” was an important production particularly since a star of the caliber of Franchot Tone agreed to do it. I was getting nervous. Was I up to it?

I walked to the Warwick Hotel (Legend has it that publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst built the Warwick in 1926 for his mistress, actress Marion Davies) which was on Sixth Avenue in the fifties, announced myself at the desk and took the elevator up to the penthouse. When I got out of the elevator I saw only one door. I knocked and David Ross opened it. I walked in and in the far corner in a easy chair with a window looking over much of Manhattan sat the handsome star of stage and screen, Franchot Tone smiling at me. He got up from his chair and held out his hand for me to shake. I hoped my hand wasn’t sweating as it sometimes did when I got nervous. He motioned for me to sit down in a chair opposite him. “Well, should we get started?” he said in a cultured deep baritone voice. “Yes,” I squeaked. I’d met a lot of sophisticated, attractive men in London and Hollywood but none with the presence and savoirfaire of this man. And did I mention he was handsome with a twinkle in his eye too? I got up from my chair and sat at Mr. Tone’s feet taking his hand in mine. I surprised him but he seemed to like it. Then I took his other hand and kissed it. He looked at me a long time before he said his next line. I’d made an impression.

Down in the elevator I went with my head still up in the penthouse with him. True, he was older, but I’d never met anyone like him in my life. Now I had another reason for wanting the part. A message was waiting for me at the desk of my hotel when I got back. Could I start rehearsals tomorrow? I took a long bus ride down to East Fourth Street. David and Franchot were waiting for me. Franchot and I started working on one of our scenes. I felt confused. I didn’t know where to put myself on this strange platform stage. I felt clumsy and confused and it was obvious. I’m sure it looked like I’d never been on a stage in my life. The next day I thought I did a little better. I had lunch with the rest of the cast, Gerry Hiken, Peggy McCay, Mary Perry along with Franchot and George, they were so supportive and nice to me. After playing the role a few weeks Franchot asked me to have something to eat after the show. I didn’t hesitate. The attraction between us on stage was obvious to everyone. The attraction I felt for him offstage I could barely conceal. Before we even went out the gossip columnists had us as an “Item.” We went to a small, quiet restaurant with great French food. Franchot told me he was part French and part Irish, a relative of the Irish patriot Wolfe Tone, whose bronze statue sits somewhere in Ireland.

He told me about producing “The Man on the Eiffel Tower,” the movie, in Paris starring Charles Laughton and Burgess Meredith, with Burgess also directing. These two men were his lifelong friends along with Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman. I told him about going to school at the Goodman Theater and touring the Middle West in the Toby & Suzie Tent Repertory Company playing to a group of mostly farmers in towns with a population of about two thousand. Franchot was interested in my time with the farmers in the Midwest because his father was a farm boy who’d worked himself up to being the president of the Carborundum Co. He told me that his father was not happy being with the captains of industry.

I told him about my experience as a contract player in Hollywood and he told me about his experience in the MGM stable of stars. Even though he made more money and played in grand films, he, like me, felt like an indentured servant. He told me about his dream of having his own theater and took me to a location where there was a theater that was suitable. He wanted to do plays with real issues acted by realistic actors. Not to preach but to enlighten. Attraction aside – I fell in love. Franchot and I went out almost every night after the show. For my birthday he gave me a beautiful heavy gold bracelet with two dolphins going in the opposite directions supposed to symbolize my astrological sign of Pisces from Van Cleef & Arpels.

One evening, after the show, in a restaurant, he asked me to marry him. Marry him!? I didn’t expect this. We decided on a quiet wedding in French Canada. Franchot had inherited, from his mother, what he called a summer camp. The camp was really two rustic houses nestled in the woods between two fresh water lakes. The main house had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room a living room with a large stone fireplace and a large screened in porch with a view of ‘Thirty One Mile Lake.’ The ceremony took place in the house of the mayor of Montreal, Quebec with Franchot’s friend Jean Paul Dejordins and his wife Libby in attendance. Many people in New York thought it was a secret wedding because we did not announce it to the press. Our friends all knew but my mother and father didn’t. I thought it would be better to tell them in person. They were hoping to make the trip to New York so my father could see the play. I knew they weren’t happy about the age difference and I hoped that if they saw how happy we were they might change their minds. We moved into a brownstone house on the Upper East Side that Franchot had purchased which had been separated into three apartments.


After we got settled we continued working in “Uncle Vanya” for a time. One day Franchot asked me what I thought of his producing and directing “Uncle Vanya” as a movie. He said he wanted to get all the wonderful performances on film including his own which he felt was the best he’d ever done. “Where would we do it?” I asked, very excited at the idea. “Right here in New York. I’ve inquired about a studio on Staten Island. We could do the play at night and the movie in the daytime.” And so we did the movie over a period of a month. It was not easy for any of us but it was much harder for Franchot. He had put his own money into it against his financial advisor’s advice and the expenses kept mounting up eventually to the sum of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The film finally opened at the Baronet Theater on the Upper East Side to respectable but not rave reviews. And not good enough for him to make his money back. All the performances got good reviews but he was singled out. I was happy because he’d worked so hard and his performance was outstanding. Franchot decided to submit the movie to ‘The San Francisco International Film Festival.’ Our film didn’t get ‘Best Film’ but I hoped for Franchot to get ‘Best Actor’. He didn’t, they gave it to a German actor. I was shocked when they announced me as ‘Best Actress.’ I didn’t know what to say as I accepted the award. So all I said was “Thank you.” It seemed to me so unfair that Franchot’s performance didn’t get recognized.

The film disappeared for fifty three years until it turned up on DVD in June of 2011. Franchot’s show ‘The Moon for the Misbegotten” finished its limited run and he occupied himself with trying to get a European distributor for “Uncle Vanya.” He became more and more depressed when nothing worked out. He began to drink heavily and became more and more verbally abusive accusing me of having affairs with my acting school friend, Dick Curtis, and my high school friend, George Furth, who later wrote “Company,” a musical comedy. His drinking behavior was getting me down. I felt badly for him and badly for myself. A friend suggested a psychiatrist, Dr. Bela Mittelman. I’d heard Burgess Meredith talk about him and he was highly esteemed by people in the business. Marlon Brando, Alan J. Lerner, Elia Kazan, Kim Hunter to name a few. Franchot and I had dinner at our favorite neighborhood restaurant, Isle of Capri, and he told me how happy he was that I was auditioning for the Actor's studio.

Did he want a more traditional marriage? It was beginning to look like that from the call and some subtle and not so subtle messages he’d been giving me. Could I do that? I loved him, yes, but could I do that? I found out I was pregnant. He told me he didn’t want any more children. He already had two sons. What was I to do? That question was answered when a week or so later I miscarried. Franchot had to leave to do a T.V. show in California but when he came back he was helpful while I recuperated. I was grateful but I had enough of this marriage and I think he did too... I started divorce proceedings. I would miss Franchot. Shortly after the divorce was final he asked to come over to see my new apartment. He brought his teenage son. It was Valentine’s Day and he also brought me a perfect two karat diamond cut into the shape of a heart on a platinum chain from Van Cleef & Arpels. One day Franchot asked me to meet him at Jim Downey’s Bar and Grill. There, at a booth sat Franchot and a young couple. The young man had recently directed Franchot in a T.V. movie of the week. He had seen the scene from “Days of Wine and Roses” and complimented me on my work. No one else had so I was pleased to hear it. After a pleasant short visit the couple left. Franchot told me that meeting the director might be helpful to my career. True, my personal life was horrible but then this was the 1950’s and women were supposed to stay home and have children. And the men I had relationships with went along with that whether it was conscious or unconscious. -"Letter From A Hollywood Starlet" (2013) by Dolores Dorn

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