Monday, July 18, 2011
Centennial Tributes: Hume Cronyn Part I
By Edward Copeland
When I planned to do a tribute to Hume Cronyn on what would be his 100th birthday, I never imagined that I'd have to break it into two parts, but the more I delved into his history, the more I realized the piece would be a long one because Cronyn's career was not only a long one, it was multifaceted. Believe it or not, I'm omitting a lot of what he did, just to make this salute as short as it is. In fairness, this tribute to the actor-screenwriter-playwright-author-director-producer-lyricist should ideally have led with a solo photo of the man, but his life and career was so inexorably linked with that of his second wife Jessica Tandy, it would be just as wrong not to include her since she figures so prominently in his story. Cronyn and Tandy met in 1940, wed in 1942 and stayed together until her death in 1994. In that time, the two of them collaborated in their first film together in 1944 and would go on to make a total of nine feature films, one feature documentary, appear in 10 plays shown on TV in the 1950s (one of which he directed), co-star in a short-lived 1954 sitcom (which he produced and began life as a radio show they did together), make five TV movies together, appear on countless talk shows and TV specials as a couple and, of course, teamed on the same Broadway productions 14 times, earning them the title of The First Couple of the American Theater. Cronyn did do plenty on his own though, not just as an actor, but as I mentioned earlier as a writer, not only of plays but of TV movies as well as two screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock, who directed Cronyn in his film debut in 1943, as well as his autobiography.
While Hume Cronyn, born on this date in 1911 in London, Ontario, Canada, certainly left his imprint on all entertainment mediums and in most of the possible roles associated with that industry, that almost wasn't going to be the course of his life's career. His father, also named Hume, was a banker and prominent member of the Canadian Parliament in Ontario and insisted his son go to law school so Cronyn studied law at McGill University in Montreal even though young Hume already had his sights set on a career in the theater. While at McGill, he also took an interest in boxing and developed skills good enough that he nearly landed a spot on Canada's 1932 Olympic boxing team as a featherweight, except he dropped out of McGill after the 1930-31 term and headed over the border to the United States. He made his professional stage debut in 1931 in the play Up Pops the Devil at The National Theatre in Washington. He played a paperboy for a salary of $15 a week. Cronyn began attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts under Max Reinhardt where he graduated in 1934. He took acting jobs wherever he could find them, including working with The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., outside Richmond. The city of Richmond reprints an article about the theater which still exists, from the Richmond Times-Dispatch about their production of a play called Mountain Ivy in summer 1934 as well as their unusual experiment where patrons could swap pigs, chickens, jellies and other assorted foods in exchange for a seat during the hard economic times. The article lists Cronyn as both a member of the cast and its production designer. He made his Broadway debut later that same year in the play Hippers' Holiday in the role of a janitor where he also served as understudy in the comedy whose cast also included Burgess Meredith. The next year, he replaced Garson Kanin (who would gain more fame later in his career as a writer) in the role of Green in George Abbott's production of the comedy Boy Meets Girl whose cast also included Everett Sloane, probably best known as Bernstein in Citizen Kane. Sometime in this time period, Cronyn wed for the first time, but no two sites agree on either the beginning or end dates of his marriage to Emily Woodruff or provides much information about her. They were either married in 1934 or 1935 and divorced in 1936 or 1941, the year after he met Jessica Tandy, but I was having no luck finding a definitive answer until I discovered that Cronyn and Tandy donated a treasure trove of their personal papers to The Library of Congress along with copies of divorce decrees, marriage licenses, etc. So I'll take their words as the final authority and Cronyn wed Emily Woodruff wed in 1934 and were divorced in 1936. Tandy, who actually was two years older than Cronyn and English born, ended her first marriage to the actor Jack Hawkins in 1942 after 10 years of marriage.
In January 1937, Cronyn landed the role of Elkus in the original production of Maxwell Anderson's fantasy High Tor, which won a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for show and whose cast included Meredith again as well as Peggy Ashcroft. He continued making Broadway appearances but 1939 became notable for two reasons. One: Cronyn made his first appearance on the fledgling medium of television on a program called Her Master's Voice. In October 1939, he made his biggest impression on The Great White Way to date in the role of Andrei Prozorov in a production of Chekhov's The Three Sisters. He continued working regularly on Broadway though 1940 proved more significant as the year he met Jessica Tandy. They wed two years later, though they didn't collaborate on the stage until six years later. In fact, Cronyn and Tandy shared the screen together first. When Cronyn and Tandy did make their first trip to Hollywood, it wasn't long before film roles came their way, especially for Cronyn who lucked out with his film debut. Though only 32 at the time, Cronyn was cast as the much older Herbie Hawkins, neighbor friend of Henry Travers in Alfred Hitchcock's great 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt starring Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright. Travers played Wright's father and he and Cronyn's characters were obsessed with mysteries and scenarios for the perfect murder while completely unaware that Cotten's Uncle Charlie who is staying with Travers actually is a notorious serial killer. Cronyn and Travers' scenes are a hoot. The same year, Cronyn landed a small role in Claude Rains' rendering of The Phantom of the Opera and the war drama The Cross of Lorraine starring Jean-Pierre Aumont and Gene Kelly. Cronyn and Tandy also welcomed the birth of their first child, a son, Christopher. Cronyn also kept busy during those war years by staging and performing in many USO productions to entertain the troops.
His first working relationship with Hitchcock on Shadow of a Doubt would begin a professional relationship between the two that would persist and in many areas. The director cast Cronyn again as part of the ensemble in his next full-length feature, 1944's Lifeboat, for which YouTube provides a clip.
The same year also placed him in his first film with his wife, The Seventh Cross directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Spencer Tracy. This war-time drama, which I've never managed to see, tells of seven men who escape a Nazi concentration camp. The camp's commandant orders that as each escapee is recaptured by the Gestapo, he be returned to the camp and put to death on one of the seven crosses he's erected. Tracy's character is the last of the seven still on the run, trying to flee to Holland. Cronyn and Tandy play a married couple who take Tracy in, unaware of who he is at first, though their own son is in the SS and Cronyn's character is tempted by a large reward. It earned Cronyn his first and only Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. It was the first film Tandy made in Hollywood. In 1945, Cronyn's major films took a lighter and, in one instance, a more domestic turn, as did he and Tandy's life with the birth of their second child, daughter Tandy. Filmwise, he co-starred with Robert Walker and June Allyson in The Sailor Takes a Wife and appeared in the all-star cast that included Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly and many, many more in the mix of music and comedy skits in Ziegfeld Follies. Cronyn acted in the sketch "Sweepstakes Ticket" with William Frawley and Fanny Brice. Again, YouTube actually has the clip and how often do you get to see the real Fanny Brice?
The year 1946 proved especially busy for Cronyn on several fronts. In Los Angeles, he directed his wife for the first time on stage in a production of Tennessee Williams' Portrait of a Madonna at the Actors' Laboratory Theatre. Cronyn also was named a director of the Screen Actors Guild. He worked with director Jules Dassin for the first time in A Letter for Evie, teamed with his wife on screen for the second time in The Green Years, did uncredited voice work in The Secret Heart and co-starred as the smarmy defense attorney representing Lana Turner (or is he?) in the murder of Turner's husband in the film noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. Finally, on a personal note, Cronyn adopted Tandy's daughter, Susan, (from Tandy's marriage to Jack Hawkins) on the girl's 12th birthday and Susan changed her last name to Cronyn. In 1947, Cronyn became the first person to portray scientist Robert Oppenheimer in a film about the making of the atomic bomb The Beginning or the End. Tandy was making a mark on the East Coast creating one of the landmark characters in theatrical history — Blanche Du Bois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. In movies, Cronyn gave what may be the best performance I've ever seen him give — the tyrannical leader of the prison guards, Captain Munsey, locked in a battle of wills with Burt Lancaster in Dassin's Brute Force. This clip doesn't show Munsey at his cruelest or most terrifying and it has foreign subtitles, but you'll get the idea.
With 1948, Cronyn definitely indulged in the multi-faceted nature of his work in the arts. He only acted in one film that year: the comedy The Bride Goes Wild co-starring Van Johnson and June Allyson. Before he headed back east, he took his first crack at screenwriting. With Hitchcock's uncredited help, the two wrote the adaptation of Arthur Laurents' screenplay for Hitchcock's gem Rope, which was based on the play Rope's End by Patrick Hamilton. Rope not only was notable for the way Hitchcock filmed it in long takes that ran until the camera ran out of film, it also was the director's first film made in color. Cronyn then went back to New York where Jessica Tandy continued to play Blanche on Broadway. Cronyn returned to the stage for the first time in seven years in The Survivors whose cast included Louis Calhern, E.G. Marshall, Kevin McCarthy and Ray Walston. He also became a producer on the New York-based theater TV show that started on the fledgling ABC network called Actor's Studio, renamed The Play's the Thing in its final season when, by then, it aired on CBS. He directed an installment that broadcast Portrait of a Madonna and Tandy was even able on a night off to re-create the role she played in the L.A. production in which Cronyn directed her. The series attracted lots of big names and introduced viewers to many great works but sadly no copies of the program exist, including Marlon Brando's first appearance in a role on television in 1949, something he wouldn't do again until 1979.
As the 1940s ended, Cronyn was all over the map — literally. He only acted in one feature film — and it was a musical. Cronyn put on a brogue to play the assistant to an Irish town's police sergeant (Barry Fitzgerald) who calls on a singing insurance investigator from America (Bing Crosby) to help solve the mystery of the whereabouts of their missing Blarney Stone. That was the least of Cronyn's accomplishments that year. He still served as a producer on the series Actor's Studio, though he didn't have time to appear or direct on that program because he was so busy on other TV series. He worked again with Burgess Meredith as well as Pat Harrington Jr. in the "One Sunday Afternoon" installment of The Ford Theatre Hour in May; acted opposite Fay Bainter in "The Uncertain Hour" on The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre a week later; and played the title character in "Dr. Violet" on Suspense, a series that presented live plays with characters in dangerous situations. Cronyn would repeat the role in two more installments the following year.
He also found time to play the title role in a national tour of Shakespeare's Hamlet put on by The American National Theatre and Academy. Cronyn also repeated the job he had on Hitchcock's Rope on Hitch's next project Under Capricorn, the only movie by the director I couldn't even finish. It wasn't his usual suspenser, but a big costume drama set in 1831 Australia and starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten. I'm far from alone in my criticism of it — Hitchcock himself regretted making it in the book-length interview he did with Francois Truffaut. Cronyn had a helluva task. First, it was a novel, then a play, then a screenplay and then he got his hands on it to try to turn it into something worth watching. Hitchcock admitted he only took the movie for the chance to work with Bergman and to return to England — and the big paycheck didn't hurt either. He also admitted that Cronyn was out of his element. "I wanted (Cronyn) because he's a very articulate man who knows how to voice his ideas, but as a scriptwriter he hadn't really sufficient experience," Hitchcock told Truffaut while taking the ultimate blame.
SOURCES: Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy: A Register of Their Papers in the Library of Congress, Fandango, biography.com, film reference.com, Encyclopedia of World Biography, Internet Accuracy Project, Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, Wikipedia, The Internet Broadway Database and the Internet Movie Database.