Lynn Fontanne: Exclusive to the Stage

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Today is the birthday of Lynn Fontanne (1887-1983). Fontanne and her husband and acting partner Alfred Lunt are wonderful modern anomalies. They are among the last of the great stage actors (Helen Hayes, too) who had very little (almost nothing) to do with film and television. Consequently, although their entire careers coincided completely with the era of the moving image, we have almost no record of them in action; we must rely totally on hearsay for accounts of their brilliance.

Fontanne in particular was an amazing link with the theatre’s glorious past. The English-born daughter of a failed printer, she studied for two years with Ellen Terry. Her professional career began in 1905; she played minor roles in several important plays until she enjoyed a small triumph in a play called Milestones. From here, American stage star Laurette Taylor took her under her wing and she began acting in Broadway plays with Taylor in 1917, many of them written by her husband J. Hartley Manners.

She first acted with Lunt in 1919; the two were wed in 1922. They didn’t act exclusively together until 1928. Without Lunt, Fontanne had scored smash hits as the title character in George S. Kaufman’s Dulcy (1921) and as Nina Leeds in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (1928).

As a stage couple, Lunt and Fontanne were prized for their genius at playing light, romantic comedy. They appeared together in The Guardsman in 1924. The 1931 screen version was their only talking film; Fontanne’s performance was nominated for an Oscar. They were were teamed in S.N. Behrman’s Meteor in 1928, and were Elizabeth and Essex in Maxwell Anderson’s Elizabeth the Queen in 1930. They co-starred with Noel Coward in his racy Design for Living in parts written especially for them in 1933. They were Kate and Petruchio in every stage couple’s showcase vehicle Taming of the Shrew 1935-1936. For Robert Sherwood, they starred in the premiere productions of Idiot’s Delight (1935) and There Shall Be No Night (1940). In the 40s, in addition to their stage work, they were stars of radio, the only recording medium in which we have a substantial record of them. Late plays in which they appeared included Coward’s Quadrille (1952) and Friedrich Duerenmatt’s The Visit (1958). After narrating a tv production of Peter Pan (1960), Fontanne joined her husband in retirement at their estate Ten Chimneys, emerging only on a handful of occasions to take additional roles.

The couple is SO great inThe Guardsman. If only they’d given us many more films!

 

2 comments

  1. Wow, how natural Fontanne looks onscreen, at least in the trailer’s excerpts, much more than her husband. She also has that amused ‘edge’ in her voice, like Constance Bennett or Myrna Loy, you feel compelled to listen to her speak. Lunt had made a DW Griffith silent film, ‘Poppy,’ which was dominated by WC FIelds, but I gather his impact on stage was remarkable. I think he didn’t photograph well (when he’s in his Guardsman’s get-up, he looks as jowly as Orson Welles).

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