Frank Morgan — House of Morgan (1936) 🇺🇸
It isn’t Fate, but Alma, who makes Frank’s important decisions
Frank Morgan insists he wouldn’t be where he is today if it weren’t for his wife, Alma. And I insist Alma Morgan wouldn’t be where she is today if it weren’t for Frank. Actually we’re both right. And that’s my story.
by Adele Whitely Fletcher
There was a time, years ago when Frank played in stock in Detroit, when the Morgans didn’t find it any too easy to get along. They had to save half of Frank’s salary against the between-engagement days inevitable in any actor’s life. They lived in an inexpensive flat, but their living expenses always seemed to be more than they had anticipated. And there was their boy, who scuffed all decency out of his shoes within a single week and ruined his new pants sliding into the home plate of a sand lot.
Besides, Frank and Alma had the flavor of discouragement with which to contend. Frank didn’t get along the way some did. Already Katherine Cornell and Kenneth McKenna, who once had been members of his supporting casts, had forged ahead, made Broadway. Sometimes Frank thought he might have been better off had he remained in the minor executive position made for him in the family firm when he left Cornell. Often enough, he used to wonder if he wasn’t just another conservative business man gone wrong; if he hadn’t over-emphasized that creative strain he always had convinced himself he possessed.
This was the state of affairs in the House of Morgan when a letter came from Frank’s mother asking him to return to New York and take the place in the firm which had been vacant since his father’s death some months before. Mrs. Wupperman (that, as you probably know, is Frank’s right name) wrote that the Board of Directors had voted to pay him fifteen thousand dollars a year and to give him an appreciable block of company stock yearly in lieu of a bonus. Mrs. Wupperman thought this an offer which Frank, grubbing along in the theatre, could hardly refuse, providing he was in his right mind.
I saw myself sitting behind my father’s desk,” Frank told me, “interviewing men of affairs. Answering any one of the three desk phones. Pouring a drink of water from the vacuum bottle, clearing my throat, saying, ‘As I see it...!’ And while none of this jibed with the picture I had of myself, I was, nevertheless, mindful that it represented security, and also that security should be the prime consideration for a man who has a- wife and son.”
Frank wished that letter never had come. However, keeping his face free of any expression which might commit him one way or the other, he handed it across the breakfast table to Alma. She read it, and also keeping her face free of any expression which might commit her one way or the other, handed it back to him.
“It’s your happiness,” she said simply.
“But,” he argued tenderly, “it’s your happiness, too.”
Alma Morgan brushed her son’s unruly hair back from his forehead as if there were nothing more important to be done in the world, just as if she wasn’t acutely aware that the die of their entire future was about to be cast, and said: “Exactly, Frank. It’s my happiness, too. And I can’t be happy unless you are. So you see it really is up to you. Fifteen thousand dollars a year ! That’s a great deal of money, isn’t it? But I’m not sure happiness for some people doesn’t cost more than that.”
Then, her eyes level with his eyes, she asked, “What do you truly want to do?”
All of which is one of the reasons why Frank today says that Alma is responsible for his success. She believed in him. She was willing to string along on a little when she might have had a great deal. And all of which is also why, taking no credit away from Alma Morgan — that I say Frank is the one who should be applauded. It takes the rarest kind of courage, moral courage, for a man to take his wife at her word at such a crucial time.
Not long ago, I lunched with Frank Morgan in his dressing-room. In an adjoining room, where his valet answered the telephone and pressed a pair of striped trousers, there were riding boots sprawled on the floor and a variety of cravats hung over the back of a chair.
Outside, a studio worker was painting a bright star on Frank’s dressing-room door. The splendid characterizations he has contributed to pictures like Naughty Marietta, “I Live My Life” and “The Perfect Gentleman,” and before this The Affairs of Cellini, have for some time entitled him to one of the handsomest salary checks any stock player receives and now he has stardom itself. He did well to stick to the theatre years ago, you see, discouraged as he must have been when those with whom he worked began outshining him.
“However,” he said, and in his eyes there was that same amused tolerance he shows on the screen, “I’ve always known I must work for everything, that success never will come quickly for me. I’m not one to shoot ahead like a comet, I must make my own way slowly and painstakingly.
“When I first came to Hollywood I had the same experience. In New York I’d had hits. After playing in ‘Topaze’ I’d become a fair-sized name in the theatre. But out here they said, ‘He looks like a banker!’ And I was cast as one banker after another. In spite of my record, it never seemed to occur to anyone that I might be good as anything else. And since my agent never had seen me on the stage he hardly was qualified to argue for my versatility.”
The slow Morgan smile so familiar to movie-goers washed across his face. You get the feeling that life amuses him always, even when it goes contrary to the way he would have it go. Which in itself shows a kind of wisdom.
“One day,” he said. “I remember I got a little provoked. I suggested to my agent that a salesman wouldn’t attempt to sell a car without knowing what was under the hood and I tried to point out that this was exactly what he was trying to do with me. But he only smiled, the way agents feel they have to smile at actors, and I kept right on playing bankers for a long time after that. While I tried to content myself with the large sums of money they paid me.”
But to get back to the main story of Frank and Alma Morgan, there was another time when Frank was rehearsing for a play which promised to be a turning point in his career. After the dress rehearsal he and Alma went out for supper. They had a little celebration. Sweetbreads. Champagne.
“Frank,” she asked over the sparkling rim of her glass, “just what are you trying to get across there in the second act?”
Storm signals went up in his eyes. “What am I trying to get across in the second act?” he demanded. “Good Heavens, it seems to me I make it obvious enough. As a matter of fact, if ever in my life I did a good piece of work, I do it there.”
Telling about this row the other day Frank was amused. “You know how furious we always get,” he said, “when someone puts his finger on the very thing about which we ourselves are doubtful. I’d worked hard on that second act simply because deep down inside of me I hadn’t been any too sure about it. So, of course, when Alma questioned me I blew up.
“However,” he continued, “for hours that night I did considerable thinking. I’d disagreed with Alma and I’d acted darn unpleasant, but the things she said had impressed me.”
The following evening when the play opened Frank changed his second act performance entirely. The critics raved. And the play did prove an important milestone in his career. Consequently, this is another time when he gives Alma credit. But, again with praise for Alma for keeping her perspective and having the courage to speak her mind, I think Frank deserves a credit line, too. For not being as set and stubborn as many men would have been in his place. For having the good grace to turn around and change his performance. And, when he came out on the stage in response to the applause he received, for making Alma who was in the audience, such a deep and sweeping bow that waves of color flooded her face, and her heart began thumping in a way too few wives’ hearts ever thump once their wedding rings have lost their pristine shine.
It was here fairly recently that there was apprehension on the M-G-M lot about one of Frank’s pictures. His producer thought it might be a good idea to junk the film shot and start on something else. Frank, however, really thought the picture was amusing and that he was giving a good performance. And, contrary to the general belief, actors don’t always believe this about themselves, especially intelligent actors like Frank Morgan.
“I’ll tell you what,” Frank said to his producer, “my wife, as you know, isn’t an actress. And she doesn’t know why a thing isn’t good or how it should be changed. But I’ve reason to trust her instincts. Let me run the film we’ve shot for her before I decide whether or not I want to call quits.”
The producer agreed. That same night Frank and Alma had dinner in the studio commissary. Then they went over to the projection room. “I want the truth,” he told her. In over twenty years of marriage she never had given him anything else and he knew it. But this was important. A great deal depended upon this picture.
“I think it’s fun,” Alma said when the film had been run. “And I think you’re splendid. And I may as well tell you I was prepared for the worst. You’ve taken this part so seriously, I thought you’d probably gotten yourself all tied up in knots and that it showed on the screen. I was ready to admit you seemed strained and to suggest it might be a good idea if you went off on a little tear, loosened up, and then started all over again.”
This was all Frank needed. He went to the producer. “Sorry,” he said looking anything but sorry, looking downright jubilant, “I’ve bad news for you. I want to go on with this picture. Alma likes it. So I believe in it.”
They finished the picture and it’s been a success. Proving once again, according to Frank, that he wouldn’t be where he is today if it weren’t for Alma. She sounds darn swell, no doubt about that. But I can count on my thumbs the men I know who would admit being influenced by what their wives thought about their affairs. So I certainly think he deserves honorable mention here. Besides few actors or artists or writers ever have sense enough to know that others might have a better perspective on their work than they themselves could have.
So it goes. Frank says he wouldn’t be where he is today if it weren’t for Alma. And I say Alma wouldn’t be where she is today if it weren’t for Frank. And as you can see for yourself we’re both right. And as you also can see for yourself all of this is why over twenty years of happiness have come to the House of Morgan and why, through thick and thin — which is the only way that counts — Frank’s and Alma’s marriage has been a success.
His excellent work in “The Perfect Gentleman,” Naughty Marietta and “I Live My Life” has earned star ranking for Frank Morgan in his forthcoming pictures.
Left, a typical Frank Morgan pose. Below, with Mrs. Morgan at a preview.
Source: ModernScreen, April 1936