Men Behind the Stars — Sidney Franklin (1937) 🇺🇸

Sidney Franklin |

January 15, 2022

Sidney Franklin is a man who would find no place in Hollywood — if Hollywood were the sort of place its critics paint it! He is scholarly, unassuming, soft-spoken, intellectual, and precise — adjectives more fitting for a small-town schoolmaster than a director in the world’s most colorful industry. One associate, meaning no disrespect, called him “mouse-like!”

Director of “The Good Earth”

Yet, Hollywood hands him such assignments as The Good Earth, “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” “Smilin’ Through,” Reunion in Vienna, “Private Lives,” and “The Guardsman.” He will direct Norma Shearer in the vitally important “Marie Antoinette” when Norma decides to continue her career.

Two sequences in “The Good Earth,” his latest triumph, show why producers find him valuable, even if he isn’t a director in the good old DeMille tradition! Remember the famine, when Paul Muni and Luise Rainer begin their long trek Southward? These scenes seemed extra-real because Franklin shot them under the same type of lights used in newsreel work. “I wished audiences to associate this part of the picture with news pictures of actual famines and disasters they had seen,” he explained modestly.

Again, the Franklin touch showed when Luise Rainer, on her bridal night, plants the cherry tree, and Paul Muni raises a lantern to her face. It was the only time in the entire picture when he allowed “the little monkey,” as he nicknamed Luise, to look as lovely as she really does!

“I wanted the audience to see her not as a Chinese peasant woman, but as the radiant girl Paul Muni, the bridegroom, saw by the light of his lantern,” Franklin told me. For the rest, he did something no director in Hollywood has dared to do before. He made his heroine almost grotesquely ugly, permitted her only one long speech, and relied on her eyes alone to convey the drama of her life!

A native of San Francisco, Franklin grew up just as the infant film industry was struggling to be born in Hollywood. A career as an actor was his earliest ambition, and soon after graduating from public school he won a part in the D. W. Griffith film “The Sheriff.” Other small roles followed, and his career seemed promising indeed, until one day he was assigned to a scene in Intolerance for which his costume consisted of a pair of shorts. Outdoor locations were then the order, and the California sun blistered down for two days. Franklin was carried to a hospital so dangerously sunburned that he decided at once to transfer his activities behind the cameras — where a man might wear a shirt if he choose!

As camera assistant to the late George Hill, he gained a world of valuable experience and an ambition to direct. Like almost all of Hollywood’s tried and true old-timers, he had courage and originality. Saving his pennies, he directed and photographed his own production, called it (fittingly enough) “The Baby,” and persuaded D. W. Griffith to view it. The famed director bought the film on sight!

Now established in his chosen field, Franklin collaborated with his brother Chester [Transcriber's Note: Chester M. Franklin] to direct many popular features and serials, including “Going Straight,” “Aladdin and His Lamp,” and “Let Katie Do It.” (Chester, incidentally, is still in Hollywood and recently directed Sequoia.)

Alone, Sidney continued his career with such silent hits as “Smilin’ Through,” East is West, “Her Night of Romance,” Beverly of Graustark, and many others.

Eighteen years behind the cameras have given him a keen insight into audience psychology, as well as a knowledge of actors. Woe betide the star who tries to escape tedious rehearsals with a flimsy excuse! Without fuss or fireworks, Franklin knows how to exert his authority. He can be stern, but also tactful. But, it’s his thoroughness and conscientiousness that make him noteworthy in Hollywood. To give orders to the Chinese extras in The Good Earth he refused to rely on interpreters. So he learned Chinese! 

Source: Motion Picture, May 1937