Will the Real Frank Fenton Please Stand Up?

Last November, I wrote about my search for a copy of Frank Fenton’s elusive 1942 novel “A Place in the Sun.” (Click HERE to read it). As it turns out, accurate information on Fenton the man is nearly as elusive as his first novel.

But what’s happened in the past two months has given me a window into the wonders of the shared intelligence (and limitations) of the Internet and — more specifically — the blogosphere. For along the road to learn more about Fenton, I’ve met and corresponded with intelligent and helpful people, unspooled microfilm in a university library for the first time in 20 years, and embarked upon a (hopefully limited) career as a literary detective.

First off, some confirmed findings.

As I suspected — and despite what was stated on Wikipedia (Note: I’ve since written a whole NEW page for the writer and changed the actor’s bio there), the Internet Movie Database and the hundred of sites which “borrow” information from them — there were actually two Frank Fentons actively working in Hollywood from the 1930s through the 1950s.

One was an actor — born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1906 — who graduated from Georgetown University, starred on Broadway (alongside Katherine Hepburn) in “The Philadelphia Story,” and who came west to appear in more than eighty large and small screen productions before dying on July 24, 1957.

The other was a writer — born in Liverpool, England in 1903 — who emigrated to the United States in 1906, graduated from Ohio State University, and worked his way out to California in the early thirties. He sold his first movie scenario in 1932, and proceeded to write one Broadway play, two novels, nearly twenty magazine articles and more than fifty screenplays and teleplays before dying on August 23, 1971.

The confusion goes back several years. In a brief May 6, 1957 Los Angeles Times article about a divorce filing, Fenton’s age is accurately given as 54. But in his own obituary, published fourteen years later (August 25, 1971) in the same paper, it is given as 65, the age he would have been if he was born in 1906.

Oops.

It seems that all of this identity confusion may be traced back to some shoddy fact-checking more than three decades ago at the Times obit desk.

 Actor

(Above) The actor Frank Fenton as George Kittredge (with Katherine Hepburn as Tracy Samantha Lord) in “The Philadelphia Story,” which ran at the Schubert Theatre on Broadway for 417 performances (March 1939 to March 1940). Note the tuxedo.

(Below) The writer Frank Fenton in a late 1930s RKO Radio Pictures photo from the dust jacket of “A Place in the Sun.” Note the typewriter. I rest my case.

 Writer

Frank Edgington Fenton — the writer — married twice (in 1941 to actress June Martel and in 1945 to actress Mary Jane Hodge) and was the father of two children (a son, Mark, and a daughter, Joyce, both with Hodge). He was also a fine amateur golfer who often placed high in the standings of studio tournaments and who participated in at least one Southern California Amateur Championship (1943).

In addition to friendships with writers John Fante and Carey McWilliams, he enjoyed a long-term partnership with Lynn Root, with whom Fenton wrote 21 produced film stories and screenplays. They also partnered on the Broadway play, “Stork Mad,” which opened at the Ambassador Theater in New York on September 30, 1936 and ran for a scant five performances.

Ironically, Root — who died in 1997 — really WAS an actor/writer. After appearing in five different Broadway shows, he wrote the stage comedy “The Milky Way,” which was also filmed twice, in 1936 with Harold Lloyd and ten years later with Danny Kaye (Kaye’s version was retitled The Kid From Brooklyn) in the lead role. He also wrote the book for the Broadway musical “Cabin in the Sky” (1940-41), which reached the screen in 1943. Root and his wife Helen served as Best Man and Matron of Honor (and the sole guests!) at Fenton’s wedding to Martel, which took place at the Robertson Community Church in Hollywood on February 27, 1941.

Speaking of guests, through that first Fenton post I’ve been in contact with several people who have encouraged and helped point me toward all that I’ve learned so far. These include Peter Richardson, who has written a wonderful biography of Carey McWilliams (“American Prophet”), Dr. Stephen Cooper, author and editor of several John Fante books, including a biography (“Full of Life”), and publisher (and renaissance man) Dean Mullaney, who discovered a couple of Fenton photos in the Ohio State archives while researching his beautiful six-volume hardcover collection of the first adventure comic strip ever, “Terry and the Pirates” (created, written and drawn by OSU alum Milton Caniff).

And the Fenton-fest continues. Just last week, book dealer Howard Prouty wrote to tell me that he’d just finished reading his own copy of Fenton’s “A Place in the Sun,” something I haven’t heard often during the past couple of years.

Of course, there’s always room for more information, so if you know something about Frank Fenton (the writer, natch), please drop me a note.

Next month? I hope — at the very least — to edit the Wikipedia entry on Frank Edgington Fenton (1903-1971). I’m sure both Fentons would appreciate having the record set straight.

To be continued…

– craig hodgkins

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~ by Craig Hodgkins on January 28, 2008.

6 Responses to “Will the Real Frank Fenton Please Stand Up?”

  1. Glad we got that straight! I think the most info I’ve seen on Fenton (the scribe) is in Steve Cooper’s bio of Fante, Full of LIfe, which you mention. There he’s called Fante’s “closest screenwriting crony” (159). Can’t remember offhand if the McWilliams papers at UCLA have their correspondence, but there’s an online finding aid if anyone wants to check. Good idea about Wikipedia. One of my daughters belongs to an online group called “If Wikipedia’s wrong, I don’t want to be right.”

  2. You’re right, Peter. Just re-read Cooper’s Full of Life, and enjoyed the Fenton mentions in better context this time around. I, too, wonder if the McWilliams papers will yield a few or more tidbits not found elsewhere. Also just finished another round of Fenton Fact Finding (at the Long Beach State library, no less) and came up with even more good info for my never-ending blog post.

  3. I have misplaced it but there was an article in either American Film or Film Comment back in the 1990s (?) about Fenton’s screenplays. Is it online anywhere? Could Fenton’s novels be scanned and posted somewhere as pdfs? or sent by email?

    Thanks

    By the way his film dialogue is very distinctive: frequently one character will say something, another cracks back and then the first character responds with a further crack answering it. I often wondered if Fenton was an uncredited writer for the radio scripts of Dragnet because they often featured this pattern. Did he do radio work, perhaps uncredited, in the 40s or 50s when film or TV work was light? script doctoring?
    Another Fenton fan from the movie part of his writing.

  4. I found a reference to the Film Comment article about Fenton:
    Jeff Schwager, “The Past Rewritten”, Jan.-Feb. 1991 Film Comment. It discusses his uncredited screenplays, such as Out of the Past.

  5. Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this piece. I’m currently writing books on the old Saint and Falcon movies, which of course Fenton was involved with, and it’s amazing how many people have merged the two Frank Fentons into one.

    • Ian…sorry it took me so long to see this note. I’ve been quite remiss about visiting this old blog of mine. But yes, it took quite a while to piece together (and tear asunder) the many Fentons, and the activity continues. I heard from a FF great-niece, who informed me (and offered old census records) that Frank and Leslie were cousins, not brothers.

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