Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Design for Living: Ten Chimneys and the Lunts

A few weeks ago, we had the great fortune of traveling up to Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, to tour Ten Chimneys, the former home of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Who, you might ask, are Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne? They were the most respected and greatest Broadway acting duo of the 20th century. During their heydays of the 1920s through the 1950s, they starred together in numerous classics, including "Design for Living," "Elizabeth the Queen" and "Taming of the Shrew." One of their biggest hits, "The Guardsman," was made into a movie released in 1931.

During their long reign on Broadway, the couple -- married for 55 years -- made two demands: that they always appear together on stage and that they have summers off to return to Ten Chimneys, their beloved estate in Wisconsin.

Alfred, who was born in Milwaukee, had bought the land. After marrying Lynn, the original house was added onto until it be came a lovely country estate (above, on the day of our tour). With several other buildings on the grounds, it came by its name for the number of chimneys found throughout the estate.

We had a marvelous guide, whose name I cannot remember at the moment. She provided much history and detail to this wonderful home, which the Lunts (above) enjoyed until their deaths -- his in the late 1970s and hers in the 1980s. Since they had no children, the house was closed up. It eventually was slated to be sold and torn down so that condos could be built. But thankfully, it was saved at the last moment, along with all of their belongings. So walking through the home is like a trip back to another era -- undisturbed by the passage of time.

What struck me about the home was its combination of comfort, style and "wow" factor. Our guide explained that, as theatrical people, they designed rooms as if they were stage sets, so it is surprising to see the richness of the decor and eye for detail in the rooms. And yet these were people who used this home, grew their own food and cooked for themselves. It's clearly a place where people lived and enjoyed themselves. Plus they never considered themselves above their neighbors. They respected the people in town and, in return, the people respected them.

Ten Chimneys also played host to several high-profile stage and screen stars, such as Helen Hayes, Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward (one of their best friends). Olivier once said everything he knew about acting he learned from Alfred.

Ten Chimneys is a spectacular place, and I highly recommend a trip to see it.

As for the Lunts and their movie career, it was a brief one. Alfred had made a few silent pictures, but it was the great producer Irving Thalberg, who I've been discussing on this blog in several posts, who wanted the Lunts. Thalberg had brought Helen Hayes from Broadway to MGM with great success, and he was always looking for more stage stars in these early years of talking films. So, Thalberg and wife Norma Shearer traveled to Chicago to meet the Lunts, who were on tour, and offered them a contract. Watching them in "Elizabeth the Great," Thalberg was impressed. Director Sidney Franklin also was so impressed with that play that he wrote a scene from "Elizabeth" into "The Guardsman," a film version of one of the Lunts' greatest stage triumphs.

In "The Guardsman" (video box above -- don't you love how it says "In Glorious Black and White" yet the picture is in color???), the story is pretty simple: The pair play a married acting couple. The husband, vain and jealous, poses as the title character to woo his unsuspecting wife and prove that her affections are not true to him.

People who don't know the Lunts may be put off by this sophisticated comedy that can be lightweight. For some it may even feel long despite its short running time. But if you are aware of the Lunts and their history, then watching them on film is a joy. In fact, see it once and then watch it a second time just for the performances. They're that good.

The film was made efficiently. Since they had performed this on stage, the two came to the set every day prepared. In fact, at one point Thalberg wanted one scene reshot, which the Lunts didn't agree with. However, they did the reshoots, which Thalberg didn't like because Lunt's eyes didn't match the other takes. Lunt explained that because of the late hour when the retakes were shot, his eyes were tired. Whether that's true or not, who knows. But Lunt did cut his hair so that additional retakes would be difficult to do.

The film received great critical acclaim, not surprising since Thalberg and MGM were the top studio of the era. Lunt and Fontanne received Academy Award nominations for their work. Unfortunately, the film was not a huge commercial success. Despite Thalberg's attempts to keep them in Hollywood, the Lunts refused (one reason is reportedly they would not be able to pick their material). The Lunts also enjoyed performing in front of an audience and missed that. Outside of cameos in 1943's "Stage Door Canteen," they never appeared in another film.

For fans, that's a shame. Because we should have more records of their work to enjoy. One film is not enough. Still, while not a great film, "The Guardsman" is worth seeing. My suggestion: Make a trip to Ten Chimneys, learn about these wonderful people, view their magnificent home, and then enjoy the film. It a journey worth taking and two lives worth remembering.

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