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Book Review : The Rise and Convergence of Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne

July 23, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times book critic

The Fabulous Lunts, a Biography of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne by Jared Brown (Atheneum: $24.95)

Except for ice sculpture, there is no art more perishable than theater performance. Buster Keaton and Jean Renoir are preserved in their films; records give us something, at least, of Caruso's voice and Paderewski's piano.

Stage actors and directors--along with ballet dancers--have no such medium to preserve them. At best, there is the rare bit of critical writing that catches a moment or two for us. Shaw manages to make us all but see the difference between the bravura of Bernhardt and the deeper artistry of Duse. Sir Ralph Richardson may benefit, once the rememberers are gone, from Kenneth Tynan's marvelous capacity to evoke him.

The Lunts, or more exactly, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, had no Shaw to write about them, and Tynan only caught them at the end; and then he scolded them for being frivolous.

Only a phrase here and there in Jared Brown's thorough and occasionally pedestrian biography of this stylish and long-lived theatrical couple manages to bring their stage performances to light. When Alexander Woollcott was enthusiastic, he tended to beat his drum so loudly as to drown out whatever music he had in mind; but he produced a wonderful description of Lunt playing Major Bluntschli in "Arms and the Man." Lunt was trying to convey an image of utter weariness; to do so, he had lead plates sewn into his shoes. Woolcott wrote:

"It is a kind of fatigue that possesses a man utterly, when the muscles of his face and eyelids give up their functions like an old and discouraged elastic, when his skull somehow becomes detached from his spinal column and finally seems to be someone else's skull."

Anecdote Tells Much

Brown hasn't managed to find anything quite so graphic for Fontanne, but the quality of her performance on stage may be conveyed by this anecdote, reflecting her patrician stage manner and the obsessive attention to detail that achieved it. Coming off stage after a scene in a Terence Rattigan comedy, Fontanne asked the stage manager, Chester Charva: " 'Charva, what was wrong? That scene went so badly.' The stage manager answered, 'You started off on your left foot.' Fontanne nodded and said, 'Ah yes. Thank you, Charva.' "

For 35 years or so, until they retired in 1960, the Lunts stood for high style and high professionalism on the American stage. After their first joint performance in Ferenc Molnar's "The Guardsman" in 1924, shortly after their marriage, they adopted almost immediately a policy of never acting separately. It cramped the repertoire, particularly when they grew old and found few plays with big parts for two septuagenarians. The notion that one of them might take a minor role was out of the question, particularly once they had become an institution.

Brown traces their rise and convergence from widely different backgrounds. She, a Londoner of modest circumstances, worked up painfully from bit parts to provincial touring companies until, under the patronage of Laurette Taylor, she came to New York and made a name for herself as the dizzy heroine of Marc Connelly's "Dulcie."

Lunt came from a well-to-do Minnesota family that lost its money. With even greater painfulness, he worked his way up from a small stock company in Boston, finally finding his opportunity in a Broadway production of Booth Tarkington's "Clarence." His rise was slower than hers; his stage grace and sophistication were developed despite physical awkwardness and an uncertain voice. At first, the papers tended to put her name first; only later did it become Lunt and Fontanne.

The ease with which they performed polished comedy came from a total dedication to work. Brown writes of them learning their lines by sitting in two facing chairs, legs interlocked, and bringing their knees sharply and painfully together at each mistake. Their rigor extended to others. When Uta Hagen, their protege, made an entrance a few moments late, Lunt bit her instead of kissing her; and when the curtain came down, Fontanne kicked her, though not hard.

Brown provides convincing evidence that such flare-ups went with the Lunts' fierce devotion to theater and their generosity in helping younger performers make their way. He does not conceal their flaws; but his style suffers from a tendency to retell quotes and opinions without asserting any strong viewpoint of his own. Many of the quotes are the stuff of pre-opening-night newspaper interviews, and a great deal of the massive detail about comings and goings and openings and closings has the chatty--and decidedly non-timeless--quality of the day's entertainment news. Too often, the book seems like a magazine feature, monstrously distended.

Still, much of the detail is valuable, and some of the anecdotes are splendid. Most interesting, perhaps, is the author's picture--too gingerly by half, but nonetheless clear--of the couple's theatrical decline.

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