May 2020
Dimitri Tiomkin and Lowell Thomas team up for Benjamin Franklin biopic

by Warren M. Sherk

Our two-part article on letters shared between Dimitri Tiomkin and Lowell Thomas touched on a proposed film on the life of Benjamin Franklin.

Dimitri Tiomkin and Lowell Thomas

During the summer of 1960, Dimitri Tiomkin, while discussing his view of the plight of the composer in Hollywood with the New York Times, proposes a new kind of Hollywood musical and tells reporter Murray Schumach, “I want to do musical for movies on Benjamin Franklin.”

The “Ben Franklin project” becomes a topic for a meeting in New York with Lowell Thomas. Tiomkin hopes Thomas will lend his writing expertise and name to the production and a meeting is set up by Thomas’s executive secretary, Mary Davis. (Read the backstory on Mary Davis, here.)

Around the same time, syndicated columnist Dorothy Manners reports that Tiomkin and Thomas plan to co-produce a musical drama based on the life of the Benjamin Franklin, staged first on Broadway, followed by a filmed version in Hollywood.

“I hope something comes of your Benjamin Franklin inspiration,” writes Thomas to Tiomkin in mid-December 1960. “In addition to doing the music, let’s arrange for you to play the role of Washington, and maybe I could fit in somewhere as one of the villains of the French Revolution.”

The proposal is in its early stages when, coincidentally, a Saturday Evening Post arrives at the Tiomkin home in January 1961, with a cover story on Benjamin Franklin. Addressed to “Mrs. D. Tiomkin,” the issue contains two serials, four short stories, and seven articles, including a portrait of Franklin by historian Samuel Eliot Morison.

During the studio era, story departments routinely provided coverage on a large number of novels and serialized magazine articles as part of their constant search for source material to tame the voracious appetite consumers had for new films. The demise of the studio system in the late 1950s provided an opening for independent producers to join the hunt.

As the Soaring Sixties—promising international jet travel and space exploration—replaced the Fabulous Fifties, producers Dimitri Tiomkin and Lowell Thomas partook in the unending search for material to transfer to the screen. 

An undated five-page prospectus or press release, downloadable as a pdf, below, announces the producing duo’s desire to bring Benjamin Franklin’s life story to the big screen, similar to other biographical films on notable Americans, such as The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), Edison, the Man (1940), and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936). “The theme of the picture, though biographical, would be in no way burdened and hampered by the stodgy pitfalls and staid pace that usually govern costume filmizations.” Could the latter be referring to MGM’s Raintree County (1957)?

Tiomkin may have consulted with Charles L. Glett (1901-1963) to help get the project rolling. Tiomkin and Glett had a long shared history, Glett having served in a production capacity on at least a half-dozen films scored by Tiomkin. Glett served as vice president and general manager in charge of production for David O. Selznick during the making of Duel in the Sun and Portrait of Jennie and as the managing director of the Motion Picture Center Studios during the filming of the Stanley Kramer Productions including, Champion, High Noon, Home of the Brave, and The Men.

After word of the proposed film appears in Philadelphia-area newspapers in January 1961, the City of Philadelphia offers Tiomkin location assistance, “if you plan to do any shooting in Philadelphia.” And the newly-built Franklin Motor Inn has a guest room for Tiomkin.

A year goes by and Tiomkin seeks to register the film’s title with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) through his company, Palm Music Corporation (the same company responsible for his music theme for the television Western Gunslinger).

Another year passes, in January 1962, Tiomkin writes to Thomas, “I am now working on ‘HOW THE WEST WAS WON’, which in my opinion, promises to be a great western.”

The composer goes on to express his deep disappointment with Thomas’s team, specifically “your lawyer” and “Frank,” both of whom who had no interest in pursuing a film on Benjamin Franklin. Tiomkin states that he is not looking for financial support for the project from Thomas, he is only seeking Thomas’s “literary and showmanship help, as well as your national prestige.”

And Tiomkin concludes, “You know very well that if you don’t do it, somebody else will – and if we can unite on this project, it will be the biggest picture that was ever made here, in France, and in England.”

Thomas writes back two days later, “Please don’t be too disturbed about the Ben Franklin matter. Frank Smith hasn’t had time to think about anything except the major TV station projects on which he has been working – with such fabulous success – for the past two or three years.” Thomas is referring to Tennessee businessman Frank Milton Smith, his business partner and agent. By this time, the television stations Smith and Thomas were snapping up had become Capital Cities Broadcasting Corporation for which Smith would serve as chairman of the board and chief executive officer, prior to his death in 1966. (The company went on to become Capital Cities/ABC before it merged with the Walt Disney Company, which rebranded it Disney–ABC Television Group in 1996.)

Thomas later sends Tiomkin a printed copy of a bagatelle Benjamin Franklin wrote to Madame Helvétius after she declined his marriage proposal.

The last word on the project appears in a letter from Tiomkin dated April 23, 1963, now mentioning the production as a prospect for filming in Cinerama.

The Los Angeles Times ran a short blurb in August 1963 announcing the reactivation of plans for a musical production based on the later years of Benjamin Franklin’s life.

Over time Tiomkin gathered a few other articles on Franklin; however, the project never developed any further.

While Benjamin Franklin has made appearances in films devoted to Andrew Jackson or John Paul Jones, to date there is no film dramatization of his life story. There is only The Lives of Benjamin Franklin (1974–1975), a television mini-series.


“Tiomkin Laments Composer’s Lot,” by Murray Schumach, New York Times, August 25, 1960

[Dorothy Manner syndicated column], Cedar Rapids Gazette, November 16, 1960, on Benjamin Franklin project [Manners served as a longtime assistant to Louella Parsons]

“The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin,” by Samuel Eliot Morison, Saturday Evening Post, January 21, 1961

“Musical Planned,” Los Angeles Times, August 14, 1963

Correspondence courtesy of Olivia Tiomkin.

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