Posted by moirafinnie on September 4, 2008
Kay Francis was a presence in movies between 1929 and 1946. Her acting was characterized by her elegantly comic, audacious, sometimes melodramatic, yet wistfully tender and groundbreaking portrayals of independently minded women. Thanks in part to TCM, she has renewed fame. Interest in the nearly forgotten actress has also grown in recent years with the rediscovery of films of the pre-code era, and the changing attitudes toward cinematic portrayals of women, (for better and worse). Kay Francis was on screen from the shaky years of the early talkies through the war years, and TCM offers a festival of 42 of her films this month–some very rarely seen outside of an archive, and few of which are available on dvd. This month’s festival of all things Kay offers an unprecedented opportunity to review the range of films that Ms. Francis appeared in over time. The films include some of her earliest work, such as Raffles (1930) and Cynara (1932), (pairing her with Ronald Colman), as well as some of Kay‘s last movies, (which allowed her to produce as well as star at the low-rent studio Monogram), including Divorce (1945), and the critically noted Allotment Wives (1945). Since TCM has chosen to honor Kay Francis as the Star of the Month in September, I thought that this might be a good time to have a chat with Kay‘s biographer, Scott O’Brien, the author of Kay Francis: “I Can’t Wait To Be Forgotten” (BearManor Media). In this thoroughly researched and nimbly written homage, Scott O’Brien, chronicles her films, her adventures, her later career on stage and and long years in retirement. Drawing on years of research and the actress’ revelatory diaries, (which were written in a form of shorthand, and only relatively recently deciphered by scholars at Wesleyan University ), Mr. O’Brien succeeded in bringing this complex woman to life on the page.
Moira: Welcome Scott, and thank you for helping me shine a spotlight on Kay Francis this month. As someone who’s only discovered what racy fun her movies are in the last few years, I was wondering: When did you first become aware of Kay Francis?
Scott: My first impression of Kay Francis wasn’t exactly “ecstatic.” At 16, I especially enjoyed watching over-the-top moments from Bette Davis films. My parents, who were old movie fans, drove me into San Francisco for a film revival double-bill: Of Human Bondage and One Way Passage. Davis’ wildly momentous “I wipe my mouth!” scene with Leslie Howard made the whole trip worth it. Kay Francis? She just seemed like a normal everyday person to me. While working on my Master’s Degree in Library Science (1971-73), I went with friends to see Trouble In Paradise. I had matured. Kay’s subtlety as an actress was like drinking fine wine. We were all raving about her afterwards. Upon seeing a revival of Confession, I was completely hooked. In 1976, George Eells’ book “Ginger, Loretta, & Irene Who?” had a fascinating, yet depressing mini-biography on Kay. A couple of decades later, when Mick LaSalle was researching his insightful work, “Complicated Women,” I loaned him some of Kay’s films. I told him about Kay’s diaries at Wesleyan University, and suggested his next project should be a biography on Kay. He told me, “No, Scott. You should write Kay’s biography.” In 2003, I finally got tired of waiting for someone else to tell Kay’s story, and took Mick up on his suggestion.
Kay Francis: Living Large and Riding High:
Born in Oklahoma City in 1905, Katharine Edwina Gibbs was the child of actors, and, after growing up while travelling with her soon divorced mother as she appeared in stock companies throughout the United States and in a series of boarding schools, became Kay Francis. This metamorphosis came roughly around the same time as America discovered jazz, bathtub gin, and the joys of a woman with a mind of her own. With her dark hair, piercing blue eyes and svelte, tall figure, not to metion her innate sense of style and intelligence, she soon found her way in New York of the 1920s. It was a world she relished, after an early first marriage while still in her teens, (eventually there would appear to be at least three more acknowledged walks down the aisle before she washed her hands of the institution).
Ostensibly intending to supporting herself as a stenographer, her strikingly exotic, dark good looks and sparkling manner, as well as a her youthful penchant for intense partying, experimentation and sexual recklessness, made Kay, who was still quite impressionable, a card-carrying member of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lost generation. Falling in with a fast crowd, she shared an apartment and several adventures with the newborn New Yorker Magazine‘s Lois Long, whose job was to report on the burgeoning nightlife in the big apple. Looking far more sophisticated than she may have felt, she soon was attracting a dizzying array of cosmopolitan men, many of whom wound up on the pages of the diary she began to keep at the time. A fairly typical entry read “July 8–My seventh man–God I hate myself.” Kay‘s strong sexuality bloomed throughout this period. Inevitably, at a time when it was illegal for a woman to purchase contraceptives, this led to other diary notes such as “July 16–Another operation! My God who is the father!” The aimlessness of her frothy existence wore on her, despite the pleasure it brought with it.
One key figure, familiar to TCM addicts, was to have a significant impact on her theatrical and cinematic life. His name was Walter Huston. The two met in 1928 as part of the George M. Cohan Broadway production of Ring Lardner’s baseball yarn, Elmer the Great.
Moira: Could you please explain how Walter Huston, who will be seen opposite Kay in Storm at Daybreak (1933) as well as Always In My Heart (1942) later this month, played an instrumental role in the development of Kay’s career on stage and the screen?
Moira: While Huston and Francis went on to appear in a total of four films together, his mentorship of the actress helped her to gain a foothold in Hollywood, where she would form several teams with some memorable leading men–some of which will be seen this month. The talkie era had arrived, and stage trained thespians who also photographed pleasingly were a precious commodity, (even if they did, as Kay demonstrated charmily many times, a bit of trouble pronouncing the letter “r”–a quirk that screenwriters tried to help her with, but which is amusingly acknowledged in the upcoming Frank Borzage film on TCM, Living on Velvet).
Scott, some of the movies being shown this month, such as Raffles (1930) and Cynara (1932), paired Kay Francis with Ronald Colman. I’m eager to see these films, as well as the diverse crowd of other leading men she worked with throughout her career, such as Charles Bickford in Passion Flower(1930), William Powell in the delicious Jewel Robbery (1932) and Trouble in Paradise (1932) and George Brent in Living on Velvet (1935). Did Kay have a favorite leading man? Was there any actor she wished she could have worked with more often?
Scott: Kay acknowledged her simpatico with four actors: Ronald Colman, William Powell, Walter Huston, and Herbert Marshall. She had praises for all four. During her retirement, Kay frequently mentioned her affection for “Bart” Marshall to her close friends Jetti and Lou Ames.
Personally, I find the pairing of Kay and Ronald Colman in Cynara (1932), stunning.
Gossip columnists hinted at an affair between the two (c. 1930), but at that time, Kay was definitely romantically involved with her last husband, actor Kenneth MacKenna. She did confess to her diary during the filming of Raffles, “God! Ronnie excites me!” (2/13/30). If something had happened between Kay and Colman, no doubt her diary would have burst into flames. “I didn’t really get into my stride until I played opposite Ronald Colman,” Kay stated during an interview. “No one could give a really bad performance in a Colman picture. He is so delightful to work with that the whole company is keyed up to him.”
Moira: Becoming increasingly popular with movie audiences who revelled in her mysterious yet vivacious glamour as well as her sophisticated portrayals of adult women, Kay found herself at a professional dead end at Paramount in the early ’30s. Francis, (along with William Powell and Ruth Chatterton) jumped ship and signed with Warner Brothers studio, where she soon became known for a series of significant roles in Pre-Code films. Kay portrayed women as complex creatures with thoughts and desires all their own who were capable of ordering their lives and destinies and facing the consequences of their actions. Scott, do you think that Kay Francis played a significant role as an exemplar of pre-code women in films? Did she see herself as an actress playing a role or as “a liberated woman” in her roles in such movies as Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933), in which she played a doctor who has an out of wedlock baby?
Scott: Kay capably gave credence to “liberated women” as Mary Stevens M.D.
I am sure she saw them as “independent” women, as she would have her roles in: Stranded (1935) (Kay plays a social worker who doesn’t give up her career for marriage), Street of Women (1932), (in which she plays an entrepreneur who inspires her married lover to build the world’s tallest building), Man Wanted (1932) (Kay’s a publisher who decides her male secretary is a better match than her philandering husband), and I Loved a Woman (1933) (the actress plays a determined and highly successful opera singer, who enjoys numerous lovers). In this last film, the pre-Code flavor is especially prevalent after Edward G. Robinson finds Kay entertaining another man. Robinson thought he was her one and only. He angrily confronts her. Pre-Code expert Mick LaSalle, points out, “Robinson is disillusioned, but the point of the scene is not that she’s a whore but a grown-up. ‘You’ve lost nothing,’ she tells him, ‘because you never were the only one.’” Such roles for women were completely obliterated in July 1934, when the Production Code took effect. So, yes, Kay played a significant role as an “exemplar of pre-code women.”
Moira: How did the imposition of the Production Code in Hollywood affect Kay’s career?
Scott: At the time the Production Code took effect, Kay was beginning to get fed up with the Hollywood scene, and the repercussions it had on actor’s private lives. She commented to reporter Dick Mook:
Moira: Given what you describe of her private life in your book and the “morals clauses” of studio contracts, how did Kay adapt to the more buttoned up aspects of Hollywood off-screen?
Scott: Kay knew full-well that her liberated life-style would have the ladies of middle-America swallowing their tea-cups. Her diaries are living proof! It was an eye-opener to read about Maurice Chevalier prodding her to engage in a ménage-a-trois, but Kay thought it “not practical.” After her last abortion, she aggravatingly wrote, “Hope this is last of the Mohicans!” Kay kept her private life “private,” which is as it should be. She found friends and lovers that accepted and enjoyed her as she was. Kay gave up on marriage, and confided to her beau Delmer Daves, that she made “a lousy wife, but happy lover.”
Moira: Could you please address some of the myths and hard truths about Kay Francis‘ rather hectic private life?
Scott: I see a definite parallel between Kay’s ”jazz age” generation in the 1920’s, and the “love generation” of the 1960’s. Young people were questioning societal restrictions and religious indoctrination. In the 1920’s, young women bobbed her hair, wore lipstick, and went to speak-easies. Kay did all of this while exploring her passionate nature. Alcohol, of course, helped loosen things up, and, on occasion, she regretted her behavior. In other words, she was human. It takes guts to “go out there” and explore new territory. I was part of the “love generation,” and found the whole thing exciting, adventuresome, and worthwhile. I lived and learned. Kay did the same. If I had kept a diary from 1968-78, I would probably shock myself reading it now. But, I would also smile. I have a feeling that Kay would do the same. She knew what it was all about. The 1920’s paved the way for the “revolution” of the 1960’s. Kay’s diaries tell of her numerous lovers and unrequited affairs in attempts to find passion as well as romance. She was definitely man-oriented, but was willing, on a few occasions, to engage in physical intimacy with women friends. To me, Kay had an open heart, and a willingness to try new things. I completely identify with and appreciate her passionate and romantic nature. There is absolutely no need to sensationalize. I used common sense and respect in writing about her private life. As far as Kay’s abortions – yes, she was sexually active — yes, she was fertile, and yes, contraception was illegal for women until 1938 (the year the diaphragm became available in the U.S.). Film studios during Hollywood’s “Golden Age” had clinics where female stars could have abortions. In many circles abortion was considered the preferred form of contraception. Kay’s era was difficult time for sexually active women who were independent, and were not inclined to have children.
Moira: There seem to be some contradictions in Kay Francis attitude toward her career. She is identified with glamour and over-the-top elegance, but she apparently expressed little real interest in fashion in real life. Was she being disingenuous or just an honest woman who saw clothes as part of her tool kit?
Scott: Kay admitted that her personal wardrobe was kept to a minimum. She carefully bought a few quality pieces that she could mix and match giving the impression of a more extensive collection. The old “less is more” adage would apply to Kay’s clothes closet. She told designer Travis Banton in 1929, “I can think of nothing more tremendously unimportant than being the best dressed woman in pictures – or anywhere else, for that matter. I have absolutely no ambition, in that direction. Neither do I want to be a dowd. I’d make a terrible frump. I like clothes … And I propose to dress as I have always dressed – carefully, correctly and smartly as I know how. But I shall never make it ballyhoo.”
Orry-Kelly designed some outrageous costumes for Kay while she was at Warners. How many times have I heard people say, “Boy! Could Kay Francis wear clothes!”? She had the innate ability to wear things that would make another star look like a clown. In other words, Kay could wear something outrageous, and you still noticed her. Nothing overwhelmed her fascinating presence. Note the fantastic dress she wears in the opening cocktail scene from Living in Velvet (1935), (see photo below at left). Momentarily, it looks as if she is being molested by gigantic butterfly … from the Amazon. It doesn’t faze her in the least, and her attire suddenly translates into chic glamour.
During her theatrical tours (1945-54), Kay kept a “tool kit” of clothes, jewelry, and other accessories, which she used to create the “glamour” that was expected of her. She knew what fans wanted and what sold tickets.
Her Later Career at Warners and Beyond
Moira:In light of this rather practical attitude toward her career, did Kay Francis primarily seek the wealth that acting offered her for a time, or do you think that she was interested in the stories that her films told?
Scott: Kay readily admitted that she was interested in the money that a film career offered. She associated money with independence. Other actors, such as James Cagney and William Powell, readily admitted that acting was a “business” and that it simply put bread on the table.
During her first four years at Warners, Kay was perceived as being compliant – taking any role they offered. She did complain about her brief role in Wonder Bar (1934), but so did everyone associated with it. No one wanted to work with Al Jolson. In 1937, Kay was excited about her agreement with Warners to play in the sophisticated comedy Tovarich. She anticipated another Trouble in Paradise. They gave Tovarich to Claudette Colbert, and Kay began her battle with the studio. (Kay was also upset when Warners refused her opportunities to work in important roles at other studios.) As Bette Davis and Cagney had already fought it out with Jack and Harry Warner, the brothers were not willing to let their highest paid star, Kay Francis, do the same. For punishment, they put her through an humiliating experience. Out of the ashes of Kay’s career, rose Bette Davis. Roles intended for Kay in The Sisters, Dark Victory, and Juarez fell into Davis’ lap, along with Kay’s posh bungalow dressing-room.
Kay was interested in bringing certain projects to the screen that she believed in. She wanted to film the story of Tristan and Isolde, and was also attracted to the romantic-spiritual qualities in the popular Mildred Cram novel Forever. Although these projects never materialized, she did get Jack Warner to buy the story of Empress Carlotta and Maximilian, Mexico’s would-be Mexican emperor. By the time the film (Juarez) was made, the role was handed over to Bette Davis.
Moira: Some very successful actresses in Kay‘s time in Hollywood formed good working relationships with certain directors, often doing their best work. For example, Miriam Hopkins with Ernst Lubitsch, Bette Davis with William Wyler, and Katharine Hepburn with George Cukor. While her work with Lubitsch in Trouble in Paradise marks a high point of Kay‘s career, do you think she had much luck working with good directors?
Scott: Kay worked with George Cukor in Virtuous Sin (1930) and Girls About Town (1931). She pulls off some highly dramatic moments in the former, and Cukor is just coming into his own with the zesty Girls About Town. It would have been interesting to see Kay and Cukor paired a decade later. By that time, Kay was mostly working with a “smoothly functioning cog” like George Marshall. Kay did fine work with King Vidor in Cynara (1932)—well worth seeing.
When Kay was sought out by a top director like William Wyler, for Dodsworth (in the Mary Astor role) – Warners would not loan her out. Opportunities like this could have made a real difference in her career. And, yes, she was disappointed at losing this role.
Moira: Was Kay bitter about her treatment at Warner Brothers?
Scott: On May 17, 1940, Kay wrote in her diary, “Made up with Jack Warner!” I would guess this was just a temporary fix. Her friend Jetti said that Kay was deeply troubled by her treatment at Warners and did not like elaborating on the subject. She never really got over it, but at the same time, she didn’t dwell on it. Jetti felt that Kay was a person who lived “very much in the present.”
Moira: It sometimes seems that when Kay tried to play a meaty, prestige part, such as Florence Nightingale in The White Angel (1936), directed by William Dieterle, things inevitably went poorly, though her intelligent and dramatic presence in far less prestigious parts lent them enormous élan. Was she aware of this apparently contradictory aspect of her career?
Scott: Yes, Kay was aware of this, and she could joke about it. In the “far less prestigious” The House on 56th Street (1933), Kay’s élan made her a “power to be reckoned with at the box-office.” Kay just shook her head and observed, “If it does better than my other films, it’s because I parade thirty-six costumes instead of sixteen.” I think the real problems with The White Angel, (Kay can be seen in costume for the film, at right), aside from the production code, were the British “advisors” that hovered over the set, and a poorly conceived script. Kay was advised that the only way they could film Nightingale’s story was to present her as something noble and “beyond reach.” Nightingale’s life is presented dishonestly. From what I have read, Nightingale was a gutsy, down-to-earth woman. She fought for health care for prostitutes, battled with Queen Victoria, and was a trail-blazing social activist and visionary. Kay knew what she was up against. When she got the script for The White Angel she had a foreboding, and jotted in her diary, “Read my new script. Dear God!”
Moira: In his article on Kay Francis for TCM this month, Robert Osborne mentions that in the 1950s, Kay’s name was mentioned as a possible casting choice for a role at Warner Brothers. Reportedly, Jack Warner didn’t consider her for any part then, despite her long tenure at the studio. Do you think he bore some enmity toward her?
Scott: It was rumored that in 1953, Kay was approached by someone, she thought represented Warners, for the mother role in The Helen Morgan Story (1957). Judy Garland was mentioned for the lead. By the time the film was made, Ann Blyth, took over the role. Kay was reported to have wired Jack Warner to see if she was really being considered. He supposedly wired back, “No, Kay. We never even thought about you.” It’s not true that Jack Warner wouldn’t consider Kay for parts, as she had already returned to Warners for 1942’s Always in My Heart.
Scott: Some consider Kay’s association with Monogram as the nadir of her cinematic legacy. Well, perhaps it was. However, Kay was enthusiastic about being a co-producer, lining up and finding actors, stories, and doing it all “under budget.” This was something new for her. Kay liked the challenge. It was also profitable. She made money. It was fortunate that she was paged to join the cast of Broadway’s State of the Union in 1946. It re-established her as an important name … on stage. It also took Kay back east permanently, which was her intention ever since she went to Hollywood. The studio system mistreated a number of talented actresses as they got older. When good offers weren’t forthcoming, they sometimes settled for second best. Look at a great dramatic actress like Ann Harding, who settled for the undemanding role of a dorm mother in Nine Girls, and the insignificant mother-role in Janie. In 1940, Harding had tested with MGM for The Yearling opposite Spencer Tracy, but MGM asked the typical movie-mogul question, “She’s great, but is she box-office?” By 1942, I’m sure Kay was perceived in the same short-sighted light.
Moira: Do you think that Kay wanted to retire? Some authors have hinted that her last years were not particularly happy. Do you think that she enjoyed it?
Scott: Kay retired in 1954. She had plans to appear in the comedy Traveler’s Joy at the Niagara Falls theater in January 1955. However, I suspect a mishap and fracture that occurred during her appearance on the CBS show Strike it Rich, in December, was the final blow to her stage career. Her close friend Jetti Ames told me that due to an accident in 1948 (leg burns), Kay already had a difficult time standing for long periods of time. Jetti said that Kay would have enjoyed doing more plays, but, physically, it was just too much of a strain. Kay was wealthy, she had a lovely apartment on East 64th Street (an entire floor), and a summer home on Cape Cod’s Popponesset Beach. She spent holidays with her friends, Jetti and Lou Ames, and their sons, Jonathan and Tabor, who were Kay’s godsons. Kay also had a circle of friends in New York. Once retired, Kay was no longer involved with show business. She did not enjoy talking about her film career, mostly because of her treatment from Warner Brothers. In 1963, when author James Robert Parish, approached her in regard to a career article he was writing about her, Kay was indifferent. She did not want to talk about the past. Jetti, Lou, and Kay’s godsons all talk highly of Kay and what a delight she was to be around. However, when Lou, who was a film buff, asked questions about Kay’s film career she did not encourage him. As I mentioned, Jetti said Kay had confided that her treatment at Warners was her “great struggle.”
So, was Kay happy in retirement? I would say she was grateful for what she had accomplished. She enjoyed her independence. She appreciated the money she had earned that afforded her the ability to be responsible for her own person. After 1960, she had to deal with physical ailments and operations – par for the course for someone who was fond of alcohol, and had been a life-long smoker. At this point in her life, Kay accepted her “vices” willingly, and did not judge herself.
In the 1940’s, during her work with the Naval Aid Auxiliary Hospital in Corona, California, Kay had held the hand of a number of dying servicemen until they had “crossed over.” She was the perfect person for such a task. Kay had stated that one of the most profound and beautiful experiences in life was seeing, “the face of a dead person, who has known great pain and is released.” Kay believed deeply in helping to relieve suffering in people’s lives. Her legacy continues, in this respect, from the million dollar bequest she gave to Seeing Eye Inc., where they train guide dogs for the blind. Her gift continues to make a real difference in the independent lives of the blind.
A Top Ten List of Kay Francis Movies to See This Month:
Moira: Scott, as an expert on all things to do with Kay Francis, could you please mention what makes each of her best films worthwhile to you as well as to the newer Kay fan?
1.) Trouble in Paradise (1932): Kay postponed her honeymoon to do this film. It was rare for her to work with a top-notch director. Lubitsch brought things out in Kay that helped make this her best all-around film. Kay brings a delicious humor to the proceedings. She’s intoxicating. (THIS is the film to see if you are not familiar with Kay Francis). Below: A sublime triangle in Ernst Lubitsch‘s film, featuring Kay, Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall at their zenith.
2.) One Way Passage (1932): Kay’s best outing with William Powell. Director Tay Garnett kept the tempo brisk, and with a supporting cast like Aline MacMahon, Warren Hymer and Frank McHugh, he couldn’t go wrong. Powell enjoyed working with Kay (they were a popular screen-team, before he met up with Myrna Loy). He told writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, “Kay is as responsive as a violin. I love to talk out scenes and business with her. She’s a wonder, really.” Below: Kay with William Powell in the shipboard romance.
3.) Confession (1937)* : I have met a number of people who become “hooked” on Kay after seeing this 1937 film, which has an exceptional narrative structure and plot. Kay carries the film dramatically. Variety thought Confession to be “her most important production in several years.” Kay noted that the director, Joe May, was “driving everyone crazy” on the set, (even allegedly having the actors perform to the pace of a metronome). Jane Bryan, who plays Kay’s daughter, concurred, saying May had them “marching through the film like sleepwalkers.” But, somehow, it all works. Below: Filming Confession with Basil Rathbone.
4.) In Name Only (1939): Kay’s first film after leaving Warners was considered a solid “comeback” for her. She embodies the role of Cary Grant’s venomous wife, and she plays it in spades. She’s cold, cruel, calculating and fascinating. Below: A duplicitous Kay with Nella Walker, Charles Coburn and Cary Grant in a scene from In Name Only. Though bad girl Kay gets her due, her character has her reasons for her game.
5.) House on 56th Street (1933): A giant box-office hit for Warners. Critics cheered Kay’s portrayal in which she moves from motherhood-to prison inmate-to card shark. One reviewer put it succinctly, “Miss Francis is one of the blessed who never overact. She has converted the rest of the cast, who behave like human beings throughout.”
6.) Give Me Your Heart (1936): Kay gives this tear-jerker class by her intelligence and ability to show vulnerability. The New York Times complimented the film, calling it “an affecting, mature and sophisticated drama of mother love.” The high-point is a scene between Kay and the woman who is raising a child Kay had out of wed-lock. The same review noted, “It is a crackling scene they have contrived.” It was films like Give Me Your Heart, filled with fashion and tears, that made money for Warners. This film genre also kept Kay “stuck” professionally.
7.) Mandalay (1934): Exotica par none. To discover how Kay can pull off the impossible, see this. She’s a trollop in Rangoon, who finds redemption while on board a steamer headed for Mandalay. After pairing up with an alcoholic doctor (Lyle Talbot) and sort-of murdering her ex-pimp boyfriend (Ricardo Cortez), things begin to look on the bright side. Another Warner film that made a whopping profit. Below: Kay in a whopper of an outfit designed by Orry-Kelly for the film, Mandalay.
8.) Keyhole (1933): This film from 1933, established the formula for Kay’s tenure at Warners: clothes, jewels, sophistication, heartbreak, blackmail, pulsating romantic interludes, an ex-lover who meets his doom, and above all, Kay. The Los Angeles Times commented, “… there is Kay Francis herself, as warm and appealing a personality the screen has to offer. There is a lack of artificiality about Miss Francis that makes her refreshing.”
9.) Notorious Affair (1930): After borrowing Kay from Paramount, Warners took note of Kay’s potential during the production of this film. She smoldered on celluloid. Warners made her an offer she couldn’t resist. It was a smart move, career-wise. Notorious Affair, has Kay playing the scheming Countess Olga, London’s most daring horsewoman, who is also a sensation in her boudoir. In spite of her wild role, Kay makes Basil Rathbone and Billie Dove appear like foolish incompetents. It’s amazing to watch Kay put them both in the shade.
10.) Another Dawn (1937): This is my personal favorite. Kay’s beauty was at its peak. Based on a Somerset Maugham short story, Kay finds herself falling for dashing Errol Flynn in a remote British desert outpost. During exquisitely photographed interludes, the romantic duo philosophize about life, while Kay’s husband (Ian Hunter) is absorbed in plans to battle a pesky desert sheik. The film was shot with two endings. Had Flynn gone to meet his doom at the finish, the film would have had far more dramatic impact. Eric Wolfgang Korngold wrote a impressive score, which was chopped up during editing. A number of scenes are missing. Still, Another Dawn is wonderful to look at, and the performances are all keyed nicely to the mood Maugham intended. Below: A romantically yearning Kay with a very young Errol Flynn in Another Dawn. Off camera, Kay “saw too much of his boyish mischief to be fooled by his charm.” She added, with a sigh, “That boy hasn’t one camera angle that isn’t perfect. It’s quite appalling.”
Runners up: Cynara, Man Wanted, Street of Women, Allotment Wives, Mary Stevens, M.D.
Moira: Thanks so much for bringing your encyclopediac knowledge and insight into Kay Francis to the Movie Morlocks, Scott. Since I enjoyed your book on Kay so much, could you please tell me if you have anything planned for the future?
Broer, Lawrence R., Walther, John Daniel, Dancing Fools and Weary Blues: The Great Escape of the Twenties, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990.
I was amused to find when reading Scott’s book that his commitment to writing about Kay came at a screening of Confession (1937) and with some encouragement from a critic Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Chronicle, who really helped to inspire his interest in this relatively obscure lady. Personally, after my jaw dropped over the wonderfully ludicrous yet stylish costumes she wore in several scenes, her incredibly long eyebrows and all the sturm und drang in overdrive, I was completely won over–not so much by the scads of loopy glamour on display in Confession, but because of the woman who embodied it.
I had only a vague idea about who Kay Francis was while watching this Joe May directed movie, which was adapted from a German-made Pola Negri film called Mazurka. I’m not sure if my fealty was won by the outrageousness of the dramatic situations, the elaborate costuming of Francis, the delicious oiliness of Basil Rathbone, or the surprisingly skillful tenderness of certain scenes between Kay and the ingénue Jane Bryan. In any case, it’s a pip!
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