Posted by Susan Doll on September 30, 2013
Depression-era star Kay Francis is on my radar these days. Recently, I had occasion to research one of her films, The White Angel; also, I inherited many of her movies from my movie-collecting friend who passed away earlier this year. While the name Kay Francis is probably familiar to movie buffs and avid TCM viewers, I am sure the average movie-goer is thinking, “Kay who?”
In the mid-1930s, Kay Francis was Warner Bros.’s highest paid actor. Signed to WB in 1932 after making 17 films for Paramount, she peaked in the early Depression era playing sharply dressed, sophisticated women who excelled in the game of romance. Sometimes her character suffered for love; sometimes, she caused the suffering of others. A typical storyline might find Francis straying in her marriage because her husband neglected her, as in Transgression. Or, any romance for her was simply doomed because she had a terminal illness, as in One Way Passage. Francis was renowned for her fashion sense, and part of her star image mandated that her characters wear the latest gowns, suits, and accessories. Her tall, sleek, model-like figure was tailor made for the long lines and dropped waists of 1930s clothing.
The milieu of many of Francis’s films was that of Café Society, where ladies of leisure toyed with good men’s affections, or well-bred women fell hopelessly in love with ruthless businessmen or careless cads. Francis was acquainted with Café Society, because she had married into at age 17. If past life experiences provide fodder for an actor to draw upon for emotionally compelling performances, then Kay Francis had plenty to choose from. The daughter of a singer-actress, Katherine Gibbs grew up in New York. She quit school in her last year to attend a secretarial college, landing a job as an assistant to Juliana Cutting. Cutting was famous for arranging social events, balls, and debutante debuts for blue bloods, which provided an opportunity for young Kay to meet wealthy bachelors from established families. In 1922, she married one—James Dwight Francis. Eighteen months later, the marriage was over, but hobnobbing with the elite has its advantages. After the marriage failed, one of James’s aunts took Kay to Europe.
In Paris, Kay became part of the Lost Generation, where she took up with a different “café society.” She haunted the sidewalk cafes and clubs, drinking the nights away with would-be poets and painters. Without a vocation or goal, Francis felt she was wasting her life, so she returned to New York. Using her ability to wear clothes (a skill she honed in Paris), and her mother’s experiences as her own, she talked her way into a part in a Broadway play, but the production folded in try-outs. She understudied with Katherine Cornell before finally landing a part in a version of Hamlet set in contemporary times.
While establishing an acting career, she earned money by modeling. The 1920s was a heyday for magazines and newspapers, which depended on illustrations for visuals. Illustrators gained fans and followers, often becoming celebrities. Francis posed for many prominent illustrators, including Charles Baskerville who worked for Vanity Fair. After Francis became a star, she attracted the attention of illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, who drew the iconic WWI poster in which Uncle Sam points his finger directly at the viewer to declare, “I want you.” Flagg was enchanted with Francis and drew her on several occasions.
Ever enamored with the night life, Francis frequented the clubs and speakeasies of Manhattan almost every night till dawn, usually double-dating with her roommate Lois Long. The two were fond of Texas Guinan’s 300 Club, where the elite of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley could be found. Though it was Prohibition, the girls had little trouble finding liquor, often buying directly from Frank Costello, who at the time was working with Lucky Luciano for mob boss Joseph Masseria. Costello and Luciano supplied liquor to the clubs in Harlem, including Owney Madden’s famed Cotton Club. Francis and Long frequented an African American joint in Harlem called the Owl Club, where female singers picked up tips with their inner thighs, or other parts of their anatomy. One night, gangsters stormed into the tiny club with guns blazing. One of the two men escorting Francis and Long that night had the presence of mind to tip over a couple of tables and hustle the girls behind the tops. Kay Francis lived in the fast lane, which is a difficult road to travel, yet it leaves its mark in the form of a sophisticated world view and a broad range of experiences.
In 1928, Francis took a screen test for Paramount and appeared in a couple of films in New York before the studio sent her to Hollywood. Biographers and film scholars declare her best film to be Trouble in Paradise, which was made for Paramount. However, it was Warner Bros. that honed her image and made her a star. She exhibited chemistry with costar William Powell, and the two were paired for six films, including Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage. When she costarred in Living on Velvet with George Brent, WB liked the onscreen energy of its new stars and reteamed them for five more movies. In 1936, Francis became WB’s highest paid actress.
Ironically, in that same year, Francis’s career took a rapid downward turn and never recovered. After constructing her image as a sophisticated modern woman who struggled with romance and love, the studio cast her in lThe White Angel, a biopic of Florence Nightingale. Nightingale eschewed romance, never married, and insisted on wearing the long, drab-looking nurses’ uniform of the 19th century. Casting against a major star’s image sometimes works for a studio. In this case, it was a complete failure. Much of the blame was placed on Francis, and to this day, the primary comment made about The White Angel is that she was hopelessly miscast. However, biopics of the Golden Age are notorious for pious, earnest dialogue, swelling music, overwritten scripts, and overwrought performances. The White Angel suffered more than most from these conventions.
What WB did to Francis and her career after this film illustrates the dark side of the star system. It likely started with producer Hal Wallis who was profoundly disappointed in the box office failure of The White Angel. He was unhappy with director William Dieterle, blaming him for what he termed Francis’s emotionless performance. After that, she seemed to get little respect from the studio. She asked to star in a film called The Sisters, but the studio denied her request. She was promised Tovarich, but it went to freelancer Claudette Colbert. Francis then sued WB for breach of contract, but she withdrew the suit. WB assumed that Francis would ask for an early release from the studio, but she decided to wait out her contract. Harry Warner offered to buy out her contract several times, but she felt it was more financially prudent to collect her lucrative salary. The studio instigated a campaign of harassment and humiliation. Though they claimed there were no suitable projects for her, she was still required to report to the studio every day. They assigned Francis to do screen tests with newcomers, a task movie stars rarely did unless they had a stake in the unknown performer’s discovery. She was required to be on set by 9:00am, but she was deliberately not called until the afternoon. If she refused to cooperate, the studio was prepared to suspend her without pay. Other stars came to her defense, including Bette Davis and James Cagney, who personally appealed to Harry Warner. Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The low point came when WB denied Francis’s request to bring two guests to the commissary for lunch, deliberately humiliating her.
Two incidents prompted WB to cast her in upcoming films. Francis spread a rumor that she intended to write a book about her career when her contract expired, which shook up Harry and Jack Warner. Then, the entertainment press got wind of the studio’s treatment of Francis, who was a popular subject in the fanzines. Unfortunately, she was cast in mediocre films and even handed over to the studio’s b-unit for King of the Underworld. Her billing was minimized, and studio insiders swore that someone at the top requested numerous script changes to include words in her dialogue with the letter “r.” Francis had worked hard in her early career to master a lisp, but she still had the occasional problem with the letter “r.” Supposedly, words like “moronic” were added to scripts to pressure her.
Free of WB in 1939, she freelanced for a few films, even signing a three-picture deal with Monogram that allowed her to coproduce. But, she had soured on Hollywood and spent most of WWII touring military bases for the USO. She returned to the stage after the war and concluded her career in the 1950s appearing on live television programming, which she hated. She died in 1968, leaving her modest fortune to Seeing Eye, Inc., which trained dogs for the blind.
Many Golden Age stars made guest appearances on television shows in the 1960s and 1970s (Love Boat, anyone?), showed up regularly on talk shows to reminisce about the glory days of Hollywood, or starred in musical revivals on Broadway and in Las Vegas, which introduced them to younger generations. But, Francis had become a recluse during the 1950s. At the height of her troubles with Warner Bros., and never one to play the publicity game, she told an interviewer, “I can’t wait to be forgotten.” She certainly got her wish. Film historians and biographers credit Turner Classic Movies with reviving some interest in her career, because they began to broadcast her films in the 1990s. But, Kay Francis lacks the name recognition among the general public that Davis, Hepburn, Crawford, Monroe, Bacall, and even Harlow have.
Those who have never heard of Kay Francis might ask, “Who cares? Why should we remember her?” Aside from the perspective into the star system that her career provides, Kay Francis and her star image represent an interesting moment in Hollywood history. In the early 1930s, the studios recognized that the female audience was underserved. Not only were there a lot of female movie fans, but women in a family or in a couple often decided which movie to see. Studio execs began courting female stars in order to create stories centered around women, work, and romance (or, even sexuality in the pre-Code era). Kay Francis embodied a version of the modern woman, who came of age during the liberated Jazz Age. Fanzines re-enforced Francis’s star image by emphasizing key parts of her life story—the mother who was an actress, a cosmopolitan upbringing, her fashion sense, and her time spent in Europe. The studios tailored film roles to Francis’s image, which meant they were creating depictions of modern women in the work place, women living independently of husbands and family, and women recognizing their sexuality. Even if the films ended conventionally, they offered female viewers stories centered around women’s problems, concerns, and issues.
In that regard, the films of Kay Francis are more relevant than today’s Hollywood movies in which women’s roles have been reduced to playing second fiddle and female characters are too often defined by their relationship to males.
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