Kay Francis: Secrets of an Actress
New Books Reveal the "Wavishing" Star
"I'm not a star, I'm a woman, and I want to get fucked!"
A combination clotheshorse/workhorse, Kay Francis made 67 films from 1929 to 1946. Her life and career are a splurging record of indulgent consumption and extravagant dissipation. Though her work is quite variable, Francis is generally more interesting to watch than everyone else around her, even when she's just walking through a crazy-quilt soap opera. She was made for the camera: sleepy sloe eyes set wide apart, a large, tempting mouth, thick raven black hair, orchid-in-the-moonlight skin, and strange, slanted eyebrows (she's asked if she wants them done up as "plaintive" or "penetrating" in Transgression, 1931). Her ability to wear clothes made her an icon of the 30's, and she was especially appealing in backless evening gowns and hats that hid half of her face. Francis' detractors said she was a star just because women wanted to see what she'd be wearing next, but she was much more than that. Francis gives herself to the camera completely and you can read all of her emotions she's usually slightly out-of-it and weary, and this functions as part of her open-faced charm. Also charming is her most notorious drawback, a lisp that turned all of her r's into w's, which made her easy to mock.
In a late '30 s interview, Francis said, "I can't wait to be forgotten," and she was for a long time. During the nineties, Turner Classic Movies started playing a lot of her films and she won some new fans. One of these Kay converts was Lynn Kear who, along with John Rossman, has written the first biography of this dark lady of the early talkies, Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career.1
George Cukor said that the great stars had a secret, and Francis' face always seemed to carry a particularly wicked one. Kear and Rossman reveal Kay's secrets in their book by decoding a diary she kept that detailed her many amorous encounters with both sexes. After a certain point, Francis always seemed tired on screen, blurry and dissolute. Considering her workload at the studios and in her bedroom, it's a wonder she made it out of the thirties alive.
Francis was born Katharine Gibbs in 1905. Her mother was an actress who possibly turned to prostitution on the side; to get away from such sordidness, Francis married young and spent a good part of the roaring twenties trying to break into the theater. She usually drank a tumbler of gin for breakfast, got bored very easily, and slept around indiscriminately, racking up a high number of abortions (if anyone needed birth control, it was Kay). Walter Huston helped Francis get her first movie part in Gentleman of the Press
(1929) as a butch-haired vamp, and she went on to all manner of small roles at Paramount studios. She had no great ambitions as an actress Francis simply wanted to make as much money as possible to avoid her mother's fate.
In the Marx Brothers' first film The Coconuts (1929), flapper vamp Kay does a nice bit of physical comedy with Harpo involving a walking stick, and for Leo McCarey's Let's Go Native (1930), a wonderfully bad little musical, Francis compellingly talk-sings her way through a love song. She was clearly game for anything and graduated to leading-lady duty for Ronald Colman in Raffles (1930) and William Powell in several films. Then, in two movies for George Cukor, Francis started to take chances. In The Virtuous Sin (1930), she turned her star power on full force to entice Walter Huston, and in Girls About Town (1931), she sexily romanced Joel McCrea. In the latter film, as party girls Francis and Lilyan Tashman force smiles at their extremely old johns, a hectic drinking montage includes a close-up of Francis' tear-stained face as she tries to have fun. This unguarded moment is emblematic of the Kay Francis we get to know in Kear and Rossman's book.
Francis left Paramount for Warner Brothers, who were willing to pay her more money. It started off well at first, with two classics in a row: Jewel Robbery (1932), a bubbly comedy alive with ribald innuendo and special (marijuana) cigarettes; and One Way Passage (1932), a rarified soap opera spiked with comedy that displayed real chemistry between William Powell and Francis (he's a convict going to the chair, and she's dying of Glamorous Movie Disease.) Passage is only 68 minutes, and that brief running time adds to the piquant conviction and "time is running out" mood of the movie, which was Francis' favorite. She then made her best film, Ernst Lubitsch's masterpiece Trouble in Paradise (1932), the ultimate sophisticated comedy, and Francis' biggest claim on film history.
"I'll take it," Francis says, in her first scene, as she buys a purse, and this could be Kay's real-life motto. As Madame Colet, a pampered, highly sexed, sensual woman in love with creature comforts, Francis found her ideal role. She carries some of the film's most difficult moments, such as the scene where she says, "Yes, that's the trouble with mothers. First you get to like them, and then they die!" Francis says the lines simply, like a child, but she gives a real jolt of heartless sophistication to them, too. The slowness of the movie's rhythm suits her intrinsic languor perfectly: finally, after all the fast-paced programmers she had churned out, she can relax with Lubitsch and create. As Madame Colet sits and sips a cocktail, thinking about her lover in the next room and tingling with desire, Francis gives us a picture of a woman who indulges her senses to the utmost. She had ample practice off-screen.
Kear and Rossman's book quotes liberally from Francis' diary, even using pull quotes from it on many of the pages, so that you feel their subject is talking directly to you. Kay repeatedly calls herself a bitch and a slut, proclaims her pooped-out boredom, and runs down her list of conquests. "Had merciless afternoon with Maurice (Chevalier)," she reports. "Four times in two hours." Her taste ran to talented directors too, like Goulding, Mamoulian, Lang, and Preminger. She could be generous: "Had to sleep with her because she wanted me," says one entry. Francis' ennui comes across in the book, but so does her sense of humor.
Warner Brothers started throwing her into programmers right away, but she survived as a star for a few years. In a film like The House on 56th Street (1933), which has a completely ridiculous plot, Francis holds it together with her absolute seriousness. In some of her early films she tries a bit too hard, but at this point Francis knows that less is more on-screen. When she's faced with outlandish opportunities for suffering, Francis makes her face into a kind of Zen mask and stares straight out past the camera. This effect can be campy, and it's especially useful in the sleazy camp classic Mandalay (1934), where her growing tiredness makes her seem even sexier than usual. It's filled with depraved intimations, and contains perhaps the ultimate Francis "w" lines: "Gwegowy," she says, "the twain awwives in Mandaway tomowwow. We ah two wecked people." Kear and Rossman guess that an unexplained accident during the making of Dr. Monica (1934), another nothing programmer, was really a suicide attempt on Francis' part. When you see her burned-out, despairing eyes in that film, you believe it.
But Francis bounced back from the doldrums in the mid-thirties with two excellent Frank Borzage romances, Living on Velvet and Stranded (both 1935). The first film has a superb Love at First Sight moment between Francis and George Brent: the camera whips back and forth between them as they maintain eye contact and try to listen to a couple of bores. When they go out on the town later, Francis actually kids her lisp. Brent points it out, which leads Francis to recite a poem, deliberately emphasizing the "w" sounds. "Now you know everything!" she cries. Such honesty presages real Borzagian spiritual romance (or womance). In Stranded, Francis plays a woman who does social work because she likes to, even though she has a private income. George Brent's sexist engineer wants her to give up her job; in most thirties movies, she would. But Francis gets him to come around to her way of thinking after she impressively harangues a group of his workers.
This feminist strain in Francis was intensified in The White Angel
(1936), a bio-pic of Florence Nightingale that proved a huge flop and hurt her career. But it's one of her best performances: serious, impassioned, single-minded. Her Nightingale is a woman who finds all the meaning of her life in her work, bypassing romantic love completely. Francis is surprisingly believable as a fanatic; there's an obsessive quality in her burning eyes that isn't comfortable. For once, she doesn't have to bring off crazy clothes or put over silly dialogue, and for the first and only time, she doesn't have to be sexy. She seems miscast in the opening scenes, even campy, but as the film goes on she focuses the simplistic material, dispelling the saintliness of the role by emphasizing Nightingale's drive. This much-maligned movie (and performance) is in need of re-evaluation.
After the failure of The White Angel
, Warners seems to have lost confidence in its high-paid star, and they started to give her the worst scripts they could find at the bottom of their drawers. Eventually, she was trapped in the tawdriest B movies, real horrors like Comet Over Broadway
(1938) and Women in the Wind
(1939). Reviewers gallantly came to her defense, but Francis continued to collect her money quietly. The actress who had shown so many different colors for Cukor, Lubitsch, and Borzage was shabbily cast into the wilderness. Her friend Carole Lombard came to her rescue with a strong part as a meanie wife in In Name Only
(1939), but after that Francis drifted further. Her final films were produced (by herself) at the Poverty Row studio Monogram. In one of her last movies, Allotment Wives
(1945), a knock-off of Mildred Pierce
(1945), Francis has a perfect exit: after police gun her down, she puts on her best poker face to crack, "Nice shooting!" before falling dead down a staircase. A year later, her career in films ended with Phil Karlson's Wife Wanted
Francis toured in the theater for a while in undemanding drawing-room comedies, then retired for good in the fifties. Health problems plagued her and she drank heavily. Toward the end, Kear and Rossman report, one friend had to hold her up outside a restaurant as they waited for a cab. An onlooker asked, "Is that Kay Francis?" Francis smiled drunkenly and said, "It used to be." As she started to drink more, many of her friends were forced to abandon her, and she became reclusive. When she died in 1968, she left the bulk of her million-dollar estate to an organization that trains guide dogs for the blind, a classy gesture.
From the evidence of Kear and Rossman's book, Francis seems to have been a basically melancholy woman who went to great lengths in pursuit of pleasure. She made too many bad, listless movies, and they diluted the sparkle of her best work. Many people jeered at her leaning on wardrobe and her lisp, but those who watch Turner Classic Movies late at night know that Kay Francis movies can become an addiction when you look at her, you know that all the most salacious stories about old Hollywood are based in truth. A famous (perhaps apocryphal) anecdote defines her: on vacation with Andy Lawler, a willing gay retainer, Francis drunkenly pounded on his door and shouted, "I'm not a star, I'm a woman,
and I want to get fucked!" Kay Francis was the ultimate purveyor of easy-virtue glamour, projecting the lure of soiled, sated goods, lighting up the screen far more effectively than more technical actresses of the time like Ruth Chatterton or Ann Harding, who handled similar material without her droll enervation and special chic.
1. There is also another Kay Francis biography on the market, Scott O' Brien's I Can't Wait to be Forgotten, which boasts an introduction from Turner Classic's Movie's host Robert Osborne. It goes into more detail about her performances and her films, even describing her radio appearances. The book also has photos from Kay's later years, and the testimony of her close friend Jetti Ames. All in all, it offers a more positive spin on Francis' life. Both books are of value for the Francis fan.