I Found Stella Parish 1935
Kay Francis in
"I Found Stella Parish" 
This melodrama directed by the usually reliable Melvyn LeRoy is quite a mess. LeRoy directed I am A Fugitive from A Chain Game with Paul Muni 1932, The Wizard of Oz, Gold Diggers of 1933, Quo Vadis and some 80 other pictures during a long career, so perhaps there is some other source for all the confusion in the film's tone, story logic, and poor Kay Francis (and her famous lisp) forced to assume a variety of vocal disguises during the course of this predictable story. (The abuse of Francis' lisp makes me suspicious that the film is a casualty of the war between Francis' and her Warner Bros bosses. The story I have often read is that they deliberately went out of their way to sabotage her on more than one occasion, and would deliberately insert "r" words into scripts to take advantage of her difficulty in pronouncing them.)
The screenplay is by Casey Robinson, from a John Monk Saunders story, the man who wrote the 1927 Wings, the melancholic extravaganza The Last Flight from 1931, and the somewhat depressive Erroll Flynn 38' Dawn Patrol. (Possibly indicating a trend: Saunders killed himself following his divorce from actress Fay Wray in 1939.)
"We Americans are a fun-loving people.
We'll pay just about anything to look at a freak.
That's what I am now, a freak."
Stella Parish (Kay Francis) to her friend Nana (Jessie Ralph)
after realizing what few avenues are left to her in showbiz.
Tragedy and Humiliation
As a "weeper," I Found Stella Parish tells the story of a secretive stage actress (Kay Francis) who has risen to fame and fortune in London (apparently employing a blonde wig to help disguise her identity onstage and off), but has to sacrifice everything to protect her daughter when her past comes back to haunt her in the guise of a brutal ex-husband who framed her for murder long years before when the actress had a different name. This sounds like a dependable plot for an early 30s pre-code drama in which the put-upon wife/ ex-wife/mother /daughter or what have you will win out in the end, even if it requires (usually male) bloodshed. However, by 1935 there were quite a few restraints being put around Hollywood content, and it strikes me that I Found Stella Parish falls into that before/after period that affected many films (for example James Whale and his 1935 movie Bride of Frankenstein which had a long fight to get its story passed censors.)
The comeuppance I expected to see fall upon the head of the sleazy, evil ex-husband doesn't appear - - indeed we barely see him in the film. On the night of Stella Parish's great stage triumph in "The Brief Hour," which seems to be about Emperor Caligula's wife finding redemption before her execution in Ancient Rome, the ex-husband appears (the play seems to be an obvious allusion to Stella's predicament).
[Below: Stella (Kay Francis) discovers ex-husband Cliff Jeffords in her dressing room (actor Barton Maclane).
Ex-husbands are dangerous
We see her former husband Cliff Jeffords only in silhouette where he sits smoking in Stella's dressing room. He gleefully announces his plans to blackmail her with her past history, with Stella silently melting into tears from the shock at knowing her life is being pulled apart again. Kay Francis' heart-tugging silence would have been a terrific scene in a better movie, but in the mish-mash of I Found Stella Parish it's just one of many frequent close-ups of Kay suffering. The movie then promptly switches to the play's producer trying to find Stella, she was due to show up at a victory party celebrating the play's box office success.
[Below: Kay Francis (as Stella Parish) finds her ex-husband has surfaced with plans to blow her new life apart. Francis' combines shock, anguish, and a smiling, self-deprecating knowledge all into one relatively short scene.]
And here is where the linear quality of the movie begins to fall apart. Stella is now suddenly fleeing London for America, and just happens to be tracked by the play's producer's buddy, Englishman reporter Keith Lockridge (actor Ian Hunter, probably most famous for his role as King Richard in the Erroll Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood). What happened to the ex-husband and his threats? The scene with Stella and Jeffords ended in a long black-out - - does that imply something? Is his body in one of those steamer trunks Parish has hustled into a moving company van? Is the ex-husband still in England? Who knows, the character has simply vanished from the movie. Later, Nana (Jessie Ralph) will lament that she didn't get a chance to strangle Jeffords, and Stella will renew her vow to protect her child, so that "he can't touch her," but she is looking off into the distance as if there is something unsaid about vanished Jeffords.
[Below: Actors Will Stanton, Paul Lucas and Ian Hunter.]
Tone and genre confusion
The English reporter uses bribes and alcohol to get Parish's former hired help to reveal where she was headed (nearly all of the English characters in this film seem like refugees from a James Whale movie, they're eccentric and slightly goofy), and he picks up her trail just in time to board a trans-Atlantic cruise ship that has her on board. He keeps searching the ship but can't find Stella; she's actually right under his nose, disguised as "Auntie" Lumilla Evans to her little daughter (actress Sybil Jason).
A few screwball comedy contretemps follow, with Lockridge repeatedly stepping on Parish' toes at the ship's store, and Kay Francis in an "Auntie" disguise and playing it for laughs. This shift in the tone of the movie is quite extreme, and it's as if we've wandered into a third-rate Fred Astaire movie where he is bumbling along trying to meet Ginger Rogers. Obviously our hero and heroine need to meet at some point, but this hero is a jerk and this lady was (previously) dedicated to staying away from all men. Maybe LeRoy thought some slapstick humor might soften up the crustiness of these two being together, but instead it is distracting and causes the other flaws of unevenness to be that much more obvious.
More Kay Francis
Original page September 25, 2008 | Updated June 2011
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