Kay Francis

Kay Francis 1905-1968

Passion Flower Kay Francis Kay Francis from Passion Flower (1930)

Kay Francis

Kay Francis is an archetype of the early sound stars: huge box office through the early 1930s, moving to supporting roles (e.g., It's A Date, the 1940 film with child star Deanna Durbin in the lead) and then starring in minor films (Little Men, 1940, playing the adult Jo March) when the decade was over.

Robert Osborne's "mini bio" from the September TCM Now Playing has it this way:

"For several years (1933-1937) she was also the undisputed queen of Warner Bros. studio, the one name among company's female contingent which was a guaranteed draw at the box office, a position she enjoyed until the Massachusetts girl named Davis began sitting on the throne at that studio in 1938. But unlike Bette D., who fought for strong dramatic roles and recognition as an actress, Kay was famous for looking gorgeous and elegant while riddled with angst."

Katherine Francis (also "Katherine Edwina Gibbs") last film was a Monogram effort titled Wife Wanted (1946)*. After that it was retirement (and not just from films: she also ended her fifth and final marriage in 1946), but apparently enough events in her life are there to fill four biographies, all going into print in the last few years**.

Her "star" status has gone through a major renaissance in the last decade with TCM running some of her better movies regularly (a good example being the Ernst Lubitsch 1932 Trouble in Paradise) and a whole slate of melodramas that have found a new audience and fan base.

It is easy (and probably accurate) to categorize a lot of Kay Francis' films as "weepers" or soap operas. Despite the often threadbare mechanics of plot and writing, though, Francis' acting style seems to incorporate many ambiguities which often creates room to see more happening in a film than would seem apparent at first glance.

Now Playing GUide Cover Kay Francis

Cover subject of the TCM September 2008 Now Playing Guide

Four Key Kay Francis' Films

One Way Passage - Trouble In Paradise - In Name Only - Confession

One of her best movies, and a film that pushed her popularity to new levels, is the William Powell co-starring One Way Passage from Warners in 1932.

She has a strange terminal illness, and he is scheduled for execution with a death sentence in the states, and they meet aboard a cruise ship on its way across the Pacific.

Some light comedy is tossed in by Aline MacMahon and Frank McHugh as two con-artists working the cruise ship lines, and Warren Hymer as a stoic brick-house police sergeant determined to get felon Powell back to San Francisco. But these side-stories are just backdrop for the story of the two principals living on borrowed time.

One Way Passage was made in the heart of the American Depression, with the two stars doomed from the outset. The resulting romance is made epic when Powell's character deliberately blows his chances for escape so that he can care for the rapidly expiring Francis.

Kay plays doomed love well, and Powell is his usual dapper, snappy self, cheerily heading toward the electric chair because it's what a gentleman crook does in these circumstances.

Probably Francis' best film is the Lubitsch Trouble in Paradise (also 1932) where she is the extravagant owner of a French perfume company, and Herbert Marshall is the master-thief that worms his way carefully into her mansion posing as a consummate personal secretary and financial advisor.

Miriam Hopkins is on hand as the nominal lead female, playing a pickpocket who pretends to be a countess and then a secretary, trying to keep an eye on Herbert, who is secretly her husband and partner in crime.

The usual Lubitsch complications arrive in the form of love and desire, with his peculiar style of comedy and an array of dialogue that is unique to his films. Francis' character seems malleable, but is hardly gullible, and though Miriam Hopkins shares star billing, this film is clearly featuring Kay Francis.

A better known film is the Cary Grant-Carole Lombard "soaper" In Name Only (1939). Kay supposedly got this job against the wishes of the powers that be because of Carole Lombard's insistance.

Francis portrays the man-destroying Maida Walker, wife to Grant's character, a well-meaning fellow trapped into a loveless situation that is controlled and twisted by Francis' determination to get at the considerable wealth of his family.

Kay doesn't have a lot to do in this film except to exude false honesty and to be the target of the hatred of Cary Grant fans, and she pulls that off effortlessly.

Confession is the most unusual film of this set of four Kay Francis movies. She plays a classic martyred mother in an expertly made adaption of the German film Mazurka. Kay doesn't even appear for the first 25 minutes, but once she does, she is the center of the tale that is unwound carefully through court-room flashback sequences that covers the story and recovers it until the sense of who is good (Kay) and who is bad (Basil Rathbone) is clear. her restrained performance is quite a change from most of her other films, and shows what Warners Bros was capable of doing with their highest-paid star in a quality production when they weren't at war with her.

Lets go Native Kay Francis

Kay Francis [Above] from Let's Go Native (1930)

Kay Francis Faded Star?

[Written 2008]

For another look at the idea that Kay Francis' had faded toward the end of her 30s career, consider this quote from the Kay Francis bio page at Hollywood Legends:

"In a review published on March 4, 1939 in Motion Picture Herald for Kay’s 1938 disaster, Secrets of an Actress, one critic noted, “There is absolutely no excuse for releasing such a picture as this one proved to be. If [Warner Brothers] wants to kill off Kay Francis, they are doing a swell job of it.” Her treatment at the studio became so harsh she was eventually getting sympathy from James Cagney and Bette Davis, who petitioned to get Jack Warner to stop his cruel, vindictive actions."

After her Warner's contract ran out in 1942, Francis did a handful of movies, but she spent her real energy doing USO tours to entertain allied soldiers throughout Europe and North Africa. Touring with actress Carole Landis, who wrote a book about their adventures Four Jills in A Jeep, the book became a movie with Kay in the lead in 1944.

During this time span Kay also produced three low-budget films at Monogram, a "Poverty Row" studio. And with that she was done with Hollywood productions.

Francis' life after her film career seems to have been fairly sedate, considering the frantic pace of her existence up until then: as a child her mother apparently worked in show business and prostitution; a young Kay Francis broke into theatre work but had already commenced on a lifelong love-affair with alcohol (which she apparently gave in to completely when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1966, two years before her death.)

Pre-Code Kay Francis

Her current vogue may partially be from a modern view of pre-code Hollywood. "Pre-code" has gone through a major re-evaluation with the availability of so many films from the early 1930s becoming easily accessed for the first time since their original premier dates.

TCM has showcased many festivals of pre-code movies, and numerous times has had "mini-festivals" of Kay Francis films. But in September 2008 they're going all-out with a selection of 42 Kay Francis films, a majority career span on display considering her resume appears to have only 67 or so films on it. And nearly half of those films fall roughly into the "pre-code" era.

But it is probably more than that - - the original audience of films that appeared in the 30s and 40s have almost entirely disappeared. Most fans of "old movies" were not born yet in order to have a personal memory of those years and movies, but have instead been brought to them by television, books, or some other avenue except the one these films were made for: being seen in a movie theater.

And interestingly enough, the movie stars that rose to prominence originally in those earlier years of the motion picture rise right back into importance when their movies are sifted through by modern viewers. The giant libraries of old movies that are available for broadcast and on digital outlets today seem to be replaying the evolution of Hollywoods "golden age" over and over again. Whatever made Kay Francis stand out to a depression era America has made her stand out to a 21st century audience.

Kay Francis

More Kay Francis

Trouble in Paradise - 1932

I Found Stella Parish


Stolen Holiday - 1937

Guilty Hands - 1931

Confession - 1937

Trouble in Paradise

This page Footnotes:

* According to the IMDB record, Kay Francis also did a couple of early TV appearances in 1951 for the Lux Video Theatre and Prudential Family Playhouse programs.

** The books are: (1) Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten - Her Life on Film and Stage by Scott O'Brien and Robert Osborne (Paperback - Sep 20, 2007); AMAZON Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten: Her Life on Film and Stage(2) Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career by Lynn Kear and John Rossman (Paperback - Jan 11, 2006); (3) The Complete Kay Francis Career Record: All Film, Stage, Radio and Television Appearances by Lynn Kear, John Rossman, and James Robert Parish ; (4) Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to Be Forgotten by Scott O'brien (Paperback - Jan 1, 2006) AMAZON Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career

Original page Summer 2008 | Updated Dec 2016

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