She was regally tall—at 5 foot 9 inches the lankiest female star Hollywood’s Golden Age—with an impeccable
sense of style. The critics called her a clothes horse. With large, expressive hazel eyes
and dramatic dark hair she was never
an ingénue, playing sophisticated society women, sharp businesswomen,
and scheming villainesses while barely out her teens. Her somewhat husky voice lacked the almost British mid-Atlantic accent used by many actresses in
similar roles. But a slight speech defect—a lisp which made her letters r and l sound like w—seemed to
audiences to be upper class.
The voice, the height, the sense of style made her a definitively modern American leading
lady seldom assigned to play Brits or to costume dramas—and
one who had astonishingly few love
scenes with her leading men,
some of whom she towered over. Yet for a good stretch of the 1930’s Kay Francis was one of the most popular female stars in
Hollywood—and for a stretch the highest
paid. She was the Queen of Warner Bros. until Jack Warner soured on her and Bette Davis knocked the crown from her head.
Edwina Gibbs was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in
1905. Her father was 6’ 5” tall wealthy businessman who abandoned the family before she was
four years old. Her Nova Scotia-born mother, Katharine
Clinton was an actress who returned to the stage to support
her daughter. The girl usually accompanied
her mother, but when her mother could afford it she was sent to Catholic Schools and even briefly to an
Upstate New York finishing school.
When she was 15 she enrolled in the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in New York City, the flagship of a then famous
chain of business schools for young ladies.
Later she would not discourage
a biographical confusion that the founder of the schools was her mother.
When she graduated she skipped the steno
pool or even service as a private
secretary. Instead, the sophisticated teenager got highly respectable and well-paying
positions selling real estate
and arranging extravagant parties
for wealthy socialites. In this capacity she met James Dwight Francis, the scion of a wealthy New England family. They wed when she was just 17.
The marriage was short lived. In something that might have come straight
out of the script for one of her later movies, Katherine sailed to Paris to obtain a divorce with a minimum
of scandal. While there she met former Harvard athlete and Boston Brahmin lawyer William Gaston
who swept her off her feet.
When the pair returned to the United
States, however, Gaston returned to his Boston
law practice and she, liberated
from having to work for a living, decided to follow
her mother on the stage. She had
some connections and in 1925
premiered on Broadway billed as Katherine Francis as the as the Queen of Players in a modern adaptation of Hamlet. She later admitted to advancing her early career by “lying a lot, to the right people.” Some suspect
that this turn of a phrase was a pun on “laying a lot.” One of those who she impressed by word or
deed was producer Stuart Walker who
hired her for his touring repertoire
Portmanteau Theatre Company. Making
the rounds of Midwest cities in roles ranging from walk-ons to features, she quickly learned
Francis returned to Broadway and had
success in 1927 as a second lead in
the drama Crime starring an even younger Sylvia Sydney. Sydney
claimed Francis stole the show from her.
Understandably her long-distance marriage to Gaston ended
in divorce about this time. But Francis
never seemed to be short of
wealthy suitors. Next in line was playboy Alan Ryan, Jr. Before their brief marriage she promised
his family that she would give up the stage. That proved to be a promise she could not
keep. Within months she was back on the boards
playing an aviatrix in Rachel Crothers’ play, Venus.
Kay Francis played straight woman to Harpo Marx in a scene from The Cocoanuts the second film she made at Paramount's Astoria studios and the first to be released. She was on the fast track to stardom.
In 1928 she found her greatest
success to date as the female lead
in Ring Lardner’s baseball comedy Elmer the Great opposite Walter
Huston produced by George M. Cohan. Cohan helped her obtain a screen test
at Paramount Pictures studio in Astoria, Queens. She was cast in Gentleman of the Press
once again opposite Huston, a star turn
in her first film. That may be the
first movie she shot, but the first to be seen by the public was the inaugural Marx Brothers film effort The
Cocoanuts. She had a relatively
small part as a villainess plotting
to steal a broken-down resort hotel
for a real estate scheme. She was billed as Katherine Francis below all
the Marx brothers, Dumont, and even the insipid juvenile romantic leads who threatened to destroy the entertainment value of the film every
time they ate celluloid.
None-the-less, Paramount was
impressed enough by these two outings, both released in 1929, to offer Francis
a lucrative contract and invite her
to work at the main studio in California.
Not yet 25 years old she was a movie
Shortly before leaving New York,
Francis married for the fourth time to writer/director John Meehan. Once again a long-distance relationship
failed, especially after Francis took up
with actor and producer Kenneth MacKenna who she married in
1931. That marriage failed two years
later. Francis laid off matrimony for a while, having affairs with various men, including some co-stars, and occasionally with women.
The studio certainly kept her busy, churning out more than 21 films featuring or
staring her in before the end of 1931. In
her first California-made film, Dangerous Curves, a circus drama in which Francis, billed
as Kay for the first time, she played the vamp
who tries to steal the pretty-boy
acrobat from the virtuous but plain girl who truly loves
him. Interestingly the plain Jane was Clara Bow the sexiest of
silent stars in one of the talkies
that killed her career. But it cemented
Francis as the evil other woman, a
part she would play with variations repeatedly.
Francis was often the second lead
alternating between the temptress and the wronged woman. In 1930 she teamed up for the first time with
William Powell, her most regular Paramount
co-star for Behind the Make Up in
which Powell played, of all things, an Italian
clown, brought down by a wicked temptress.
year Francis stepped up to a full-fledged starring role as a romantic lead in an important picture—Raffles with Ronald Coleman as the Amateur Cracksman. It was one of the relatively few films
requiring her to pretend to be English. It also left her
with little to do but look adoringly at Coleman and be alarmed.
Some of her
other noteworthy films from this period include the newspaper melodrama Scandal Sheet
as the cheating wife of a tabloid editor, the pre-code shocker 24 Hours, Girls About Town which was a comedy opposite Joel McCrea in which she played a gold digger who falls for a poor
guy, and The False Madonna as the grifter
redeemed by the love of a child.
success there, Paramount was a studio in
trouble. It had a glut of actresses
and a had a run of bad luck—and bad pictures. The studio had financial woes. In what would be recognized by any sports fan as a salary dump, at the end of 1932 it released Francis, Powell, and Ruth Chatterton to Warner Bros. where all got big
raises and promises of
In the short run it was a hell of a career move for
Francis. Warners was then the second biggest and successful studio in
Hollywood behind behemoth MGM.
It was feasting on a string of successful musicals and the tough, gritty urban dramas and crime stories for which it became famous. It was well
stocked with wise cracking dames
fit for those pictures but needed a more elegant
leading lady for films set
among the posh for the diversion
of Depression weary audiences. Kay Francis was the key to winning that
audience and the devotees of women’s movies—sudsy melodramas of
marriage and betrayal in penthouse
apartments, Park Avenue mansions,
and country estates with lots of changes of elegant wardrobe.
to a salary, Warners boosted Francis’s career by giving her more sympathetic roles, top billing with its biggest male stars, including Powell, better scripts, and lavish production values. It worked
spectacularly. By 1935 Francis was
the best paid actress in Hollywood
taking down $115,000 a year or about $4,000 a week. By contrast Bette Davis, Warner’s fast rising star, was making only $18,000 annually. And don’t think Davis didn’t notice.
Francis one of the most popular cover girls on American fan magazines and on publications around the world.
year she was the top grossing female
star and the sixth biggest money maker among all stars. She appeared on 38 national magazine covers, more than any other adult Hollywood
actress and second only the astonishing 138 covers featuring the adorable Shirley Temple in the seven-year span
from 1930 to ’37. Kay Francis was as
hot a commodity as there was.
shifted her to playing long suffering,
betrayed wives and women peril by
circumstances beyond her control. Gone, for the most part were the temptresses,
villains, and husband stealers she had specialized in at Paramount.
she played the other woman, the wife
turned out to bitch as in the weeper, Street of Women, one of
her early Warners outings. On top of
that she played a brilliant fashion
designer, all the better to show her off in gowns, business suits, and plenty of fur.
happy enough with their new star to loan her back to Paramount—or it may
have been part of a back-room deal—to
make the Ernst Lubitsch comedy Trouble
in Paradise. This time she was
the fabulous owner of a Paris perfumery targeted by suave jewel
thief Herbert Marshal—despite
the fact that Marshal, one of the stiffest
actors ever to don a tuxedo failed utterly at being suave—who wormed his way into her employ and heart. It turned out to be a good move for Warners because the film was such a hit that it raised
interest in Francis’s films upcoming films for that studio.
successes came in unabashed weepers like I Found Stella Parish the
convoluted tale of a woman framed for murder by her jealous ex-husband who flees to Europe with their child when she is released from prison to start life as an actress
under a new name only to be discovered and disgraced. She and the child run back to the States hoping to disappear in New York but are discovered
by a reporter who, naturally falls
in love with her. Reporter files story, regrets it. Long suffering
actress sends her daughter away
from the scandal and returns to the stage to milk the publicity for money to support
her. End the end she makes a triumphant return to the London stage with the help of the gob smacked reporter and is reunited with the daughter. No woman could jam enough hankies in
her pocketbook for this kind of
played a doctor in at least three
films, each time betrayed by the feckless love of a partner and usually threatened with false imprisonment or other doom.
occasionally at Warner was Francis allowed to let her considerable comedic charms loose as in First Lady as a Washington socialite hostess, mover and shaker who tries to promote her
Secretary of State husband into the White House. Instead, she almost accidently snares the nomination for a pompous dolt of a Supreme
Court Justice and has to let fly another wild maneuver to save the
like that were all too rare. And when
the plots to her weepers grew evermore
convoluted and ridiculous,
Francis rebelled. She watched the spunky Bette Davis challenged
Jack Warner for better parts and get them despite high drama and suspensions. When she tried the same thing, the dictatorial
Warner was not amused.
He seemed to
throw her a bone, one of
Warners’ prestigious biopics produced
as Oscar bait. Francis was cast as Florence “Flo” Nightingale in 1936’s White Angel. The expensive
costume drama was a box office bust.
That turned Warner firmly against his leading lady. He began to extract revenge, even if it was nearly as costly to the
studio as it was to Francis’s career.
It began subtly.
Francis’s lisp had never been a problem, or much mentioned in the press. Warner studio flacks began feeding gossip columnists and fan magazines supposed quotes from
fellow cast and crew members mocking her impediment. One joke
went that behind her back they
called her the “Wavishing Kay Fwancis.” Then the script
writers on her movies were instructed to load her dialog with as many words as possible
with r’s and l’s, preferably strung together for greater
Francis’s employment documents were doctored and left where they could be “accidently discovered” by prying
reporters to indicate that she was born as early as 1892, not as always
previously reported, in 1905. Since
Francis had always played older than her years, this seemed plausible,
especially when no Oklahoma City birth
certificate could be found.
Eventually census records were
found that proved she was 5 years old in 1910, but many in the public now
believed she was more than 10 years older than the 32 years of age she really
was in 1937.
improving, her scripts kept getting ever more ludicrous. Finally, Francis
announced that she would sue the
studio to force them to give her better parts.
That enraged Jack Warner who vowed
to destroy her career. The studio sent
out a press release announcing that
Francis was being demoted to the B unit which churned out low budget programmers for the bottom half of double bills. It was not
unusual for a studio to demote aging or fading stars in this way, or even to
temporarily punish top stars like Bette Davis.
But it was unheard of to make a public announcement of the humiliation.
arrangement Francis’s scripts got worse, budgets shrank, and top-flight directors were replaced by factory hacks. Naturally the pictures did not do as well as
before. In the midst of all this in 1938
the Independent Theatre Owners
Association paid for an advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter listing
Francis along with Mae West,
Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, Marlene
Dietrich, and Dolores del Río as
Box Office Poison. It was a blow and set back to all the careers, but most
of the stars, with studio support, were able to come roaring back on the strength of their next success. But Francis was toiling at a studio that was
actively trying to destroy her career.
noted in her private journal
that she would show up and “scrub floors” rather than give up and quit, as Warners hoped she would, to keep her $4,000 a week salary. She also despairingly
suggested that when her film career was finally over all of her films and their negatives would be burned so that the world would forget she ever existed.
to fulfill its contract. The studio
put her in two more movies including the air
race drama Women in the Wind and King
of the Underworld with Francis as a doctor again forced to bring to
justice gang boss Humphrey Bogart
who murdered her husband and pinned the crime on her. It was one of the last of Bogies B movie gangster flicks before his breakthrough
to A list stardom the next year with
Sierra and then The Maltese Falcon. To add
insult to injury, Francis’s name was left off
the lobby posters and ads despite dominating screen time and being the obvious protagonist. Everyone involved knew these films were
crap. Then the studio unceremoniously dumped her when her
contract expired at the end of
1938. Both films were released the following year and sank unnoticed.
the turmoil, Francis married for the
fifth and final time to a guy named Eric
Barnkow about whom almost nothing
is known and who quickly vanished
from her life. It is unknown even if annulment or divorce papers were ever drawn up to officially end the marriage.
discovered that no other studio would pick her up. She was forced into the role of an independent actor, available for
work on a picture-by-picture basis
for any studio that would hire her,
at far less than she made at Warners.
Old friends rallied to her support.
Carol Landis insisted on casting
Francis as the vicious, vindictive wife of Cary
Grant in RKO’s In Name Only. She was billed
third and on the surface it seemed like a throwback to the villain roles she played in the early Paramount
pictures, but the script was subtle,
the direction by John Cromwell intelligent
and all the principles working at the top of their considerable skills. The
film was well received then and now
is something of a cult classic
beloved by fans of all three of the stars.
to star billing in an independent
production of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men in which she played the grown-up Jo March/Mrs. Bhaer, the operator of a progressive school for boys.
The film was released by RKO.
increasingly being cast as a mother
figure, like the mom of Deanna
Durbin in the lightweight Universal musical
a Date. She even did a B western at Universal, When the Daltons Rode opposite Randolph Scott. Most of her work was in supporting roles, when
she could get them.
In 1941 she
got the small role of the real aunt
in the 20th Century Fox production
of Oscar Wilde’s Charley’s Aunt starring Jack
Benny. Most impressively, Francis
went toe-to-toe with Rosalind Russell over Don Ameche as a clueless college professor and would-be
author in the MGM screwball comedy The Feminine Touch.
The World War II hit Four Jills in a Jeep with Carole Landis, Martha Ray, Mitzi Mayfair, and Kay Francis was based on a real tour of English Air bases and the North African front--one of the first such over-seas moral building tours.
entered World War II Francis
virtually put her career aside
to dedicate herself to war work. She organized
one of the first tours of American
performers to entertain Army Air
Force crews in England and
troops in North Africa. This was before the USO was even organized and Francis had to make virtually all of the
arrangements for her small troupe
herself. Her pal Carol Landis was along and in 1942 published a bestselling account of the trip, Four Jills in a Jeep. 20th Century Fox snatched up the film rights and Francis and Landis
were playing themselves with Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair as the other Jills.
The action and romance was filled out with appearances of Fox stars like
Alice Faye, Betty Grable,
and Carmen Miranda plus Jimmy Dorsey and his Orchestra. The film was an unexpected hit in 1944.
Francis hoped that it would show
her in a new light and lead
to better post-war roles.
came and there were no offers. After being
turned down everywhere, Francis swallowed
her pride and inked a
deal to produce and star in her
own pictures for Monogram Pictures,
one of the poorest of the Poverty Row studios. She made three solid but shot-on-a-shoestring
melodramas under the deal—Divorce, Allotment Wives, and
Wanted. All three films are highly regarded by those few who have seen them. Despite
their quality Monogram did not have
the distribution muscle to get them
into wide release. The company typically
fed third and fourth rate movie houses and drive-ins which could not afford major studio releases. Their audiences preferred westerns, detective yarns, and other low budget action movies. There just
wasn’t much of an audience for ambitious women’s movies featuring a fading actress,
like the one she played in the final film,
Allotment Wives, a tough film noir, was one of three films Francis produced and starred in for Poverty Row Monogram Pictures.
That was the
end of Kay Francis’s movie
career. She returned to the stage and had some success with regional touring companies and summer stock. In 1948 she was badly injured and scarred in a freak radiator accident. After that she did some radio and made two television appearances in 1950 and ’51, both long lost.
something of a recluse, spending
most of her time in virtual seclusion
in her New York apartment and her estate near Falmouth on Cape Cod. She had no children or living relatives.
In 1966 she
was diagnosed with breast cancer and died despite
undergoing a mastectomy on August
28, 1966 in New York. As requested her remains were cremated and scattered at an undisclosed location. In
the end she was nearly as obscure and
forgotten as she once claimed that she wanted to be.
She left her
estate, valued at well over a
million dollars, to her favorite charity, Guide Dogs for the Blind.