Thursday, January 13, 2022

Kay Francis—Megastar to Warner Bros. Reject

Kay Francis, a long, tall, elegant drink of water in an early Warner Bros./First National outing.

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.

Katharine 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 her craft.

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 star.

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.

Setting and rising stars--Clara Bow and Kay Francis in Dangerous Curves, 1931.

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.  Guess who.

Later that year Francis stepped up to a full-fledged starring role as a romantic lead in an important pictureRaffles 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.

Beef cake and babe--out of the evening gown and onto the boat with Joel McCrea in Girls About Town.

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.

Despite her 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 better roles. 

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.

In addition 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.

The same 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.

Warners 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.

Even when 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.

Warner was 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.

Her biggest 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 fare.

Francis 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.

Only 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 day. 

But films 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.

The failure of The White Angel, one of Warner Bros. prestige biopic projects, sealed Francis' fate at the studio.

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 affect. 

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.

Instead of 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.

Under this 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.

She bitterly 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. 

Francis with Jack Benny and Warner Bros. rival Bette Davis in 1938, the year the studio dumped her and anointed Davis the new Queen.  Despite their rivalry the two became friendly during World War II when both devoted themselves of moral building war efforts.

Warners had 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 High 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.

During all 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. 

Francis 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.

With Cary Grant and Carole Lombard in RKO's In Name Only--billed third but a rebound from Warner Bros. purgatory.

Former co-star 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.

She returned 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.

Francis was increasingly being cast as a mother figure, like the mom of Deanna Durbin in the lightweight Universal musical It’s 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.

When America 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.

But peace 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 Wife 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, Wife Wanted.

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.

She became 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.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing an excellent account of the life and career of a trailblazing woman and actor who had an important leading role in early American cinema. Very informartive. I learned a lot.