The most amazing passport photo I’ve ever seen: Katharine Gibbs Francis, ago 20, February 18, 1925, New York City, on the eve of her first overseas trip to Europe and Paris. Her mission? To obtain a divorce. She spent six months abroad and became the toast of the Parisian night club circuit. On the return voyage, in dire need of cash, she would decide to become a Broadway actress. Five years later, she was a major Hollywood movie star.
Above: Four years later, 24. Not yet a movie star in “Hollywood,” just Paramount’s “Astoria” studios, in Long Island City, Long Island, New York — with the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts (Paramount, 1929), directed by Joe Santley and Robert Florey.
A question emblazoned on many a movie fan magazine cover in the 1920s was “Are ‘The Stars’ Just Like Us?” as if asked by a curious schoolgirl or boy. No, for the most part, children, they are not. Some led lives as different from “us” as to be almost the stuff of fiction — and not the sanitized fiction offered to the public by the movie studios through their mouthpieces, the motion picture fan periodicals. The path to stardom traveled by one Katharine Gibbs Francis in that era is as convoluted as any that could be written by a staffer for any 20’s movies magazine. She embarked on the journey with one thing safely packed by default: striking, unusual good looks. Her story begins with what seems to be the standard background of early 20th century film actresses: an absentee father and a connection to theater through her mother.
Mother Katherine Franks was a successful stage actress, if not a star, using her mother’s maiden name Katherine Clinton. She became the second of (at least) three wives of Joseph Gibbs, a man who rarely did anything as successfully as spend his family’s considerable fortune, consume alcohol and sire multiple children by multiple women. One of those children, a female named Katharine after her mother (but with a second “a”), was born on Friday, the 13th of January, 1905 in an Oklahoma City hotel managed by her father. Gibbs managed to stick around long enough to see his daughter walk, but not much more.
Unlike many actresses who married, Mother Katherine couldn’t afford to give up her career completely — it was the only sure source of income she would have before and after her marriage to Joe Gibbs. Thus little Katie, as she was called, grew up seeing her mother on stage. But as a child she expressed no interest in following her mother in theater. Instead, she received her education at boarding schools rather than on the boards.
Although Katie had her mother’s dark complexion, she was tall and had a magnetic personality like her father. As an adult, she would exhibit other, less admirable traits of her father: sexual promiscuity, the inability to establish lasting intimate relationships, and a taste for alcohol. However, unlike her father, she was careful with money throughout her life, particularly once she had begun to make what she would refer to as “serious money” in motion pictures. This frugality stemmed from a childhood without a father, having to follow her mother on the torturous road of a traveling actor.
The idea of Kay Francis as a high-society debutante and Broadway dilettante is a myth. Mother Katherine was able to save enough to fund her daughter’s education, including a period at a secretarial school (the weirdly coincidental, unrelated “Katharine Gibbs School of Secretarial Training”). Upon graduation, sixteen-year-old Kay did some fashion modeling for ads that appeared in New York magazines and, more importantly, obtained a job as an assistant to a New York social planner. It was her entre to the world of the monied elite and wealthy, eligible young men. Unfortunately, the first of those young men for whom she fell was a virtual clone of her father — wealthy family, a womanizer and a heavy drinker. His name was Dwight Francis. They married in December, 1922, a month before her eighteenth birthday.
Living mostly on the largess of Dwight’s parents, the couple split time at two residences, an apartment in Pittsfield, Massachusetts near his home, and one in midtown Manhattan on West 49th Street (when it was still largely residential, pre-Rockefeller Center). Though Kay enjoyed the tranquil domesticity of Pittsfield, she preferred the city. In New York, she attended plays and concerts regularly, while working occasionally to supplement their income. But the marriage foundered after little more than two years, seemingly on Dwight’s roving eye and Kay’s boredom. She met another man with whom she became involved, and separated from her husband. Her in-laws, who genuinely loved Kay and blamed Dwight exclusively, paid for a “vacation” in Europe for Kay, the immediate purpose of which was to obtain a divorce in Paris, where unlike the U. S., no grounds or proof of guilt (or even the presence of both parties) was required in court.
But for Kay Francis (she kept her first husband’s name throughout the remainder of her career and life), the European vacation became a life-altering adventure. In Paris, the twenty-year-old was a tall, dark, “exotic” American who entranced Parisians, expatriate Americans and vacationers alike. She stayed six months. In Paris, she broke up with the young man with whom she had been involved, then partied at the hottest clubs, drank to excess and had her choice of lovers of both sexes, nightly. On the voyage home, still on a personal high while her pocketbook was empty, she took stock of herself and her talents. She needed money desperately and decided to try to make a living by doing what she enjoyed most: dressing up in the latest fashions and meeting glamorous people. The only profession where she could do both and for which was at least remotely qualified was acting. She disembarked in New York determined to become an actress.
Her looks and connections got her audiences with producers. In Paris, she had met and befriended fashion writers Lois Long and Charles Baskerville of The New Yorker, as well as Vogue editor Margaret Case (who according to one version was the person who convinced Kay to turn to acting on the return voyage from Paris). Her knowledge of the stage, acquired by osmosis from her mother, allowed her to get actual auditions. After a few failures, she landed a small part in an avant-garde Broadway production of Hamlet, produced by Al Woods, after she told him that not only was she familiar with play, she had played Ophelia. She had – at boarding school.
Though Francis would remember it as a “flop,” Hamlet was a critical success, and her small role as “The Player Queen” received good notices. The play ran eleven weeks, 88 performances from its Broadway opening at The Booth Theatre on November 9, 1925 to mid January 1926. Among the play’s stars were Charles Waldron (“Daddy Long-Legs” with Ruth Chatterton) and Adrienne Morrison, the mother of future film stars Constance and Joan Bennett. It was shortly after the opening of Hamlet that Francis married a second time — to William Gaston, the son of a wealthy and politically influential Boston family.
If one needed proof that this worldly young woman was frightfully immature and irresponsible, and had developed a serious drinking problem, it was the marriage to Gaston, a man she had met shortly after her return from Paris. The two never lived together and divorced a few months later. In their 2006 biography of Francis, Lynn Kear and John Rossman, who had access to the Francis personal diaries, conclude that the union was the result of a night of drunkenness. It seems to have been something akin to the Britney Spears Las Vegas wedding, except that this marriage was kept secret from all but their closest family and friends. It remained unknown to her film studios and the public until it was revealed during her divorce from third husband, actor Kenneth MacKenna in 1933.
Whether or not Francis felt the need to get out of the city for a while, that’s what she accomplished when she was hired by the Stuart Walker stock company in early 1926. Walker was another of the connections she had made in Europe the previous summer, and it was one that she used wisely. In her time with the Walker company, she became a seasoned stage actress. After traveling across the heart of the country for much of the spring and summer, Francis returned to New York in the fall of 1926, where she moved into an apartment at the Hotel Marlton in Greenwich Village to be close to a man she loved who also had an apartment there, actor McKay Morris.
Morris frustrated Kay — he wouldn’t or couldn’t commit to anything like a permanent relationship, i.e., he wasn’t interested in becoming her next husband. Morris was what was then known in polite society as “impotent,” code word for homosexual. Apparently not “impotent” enough to resist Francis, but frustrating in that he couldn’t be persuaded to stop having relationships with men. Maybe for Miss Kay it was payback, or karma. At any rate, she managed to balance her love of partying with her new love of the stage during this period. In February 1927, she premiered in the contemporary melodrama, Crime, produced by Al Woods, who had given Francis her first stage break when he hired her for Hamlet two years earlier.
Crime was a product of its time, literally, a prohibition-era melodrama of guns, gangsters and their girls. The lead was played by young Sylvia Sidney (who would become a star playing similar roles in movies in the early 30s), but many, including Sidney, felt that the tall, dark, raven-haired girl in the form-fitting gold lame dress — Kay Francis — stole several scenes. Crime ran for six months and 186 performances at the Eltinge Theater on 42nd Street.
It was during this period in 1927-28 when Kay Francis made her reputation as a Broadway “Play-girl.” She dated, or became involved with Vanderbilts, Gimbels, polo star Tommy Hitchcock, and she also met the legendary stage actress Jeanne Eagels and aviator extraordinaire Charles Lindbergh. Francis was in rehearsals for a play, Venus, in which she played a female aviator. When she met Lindbergh at a party hosted by one of her close friends, she took advantage of the situation to ask him questions about aviation. What, exactly, she learned about aviation from the celebrity aviator isn’t known, but Venus, which opened at the Theatre Masque on 45th Street the day after Christmas, 1927, was panned by critics and closed after one week. Despite having stage stars Cecilia Loftus and Tyrone Power, Sr. in the cast, Venus was the only genuine flop in the pre-Hollywood Broadway career of Kay Francis. Her next (and final) Broadway appearance of this era would be the most important stepping stone of her entire career.
Francis had gotten a supporting role in the George M. Cohan production of Ring Lardner’s baseball tale, “Fast Company,” which opened in Boston in May, 1928, starring Walter Huston. Huston, apparently mesmerized by her beauty and poise, hired Francis practically on the spot, after telling her,“If you act as well as you look, the role is yours!” Something of a hit on the road, the play, renamed Elmer the Great, moved to Chicago in June and stayed the summer. However, when the play returned in September to baseball-mad New York, it fared poorly, especially with the critics — except for their opinion of the “stunning brunette.” It closed after five weeks at the Lyceum Theatre. (Huston had wanted to adapt it for film, but never did. However, Elmer the Great would become a hit in a film version in 1933 as a vehicle for the enormously popular comedic actor Joe E. Brown, co-starring Ginger Rogers.)
Walter Huston, like many Broadway performers, had been wooed successfully by film studios to appear in the “talking pictures.” Huston’s first film project for Paramount Studios was an adaptation of a stage drama, Gentlemen of the Press. While Elmer the Great was touring the mid-west in 1928, Gentlemen of the Press was a hit, playing four months on Broadway. Although there are several versions of how she got the key role of the vamp in “Gentlemen,” Kay Francis always credited Walter Huston for hiring her. Though she would recall that Huston had to persuade her to take the role and to sign her first film contract for which, of course she became eternally grateful.
The very first frame of Kay Francis on film is a shot of her legs, the one physical asset of which she was least confident and would rarely show again in her movies. Her character, one not too far removed from real life, is a party (and man) loving secretary, Myra May, who appears in the offices of newspaper editor Wick Snell (Walter Huston) to ask his assistance in fighting a case of libel. Gentlemen of the Press (Paramount, 1929, directed by Millard Webb).
Not only did Francis pass the “looks” test, but when it came time for the acid test — the dreaded microphone — Francis claimed she’d had a slight cold and her voice was somewhat “froggy.” While this is one of many versions of the story, the bottom line was the sound men loved her voice. It was deep, yet musical — a refreshing change from high-pitched female voices made even more harsh by the sound technology of the time.
In the film’s most notorious scene, Myra invites the straight-laced Wick to continue their discussion at her apartment, assuring him of a pleasant time: “You’ll love my Pekingese.” No pet animal appears in the film. Gentlemen of the Press (Paramount, 1929).
Paramount was filming Gentlemen of the Press at their Astoria Studio on Long Island. Had Francis been required to go to the west coast, to Hollywood, she likely would have turned down the opportunity. The Paramount sound stage was a relatively brief commute from her home in Manhattan, an apartment on East 58th Street. She could shoot her scenes in the day, and return home in plenty of time to freshen up then go out for the evening for whatever. The Marx Brothers were able to clown for the cameras at Astoria in The Cocoanuts during the day, then ride back to the 44th Street Theater for another performance of their musical-comedy hit, Animal Crackers, on Broadway. Kay Francis would get to observe both firsthand.
Wick and Myra develop a personal and working relationship — they begin an affair and Myra becomes his personal secretary as Wick quits the newspaper business to take a new job as a public relations “expert” for a real estate speculator. Unknown just yet to the wily Wick, his new boss is a crook who is buying up cemeteries, replacing them with mortuaries, then selling the newly “vacated” land at a profit. You read that right.
The reticent Dot says nothing to anyone about what she’s seen. But dad Wick sees it first-hand when he surprises the two at Myra’s apartment. He sends the young man back to his wife (who is now pregnant), and drops Myra like a hot potato. For now.
But Wick thinks too much — he reasons that if he breaks up with Myra, she’ll make a beeline for his son-in-law. If he makes up with her, she’ll stay put. He seems to have lost his natural cynicism that served him so well as a newspaperman. He also returns to the newspaper, having found out that his new employer was involved in that shaky cemetery/real-estate swindle.
Myra shows her appreciation for Wick’s kindness, or rather his soft-headedness: She calls him at the paper demanding that he order another case of illegal booze and have it sent up to the party she’s having in her apartment while he’s working. To top it off, his daughter dies in the hospital from complications after giving birth. He’s too busy chasing down stories and dealing with Myra to take the call from the hospital — until it’s too late. Not a happy ending.
Kay Francis spent four weeks in January and February, 1929, shooting Gentlemen of the Press on the Long Island lot. It premiered May 4, 1929 at the Paramount Theatre in Manhattan to generally good reviews, although like any film adaptation of a successful stage play, there were the inevitable comparisons:
“A generally amusing and creditable piece of talking film fiction has been produced from Ward Morehouse’s play, ‘Gentlemen of the Press,’ in which the role of . . . Wickland Snell . . . is acted by Walter Huston. It is a dialogue effusion in which the players appear frequently to be waiting for a signal before they speak their lines. These hushed interludes, brief though they may be, cause some discomfort, for it is quite evident that the characters are not thinking of what they are going to say.” ‘The Screen’ by Mordaunt Hall, “A Newspaper Play,” The New York Times, May 13, 1929.
Mordaunt Hall put his finger on something that is even today quite obvious to any viewer of the Gentlemen of the Press. The pacing is poor, and while one is tempted to blame the editing, it is the director who is at fault for having the actors pause interminably between lines, pauses that slow what should have been a fast-talking, sprightly newspaper yarn (as apparently the play was). While the slow pace is acceptable in the dramatic scenes between two characters, the scenes with multiple actors tend to drag — the press conference scene in particular as we wait for the reporters to make and respond to wise-cracks.
“Mr. Huston . . . does well in the major part. His voice registers naturally and he lends enthusiasm to the role. Betty Lawford is attractive and competent as Snell’s daughter. Katherine Francis over-acts the conspiring Myra May.” Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, May 13, 1929.
The slow pacing may very well have been the result of an overly cautious approach to “getting the sound right,” making sure that the somewhat unfamiliar technology and the actors meshed properly. Actors’ lines are allowed to hang in mid-air, in addition to being overly cautious in enunciating and speaking louder than necessary, giving the impression that they are overacting. It is the mistake Mr. Hall makes in his assessment of Kay Francis’ first film outing. She wouldn’t be confused with Ruth Chatterton (also recently signed by Paramount), or Greta Garbo (who had yet to make her first “talker”), but she has an undeniable presence in the film.
Without presence — which is the ability to draw attention through the camera, much as one would draw an audience or an individual closer in a live performance — there can be no successful acting for motion pictures. (This is equally true for the still camera. Marilyn Monroe produced a tremendous body of work in still photography, and one has only to view some of the thousands of PR and fashion stills that Kay Francis would make during her film career to see a similar ability at work.) Several months after Gentlemen of the Press premiered, a featured article in Photoplay Magazine, written by another man named Hall, caught the essence of Kay Francis, or at least as she appeared in that first film, with just a touch of hyperbole:
“Kay Francis, as the snaky secretary in ‘Gentlemen of the Press,’ had given one of the most astonishing performances in the history of motion pictures. . . She appeared in a blaze of glory as the first great vamp of the audible pictures, using a type of male-killing technique that is perfection itself for the new form of entertainment. . . As the first great practitioner of this new school, Kay Francis stands alone. . . Miss Francis will occupy a sizeable place in the yet unwritten history of the talkies.” Leonard Hall, “Vamping with Sound,” Photoplay Magazine, October 1929.
Leonard Hall was prophetic.
Kay Francis had no special interest in making films, she enjoyed the stage. But Paramount had offered her the then sizeable amount of $300 per week with a guarantee of five weeks pay. For $1,500 in return for one month’s work she would have swam across the East River to the Astoria studio. Half-way through the filming of Gentlemen of the Press, Paramount gave her a second project and announced it in a press release, carried by The Film Daily, January 31.
Despite what the press release implies, “Gentlemen” had yet to be completed, much less released. But Kay Francis would make her second film with a group of stage veterans making their first — The Marx Brothers. Francis had shown an aptitude for comedy on stage in Elmer the Great. In The Cocoanuts, an almost literal film adaptation of the Marx’s Broadway musical-comedy hit, Francis would play a straight role.
But she had numerous individual scenes with Groucho, Chico and Harpo, scenes that require solid comedic timing which Francis obviously possessed. It is evident in the finished film that she enjoyed working with the Marx Brothers — their crazed sense of humor was something she was clearly comfortable with. She had been a party girl, play-girl, toast of Paris and New York’s night scenes, played gruelling schedules in traveling stock and on Broadway. She’d been married and divorced twice, and was only twenty-four. There couldn’t have been much that made her uncomfortable, that she couldn’t deal with, except poverty. And she was well on her way to escaping that for good.
Francis was billed fifth, that is, if you count the four Marx Brothers as one unit, and also below the “young lovers,” Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton, one below Cyril Ring, who played Yates, the man with whom Kay’s Penelope schemes to steal Margaret Dumont’s valuable neckace, and a notch above Dumont, who would become a Marx mainstay. Despite her billing, Francis logs more screen time with the Marx’s than Dumont or the film’s obligatory loving couple, Shaw and Eaton, combined.
Francis played an object of lust for Chico and Harpo. Groucho reserves his phony affections for Dumont, but it would have been interesting to see him also make a play for Kay’s Penelope, as he would in subsequent films with Thelma Todd. Like Dumont, Francis was tall — taller actually — and although it would have involved altering the original script, maybe the filmmakers assumed that the concept of Groucho “making love” even in farcical fashion to a beautiful, self-confident woman nearly six inches taller would be a bit too much, unlike his sarcastically comic, preposterous “love” scenes with the stiff and stately Dumont. But it would have been fun.
Only once (at right) does Groucho get his mitts on Kay Francis, briefly in the “revolving rooms” sequence. It is one of those physical set-pieces that can be found in all of their films, but this one probably worked better live on stage since it requires two rooms to be visible throughout, and the distance is too much to be as effective on the screen.
The Cocoanuts was a hit and received excellent reviews generally, though critics noted that the film version emphasized the comedy at the expense of the musical numbers (not necessarily a bad thing, although they were written by Irving Berlin). They also noted that it was essentially a rather static, filmed version of a stage production, something modern viewers smugly assume is their own latter-day insight into “primitive” early sound films. Not so. Kay Francis, a newcomer to the screen (and hardly a star on stage either), would not receive much notice in the ballyhooed debut of the Marx’s who had already been popular stars of vaudeville and Broadway for two decades before venturing into the talkies in middle age.
But Kay Francis would have little difficulty attracting attention of her own following her east coast Paramount films. Pleased with her work, Paramount wanted her transferred immediately to Hollywood so that she could be promoted with a publicity blitz as the latest “star” of the legitimate theater to migrate to Hollywood. They already had the image for her — certainly Gentlemen of the Press and The Cocoanuts had laid a solid foundation for it — that Francis was a chic, sophisticated star of the east about to shine brightly over Hollywoodland. But first they had to convince her to leave New York City . . .
* * *
Sources and Bibliography:
Lynn Kear and John Rossman, “Kay Francis, A Passionate Life and Career,” (2006, McFarland & Co.)
Scott O’Brien, “Kay Francis, I Can’t Wait to be Forgotten,” (2006, Bearmanor Media).
The Internet Archive (internetarchive.org) at The Media History Digital Library (mediahistoryproject.org) for The Film Daily; and for Photoplay Magazine.
The New York Times, “The New York Times Film Reviews (1913-1931)”, (1970, Arno Press).
Photos (excluding those reproduced from publications above): The Hotel Marlton, New York in 1911, Museum of the City of New York Collections (mcny.org); The Hotel Marlton at 3 West Eighth Street, New York today, and 37 East 60th Street, New York today from maps.google.com; The Booth Theatre, Theatre Masque, The Eltinge Theatre and The Lyceum from ibdb.com. U. S. Passport photo of Katharine G[ibbs] Francis from United States Passport Application, February 18, 1925 via Ancestry.com.