[This is one of a series of articles on Kay Francis. The others are: Kay Francis: One Way Passage, A Tragedy in Miniature.; Kay FRANCIS and William POWELL: “JEWEL ROBBERY.”; KAY FRANCIS and LILYAN TASHMAN : “Girls’ About Town”; KAY FRANCIS, M. D.; and KAY FRANCIS, BEGINNINGS. ]
“THE FASCINATING MRS. FRANCIS” was the title of a Griffith Biograph short, with Gibson Goddess Marion Leonard playing the older, wiser teacher of the practical art of seduction to a virginal Florence Lawrence — a combustible combination that surely made loins stir in 1909. But the “Francis” I’m writing of is not Marion Leonard’s “Mrs. Francis,” as fascinating as she was. This Miss Francis is a movie star once referred to by mid-20th century voice-of-conservative-America print columnist Walter Winchell as, “The Thinking Man’s Sex Symbol” (note to liberals and progressives, don’t hold his politics against him: for once — in this case — he was right. Damn right).
The object of this fascination, someone whose appeal to modern eyes is her unique blend of sophistication, intelligence, and hot but sweet, gender-is-no-object sexuality, who straddled both pre and post-production code Hollywood, rode it hard and fast until she had enough, then walked out the movie-factory gates never pausing to look back with regret. She is the fascinating Kay Francis, highest paid woman in American movies from 1932 to 1939, and the most popular star with adult female audiences for most of that period. She was the embodiment of the “women’s picture,” the “weepies,” the “five-hanky tear-jerkers” — a veritable Siren of Soap. But that label is misleading.
Few other film actors of the period covered as wide a spectrum of roles — and as deftly — as Kay Francis. When Francis left Paramount, her first employer, for whom she specialized in roles that emphasized her physical beauty and her effortless glamour, she signed with Warner Brothers — a studio best known for tough mugs and their rough molls. And she made a successful transition, not as a girlfriend of gangsters, but to earthier, proto-feminist roles. Womens’ pictures, indeed, and in every permutation.
Kay Francis is also remembered as the star who said “I can’t wait to be forgotten.” She got her wish, but she intentionally gave that wish more than a nudge in the desired direction, leaving Hollywood and stardom to do things that to her were more important. Like entertain the troops overseas, make a patriotic picture or two, produce a few low-budget independent films, nothing particularly unusual or odd for a film star of the time. But that was only the surface, and it was just a part of one phase of a thirty year career and a relatively brief (by today’s standards) sixty-three-year life.
Francis was a veteran of Broadway, an “A-list” star in film, and survivor of four unsuccessful marriages, all by the age of twenty-five. At thirty, she was in the fourth year of a seven-year contract that made her the highest salaried actress on the planet. She left film for good at forty, returned to her roots in live theater both on Broadway and in touring companies, found work in radio and television, and donated money and spare time to her favorite animal charities, eventually bequeathing the bulk of her estate to a school for the training of seeing-eye dogs.
Some might say that with a declining film career she had little choice but to look elsewhere for work with poverty-row studios, independent productions, travelling stock companies and early television, and busy herself with various animal causes. I counter that yes, her career, her films, took a dip in popularity prior toward the end of her 7 year Warner Brothers contract in 1939 — as did the careers of her contemporaries — her peers in movie stardom — Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, and . . .even . . . Miss Bette Davis. (But let’s leave examination of this issue for the “Postscript,” at the very end of the post, below all the images, where those who want my thoughts on this debate can continue to read them, and those who don’t can just enjoy the rest of the main body of this post and the images that follow it.)
Kay Francis made her decision to stay for the money. Warner Brothers tried to force her to walk — to break her own contract due to her cost and waning value to them — by assigning her “B-pictures,” the ass-ends of double features. It was the mirror opposite of what Bette Davis tried to do to the Warners just two years earlier, and a reversal of roles when compared to Joan Crawford’s decision to ask LB Mayer to be let out of her MGM contract after her string of poorly receive films and being labeled “Box Office Poison” in the press: Crawford showed kindness in sparing LB Mayer who was grateful not to have to dump Joan at the end of her contract. But Crawford saw Mayer as more of a supportive father figure and a mentor in her rise to stardom after she signed her first film contract with him at the newly-formed MGM in 1925 under her real name, Lucille Le Sueur. The Warners were never a figure of any kind to Francis, except dollars. Francis refused to cave, and made sure that the lucrative contract they had agreed to when she was their biggest money-maker remained tightly jammed in their craw(s) for the full seven years, even through the last, lean ones.
Kay Francis was the image of “movie star” incarnate, yet for her it was a role she would not and could not play indefinitely. She refused to bend to the demands of stardom — and I’m not referring to the desires and expectations of audiences or studios or critics, or her peers — but the demands made by ego: inflated self-importance and the internal insanity of obsession with audience approval and its external trappings: a life revolving around the searchlights, limousines, glittering gowns and red carpets of a Hollywood premier. She genuinely seemed to have none of that particular illness of the soul within her.
Like Harlow, she was not a star in her own mind, and though a textbook image of Hollywood glamor on-camera, or out on-the-town, it was not her picture of an ideal life, this “movie stardom.” Unlike Harlow, Francis was captain of her own ship; she made her own decisions, good and bad and cut her losses quickly when necessary (witness those four early divorces). She didn’t bend under the pressure of the stream of humiliating B pictures, despite exhortations of colleagues such as Bette Davis who urged her to fight back by walking out. She is said to have replied to Ms. Davis that she was in it for the money, and not a “career” as Davis was.
She was fortunate enough to have many friends in the business who saw exactly what was happening to her at Warners, and were generally furious at the treatment she was getting from her employer. She accepted the assistance provided by at least one of those friends: Carole Lombard insisted that Francis be cast in one of three leading roles for “In Name Only” (RKO-1939), with Lombard and Cary Grant, a film which gave her the best part she’d had in years and in which she gave one of the best performances of her career.
As difficult and humiliating as it must have been for her — to come down from being the highest paid star in film to an expensive WB doormat to unemployment, in a period of less than three years — Francis was still able to stand toe-to-toe with Warners, and not blink until her contract expired — and with her backside facing them, she walked out of the WB lot for the last time, free and clear after seven years. Now, with a bank account much deeper, courtesy of her erstwhile employer, she was free to do what was on her agenda. And it was not a self-centered agenda by any means.
The rest of the story, the back-story, as well as the in-between, I’ll leave to posts in the very near future . . . Until then, to tide you over, a small sample of images of the fascinating Miss Francis:
[Above, Kay Francis in the infamous gorilla coat, c.1934. Francis was the subject of thousands of moody art-photo portraits (in addition to thousands more “fashion” photos which she claimed to detest) throughout her film career, not surprising since her first brush with fame came literally from the brushes of artists, in a series of a portraits for which she posed prior to her film career, the first in the early 1920’s when she was still a teenager.]
Postscript: THE FASCINATING MISS FRANCIS [one phase]:
Kay Francis had much in common with, and yet more in the opposite of, the careers of her contemporaries — her peers in movie stardom: Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, and Bette Davis. All of whom reached a point in the late 1930s and early 40s, where their past success was no longer in the recent memory of audiences, and each of them reached a similar crossroads that required career and even life-altering decisions. I’ll briefly examine the career crossroads of each, and compare them to Kay Francis:
Of that gang of four, one was the widow of Hollywood’s most revered studio executive, whose career choices without his guiding hand were often poor, and even though she continued to get plum rolls better suited to other actresses, she was prescient enough to understand that she was no longer marketable beyond her dwindling fan base after more than twenty years in film — which at that time was longer, and extended further back into the silent film era, than any other major female star. She retired in 1942, never to return to film or acting. Always athletic, and with the most-underrated figure in Hollywood (she had done nude modeling for noted Ziegfeld-era photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston at the dawn of the ’20s), she preferred the ski slopes and lodges of the Sierras to the polo fields, tennis courts and swimming pools of southern California.
Another retired never to return to Hollywood, but who became the world’s most photographed, followed, and talked-about recluse — a recluse who ironically chose to spend the remaining 50 years of her life in the City that Never Sleeps, where mere sightings of her on the sidewalk or perusing the goods in a Fifth Avenue shop were front page news the next day in the tabloids, well into the 1970s and 80s — often illustrated with half-page photos taken by stalkers with cameras: the early “paparazzi.”
A third made the selfless decision (for which she has received little or no credit especially by those who find it amusing to paint her as psychotic and a sociopath) to allow her studio boss and one-time mentor, Louis B. Mayer, off the hook of an expensive contract in the face of declining revenue from her films and the label, “box-office poison.” She then signed with another major studio and went on to make the best films of her career before it ended following a bloody stream of horror films. Only a terminal illness spared her the graspings of a demonic adopted daughter who, when frozen out of her mother’s will, got revenge and remuneration by writing a brutal, unnecessary memoir of her unfortunate existence: her poor deprived life with dearest mommy, complete with mansion, pool, and servants.
And the fourth, after battling with the brothers Warner for better roles, jumped contract, was suspended without pay, lost her lawsuit against the studio, then returned to her employer tail between legs, her career likely saved only by the intervention of an influential friend and mentor. She got better roles and ruled the screen of the 1940’s, lost the interest of the studios and audiences in the 50s, took the horror/B-movie path part-way in the 60s, then rode the TV talk show circuit and outlived nearly all of her important contemporaries. (If you jumped here from earlier in the post, please return to that point to read the discussion of these four contrasted with Kay Francis.)
For Further Reading:
Kay Francis has been the subject of two biographies, “Kay Francis, A Passionate Life and Career,” by Lynn Kear and John Rossman, (2006, McFarland & Co.) and “Kay Francis, I Can’t Wait to be Forgotten,” by Scott O’Brien, (2006, Bearmanor Media). Both have a balance somewhere between pop culture bio and a work of in-depth scholarship — in other words, they entertain, have some bias in favor of the subject, but have notes, source citations and bibliographies in addition to filmographies, radio, stage and television credits. Both were published in the mid-2000s, nearly 40 years after her death in 1968 and a hundred years after her birth in 1905. A third publication, “Kay Francis, the Complete Career Record,” is just that: A compendium of detailed entries on her entire body of work, suited for the KF junkie, but certainly a very useful reference, if not purchase, for the general researcher.
Please click on the Bibliography Page under the post header image for detailed author and publisher information, and discussion and recommendation of books cited herein.