Mike Sheridan, one of our regular readers, recently asked us about doing a blog on one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, the clotheshorse and queen of melodrama — Kay Francis. So here goes.
There are few actresses who were as big in her time and have been so forgotten today. Kay Francis was in the 1930’s considered ‘The Queen of Warner Brothers,” making in 1935 the equivalent today of nearly $2 million a year.
She was a tall, pretty brunette with style and an unerring eye for fashion. She was toasted as Hollywood’s best dressed star. She was considered for the Vivian Leigh part in Gone With The Wind.
Francis was born in 1905 to a fairly well-to-do family in Oklahoma City, and by the time she was in her mid-20’s she was working her way through at least three marriages and found herself cast in the Ring Lardner stage play, Elmer The Great, starring Walter Huston. (On the marital front, Francis got around; she racked up a total of five unions before quitting the wife-husband business.)
It was Huston who pulled strings and engineered her movie debut in 1929’s Gentlemen of the Press. Paramount (the first of her big studios; Warners came later) promptly put her under contract, and assigned her various roles usually as a seductress. By 1930, Francis hit her stride opposite William Powell in Street of Chance. She excelled in what British critic David Thomson called “sympathetic, melting and sacrificial parts.”
Although Francis’s career lasted over two decades (she retired in 1952) covering about 70 movies and at least two tv credits, her films don’t ring too many bells today.
In 1932 she scored nicely with director Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise and One Way Passage, playing in the latter a fatally ill lover again opposite Powell. She had big hits in 1935’s I Found Stella Parrish and 1937’s Confession.
But after a Florence Nightingale biopic, The White Angel, bombed at the box office, Warners downgraded Francis to B pictures. In one, 1939’s In Name Only, the actress was, according to critic Thomson, “cruelly put down…where a child takes her for Cary Grant’s mother.”
In the Forties, Francis, liberated from Warners, went on her own assaying usually maternal roles in a mixed group of movies. She appeared with Jack Benny in Charlie’s Aunt. She parlayed her offscreen war work in 1944’s Four Jills In A Jeep. But by 1945 she was appearing on rock-bottom-budget items she co-produced for poverty row studio, Monogram Pictures. Stage work and summer stock followed until her retirement. Her death came in 1968 at age 63.
Unfortunately, one personal Francis quirk still is remembered today. It turns out she nursed a slight speech impediment, a mild lisp turning her “r’s” into “w’s.” Thus the cruel reference to “the wavishing Kay Fwancis.” She deserves better; a complete retrospective of her movies is in order.