Kay Francis (January 13, 1905 – August 26, 1968) was an American actress who, after a brief beginning on Broadway in the 1920s, moved to film and achieved her greatest success between 1930 and 1936.
Francis was born Katharine Edwina Gibbs on January 13, 1905, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. While she never discouraged rumors that her mother, Katharine ("Kay") Gibbs, was a pioneering businesswoman who established the "Katharine Gibbs" chain of vocational schools, Francis was actually raised in the hardscrabble theatrical circuit of the period. Her mother was an only moderately successful actress who used the stage name Katharine Clinton. In later years confusion over her origins and upbringing, in tandem with her relatively dark complexion, led to the emergence of rumours that some of her ancestors were African American.
Between 1925 and 1929, Francis made a limited number of stage appearance in New York before moving into film. In the late 1920s, when Hollywood discovered that the talking motion picture was not to be a momentary curiosity, many Broadway actors were enticed to travel west. These included Ann Harding, Helen Twelvetrees, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard, and Francis herself, among many others.
A combination of striking dark beauty (albeit of a kind tied to the period of her greatest success), height (5'9") and a deep, supple voice ideally suited to early sound-reproduction technology made Francis one of the top film stars of the early 1930s. Indeed so striking were her looks and screen presence that Francis was widely publicized as and the epitome of the "American glamour girl" throughout the 1930s. Her success came in spite of a minor but distinct speech impediment that gave rise to the nickname "Wavishing Kay Fwancis."
Signed to a Paramount contract, Francis made an immediate impact and frequently costarred with William Powell. She appeared in as many as six to eight movies a year, making a total of 21 films between 1929 and 1931.
In 1932, Warner Brothers persuaded both Francis and Powell to join the ranks of Warners stars. In exchange, Francis was given roles that allowed her a more sympathetic screen persona than had hitherto been the case (in her first three featured roles she had played a villainess). For example, in The False Madonna (1932) she played a jaded society woman nursing a terminally ill child who learns to appreciate the importance of hearth and home.
From 1932 through 1936, Francis was the queen of the Warners lot and increasingly her films were developed as star vehicles. In the mid-thirties, Francis was one of the highest-paid people in the United States.
Highlights of her career include The Cocoanuts (1929) with the Marx Brothers in their screen debut, the acclaimed comedy Trouble in Paradise (1932), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Jewel Robbery, and One Way Passage.
In the period of her greatest popularity she frequently played longsuffering heroines (in films with titles such as I Found Stella Parrish, Secrets of an Actress, and Comet over Broadway), displaying to good advantage lavish wardrobes that, in some cases, were more memorable than the characters she played—a fact often emphasised by contemporary film reviewers.
Francis is often cited (perhaps unfairly) as the classic example of a film star with an immense screen presence, but limited acting ability. She was more versatile than she is sometimes given credit for, playing everything from a physician (in Doctor Monica) to a Russian spy (in British Agent). Many felt she overreached in attempting to portray Florence Nightingale in The White Angel (1936), which marked the end of the period of her greatest popularity.
All too frequently, Francis's clotheshorse reputation led Warners to concentrate resources on lavish sets and costumes, designed to appeal to Depression-era female audiences and capitalise on her reputation as the epitome of chic, rather than on scripts. Eventually, Francis herself became dissatisfied with these vehicles and began openly to feud with her employers (even threatening a lawsuit against them for inferior treatment). This in turn led to her demotion to programmers such as 1939's Women in the Wind and, in the same year, to the termination of her contract.
Some writers have posited that her decline was due to her carelessness about scripts (having become known for accepting projects rejected by Bette Davis and other stars). Others attribute it to her basic lack of artistic interest in her career. Many note that as long her salary was paid, she was content to report to whatever film successive studios assigned her, even when she co-starred with Elsie, the Borden Cow in a film version of Little Men that bears only passing resemblance to Louisa May Alcott's classic. It is also possible that increasingly heavy drinking played a role.
After her release from Warners, Francis was unable to secure another studio contract. Carole Lombard, one of the most popular stars of the late 30s and early 40s (and who had previously been a supporting player in Francis's 1931 film Ladies' Man) attempted to bolster Francis' career by insisting she be cast in In Name Only(1939). Francis had a supporting role to Lombard and Cary Grant, but wisely recognized that the film offered her an opportunity to engage in some serious acting. Thereafter, she moved to character and supporting parts, playing catty professional women (holding her own against Rosalind Russell in The Feminine Touch, for example), and as mother to rising stars such as Deanna Durbin.
World War II era
With the start of World War II, Francis plunged into volunteer work, including extensive war-zone touring, which was first chronicled in a book attributed to fellow volunteer Carole Landis, Four Jills in a Jeep. The book became a popular 1943 film of the same name, with a cavalcade of stars and Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair joining Landis and Francis to fill out the complement of Jills.
Despite the success of Four Jills, the end of the war found Francis virtually unemployable in Hollywood. She signed a three-film contract with Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures that gave her production credit as well as star billing. The results — films called Divorce, Wife Wanted, and Allotment Wives — had limited releases in 1945 and 1946. While more lavish than some Monogram productions, they are still at best pale copies of her earlier work.
Francis spent the balance of the 1940s on the stage, appearing with some success on Broadway in State of the Union and touring in various productions of plays old and new, including one, Windy Hill, backed by former Warners colleague Ruth Chatterton. Declining health, aggravated by an accident in which she was badly burned by a radiator, hastened her retirement.
While some acquaintances paint a lurid picture of a reclusive, hopelessly alcoholic decline in the 1960s, others describe Francis as content with a quiet life in her comfortable Manhattan flat, enjoying the company of a small group of old friends.
In 1966 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, but the cancer had spread and proved fatal.
Francis married three times and was involved in numerous well publicized affairs, but rumors of lesbianism followed her both during her life and since. Marjorie Main told author Boze Hadleigh, when he interviewed her for his book on Hollywood lesbians, "I always heard she was queer for the ladies," and subsequent biographers have reported affairs with women.
Her diaries, preserved in an academic collection at Wesleyan University, paint an affecting picture of a woman whose personal life was often in disarray and, at least in published excerpts, emphasize a strong attraction to men.
Francis left most of her substantial estate to support the provision of guide dogs for the blind.
- The Cocoanuts (1929)
- Gentlemen of the Press (1929)
- Dangerous Curves (1929)
- Illusion (1929)
- The Marriage Playground (1929)
- Behind the Make-Up (1930)
- Street of Chance (1930)
- Paramount on Parade (1930)
- A Notorious Affair (1930)
- For the Defense (1930)
- Raffles (1930)
- Let's Go Native (1930)
- The Virtuous Sin (1930)
- Callahan, John, Kay Francis: Secrets of an Actress, Bright Lights Film Journal, May 2006. Retrieved December 4, 2006
- Kear, Lynn & Rossman, John (2006). Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-2366-8.
- O'Brien, Scott (2006). Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to Be Forgotten. BearManor Media. ISBN 1-59393-036-4.
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