Monday, April 18, 2011

Oh, Kay... Simply Wavishing!

Unless an actor or actress is part of a wildly enduring classic film or somehow died in a way that makes his or her legend live on, it's tough for them to manage to be remembered, even if they were extraordinarily popular. Today's featured actress does have a small, but devoted, following, though not among most of the general public. In her day, however, she was exceedingly popular and was not only the highest paid actress in films, but one of the highest paid people in the country, period! The lady is Miss Kay Francis.Born Katherine Edwina Gibbs, to a businessman father and an actress mother, on January 13th, 1905 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, she was soon the responsibility of a single mother, her father having left by the time she was four. Her mother, who'd begun acting in her native Nova Scotia, traveled from job to job as a performer, unintentionally replacing her young daughter's blood with sawdust. Though the youth went to secretarial school, and was married at the tender age of seventeen, she continued to dream of a career on the stage. While in Paris getting a divorce from her husband of two years, she met the man who would become husband number two! They endured a long distance love affair with him in Boston and her in New York City, pursuing a career on Broadway. Sure enough, by 1925 she made her debut in a production of Hamlet, taking the name Katherine Francis (Francis was her mother's maiden name.) Over the next few years she would work both on Broadway in three more productions as well as touring in Ohio, playing any number of different and distinct parts. In the wake of the fourth Broadway show, she was encouraged by the star Walter Huston to take a screen test for the upcoming Paramount Pictures movie Gentlemen of the Press, in which he was to star. She won the part. At that time, Paramount was making pictures in New York, so she was able to stay there. Nevertheless, she had already divorced her second husband and was engaged to a playboy (this relationship fell apart when she decided she preferred to act rather than be the society wife his family wanted.) Her next film was a brief appearance in The Marx Brothers' The Cocoanuts. For this, and forever after, she went by the more marquee friendly Kay Francis. Paramount found plenty of use for her and before long she moved to the west coast where the film industry was steadily relocating. In 1930, she appeared in ten films alone! Granted, these were typically shorter pictures than would later be the norm, but still... 1931 was almost as hectic with eight movies released containing her work. Francis began to appeal heavily to moviegoers, especially ladies who admired the statuesque girl's ability to wear clothes. She was soon to be referred to as Hollywood's Best Dressed Woman. Warner Brothers decided they could top her current salary as well as turn her into a major star, something that wasn't guaranteed to happen within Paramount's crowded roster. So she and frequent costar William Powell made the jump to the other studio. This was the time of Art Deco, with sleek lines and clean details in furnishings and d├ęcor, meaning that an actress who wore clothes well (and the 5'9” Francis, quite tall for a leading lady at that time, certainly did) could really stand out with such complimentary backgrounds behind her. Clothes by such costume designers as Adrian, Orry-Kelly and Travis Banton didn't hurt! She took personal interest in her costumes and often collaborated on what would be right for certain characters and scenes. There was a small fly in the ointment, however, and that was the fact that the glamorous, fashionable, raven-haired beauty had a bit of a speech impediment. Her r's and l's had a tendency to come out as w's. This was a point of mockery at Paramount, where she was dubbed “The Wavishing Kay Fwancis.” As she was becoming more and more famous and important as a star property, care was taken to rid her dialogue of as many of the two letters as was possible. Sound in films at this time was hardly crystal clear, which also aided in the subterfuge. 1932 was a key year for Francis in that two of her most celebrated films were released. One Way Passage, the smaller in scope of the two, was a romantic and heart-tugging story about a terminally ill young lady (Francis) who meets a condemned man (Powell) on a cruise ship, both of them due to meet death not long after their arrival at port and neither knowing about the other one's fate. (And do check out Miss Francis' elongated eyebrows in the photo above right! Click to enlarge.) At barely over an hour in length, it is a wonderful candy box of a film and a great showcase for its stars (including several supporting actors who do well in it, such as Aline McMahon, Warren Hymer-shown above on the left- and Frank McHugh.) The story featured a romantic gesture that, thankfully for bar owners didn't catch on too heavily. After toasting over a glass of champagne, the lovers would smash their glasses and lay the stems across one another sybolicially! The other, Trouble in Paradise (actually made on a visit back to Paramount), is heralded even today as an example of sparkling comedy and was directed by the famed Ernst Lubitsch. Herbert Marshall (looking quite handsome here, I must say) and Miriam Hopkins played a pair of thieves who target the female owner of a perfume company (Francis) as their next mark. Unfortunately, Marshall begins to fall for Francis amid a lot of double entendre-filled dialogue and tasteful suggestiveness. Francis continued to wow audiences and amass a legion of fans. In many cases, it was enough for film advertisers to merely place her name and photo along with the title of the film on a poster with no other details and watch the tickets sell like mad. Viewers knew they were going to be treated to a sumptuous, engaging story with an appealing actress in the lead role. A versatile performer, Francis was still able to waver between comedy and melodrama, though she was more frequently put to use in the latter.One of her big hits in 1935 was I Found Stella Parrish, about an actress in hiding and on the run from the press in order to protect her young daughter from scandal. The following year, she portrayed Florence Nightingale in The White Angel. In 1937, she was teamed with Errol Flynn and Ian Hunter (a frequent costar, working with her on eight movies) in Another Dawn. This was a notable title because prior to 1937, whenever Warner Brothers had a scene in their films that took place at or near a movie theater, they would use the title “Another Dawn” for the fake movie. When they were trying to figure out the name of this latest romantic drama, someone suggested calling it Another Dawn and that's what they did! Next was Confession, a rollercoaster ride of a melodrama in the Madame X mold about a hard driven lounge performer (Francis) who kills a man (Basil Rathbone) because he has attempted to seduce an underage girl (Jane Bryan.) For this part, Francis went the gamut from exquisite clothing and jewels to down and out floozie in a bleached wig. For many, this is the best example of the type of acting she was famous for and it is a compelling little movie for fans of this genre. Francis was known as “Queen of the Warner Brothers Lot” and began to command a hefty salary. She was also a hard-working and obedient employee... for quite a while. Then she began to see the damage that playing heroines suffering in mink and feathers in lush surroundings, over and over, was doing to her career over the long haul. She began to fight for better and more varied roles. As Bette Davis had found out when she tried to buck Jack Warner herself, it was no easy feat taking on the head of a studio. Francis was embroiled in a battle royale that she had little chance of winning. The men behind the big desks held most, if not all, of the cards. Sensing the futility of wrecking her career entirely through blacklisting (which existed heavily long before the political type that came along in the McCarthy era), she resigned herself to accepting whatever parts she was given with the comfort of knowing that she would collect a $5250.00/week salary. I shouldn't have to explain what that sort of money was like in 1938! In short, she cried all the way to the bank. As punishment, Jack Warner began shunting her aside in favor of Bette Davis and assigned Francis the leftover parts. In one film, My Bill, he attempted to embarrass her by casting her as the poor, widowed mother of four children. Thing was, she was so good in it that the film was a big success! Then, in a continued effort to thwart and humiliate her, scripts were doctored to include as many r's and l's as they could. Far less attention was paid to photographing her flatteringly. Consider this publicity portrait in which one pupil is dilated and one not, due to the ineffectual lighting. It was an environment of resentment and frustration, but she continued to work, though the projects got worse and worse until her contract expired. In 1938, she was added to the infamous list created by theater owners of “Box Office Poison.” Carole Lombard, a luminous star of both comedies and dramas who had once had a small role in a Francis film, sought to lend the struggling star a hand. She insisted that Francis be cast in her upcoming movie In Name Only. The 1939 film starred Cary Grant as a man in love with Lombard while married to the fake and venomous wife from hell Francis. This meaty part gave Francis a chance to really show off her chops once again. In 1940, she played a fading Broadway actress who is mother to Deanna Durbin (a major singing star youth of the time) in It's a Date. She becomes part of a love triangle with her daughter with Walter Pidgeon as the other corner. (Incidentally, Miss Durbin is still alive today, aged eighty-nine, and has deliberately been out of the public eye since 1948 when she exited the movie business.) Francis found herself in films that were a departure from her previous efforts, such as the western When the Daltons Rode with Randolph Scott and Play Girl, which had her cast as an aging gold digger passing on her talents to a younger protegee. She costarred with Jack Benny in a slightly augmented version of the play Charley's Aunt, playing Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez against Benny in drag! That Feminine Touch had her chasing after Don Ameche while he is married to Rosalind Russell. Things came full circle in 1942 when Walter Huston, the man who had gotten her into the movies in the first place, played her husband in Always in My Heart, the story of a man who gets out of prison only to find that his wife has fallen in love with someone else. She next played Diana Barrymore's mother in a comedy called Between Us Girls. Always a woman with an eye to making things better for others, Francis embarked on a USO tour overseas during WWII. Working with Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, along with fellow performers Carole Landis, Martha Raye and dancer Mitzi Mayfair, she and her cohorts traveled around, from England to Africa, putting on a show for the G.I.s. The exploits they encountered were later made into a book, followed by a movie musical called Four Jills in a Jeep, with the folks portraying themselves in a fictionalized account of the adventure. For the film, Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and Phil Silvers appeared as well, with singer Dick Haymes making his screen debut. Now having been off the scene for a couple of years, in 1945, she struck a deal with the decidedly low-rung Monogram Studios to produce and star in films of her own choosing. This way, she could help to control the content as well as add to her income. Divorce had her character breaking up Bruce Cabot and Helen Mack's marriage. Allotment Wives concerned women who marry soldiers just for the money they'll receive if the young man dies in action. This film sought to cash in on the mother-daughter angst that had made Mildred Pierce a huge success. Francis even wore her hair similar to Joan Crawford's in that movie and posed for publicity photos with her onscreen daughter, much like Joan and Ann Blyth had done. 1946's Wife Wanted had her as a slipping movie star (hey, it's something she knew about firsthand!) who becomes unwittingly embroiled in a blackmail and fraud scam. It was to be her last motion picture. Now forty-one, she exited the movie business and began working in various stage productions with an infrequent appearance on television. Her final job before the camera was a 1951 episode of Lux Video Theatre. A severe burning during an accident with a radiator three years prior also played a part in her decision to segue into retirement. Far from being a destitute, washed up, former actress, Miss Francis simply didn't need to work any more. She had made a considerable amount of money and could retire quite comfortably. Married and divorced five times by the time her career was over, she spent the rest of her life as a reclusive single lady. An admitted occasional bisexual during her younger years (despite a string of rapturous affairs with men), she was rumored to have become more substantially lesbian in her retirement years, as if being out of the public eye freed her to do so. And she was out of the public eye. The title of one of her biographies, “I Can't Wait to be Forgotten,” taken from a quote of hers, signifies her lack of desire to continue fighting the battle. She was able to find fulfillment in other ways, however. Sadly stricken with breast cancer in 1966, she underwent a mastectomy, but the cancer had already spread to other areas and she was gone by 1968 at the age of sixty-three. With no children (though she was the godmother to a couple of folks), her estate earmarked over a million dollars to a foundation that trained seeing eye dogs for the blind. Renewed interest in classic films, apart from the select few (Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, etc...) that everyone knew about, came about in a more significant way with the advent of cable TV and, before long, a whole new generation of fans began to sit up and take notice of the work of Miss Kay Francis. Her career and life were made up of a series of highs and lows, but when the dust settles, her entertaining work on the screen is still there to be enjoyed.

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