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By 1941, Kay Francis's career had seen better days. Increasing scrutiny from the Production Code Administration, aka "Hays Office," in the early 1930s had taken the teeth out of the pre-Code movies that made her so popular and Bette Davis had supplanted her as Queen of the Warner Brothers lot late in the decade, when Kay, among several other important female stars, was declared Box Office Poison by movie exhibitors. As the 1940s began, she was only in her mid-30s (or early 40s, depending on which birth date you believe), but still maintaining the distinctive glamour and sophistication that made her popular (despite her declining box office receipts). That image was put to good use in the last of her three pictures at RKO, Play Girl. This romantic comedy (working title Debutantes Inc.) treads lightly around the kind of racy themes that marked Francis's pre-Code vehicles while adding a new element suited to her advancing years. Only in Hollywood could a woman of 36-42 be viewed as nearly past her prime, but that's exactly what Francis plays here, an aging gold-digger who takes a young ingnue under her wings to teach her how to charm money and luxury goods out of wealthy men.
After testing a few other young hopefuls, the studio decided to borrow a contract player at Francis's old studio, Warner Bros., for the role of protge Ellen Daley, who quickly learns the tricks of the trade but abandons gold-digging for true love with a handsome Texan. Mildred Coles was snatched from uncredited roles and bits to play her first major part on screen. It didn't catapult the former beauty queen to stardom, but she settled into what was for her a satisfying career, mostly in Westerns, before retiring from acting in 1948 at the age of 28. Francis wouldn't be far behind her, calling it quits in 1951 and living in relative obscurity for the next 17 years until her death.
Another career ending around the same time was that of Frank Woodruff, the director of Play Girl. His status as director of some very undistinguished and decidedly B pictures showed just how far Francis had fallen from her days as a leading lady in productions by the likes of Ernst Lubitsch, King Vidor, and Mervyn LeRoy. Woodruff's most memorable film was released later this same year: Lady Scarface (1941), a crime melodrama and tour-de-force for character actress Judith Anderson as a vicious gang leader, fresh off her Oscar®-nominated supporting role as the creepy and devious Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940). (Mildred Coles also had a featured role in Lady Scarface.) Woodruff made his last feature in 1944, worked briefly in television at the start of the 1950s, then left the business.
Play Girl was written by Jerome Cady, who went from Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto mysteries early in his career to scripting such top productions as Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Call Northside 777 (1948), and Henry Hathaway's Wing and a Prayer (1944), which earned him an Academy Award nomination. Cady's career also came to an early end; in 1948 he died from an overdose of sleeping pills on his yacht off Catalina Island. Another of the film's cast members, Nigel Bruce, best known as Dr. Watson in a series of Sherlock Holmes pictures, died of a heart attack in 1953 at the age of 58. Perhaps someone needs to investigate the "curse" of Play Girl?
Of all the film's performances, the standout--not surprisingly--is that of Margaret Hamilton as wisecracking maid Josie. She continued working until the age of 80, a prolific career that included the immortal role of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Play Girl was lensed by Nicholas Musuraca, who would work with Woodruff again on Lady Scarface, then go on to a highly acclaimed career as cinematographer for several film's in Val Lewton's legendary horror unit at RKO, including Cat People (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944). He also contributed greatly to the memorable look and mood of the thriller The Spiral Staircase (1945) and such notable film noir releases as Out of the Past (1947), Where Danger Lives (1950), and Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia (1953).
Play Girl's premise and plot were slammed by the British press as "unmoral," and some American religious figures said that Francis's profession and her tutelage of Cole bordered on an endorsement of prostitution. The only thing that allowed it to escape from close scrutiny by the Hays Office was its low status as a throwaway programmer. Unlike other morally questionable characters of the time, who had to be suffer for their crimes and sins, Francis's punishment in this was merely the ravages of time--and here again, only in Hollywood would pushing 40 be considered a suitably harsh sentence for a woman.
Director: Frank Woodruff
Producers: Lee S. Marcus, Cliff Reid
Screenplay: Jerome Cady
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editing: Harry Marker
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Original Music: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Kay Francis (Grace Herbert), James Ellison (Thomas Elwood Dice), Mildred Coles (Ellen Daley), Nigel Bruce (William McDonald Vincent), Margaret Hamilton (Josie).
by Rob Nixon