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A typical 1930s melodrama with a brisk pace and an interesting array of women characters, Secrets of an Actress (1938) starred Kay Francis in one of her last films for Warner Brothers. Francis's career is most often discussed by historians and biographers as one that was cut short by the machinations of the studio system, and this film is offered as evidence of the lackluster melodramas that Warners cast her in toward the end of her contract. As a movie star, Francis is largely overlooked now, but she was extremely popular during the Depression, especially among female audiences. To see Secrets of an Actress only as the star's "punishment" from Warners is to miss the appeal of Kay Francis and to rob the film of its strengths.
The daughter of an actress and a playboy, Francis took to the stage during the 1920s. At the end of the decade, she attracted the attention of Hollywood as did many stage actresses. The major studios were searching for actors who could handle dialogue after the advent of sound, and scouts and agents frequented the theater on the East Coast seeking new talent. Francis was given a screen test in 1928, and the following year made her film debut in Gentlemen of the Press. Under contract to Paramount from 1929 to 1932, she appeared in 18 films in supporting or secondary roles. The high point of her Paramount years was costarring in Ernst Lubitsch's sophisticated classic Trouble in Paradise (1932), which revealed her ability to handle comedy. Despite holding her own in Lubitsch's beloved romantic comedy, the studio really did not know what to do with Kay Francis. When Warner Brothers stepped in and offered her a contract, she happily accepted.
Warners turned her into a leading lady of "women's pictures," the phrase reserved for that most melodramatic of dramas dealing with divorce, difficult romances, philandering husbands, wayward children, and other domestic topics aimed at the female audience. Occasionally, she appeared in a comedy but most of her time at Warners was spent on films with such titles as Women Are Like That (1938), My Bill (1938), I Loved a Woman (1933), Storm at Daybreak (1933), I Found Stella Parish (1935), One Way Passage (1932), and Confession (1937). Francis was Warners' highest paid star in the late 1930s, making over $200,000, but she earned her salary by dutifully starring in about four films per year.
The studio did cast her in a biopic of Florence Nightingale titled The White Angel (1936) in an effort to broaden her image and appeal, but it was not a success with the public. The studio returned her to melodramas that seemed little more than by-the-numbers tearjerkers, suggesting a decrease in her star status or some problem with the studio. Whether her fans were disappointed in her films is not known, but a few reviewers commented that the material was beneath her. Several reasons are given by historians and biographers for Warners' treatment of Francis. According to some, the well-paid star alienated the studio by refusing to play the publicity game. Others mention her unhappiness at losing a role to Claudette Colbert in the costume comedy Tovarich (1937); her vocal protests to the studio were not appreciated. By the end of her contract, she was counting the days till her tenure with Warners was over, and they were pushing her out the door. That was the state of Francis's career when she starred in Secrets of an Actress, and the film is usually discussed in this context, which does not present it in a favorable light. While Secrets of an Actress is not the best film of her career, it and Francis deserve more careful consideration.
An elegant, worldly brunette with a cello voice and throaty laugh, Francis brought glamour and sophistication to all her characters no matter their situations. Part of her persona included her image as a clotheshorse, and her films were often a fashion parade of the latest styles and looks. It was part of her appeal as a star, and in 1936 and 1947, she was voted the Best Dressed Woman in America by New York's Fashion Academy. Much has been made of her slight speech problems, in which she tended to substitute "w's" for "r's," but that has been exaggerated. In Secrets of an Actress, this or any other speech defect is not noticeable.
Secrets of an Actress tells the story of Fay Carter, who is the daughter of a well-known stage actor. Despite being on stage since she was a toddler, Fay has yet to experience her big breakthrough. She turns down an opportunity to star in a touring show, because she knows that true success on the stage is measured in Broadway appearances. When she meets successful architect Peter Snowden, played by Ian Hunter, he agrees to produce a Broadway play with her in the lead, because he admired her father. George Brent costars as Snowden's skeptical partner, Dick Orr, who doesn't think backing a play is a smart investment. Yet, Peter is determined not only to back the show but to have his firm build the sets, partly because he is falling in love with Fay. Dick is also smitten with Fay, who returns his feelings. Unfortunately Dick is married to greedy, self-absorbed Carla (Gloria Dickson), who refuses to give her husband a divorce. The clichd story about star-crossed lovers was punched up during rewrites. Respected scriptwriter Milton Krims added a tight structure to the story, while Julius J. Epstein (who later worked on Casablanca, 1942) added some much-needed humor through the dialogue and the character of Fay's roommate, Marian Plantagenet. Still, audiences flocked to the theaters to see Francis in her prime, not to embrace the plot.
Fans who expected Francis's character, Fay Carter, to be a fashion plate were not disappointed. The costumes were designed by Orry-Kelly, and Francis goes through 14 wardrobe changes during the film's 71-minute running time. The gowns that represent the costumes for the play-within-the-film are the most stunning creations in Secrets of an Actress. Stylishly simple, the gowns are either black or white, with subtle accessories to enhance their elegance. Most striking is the white gown Fay wears to the after-show party. The gown is low-cut and virtually backless except for the sheer straps that go over the shoulders and down the back. While Francis shows no cleavage, the front is cut down to the breastbone, which was unusually daring for the time given the Production Code's careful scrutiny of costumes. On the naturally stylish Francis, the gown looks classy and attractive, not cheap or sexy.
The appeal of the film, particularly for women, is the character of Fay Carter. She is a smart, talented actress who comes from a respected stage family. But, more than that, she is presented as an expert in her field, which is the theater. Her experience and bloodline-not her physical beauty-are the characteristics that persuade Peter to invest in her play. And, it is a play that she owns the rights to, because she recognizes good material when she sees it, and her judgments are sound. Fay is instrumental in the production of the play, showing Dick how to make the sets he designed work better. Contrasting Fay to the other female characters enhances Fay's sophistication, independence, and intelligence. Dick's wife, Carla, is the epitome of the clinging wife who refuses to give her husband a divorce because she doesn't want to give him up to another woman. Though also a clotheshorse, the scornful Carla is not refined and self-reliant like Fay, because she is dependent on Dick to keep her in finery. As she sits on her divan in a lounging gown, she nags Dick about needing more money-the very image of the kept woman who is neither productive nor worthy of respect. Fay's quirky roommate and fellow actress, Marian Plantagenet, is memorably played by English actress Isabel Jeans. She is likable and endearing, but she drinks too much, which causes her to engage in behavior that is embarrassing. Her outspoken personality is funny and charming, but her actions peg her as unsophisticated and mindless.
As Fay Carter, Kay Francis is attractive because she is refined and cultured, takes charge of her life and career, and is respected by men because of her experience and judgment. And, she dresses in the latest fashions with style and elegance. If Fay Carter is typical of Francis's heroines, then no wonder women flocked to her films. Historians, reviewers, and biographers tend to disparage Francis's career because she was relegated to melodramas with soap-opera plots by Warner Brothers, but her films are noteworthy because of the class and intelligence she brought to her characters. That is the key to her popularity as a star.
Accounts of Francis's career tend to depict her spotty starring roles during the 1940s as a downward spiral, though this isn't a fair portrayal. In 1939, she gave a worthy performance in In Name Only opposite Cary Grant, and in 1945-46, she co-produced three films, which she also starred in, for Monogram Pictures-a rare example of a female producer during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Most significantly, she took an interest in world events and used her celebrity for the greater good. In 1939, she took classes from the Red Cross, and by 1941, she was heavily involved with the war effort. She was among the group of stars who most frequently visited the troops in war zones, and in 1942, she persuaded General Eisenhower to let her group of stars go to the front in Algeria. After the war, she returned to acting for the stage, enjoying great success with State of the Union during the late 1940s and Somerset Maugham's Theatre in 1954. When she died of cancer in 1968, she left most of her estate to the Seeing Dog Foundation. Like her characters, Kay Francis remained a class act to the end.
Producer: David Lewis for Warner Brothers
Director: William Keighley
Screenplay: Milton Krims, Rowland Leigh, and Julius J. Epstein based on the story "Lovely Lady"
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Editor: Owen Marks
Art Director: Anton Grot
Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly
Cast: Fay Carter (Kay Francis), Dick Orr (George Brent), Peter Snowden (Ian Hunter), Carla Orr (Gloria Dickson), Marian Plantagenet (Isabel Jeans), Miss Reid (Penny Singleton), Miss Blackstone (Dennie Moore), Thompson (Selmer Jackson), Harrison (Herbert Rawlinson), Spencer (Emmett Vogan), Carstairs (James B. Carson).
B&W-71m. Closed captioning.
by Susan Doll