Kay Francis - 8/21
For several years (1933-37) she was also the undisputed queen of Warner Bros. studio, the one name among the company's female contingent which was a guaranteed draw at the boxoffice, a position she enjoyed until that Massachusetts girl named Davis began sitting on the throne at that studio in 1938. But unlike Bette D. who fought for strong dramatic roles and recognition as an actress, Kay was famous for looking gorgeous and elegant while riddled with angst. There seemed to be an unwritten law that any bonafide Kay Francis movie had to include four basics: Kay wearing stunning gowns, Kay in love and suffering for it, Kay being gallant and true, Kay doing the right thing at the film's wrap, even if it meant her giving up a great love, be it a handsome swain, an adorable child or a devoted hubby.
The public loved the Kay Francis formula so much, ironically, it also doomed her. The more her fans crowded into the local Bijous to see the latest Francis film, the fatter her paycheck became until she was making far more moola than the Brothers themselves. They didn't like that idea and decided to give Kay the heave-ho and, instead, put their muscle behind a newer actress who'd cost them much less, such as hat new girl named Davis. They did not, however, fire Kay as that would have required them to pay her a fortune in compensation fees - so they plotted instead to embarrass her into quitting. Thus, the studio started casting her in third rate movies, lowering her billing even on those films in which she played the lead and, the unkindest cut of all, riddling her scripts with words such as "ridiculous," "really," "resounding" and "Roger," because she had trouble pronouncing her "Rs." But it didn't work. Kay stayed and stayed and stayed. She kept pocketing those weekly checks until the contract expired, winning the battle but, unfortunately, losing her standing in the movie industry, and ultimately also diluting her legacy. But knowing what was going on in her career during those latter days at Warner Bros. does make even the weaker Kay Francis films great fun to watch today.
Meanwhile, looking at the four-star Kay movies she made which we'll be showing this month, such as Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, Tay Garnett's One Way Passage and King Vidor's Cynara, give a chance to see Kay at her finest. Never fear, there are also myriad examples of the kind of Kay Francis films that moviegoers loved best, one of them Mandalay, in which she is miraculously able to jump on a steamer in Burma carrying only a purse, yet for days after she's on board the small boat wearing a succession of lavish gowns, complete with headdresses, which have appeared from out of nowhere and would seem to require a closet the size of Versailles to hold them. That was the magic of movies. It was also the kind of magic moviegoers always expected, and got, from Kay Francis. Welcome to her unique world every Thursday this month.
by Robert Osborne