Star of the Month: Kay Francis

December 8, 2021
Star Of The Month: Kay Francis

Mondays in January / 42 Movies

Kay Francis, TCM Star of the Month for January, was a smart, glamorous leading lady who exerted tremendous influence over moviegoers during her heyday in the 1930s. Women copied her fashions, hairstyles, jewelry and makeup, while the male audience responded to her feminine charms.

“She was made for the camera,” film writer Dan Callahan observed about Francis in Bright Lights Film Journal. “Sleepy sloe eyes set wide apart, a large, tempting mouth, thick raven-black hair, orchid-in-the-moonlight skin, and strange, slanted eyebrows.”

Because of Francis’s distinctive and charming lisp, one wag dubbed her “the wavishing Kay Fwancis.”

Since few of her movies have endured as classics and she retired relatively early, Francis has not remained a familiar figure with modern audiences in the manner of such contemporaries as Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck.

Francis was, however, an important and prolific star of her time, labeled the “Queen of Warner Bros.” before Davis claimed the title. In the mid-1930s Warners was paying Francis a yearly salary of $115,000 compared to Davis’s $18,000.

In her heyday Francis specialized in romantic melodramas and “women’s pictures.” Since she rose to fame in the pre-Code era of the early ’30s, many of her films had an uninhibited approach to storytelling.

She was named the top-grossing female star of 1935, and during the years 1930-37 she appeared on more magazine covers than anyone except child star Shirley Temple.

Francis remained in films through the mid-1940s, eventually moving into B movies and supporting roles. All told, she racked up a total of 68 film credits, 42 of which are showing in the TCM tribute.

She was born Katherine Edwina Gibbs in Oklahoma City, OK, on January 13, 1905. (There was some dispute about the year of her birth, with some sources placing it as early as 1899.) Her father, Joseph Sprague Gibbs, was a businessman and her mother, Katharine Clinton Francis, a stage actress and singer.

Katherine’s father measured six feet, four inches, and she would inherit his height gene to become the tallest female film star of her day at five feet, nine inches.

Katherine, whose mother left her father while she was still a child. attended Catholic schools and later enrolled in a secretarial school in New York City. Before following in her mother’s footsteps as a performer, she worked as a stenographer and in real estate and public relations.

From 1922 to 1925 she was married to James Dwight Francis, part of a socially prominent family. Her status as a socialite helped her in finding stage roles.

She made her Broadway debut in 1925 under the name Katherine Francis in a modern version of Hamlet (as the Player Queen). She took a husband, William Gaston, in 1925 and divorced him in 1927.

More stage work followed for Francis, both in New York and stock, culminating in a role opposite Walter Huston in Elmer the Great in 1928. Huston encouraged her to test for a film he was due to make at Paramount, Gentlemen of the Press (1929), and she made her screen debut in that movie.

Pleased with her performance, Paramount signed her to a contract and kept her busy, both at her home studio and on loan-outs, for the next three years.

Francis started in featured roles but was soon playing the love interest of such leading men as Ronald Colman and William Powell (with whom she teamed in several films years before he paired up with Myrna Loy). We trace her career below through the films that are showing on TCM.

Raffles (1930), a Samuel Goldwyn production, stars Colman in the often-filmed story of a gentleman thief, with Francis as his love interest. For the Defense (1930) casts Powell as a defense attorney and Francis as his actress girlfriend.

Francis went to MGM for Passion Flower (1930), a romantic drama with Charles Bickford; and Guilty Hands (1931), murder mystery with Lionel Barrymore. At RKO she filmed Transgression (1931), a domestic drama with Ricardo Cortez. Back at Paramount she did Girls About Town (1931, TCM premiere), a comedy with Joel McCrea.

She married actor/director Kenneth MacKenna in 1931 and would divorce him in 1934.

Working through agent Myron Selznick, Warner Bros. made a bid to take over Francis’s contract from Paramount. After a court battle it was agreed that Francis would go to Warners but would also work for Paramount on loan-out.

Among her early films for Warners were the 1932 titles Street of Women, romantic drama with Roland Young; and two with William Powell, the caper comedy Jewel Robbery and the romance One Way Passage. The latter film was especially well-received.

Back at Paramount, Francis starred in a true classic, Ernst Lubitsch’s sparkling comedy Trouble in Paradise (1932) costarring Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall. This was the film that established the director’s reputation for “the Lubitsch touch.”

Francis had another success in Goldwyn’s Cynara (1932), a romantic drama with Ronald Colman in which she gives what is considered one of her best performances.

In MGM’s Storm at Daybreak (1933), Francis is married to Serbian mayor Walter Huston but has an affair with Hungarian officer Nils Asther. Back home at Warner Bros. she did a series of dramas including The Keyhole (1933) with George Brent, who would become another frequent leading man.

In Mary Stevens M.D. (1933), taking advantage of pre-Code freedoms, Francis plays a doctor who decides to have a baby without benefit of marriage. She and Edward G. Robinson play mismatched lovers in I Loved a Woman (1933), a film dominated by its male star.

The House on 56th Street (1933) and Mandalay (1934) are melodramas in which Francis costars with Ricardo Cortez, whose character fails to survive in each film. Francis was well-reviewed for her performance in Doctor Monica (1934) as an obstetrician who cannot have children of her own.

Some feel that Francis’s best film is British Agent (1934), directed by Michael Curtiz, costarring Leslie Howard, and based on a memoir by an agent for the British Secret Service during the Russian Revolution.

Around this time Francis was listed by Variety as Hollywood’s sixth most popular star. She reteamed with George Brent for three 1935 films, Living on Velvet, Stranded and The Goose and the Gander.

Francis had a commercial success with the weepie I Found Stella Parish (1935) in which she plays a famous actress whose dark past is revealed. But The White Angel (1936), a biopic of Florence Nightingale, had disappointing box-office returns.

Francis continued to star in romantic melodramas: Give Me Your Heart (1936) with George Brent, Stolen Holiday (1937) with Claude Rains, Confession (1937) with Basil Rathbone (another hit) and Another Dawn (1937) with rising star Errol Flynn.

She also tried comedies: First Lady (1937) with Preston Foster, and Women Are Like That (1938) with Pat O’Brien. But Francis was losing some of her clout at Warners; the studio hired Claudette Colbert for a role in Tovarich (1937) that had been intended for her.

Jack Warner demoted Francis to B films beginning in 1938 with My Bill, in which she plays a widow raising four children; Secrets of an Actress, in which she is in a love triangle with George Brent and Ian Hunter; and Comet Over Broadway, a script that Bette Davis had rejected about a housewife with theatrical ambitions.

Under Francis’s contract, however, she continued to receive a salary of $4,000 a week (a nice sum in the 1930s). She wrote in a private diary that “As long as they pay me my salary, they can give me a broom and I’ll sweep the stage. I don’t give a damn. I want the money.”

Davis continued to stake her claim as Francis’s replacement as Warners’ top female star. Francis lost two scripts to Davis that she had coveted, Juarez (1939) and The Sisters (1938); and was sometimes asked to take Davis’s hand-me-downs.

Along with countless other actresses (including other unlikely candidates), Francis had been considered as a long shot for the role of Scarlett in 1939’s Gone with the Wind.

For King of the Underworld (1939) Francis was reduced to below-the-title billing, with Humphrey Bogart listed as the solo star. Her final film under her Warners contract was Women in the Wind (1939), in which she plays an aviatrix competing in a “Powder Puff Derby.” When she left the studio, Davis inherited her bungalow.

When good roles were not forthcoming, Francis’s friend Carole Lombard arranged for her to land a nice costarring part in RKO’s In Name Only (1939), starring Lombard and Cary Grant.

Also at RKO, Francis played the supporting role of Deanna Durbin’s mother in It’s a Date (1940), and took the leading role in Play Girl (1941) as an older woman teaching a young protégé (Mildred Coles) how to seduce men for their money.

At MGM, Francis held her own with Rosalind Russell and Don Ameche in a costarring role in the comedy The Feminine Touch (1941). Her success in this film allowed Warners to accede to Walter Huston’s request that Francis return to her old studio to costar with him in Always in My Heart (1942).

During World War II Francis joined with Martha Raye, Carole Landis and others for USO tours, resulting in a film at 20 Century Fox about their adventures in Europe and North Africa, Four Jills in a Jeep (1944).

After some stage work, Francis contracted for a series of low-budget films at Monogram including Divorce (1945) and Allotment Wives (1945). Monogram’s Wife Wanted (1946) was her final film, although she did appear in a couple of filmed TV dramas.

In 1946 Francis replaced Ruth Hussey on Broadway in State of the Union and later toured with the play. She worked in stock for a few years and then retired, living in virtual seclusion in New York and at an estate in Cape Code, MA

In her later years she appeared bitter about the decline in her career. Feeling that she had received little support from the press when she needed it, she refused to give interviews or pose for photos.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1966 and died of the disease in 1968. According to her wishes, she was cremated with her ashes disposed of “as the undertaker sees fit.” Her surviving personal papers are available at the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives.

Francis had loved dogs and, with no living immediate family members, left much of her $2 million estate to The Seeing Eye, a New Jersey organization devoted to training guide dogs for the blind.

She sometimes seemed to have preferred dogs to people, once remarking that “A dog has kindness in his heart and dignity in his demeanor – the finest qualities anyone can have.”