Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Kay Francis: Leading Lady Who Became Box Office Poison

Have you ever heard of movie star Kay Francis? Although I was a big fan of old movies, Kay Francis was completely new to me when I started taking film classes. It came as a surprise that she'd been one of Hollywood's top leading ladies in the 1930s, with roles in movies like Ernst Lubitsch's fabulous "Trouble in Paradise," the five-hankie women's picture "One Way Passage," and "Another Dawn," now infamous for including every cliche known to movie-makers.

Francis and her films are being highlighted today on Turner Classic Movies, with all kinds of gems hardly ever shown on TV anymore. "One Way Passage," where she's a terminally ill woman with a last-chance romance on an ocean liner, was first thing this morning, but there's plenty of good stuff still coming up. Tonight, starting at 7, you can see "Guilty Hands," a murder mystery with Lionel Barrymore, where TCM notes say she plays "a vampy beauty with intelligence and soul to burn; "The House on 56th Street," where she's a chorus girl turned society wife turned criminal and then back to being a glamorous fashion maven; and the steamy "Mandalay," with Francis as a bad girl with three names and some pretty dicey choices in men, careers and criminal enterprises.

Kay Francis was a role model for women of the 30s, mostly because of her wardrobe and strength, showcasing what it meant to suffer and rise above, to stand there like a graceful goddess no matter what her movies threw at her.

But then there was the "Box Office Poison" problem. In 1938, a group called the Independent Theatre Owners Association decided that Edward Arnold, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Kay Francis, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West were -- all by themselves -- killing movie profits. The movie theater owners lambasted the stars as overpaid and underachieving, begging the studios to rethink making movies with those stars. Ouch.

Crawford never really stopped doing what she was doing, and Hepburn and Garbo came back after awhile, but Kay Francis never really recovered. Bette Davis became the new #1 star at Warner Brothers, and Francis was relegated to lesser roles and lesser pictures.

And that's probably why you've never heard of Kay Francis, and why you should take a look at this elegant, gracious actress who managed to elevate a lot of pretty awful plots with her style as well as a contemplative gaze into the distance that always seemed to make her characters seem deeper than they really were.

Check out the complete Kay Francis schedule at Turner Classic Movies.


  1. A welcome message, Julie. I myself like older movies (though there's a ton I haven't seen) but I'm sure I've never seen Kay Francis. I had a vague idea she was one of the four sisters in the Cukor "Little Women," but no. I must have been free-associating from Frances Dee. She did, I find, star as the older Jo March in a movie of the sequel "Little Men," in effect replacing Katharine Hepburn in the role. (And I also noticed that her actual given name was Katharine as well, the same unusual spelling.)

    One of the big movies in which she starred is "Wonder Bar," from 1934. It is never shown any more except in specially introduced festival screenings, largely because it contains the most stunningly racist number ever filmed, "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule." I quote a description in IMDb: "featuring Al Jolson in blackface who heads to heaven complete with an entire entourage of dancing angels in blackface, "Pork Chop Orchard" where pork chops grow on trees, "Watermelon Palace" with watermelons free for the taking, "Uncle Tom To-Nite" sign, craps dice, and tap-dancing number in front of waving watermelon slices." I have no doubt TCM is leaving that one alone, as they should.

  2. I posted too soon. "Wonder Bar" is available on DVD in the Warner Archive collection, also through the TCM Vault Collection.

    And they're showing "Little Women" this afternoon, at 4:30 ET..

  3. Don't you mean "Little Men"? Although I've seen the Hepburn "Little Women" several times, the Francis "Little Men" never came up on the Late, Late Show or Dialing for Dollars, as far as I recall.

    In terms of her films, I've seen "Trouble in Paradise," which is wonderful, but not necessarily because of her, and "Another Dawn," which is hilarious for all the wrong reasons. I'm sure there are more of her films I've seen, but I just don't know... Sad!

  4. Yes, of course I meant "Little Men." Familiar finger patterns take over, once more.

  5. You're of course on top of this, Julie, but I started looking at other TCM Stars of the Day the rest of this month, and find:

    Today (Wednesday): Jack Lemmon
    Thursday 8/23: Including INVITATION TO THE DANCE which isn't shown often)
    Fri 8/24: Irene Dunne
    Sat 8/25: Tyrone Power (I could finally see CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE, whose music we played so often in high school)
    Sun 8/26: Gary Cooper
    Mon 8/27: Jeanette MacDonald (it's her early pre-Eddy musicals which are really fun, and of those they're showing only THE MERRY WIDOW)
    Tue 8/28: Ava Gardner
    Wed 8/29: Ingrid Bergman
    Thu 8/30: Warren William, certainly an imaginative choice -- a bit like Kay Francis, a onetime Big Deal who's now virtually forgotten
    Fri 8/31: James Caan (hey, no cable channels ever show SLITHER, HARRY & WALTER GO TO NEW YORK, or HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT any more!)

  6. It's been tough not to have every day be about whoever TCM is spotlighting. I watched 42nd Street and Stage Door (and, of course, Swing Time) on Ginger Rogers Day. And a lot of Toshiro Mifune. And Rita Hayworth. I meant to see more of John Garfield day, too.

    I love that they did this Summer of Stars thing, but it kind of screwed up any tribute to Celeste Holm, which I was hoping for.