The Life and Times of Kay Francis

By Meghan King | 13.11.2017

Wonder Bar . Dir. Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley. 1934.

Wonder Bar. Dir. Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley. 1934.

If you’re someone like me, someone whose tastes most closely align with that of a 60 year old gay male costume designer’s, you’ll know who actress Kay Francis is. If you take your doses of 1930s cinema intravenously and have a frenzied addiction to hardcore glamour, you’ll know who Kay Francis is. Otherwise, you’re likely among the large swath of the population who have unknowingly honoured Kay’s most famous wish when she said of her career, “I can’t wait to be forgotten.”

If you’re the sort of person who is predisposed to her particular charms, you almost only need to hear of Kay Francis to love Kay Francis.  No one, yesterday, today or tomorrow, could wear a dress like Kay. Kay Francis, by some alchemical force of self generated magic, was impossible to ignore when she appeared on screen. She was more striking than she was beautiful — she had these funnily long, downturned eyebrows that always made her look a little weary, a long and lithe body with a cherubic face, and eyes impossibly round like porcelain saucers. Everything about Kay Francis recalled the moon, from the shape of her eyes to the luminous way her fair skin seemed to reflect all the light in a given room. In a word, she stunned, and with this presence she carried off the most ridiculously decadent outfits with an untold ease. For Kay, the best looks were those that allowed her to do little else than stand elegantly with a glass of champagne or lay in the arms of her lover. “Natural” as calibrated to the sensibilities of Kay Francis, meant an abundance of sequins, silks and furs.

My waxing poetic of course begs the question: why has this magnificent starlet, once the queen of the Warner Brothers lot in the mid 30s, fallen to such obscurity? The answer is simple — Kay Francis couldn’t act, or rather, she was never required to act all that well. She just had to say her lines and be Kay Francis. The kinds of movies that called for this type of performance were typically thinner on substance and rarely longer than an hour and a quarter. In her book, A Woman’s View, film historian Jeanine Basinger nailed down the Kay formula exactly —“dress her very, very well…surround her with good furniture or exotic settings like Russia and Paris and Budapest…and let her suffer." Kay was unbothered by the formulaic, quantity-over-quality bend to her career. She only wanted not to be broke, and, more importantly, to never have to resort to the more sordid professions available to women, like her mother did when Kay was a child. Good movies meant little; a career beyond a pay check meant nothing.

Becoming an actress was a solution to Kay’s needs. She worked for a bit as a theatre actress in the mid 20s before landing her first gig at the Long Island annex of Paramount Pictures in 1928, then set out for Hollywood the following year. After Warner Brothers poached her from Paramount, Kay steadily made movies throughout the 30s— six in one year at her peak productivity. She hit her stride as a star around 1932, at the height of what is known as the Pre-Code era of filmmaking when Hollywood films traversed especially scandalous ground.[1] Kay remained amongst Hollywood’s top actresses for a few years until her career started to wane in the late 30s due to disagreements with the executives at Warner’s. By the end of her career she had made over 60 movies, which is pretty absurd when you notice that over half of them were made during her first five years as a screen actress.

Despite her lack of home-run, legacy-making movies, she actually managed to make a few pictures that have withstood the test of time. Namely, Trouble in Paradise, by the great Ernst Lubitsch, from 1932. Here Kay assumes the role she was born to play as Madame Colet, a rich French perfume manufacturer who gets swindled by consummate dandy and professional thief, Gaston Monescu. The film is so Pre Code-y with its double entendres and innuendo that it practically defines the genre. Another solid effort is the Tay Garnett directed One Way Passage (also from 1932) in which Kay stars opposite William Powell. In it, the two meet on a boat travelling from Hong Kong to San Francisco. Kay’s character is dying of some impossibly Victorian disease; Powell’s character a wanted murderer who awaits the death penalty upon arrival ashore. They meet, they woo, they carry out a dolefully impossible affair. The picture is especially star-crossed and, ultimately, an unfortunately underrated melodrama that has been little seen.

Another of my favourite early roles of Kay’s is Girls About Town from 1931 which has her playing the ultimate flapper girl, Wanda, a woman who enjoys the casual company of various business men for a nominal fee of five hundred dollars an evening. A quasi-hooker with a heart of gold, she ends up falling in love with one of her paid affections. The film is a deliciously deco and bubbly 80 minutes. Common ground shared by Kay’s above mentioned characters was their penchant for falling in love with men who are woefully wrong for them. This was something of a specialty for Kay as an actress (and maybe for Kay too, who found herself on the failed side of five marriages). Although the women she played were constantly falling over themselves for ill-fated men, the intensity with which Kay portrays their adoration comes across as being more out of a firmness of spirit rather than a weak constitution. Even in her mooniest of moments, in her silliest of roles, Kay portrays women who fully inhabit their desires, even if those desires seem preposterous or bad for her.

The bulk of her filmography you can take or leave. I’m of the “take” minority — sometimes despite my best interests — because obsession always gets the better of me. The types of movies Kay starred in aren’t the kind that garner grandiose restoration rollouts or the Criterion treatment. That her movies are especially hard to find outside a TCM marathon doesn’t help her diminished celebrity either. The movies she made towards the end of the 30s grew increasingly inferior due to the combative relationship that had developed between Kay and her home studio. But beyond that, I doubt Kay’s career was really going to swim in the next decade. Kay doesn’t at all make sense in the 40s cinematic milieu. For one, her characteristic taste for jewels, furs and Veuve Clicquot were a touch gauche amidst wartime austerity. This could have been fine if she had the range to play a character of more modest means. Perhaps I’m being unfair — maybe she did — but decadence was her calling card, and being a so-called “good actress” was not something studio executives cared much to explore with Kay. So by the early 40s, not only was Kay never given much of an opportunity to act seriously on screen, but the one bankable skill she did have was so diametrically opposed to the broader culture that to be Kay Francis™ was almost unpatriotic. 

Jewel Robbery. Dir. William Dieterle. 1932.

Jewel Robbery. Dir. William Dieterle. 1932.

To add insult to injury, you really don’t want to see Kay in anything remotely resembling the humble threads of 40s fabric rationing. In one of her plodding but still more decent films, Living on Velvet (1935), Kay plays a woman who falls madly in love with a man who is terrible for her, but to whom she is hopelessly devoted (quelle surprise). In her unwavering affection she follows her love — a Howard Hughes-esque profligate pilot played by George Brent — out to Long Island where they share an especially shabby marital home. True to form for a woman’s melodrama, Kay’s character has forsaken her silver spoon life with her wealthy aunt for the pursuit of true love. Kay becomes The Housewife, sending her love off to the grocery store for meagre canned goods and milk while she makes do with the dilapidated kitchen wearing practical, coarse clothes….and a cotton headscarf. The whole thing seems downright perverse, and one cannot help but feel quite sorry for her (and also a bit sorry for yourself for having to witness this pitiful sight). A better actress in a better movie could pull this off, but Kay doesn’t. Truthfully, seeing her in anything but evening wear is a little jarring. Wools of the boiled variety did nothing for her, nor did pants unless they were silky and billowing, and certainly none of the 40s knee length skirt suits worked. She wasn’t especially fetching in period pictures either, and the few she did do, like The House on 56th Street (1933), were not without their strangeness despite Kay’s considerable efforts. She was simply too much a woman of her time to play anything but.

While she wasn’t an actress with a capital A, I can’t abide by an outright dismissal of her performative abilities, nor the assessment that she was little more than an animated mannequin. Of course women watched Kay Francis movies to see what she would be wearing, but this heightened glamour was also an essential component of the live-for-today, gin soaked nihilism with which she imbued her performances. The formulaic nature of her films presented a way of living within the often fretful experience of femininity that was fluffy and emotionally indulgent, glamorous beyond measure yet ultimately melancholy. Like any typical women’s picture of the time, they were escapist, but on familiar moral terms. Cooing at a puffy, moneyed old man over a coupe de champagne seems much more appealing when it’s your own idea. Until it isn’t. In her way, Kay predates Marilyn Monroe’s manner of giving herself over completely to love, to peak pleasure, to the camera. Hedonism coupled with ferociously normative concepts of romantic love made an impossible fantasy out of the lives of women audiences, though this chimeric cocktail was not without an aftertaste of sorrow. Mundane tragedy becomes elevated with melodrama and grandiosity whenever Kay warily looks out from beneath her famously downturned brows at her films’ emotional nadirs. Misery is much more palatable when it’s done in a string of pearls. It may not be a flawless system, but it has its moments of efficacy.

Something I haven’t given much mention so far — in part because it can, and has been, the subject of entire books — is the absolute madness of Kay’s personal life. I would be remiss not to admit that my equation of Kay with her characters throughout this piece is largely because Kay, for the most part, was her characters — and then some. Really, the lives Kay’s characters led were mere softcore vignettes of her own gin-for-breakfast, bisexual, bed hopping life. Kay herself detailed all of this in personal journals kept throughout her career, which essentially became a rolodex in shorthand of her sexual exploits and consistent drunkenness (a favourite entry of mine simply reads, “Drunk again!”).  When Kay was still a fledgling actress and New York socialite in the late 20s, she caught the attention of notorious gossip columnist Adela Rogers St. Johns. Of Kay she said: “Kay Francis decided, as young folks so often do, that the best way to beat life at its own game was to never take anything seriously, never to believe in anything and then you couldn’t be disillusioned, never to build up any dreams and then you couldn’t be rudely awakened, never to throw your whole soul into the keeping of another human being and then you couldn’t be disappointed. Be a play-girl. That was the system.”

The way she lived was as fizzy as the lives of her characters. When nothing lasts longer than an hour, the champagne can never go flat, nor can a genuinely nuanced performance take off the ground. Beating life at its own game usually means being left with not much of a life at all. After leaving movies Kay transitioned back to theatre, and did good work there for many years until she died in 1968 at the age of 63. She was survived by no one, and in her last will and testament she gave most of her fortune over to an organization for seeing eye dogs — a final effort to give meaning to her life’s denouement.

Kay Francis fans like myself apparently have no interest in respecting her mortal wish to be forgotten. Instead we read her personal journals and scatter our love for her across the corners of the internet in reverent eulogy of this weird, wonderful woman. However, none of us have captured Kay’s life as best as Kay did herself, in the very journal entry where her most quoted quote came from. To her likely chagrin, I give Kay the last word —

“My life? Well, I get up at a quarter to six in the morning if I'm going to wear an evening dress on camera. That sentence sounds a little ga-ga, doesn't it? But never mind, that's my life...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...When I die, I want to be cremated so that no sign of my existence is left on this earth. I can't wait to be forgotten."

[1] “Pre-Code” is understood as a genre as well as a historical moment between the dawn of talkies in 1929 and the implementation of the censorial Hays Code in 1934 which effectively neutered Hollywood in the name of conservative morality.

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