Kay Francis

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Kay Francis
Kay Francis EF2.jpg
Francis in 1935
Katherine Edwina Gibbs

(1905-01-13)January 13, 1905
DiedAugust 26, 1968(1968-08-26) (aged 63)
New York City, U.S.
Years active1925–1951
James Dwight Francis
(m. 1922;div. 1925)

William Gaston
(m. 1925;div. 1927)

(m. 1931;div. 1934)

Katherine Edwina "Kay" Francis (née Gibbs, January 13, 1905 – August 26, 1968) was an American stage and film actress. [1] After a brief period on Broadway in the late 1920s, she moved to film and achieved her greatest success between 1930 and 1936, when she was the number one female star and highest-paid actress at Warner Bros. studio. [2]


Early life

Francis was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Territory (present-day Oklahoma), in 1905. [3] Her parents, Katharine Clinton Francis, an actress, [4] and Joseph Sprague Gibbs were married in 1903; however, Katharine Gibbs took their daughter and left an alcoholic Joseph by the time Francis was four. [4] She inherited her 5 foot 9 inch height from her father (who stood 6 feet 4 inches) and was to become Hollywood's tallest female lead of the 1930s.

Her mother had been born in Nova Scotia, Canada, and was a moderately successful actress and singer under the stage name Katharine Clinton. Francis was raised in this hardscrabble theatrical circuit, often traveling with her mother. [4] She attended Catholic schools when it was affordable, becoming a student at the Institute of the Holy Angels at age five. [5] After also attending Miss Fuller's School for Young Ladies in Ossining, New York (1919) and the Cathedral School (1920), she enrolled at the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in New York City. While attending there, she did nothing to discourage the assumption that her mother was the same pioneering American businesswoman who established the chain of vocational schools.

In 1922, a 17-year-old Francis became engaged to, and married James Dwight Francis, a well-to-do man from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Their marriage, at New York's Saint Thomas Church, ended in divorce three years later. [6] Although he made an offer of support, Francis refused and instead gained employment on the stage.

Stage career

In the spring of 1925, Francis went to Paris to get a divorce. While there, she was courted by Bill Gaston, a former athlete at Harvard and member of the Boston Bar Association. They were secretly married in October 1925, though this marriage was short-lived. [7] Francis and Gaston saw each other only on occasion; he was in Boston and Francis had decided to follow her mother's footsteps and go on the stage in New York. She made her Broadway debut [8] as the Player Queen in a modern-dress version of Shakespeare's Hamlet in November 1925. [9] She often "borrowed" wardrobe for nights out in New York as one of the "fashionistas" that was reported on by the papers of the day. Francis claimed she got the part by "lying a lot, to the right people". One of the "right" people was producer Stuart Walker, who hired Francis to join his Portmanteau Theatre Company, and she soon found herself commuting between Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana. She played wisecracking secretaries, saucy French floozies, walk-ons, bit parts, and heavies.

By February 1927, Francis returned to Broadway in the play Crime. [10] Sylvia Sidney, although a teenager at the time, had the lead in Crime, but later said that Francis stole the show.

After Francis' divorce from Gaston, in September 1927, she became engaged to a society playboy, Alan Ryan Jr. She promised Ryan's family that she would not return to the stage – a promise that lasted only a few months before she was back on Broadway as an aviator in a Rachel Crothers play, Venus. [11]

Francis appeared in only one other Broadway production, a play titled Elmer the Great in 1928. [12] Written by Ring Lardner and produced by George M. Cohan, the play starred Walter Huston. The play flopped and Francis, though flat broke at the time, was unwilling to ask friends for a loan and instead was "vowing to crawl out of this mess herself." [7] Her Elmer costar Walter Huston had been impressed by Francis' performance and recommended and encouraged her to take a screen test for his new studio Paramount Pictures and the film Gentlemen of the Press (1929). Paramount offered her a starting contract of $300 per week for five weeks. [13] Francis made Press and the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts (1929) at Paramount's Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens, New York before moving to Hollywood. [14]

Film career

Francis in a 1930 Paramount Studios publicity photo by Otto Dyar Kay Francis NM530.jpg
Francis in a 1930 Paramount Studios publicity photo by Otto Dyar

Major film studios, which had formerly been based in New York, were well-established in California, and many Broadway actors had been enticed to travel west to Hollywood to make sound films, including Ann Harding, Aline MacMahon, Helen Twelvetrees, Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Leslie Howard. Francis, signed to a featured players contract with Paramount Pictures, also made the move and created an immediate impression. She frequently co-starred with William Powell, first teaming in Street of Chance (1930) when David Selznick fought for the pairing after having seen Francis briefly in Behind the Make-up (1930), and it worked, as they appeared in as many as six to eight movies per year, making a total of 21 films between 1930 and 1932. [16]

Francis's career flourished at Paramount in spite of a slight, but distinctive rhotacism (she pronounced the letter "r" as "w") that gave rise to the nickname "Wavishing Kay Fwancis". She appeared in George Cukor's "thrillingly amoral comedy" Girls About Town (1931) [17] and 24 Hours (1931). On December 16, 1931, Francis and her co-stars opened the newly constructed art deco Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, with a gala preview screening of The False Madonna . [18]

In 1932, Francis' career at Paramount changed gears when Warner Bros. promised her star status at a better salary of $4,000 a week, and Paramount sued Warner's over the loss. [19] Warner Bros. persuaded both Francis and Powell to join the ranks of Warners stars, along with Ruth Chatterton. In exchange, Francis was given roles that allowed her a more sympathetic screen persona than had hitherto been the case—in her first three featured roles she had played a villainess. For example, in The False Madonna, she played a jaded society woman nursing a terminally ill child who learns to appreciate the importance of hearth and home. After Francis' career skyrocketed at Warner Bros., she was loaned back to Paramount for Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932). [20]

Mainstream successes

The House on 56th Street (1933) trailer Kay-francis-trailer.jpg
The House on 56th Street (1933) trailer

From 1932 through 1936, Francis was the queen of the Warners lot, and increasingly, her films were developed as star vehicles. By 1935, Francis was one of the highest-paid actors, earning a yearly salary of $115,000; compared to Bette Davis, who would one day occupy Francis' dressing room, who made $18,000. [21] From the years 1930 to 1937, Francis appeared on the covers of 38 film magazines, the most for any adult performer and second only to Shirley Temple, who appeared on 138 covers during that period. [22]

Soon after her arrival in Hollywood, she began an affair with actor and producer Kenneth MacKenna, whom she married in January 1931. [6] MacKenna's Hollywood career foundered, having spent more time in New York, with the couple's amicable separation in 1933, and they divorced in 1934. [23]

Francis frequently played long-suffering heroines, in films such as I Found Stella Parish , Secrets of an Actress , and Comet Over Broadway , displaying to good advantage lavish wardrobes that, in some cases, were more memorable than the characters she played—a fact often emphasized by contemporary film reviewers. As Belinda in Give Me Your Heart (1936) with co-stars George Brent and Roland Young, her performance had "reticence and pathos" and garnered welcoming reviews from The New York Times . [24]

In October 1937, Francis met aviation businessman Raven Freiherr von Barnekow at a party of Countess Dorothy Dentice di Frasso's in Beverly Hills. [25] In March 1938 Louella Parsons reported on their intended marriage and that Francis would retire from films, but by October the two were traveling separately and Francis was still acting; by December Barnekow had returned to Germany. [25]

Francis' clotheshorse reputation and 5.9 feet (1.8 m) frame often led Warners' producers to concentrate resources on lavish sets and costumes, a move designed to appeal to Depression-era female audiences and capitalize on her reputation as the epitome of chic, rather than the quality of the storylines. Eventually, Francis herself became dissatisfied with these vehicles, and began openly to feud with Warners, even threatening a lawsuit against them for inferior scripts and treatment. [26] This, in turn, led to her demotion to programmers, such as Women in the Wind (1939), and, in the same year, to the termination of her contract.

"Box Office Poison" and revival

In First Lady trailer Kay Francis in First Lady trailer.jpg
In First Lady trailer

The Independent Theatre Owners Association paid for an advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter in May 1938 that included Francis, along with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, and others, on a list of stars dubbed "box office poison". [27] After her release from Warners, she was unable to secure another studio contract. Carole Lombard, who had been a supporting player in Francis' 1931 film Ladies' Man, insisted Francis be cast in her film In Name Only (1939). [28] Francis had a supporting role to Lombard and Cary Grant, and it offered her an opportunity to engage in some serious acting. After this, she moved to supporting parts in other films, playing fast-talking, professional women – holding her own against Rosalind Russell in The Feminine Touch , for example – and mothers opposite rising young stars such as Deanna Durbin.

Francis had one lead role at the end of the decade opposite Humphrey Bogart in the gangster film King of the Underworld, released in 1939. The movie was a remake of Paul Muni's Dr. Socrates (1935), with Francis in the role of a doctor who is forced to treat Bogart's injured gangster character, and then gets caught up with the law. Originally titled Lady Doctor, the film was shelved then retitled Unlawful for reshoots to beef up Bogart's role. By the films release, Warner Bros. had again changed titles to King of the Underworld while demoting Francis to second billing. [29]

World War II era

Kay Francis and Mitzi Mayfair from Four Jills and a Jeep (1944) Kay Francis loc.png
Kay Francis and Mitzi Mayfair from Four Jills and a Jeep (1944)

With the start of World War II, Francis joined the war effort doing volunteer work, [30] including extensive war-zone touring, first chronicled in the book Four Jills in a Jeep , written by fellow volunteer Carole Landis. [31] It became a popular 1944 film of the same name, with a cavalcade of stars and Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair joining Landis and Francis to fill out the complement of Jills.

At the end of the war, Four Jills was given a four-star production by 20th Century Fox, but still needed distribution through Monogram, and the decade found Francis virtually unemployable in Hollywood. She signed a three-film contract with Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures that gave her production credit as well as star billing. [32] The resulting films Divorce , Wife Wanted , and Allotment Wives had limited releases in 1945 and 1946.

Francis spent the remainder of the 1940s on the stage, appearing with some success in State of the Union and touring in various productions of plays, old and new, including Windy Hill, backed by former Warner Bros. colleague Ruth Chatterton. Declining health, aggravated by an accident in Columbus, Ohio during a tour of State of the Union in 1948 when she was badly burned by a radiator, hastened her retirement from show business. [33] This incident was first reported as a fainting spell brought on by an accidental overdose from pills, with a complication of respiratory infection. Her manager and traveling companion had arrived at Francis' hotel room, and in an attempt to revive the unconscious actress with fresh air, burned her legs on the radiator near the window. [33] She recovered in an oxygen tent at the local hospital; soon retiring from acting and then, public life. [6]

Personal life

"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."

—From Kay Francis's private diaries, c. 1938. [34]

Francis married three times: James Dwight Francis (1922–1925); William Gaston (1925–1927); Kenneth MacKenna (1931–1934); and it was erroneously reported by Walter Winchell her third marriage was to screenwriter John Meehan around 1929. [35] She had affairs with Maurice Chevalier and Raven Freiherr von Barnekow. [36] Her diaries paint a picture of a woman whose personal life was often in disarray; they are preserved, along with her film-related material, in an academic collection at Wesleyan University which are available to scholars and researchers. [34] [37] She regularly socialized with homosexual men, one of whom, Anderson Lawler, was reportedly paid $10,000 by Warner Bros. to accompany her to Europe in 1934, to keep her out of mischief. [38]

In 1966, Francis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, but the cancer had spread and proved fatal. She died in 1968, aged 63, and her body was immediately cremated; her ashes were disposed of according to her will, "how the undertaker sees fit." [6] She wanted neither services nor grave marker. Having no living immediate family members, Francis left more than $1 million to The Seeing Eye, an organization in New Jersey, which trains guide dogs for the blind. [39]



1929 Gentlemen of the Press Myra May
1929 The Cocoanuts Penelope
1929 Dangerous Curves Zara Flynn
1929 Illusion Zelda Paxton
1929 The Marriage Playground Lady Wrench
1930 Behind the Make-Up Kitty Parker
1930 Street of Chance Alma Marsden
1930 Paramount on Parade CarmenEpisode: "The Toreador"
1930 A Notorious Affair Countess Olga Balakireff
1930 For the Defense Irene Manners
1930 Raffles Gwen
1930 Let's Go Native Constance Cook
1930 The Virtuous Sin Marya Ivanova Sablin
1930 Passion Flower Dulce Morado
1930 Paramount on Parade Herself
1931 Scandal Sheet Edith Flint
1931 Ladies' Man Norma Page
1931 The Vice Squad Alice Morrison
1931 Transgression Elsie Maury
1931 Guilty Hands Marjorie West
1931 24 Hours Fanny Towner
1931 Girls About Town Wanda Howard
1931 The False Madonna Tina
1932 Strangers in Love Diana Merrow
1932 Man Wanted Lois Ames
1932 Street of Women Natalie 'Nat' Upton
1932 Jewel Robbery Baroness Teri
1932 One Way Passage Joan Ames
1932 Trouble in Paradise Madame Mariette Colet
1932 Cynara Clemency Warlock
1933 The Keyhole Anne Vallee Brooks
1933 Storm at Daybreak Irina Radovic
1933 Mary Stevens, M.D. Mary Stevens
1933 I Loved a Woman Laura McDonald
1933 The House on 56th Street Peggy Martin
1934 Mandalay Tanya Borodoff / Spot White / Marjorie Lang
1934 Wonder Bar Liane
1934 Dr. Monica Dr. Monica
1934 British Agent Elena Moura
1935 Living on Velvet Amy Prentiss
1935 Stranded Lynn Palmer
1935 The Goose and the Gander Georgiana
1935 I Found Stella Parish Stella Parish
1936 The White Angel Florence 'Flo' Nightingale
1936 Give Me Your Heart Belinda Warren
1937 Stolen Holiday Nicole Picot
1937 Another Dawn Julia Ashton Wister
1937 Confession Vera Kowalska
1937 First Lady Lucy Chase Wayne
1938 Women Are Like That Claire Landin
1938 My Bill Mary Colbrook
1938 Secrets of an Actress Fay Carter
1938 Comet Over Broadway Eve Appleton
1939 King of the Underworld Carol Nelson
1939 Women in the Wind Janet Steele
1939 In Name Only Maida Walker
1940 It's a Date Georgia Drake
1940 When the Daltons Rode Julie King
1940 Little Men Jo
1941 Play Girl Grace Herbert
1941 The Man Who Lost Himself Adrienne Scott
1941 Charley's Aunt Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez
1941 The Feminine Touch Nellie Woods
1942 Always in My Heart Marjorie Scott
1942 Between Us Girls Christine 'Chris' Bishop
1944 Four Jills in a Jeep Kay Francis
1945 Divorce Dianne Carter
1945 Allotment Wives Sheila Seymour
1946 Wife Wanted Carole Raymond

Short subjects


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  2. "$209,100 TO KAY FRANCIS; Actress Topped Warner Brothers Salary Rolls Again This Year". The New York Times. 1938-02-22. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 2020-02-29.
  3. The 1910 census lists 1905 as her birth year.
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  5. enumerated on May 28, 1910 (Ancestry.com)
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  23. "Kay Francis Parts From Her Husband; Warner Brothers Announce 'Amicable Separation' Of Film Star And Mackenna. Were Married In 1931. Remain The 'Best Of Friends' -- Actress Here For A Brief Vacation From Studio". The New York Times. 1933-12-20. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 2020-02-29.
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