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Francis, 1930s
Francis, 1930s

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 at the Warner Brothers studio and the highest-paid American film actress.[2] Some of her film-related material and personal papers are available to scholars and researchers in the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives.[3]

Early life

Francis was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Territory (present-day Oklahoma), in 1905.[4] Her parents, Joseph Sprague Gibbs and his actress wife Katharine Clinton Francis,[5] had been married in 1903; however, by the time their daughter was four, Joseph had left the family. Francis inherited her unusual height from her father, who stood 6 feet 4 inches. She was to become Hollywood's tallest leading lady of the 1930s at 5 ft 9 inches.

While she never discouraged the assumption that her mother was the pioneering American businesswoman who established the "Katharine Gibbs" chain of vocational schools, Francis was actually raised in the hardscrabble theatrical circuit of the period. In reality, her mother had been born in Nova Scotia, Canada, and eventually became a moderately successful actress and singer under the stage name Katharine Clinton.

Francis was often out on the road with her mother, and attended Catholic schools when it was affordable, becoming a student at the Institute of the Holy Angels at age five.[6] 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. At age 17, Francis became engaged to a well-to-do Pittsfield, Massachusetts man, James Dwight Francis. Their December 1922 marriage at New York's Saint Thomas Church ended in divorce three years later.[7] Although he made an offer of support, Francis refused, gaining employment on the stage instead.

Stage career

In the spring of 1925, Francis went to Paris to get a divorce. While there, she was courted by a former Harvard athlete and member of the Boston Bar Association, Bill Gaston. They were secretly married in October 1925, though this marriage was short lived.[8] 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[9] as the Player Queen in a modern-dress version of Shakespeare's Hamlet in November 1925.[10] She often "borrowed" wardrobe for nights out in New York as one of the fashionista's 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, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, playing wisecracking secretaries, saucy French floozies, walk-ons, bit parts, and heavies.

By February 1927, Francis returned to Broadway in the play Crime.[11] Sylvia Sidney, although a teenager at the time, had the lead in Crime but would later say 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.[12]

Francis was to appear in only one other Broadway production, a play called Elmer the Great in 1928.[13] Written by Ring Lardner and produced by George M. Cohan, the play starred Walter Huston. It flopped and unfortunately for Francis, she was flat broke at the time but she was not willing to ask friends for a loan, instead "vowing to crawl out of this mess herself."[8] That's when Huston, who was greatly impressed by Francis' performance in Elmer, 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 a week for five weeks. Francis made this film and the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts (1929) at Paramount's Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens, New York before transitioning to Hollywood.

Film career

By that time, major film studios, which had formerly been based in New York, were already 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, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, and Leslie Howard. Francis, now 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 a year, making a total of 21 films between 1930 and 1932.[14]

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

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.[15]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 (1932), 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 would return to Paramount for Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932).

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, according to IMDb, earning a yearly salary of $115,000; compared to Bette Davis, who would one day occupy Francis' dressing room, who made $18,000. 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.[16]

Soon after her arrival in Hollywood, she consummated an affair with actor and producer Kenneth MacKenna, whom she married in January 1931.[7] When MacKenna's Hollywood career foundered, he found himself spending more time in New York, and they divorced in 1934.

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 reviewes from The New York Times.[17] Francis' clotheshorse reputation and 5'9 frame often led Warners' producers to concentrate resources on lavish sets and costumes though, designed to appeal to Depression-era female audiences and capitalize on her reputation as the epitome of chic, rather than on scripts.

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. 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.

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".[18] After her release from Warners, Francis was unable to secure another studio contract. Carole Lombard, one of the most popular stars of the late 1930s and early 1940s (and who had previously been a supporting player in Francis' 1931 film, Ladies' Man), tried to bolster Francis' career by insisting Francis be cast in In Name Only (1939). In this film, Francis had a supporting role to Lombard and Cary Grant, but recognized that the film offered her an opportunity to engage in some serious acting. After this, she moved to character and supporting parts, 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 did have a lead role in the Bogart gangster film King of the Underworld, released in 1939.

With the start of World War II, Francis joined the war effort doing volunteer work, including extensive war-zone touring, which was first chronicled in the book attributed to fellow volunteer Carole Landis, Four Jills in a Jeep.[19] 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 treatment 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.[20] 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 one, Windy Hill, backed by former Warners 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.[21] This incident was reported as a fainting spell brought on by accidental overdose from pills, causing a respiratory infection. When her manager and traveling companion arrived at Francis' hotel room, in an attempt to get her fresh air, he burned her legs on the radiator near the window.[21] She recovered in an oxygen tent at the local hospital; soon retiring from acting and then public life.[7]

Personal life

Francis married four times, though it was erroneously reported by Walter Winchell there was a third marriage to screenwriter John Meehan around 1929.[23] Her diaries, preserved in an academic collection at Wesleyan University, paint a picture of a woman whose personal life was often in disarray.[22] 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.[24]

In 1966, Francis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, but the cancer had spread and proved fatal. Having no living immediate family members, Francis left more than $1,000,000 to The Seeing Eye, which trains guide dogs for the blind. 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."[7] She wanted no services or marker either.


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