Kay Francis, the star of the day on TCM (August 21), was the penultimate 1930s Hollywood star. Along with everything else, she possessed a strikingly exotic dark beauty which brought to mind George Bernard Shaw’s famous letter to Katharine Cornell, whom Francis understudied while on the NY stage:
“I don’t think I was ever so astonished by a picture as I was by your photograph. Your success as Candida, and something blonde and expansive about your name, had created an ideal suburban British Candida in my imagination.
Fancy my feelings on seeing in your photograph a gorgeous dark lady from the cradle of the human race–wherever that was–Ceylon, Sumatra, Hilo, or the southernmost corner of the Garden of Eden!”
Those twin luminous pools she used for eyes, that lushly curved mouth, white, white skin and startlingly contrasting jet black hair physically riveted audiences in a way that Elizabeth Taylor would two decades later. She was tall and deep-bosomed, with slim hips (and tiny feet she was always tripping over), which all made her the pre-eminent clotheshorse of her day, quite a title when such others as Constance Bennett, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Dietrich were swanning around in their dazzling Adrian/Travis Banton-designed creations.
Her wardrobes alone, most often devised by the brilliant Warner Brothers couturier, Orry-Kelly, were always a major draw for female audiences, who revelled in luxurious escape, along with the brow-knitting love problems which always seemed to beset her. There is a brief scene set at the opera, in Ernst Lubitsch’s luminous TROUBLE IN PARADISE, in which Francis effortlessly demonstrates about five different ways to wear a white-fox-trimmed satin wrap, that ranks as perhaps cinema’s chicest. She liked to tell a story on herself about a cabdriver who once told her how much he hated her, because “We kids wanted to go see Tom Mix or Hopalong Cassidy, but Ma always made us watch you and George Brent!”
Her voice was also unique, throaty and sensual, and marked by an endearing impediment – that Baba Wawa confusion of r’s and w’s – which inspired the title of this post, and impersonations by gay men for years..
As an actress, she has been seriously underrated. In even the most turgid of her vehicles, caught up as she might be with formulaic travails of unwed motherhood, adultery and, occasionally, murder, she is always highly committed, believable and surprisingly understated, with none of the overwrought campy theatrics that even Garbo was at times guilty of. (And let’s not even discuss the excesses of a Crawford or Shearer!) She was an absolute mistress of screen technique, knowing the almighty power of the closeup and how to convey everything through those enormous, hurt cow-like eyes.
CONFESSION is her greatest dramatic role, and one of the very best “women’s films” ever made. Supposedly a scene-for-scene Hollywood recreation of a 1935 German film, MAZURKA, starring Nazi diva Pola Negri, Francis is again a deeply troubled and concerned mother, but the melodrama here is of the richest, ripest and most rewarding variety, steeped in a devastatingly watchable mood of fatalism. Francis runs the gamut, from innocent to a jadedly sophisticated actress to a destroyed mother in prison, in a manner which can only be described as heartbreaking, and is given magnificent support by Jane Bryan as her gullibly sensual daughter, and, especially, Basil Rathbone, at his most malevolently charismatic, as the terrifying recurring menace in her life. The climactic fantasy reconciliation scene in jail would normally be the height of hokum, but Francis’ acting defies any viewer not to tear up. Directed with superb brio by Joe May, with every department at Warner Brothers operating at top, bustlingly lavish capacity, days after watching this, you’ll be haunted by it and find the propulsive music theme churning in your head.
Tay Garnett’s wondrously flavorful ONE WAY PASSAGE was Francis’ personal favorite among her films, and her greatest prestige and box offcie success. Again, an hypnotic air of fatalism – as dark as her beauty – pervades this shipboard romance tragedy, with her as a dying rich girl star-crossed with William Powell as a criminal on his way to execution. Powell was her best leading man, his natural suavity matching her own, and his deft playfulness lightened her natural moody gravity, charmingly. It’s one of the great escapist romances of the era, never more so than when the two of them bask in a paradisical Hawaii, under a full moon and swaying palms, of course, with Francis ecstatically wreathed in an unfathomably enormous lei of gardenias. The remake, TIL WE MEET AGAIN, with Merle Oberon and George Brent, doesn’t hold a candle to this, and it’s interesting that, in the course of instigating one of the numerous love affairs which dotted her sensually busy life, Francis, with a touch of Norma Desmond about her, would always run this film for her paramours.
It’s a pity she didn’t do more comedy, for, as TROUBLE IN PARADISE indubitably proved, she was a delicious farceur, with the kind of grace and airiness of touch one imagines that penultimate high comedienne, Ina Claire, possessed onstage. Warner Brothers had bought the rights to the charming play TOVARICH for her, but, maybe as a sort of punishment, cast Claudette Colbert, who was delicious in it, but Francis would have been no less disarming. The studio did do right by her with JEWEL ROBBERY, one of the 1930s definite unsung delights. She’s an immensely rich Budapest wife here, swathed in Deco gemstones and lovers, who collides with Powell, again, here cast as a jewel thief.
“Oh, huwwy, huwwy, pwease!” she entreats her maid dressing her, in her rush to get to the bijouterie where a new gift awaits her. Her entire performance is a souffle of romantically entitled enchantment, right up to the irresistible final moment, when, sparkling new ring and man in hand, she advances to the camera with a divinely coquettish “don’t tell” finger to her lips.
TCM is showing my personal favorite, guilty pleasure film of hers, MANDALAY. In a little over an hour, this gloriously sleazy and glamorous Pre-Code wonder charts her fall and rise (or is it the other way around?) from duped innocent to the most infamous prostitute in Southeast Asia, making one wonder if she and Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily ever ran into each other. There’s murder along the way – as there always is when Ricardo Cortez is involved – and it has that star entrance of entrances for her, when she appears at the top of the bordello stairs, swathed in sequins and a feather boa, inciting someone to hiss, “That’s the notorious ‘Spot White!'” and another to riposte, “She should be called ‘Spot Cash.” A scene in, which, clad again in the ironic white with which Orry-Kelly attired this flower of the gutter, she successfully disposes of a government official bent on throwing her out of town, surely inspired a similar moment in Josef von Sternberg’s THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN a year later, between Dietrich and Edward Everett Horton. Francis was never more triumphantly alluring and confident than she is here, and if anyone wants to know exactly why she was such a big star, they need only see this.
In summing up this rare and treasurable nova,, perhaps no one said it better than the author of KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, Manuel Puig, who once whispered to me in his thick Brazilian accent, “Joo know, Dabeed, sometimes I get thirsty for Kay Francees!”