Friday, January 13, 2012
Most fans of classic movies know film divas of the 1930’s such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. They are iconic figures who more often than not, appear as caricatures of there original screen image. But among these movie queens, there is a name that hardcore cinephiles also recognize with as much stature in the deco era: Kay Francis.
A sultry brunette who was always dressed to the nines, Francis wrung her hands and suffered long in films at both Paramount and Warner Brothers studios during the Depression. She headlined both light comedies and heavy melodramas, with emphasis on the latter. Two prime examples of a “Kay Francis film” are featured below, the first from her early days at Paramount and the second during her tenure at Warners.
The Virtuous Sin (1930)
Is there such a thing as a virtuous sin? Kay seemed to think so in this very early talkie in which she co-starred with Walter Huston. Set in World War I Russia, it’s actually a bit hokey and kind of dated but since it’s a pre-code, there’s enough risqué hanky panky to make it fun.
Kay plays the wife of a medical researcher (Kenneth McKenna), an eager chap who is taken into the military against his will. His disgust of his current station leads to insubordination and eventually court martial. Sentenced to execution by his superior (Huston), our doctor friend is hopeless. Enter Kay, determined to save him no matter what it takes, even though she has admitted she isn’t deeply in love with him. She frequents a café cum bordello in an attempt to tantalize the general who sentenced her husband to die, hoping to “persuade” him to reverse his decision. So what does she do instead? She falls in love with him!
The Virtuous Sin is the kind of improbable melodrama that ran rampant in pre-code Hollywood. Hand to forehead tales with overacting styles that carried over from silent films. They are a hoot to watch though and rarely boring. As an interesting side note, Kay and costar McKenna carried on a torrid affair during filming which culminated in their marriage in early 1931.
Living on Velvet (1935)
Although not one of Francis’ better known or more notorious vehicles, Living on Velvet is a good example of the genre she starred in while at Warner Brothers. At her zenith, she was among the highest paid stars in Hollywood. At her lowest ebb at the studio, she was among the highest paid stars in Hollywood. You see, hers was an extremely lucrative contract and even when Warners thought her time had passed and gave her sub par scripts in hopes her ego would make her break said contract, she plugged along collecting her paychecks and becoming a very wealthy woman.
Living on Velvet gave her two leading men, George Brent and Warren William (though there was no doubt that Kay was the star). Aviator Brent loses his parents and sister in a plane crash in which he had piloted the plane. Guilty and reckless, he feels he is now ‘living on velvet’. When he meets Kay, it is love at first site for them both, although she is Warren’s girl. Kay marries George only to be plagued by his lackadaisical outlook about making a living and life in general.
Francis had worked with both George Brent and Warren William before and worked with Brent several more times before leaving Warners. Life was not velvet for William during this period. Once a leading man at the studio and on loan-out films like the previous year’s Cleopatra and the original Imitation of Life, Velvet relegated the actor to what was basically supporting status. Far from the suave and virile men he’d played earlier in the decade, he was a mere door mat for best friend Brent and girlfriend Kay to walk across on there way to the alter.
One notable scene from Living on Velvet has Brent’s character giving Francis a diction lesson. The star had a noticeable lisp, where her ‘r’s came out as ‘w’s. So much so that she was often teasingly called the “wavishing Kay Fwancis.” In their shared scene, George gives Kay a verbal exercise where she must repeat “around the ragged rocks the ragged rascal ran,” only Francis’ version went: “Awound the wagged wocks the wagged wascal wan.” Audiences found her self deprecation charming.
The actress continued making films after she left Warner Brothers in the late 1930’s, but her glory days were long behind her. A workhorse (she made 15 films in 1930-31 alone) as well as a clotheshorse (her costume changes were legendary), Kay Francis was also a true blue star.
For more information about the colorful Kay Francis, author Scott O’Brien has penned a fascinating biography entitled, Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten - Her Life on Film and Stage (linked below).