30 October 2014

Kay Francis: What It Means to Be a Movie Star -- An example from her later films

When you think about it, Kay Francis was a very unusual star. With her height and that unique contralto voice, she entirely skipped the ingenue period and went right to "sophisticated woman" roles; and, in her peak years of 1931-1935, she never got stuck as a devoted wife of some high-powered male star, either. When she was a devoted wife, it was with a purpose, like the career woman in Doctor Monica.

As the 30s went on, dangerous signs from Europe made the powers that be in Hollywoodland uneasy; they pulled in their horns and became a bit more conventional. Kay's string of melodramatic love affairs (in the movies, that is!) and risque comedies suddenly didn't seem to strike quite the right note. So she became a mother -- but a glamorous mother.

Her star dimmed in the late 30s and, unhappy with the sort of parts offered by Warner Brothers, she  moved on to other studios, still playing glamorous mothers, but on her own terms!
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One example of this, that unexpectedly turns out to be very charming, is a film called "It's a Date", from 1940, directed by Norman Krasna, made at Universal. At first glance, it appears that Francis has been rather humiliatingly roped in to a vehicle for Deanna Durbin (who gets top billing), and shunted to the background in the role of the ingenue's mother. But the film tackles these questions head-on: Francis plays a beautiful and successful Broadway star, Georgia Drake, and Durbin her lovely and talented 18 year old daughter, Pamela, who is eager to start her own career. The first plot twist involves an offer of a role in a new play that Georgia thinks is being offered to her, but it is really meant for Pamela. The second plot twist occurs when mother and daughter go to Hawaii to vacation and work on their respective new projects; there they both meet a very attractive single man -- and they both fall in love with him.
Walter Pidgeon, Deanna Durbin, and Kay Francis

The man is Walter Pidgeon, as John Arlen, an invitingly masculine plantation owner; and this time the plot reverses itself, for although both Pamela and her mother both assume he has fallen for the young girl, in reality, he loves Georgia.

Now, here comes the acting part. On one of several three-way-dates, Pamela is called away and John  tells Georgia he wants to speak to her privately. She assumes he wants to ask her if he can propose to her daughter, and you can see her steel herself and prepare to be gracious. But as he begins to speak, hesitating and not at all sure of himself, it is finally revealed that it is Georgia he loves -- and as she understands this, her face lights up with a beautiful glow of happiness  -- without a word.

This is a real movie star giving it all she's got -- sympathy, intelligence, understanding of human nature, and the discipline and skill to show us what it means. The same goes for Walter Pidgeon in this role; his characterization is so natural you almost forget it's him; he seems to be a businessman who has never met an actress before. Durbin is very sweet, and sings beautifully; but this movie belongs to the grown-ups. (You don't have to feel sorry for Pamela, either, since she has a devoted swain waiting for her back home.)

I don't think Kay Francis thought she'd be remembered, but she is still the star of stars for many people. 
Kay Francis in about 1936