19 January 2016

Kay Francis Revisited

Fans of Kay Francis found a treasure trove of her films a few days ago when Turner Classic Movies ran a day long festival of some of her best. Francis was such a unique screen presence -- her beautiful dark hair, alto voice, broad-cheekboned face, unusual height -- her stardom isn't a mystery. She worked her way up, starting in silents and gaining bigger and bigger roles when sound came in. In the pre-Code era, before 1934, she was huge. Her sophisticated persona seemed particularly suited to the sometimes startlingly frank romantic comedies and melodramas that are now so prized, like the sexual round-robin that is Trouble in Paradise, or the quite stark association of con artists in The False Madonna, or the shocking (for then) mixed-race background of Mandalay.
In Mandalay
As the thirties went on, her films and her roles in them grew worse, often poorly directed and shoddily written. And for reasons that I don't really understand, she knew this, but never seemed to object to it in any meaningful way -- she didn't complain to the newspapers or go on strike, the way Bette Davis and Olivia de Haviland did. There is gossip that she was deliberately short-changed by producers and directors for personal reasons, and, given her extremely busy romantic life, I suppose this is possible. But on the other hand, motion pictures are and were a very big business, and I'm skeptical that studio execs of any stripe would knowingly spoil the valuable commodity that a major movie star could be.
Apparently she just didn't value her own talent, despite her enormous popularity. She wanted better roles, but she wouldn't say "I deserve better roles." Although she was an intelligent, thoughtful woman, and had some devoted and caring friends, including William Powell, Ronald Colman, Richard Barthelmess and his wife, Jessica, who were a close-knit social group in Hollywood, her personal life was usually a shambles, which probably interfered with her concentration as an actress.
On top of that, she had persistent and distressing health problems.
She always did a good job -- you don't see her walking through even the most melodramatic part, in fact she adds dignity to films that don't really deserve it. Some of my personal favorites of her films are from the mid-to-late thirties, and almost b-pictures; but her power and conviction raises them above their natural level You probably won't see any of them on any "ten best" lists! Among these are:
Comet Over Broadway, which admittedly has a ridiculous plot about a budding actress who is forced through implausible circumstances to flee to England, bleach her  hair, and assume a new identity -- and then becomes a star. (This film also features another amazing performance by the great Minna Gombell, as an aging chorine who befriends Kay's character.) Her co-star is Ian Hunter, who I've always had a weakness for, and he was a good foil for her.
Doctor Monica -- one of my favorites, this is a woman-centered film; one of the attractions is the high-powered circle of friends Kay's female obstetrician hangs out with, which includes aviatrix Jean Muir and architect Verree Teasdale. The man in question is Warren William, another one of my favorites, and a good match for Kay. The plot has Dr. Monica discovering that she can't have children at the sane time as she discovers one of her friends has become pregnant after having a fling with her husband.
King of the Underworld is a remake of Dr. Socrates, an excellent 1934 vehicle for Paul Muni. The plot has a small-town doctor outwitting a nest of gangsters who are hiding out in his town by using his medical knowledge; this was easily altered to make the doctor a woman, and Kay was always convincing in an authoritative role. Humphrey Bogart is the chief gangster; his star was rising as Kay's was going down, and his is the title role.
It's a Date -- I've written about this before, because it's such a charming surprise -- it could have been awful! Here Kay has a mother role, to be sure, but she is a glamorous and attractive mother. She plays Georgia Drake, a stage star, who is the mother of Pamela (Deanna Durbin), an eager and aspiring actress. After closing a long run of a highly successful play, Georgia and Pamela go to Hawaii for a rest and to prepare new projects. On shipboard they meet Walter Pidgeon, as a businessman who has no interest in or knowledge of show business, and both mother and daughter fall for him -- which is understandable, because he is extremely endearing in this role, a little shy and in awe of the sophisticated ladies he's just met. 
Landis, Raye, Mayfair, and Francis

Four Jills in a Jeep -- this is a musicalization, so to speak, of the real trip Kay Francis, Carole Landis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair took entertaining the troops during WW2. They traveled through North Africa under pretty primitive circumstances to reach soldiers who seldom saw anyone from home, much less movie stars. The addition of a raft of guest stars who really weren't there makes it seem more like a conventional musical, but it has always meant a lot to me -- I have been interested in women's roles in WW2 since I was a child and my aunt showed me her WAC uniform!
These movies are all available. Kay Francis said once that she couldn't wait to be forgotten. How astonished she would be to find herself so admired even today!