Katherine Edwina Gibbs
January 13, 1905
|Died||August 26, 1968 (aged 63)|
New York City, U.S.
James Dwight Francis
(m. 1922; div. 1925)
(m. 1925; div. 1927)
(m. 1931; div. 1934)
Katherine Edwina "Kay" Francis (née Gibbs; January 13, 1905 – August 26, 1968) was an American stage and film actress. 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 and highest-paid actress at Warner Bros. studio.
Francis was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Territory (present-day Oklahoma), in 1905, to Katharine Clinton Francis, an actress, and Joseph Sprague Gibbs. Her parents had been married in 1903; In 1909 Katharine left her alcoholic husband, taking Francis. She inherited her 5 foot 9 inch height from her 6 feet 4 inch father, and was to become Hollywood's tallest female lead of the 1930s.
Her mother had been born in Nova Scotia, Canada, and was a moderately successful actress and singer on a hardscrabble theatrical circuit under the stage name Katharine Clinton. Francis often traveled with her mother. She attended Catholic schools when it was affordable, becoming a student at the Institute of the Holy Angels at age five. 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. While attending there, she did nothing to discourage the assumption that her mother was the pioneering American businesswoman who had established the Gibbs chain of vocational schools.
In 1922, a 17-year-old Francis became engaged to and married James Dwight Francis, a well-to-do man from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Their marriage, at New York's Saint Thomas Church, ended in divorce three years later. Although he made an offer of support, Francis refused and instead sought employment on the stage.
In the spring of 1925, Francis went to Paris to get a divorce. While there, she was courted by Bill Gaston, a former athlete at Harvard and member of the Boston Bar Association. They were secretly married in October 1925, though this marriage was short-lived. Francis and Gaston saw each other only on occasion, as he was in Boston and she had decided to follow her mother's footsteps and go on the stage in New York.
She made her Broadway debut as the Player Queen in a modern-dress version of Shakespeare's Hamlet in November 1925. She often "borrowed" wardrobe for fashionable nights out in New York that were reported on by the day's press. Francis claimed she got the part by "lying a lot, to the right people". One of them was producer Stuart Walker, who hired her to join his Portmanteau Theatre Company. She soon found herself commuting between Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana. She played wisecracking secretaries, saucy French floozies, walk-ons, bit parts, and heavies.
By February 1927, Francis returned to New York and got a part in the Broadway play Crime. A teenage Sylvia Sidney had its lead, but later said 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 playing an aviator in a Rachel Crothers play, Venus.
Francis appeared in only one other Broadway production, titled Elmer the Great in 1928. Written by Ring Lardner and produced by George M. Cohan and starring Walter Huston, the play nonetheless flopped. Though flat broke at the time, Francis was unwilling to ask friends for help and instead vowed to "crawl out of this mess herself."
Huston had been impressed by Francis' performance 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 per week for five weeks. Francis made Press and the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts (1929) at Paramount's Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens, New York before moving to Hollywood.
Major film studios, which had formerly been based in New York, had become well-established in California, and many Broadway actors were enticed to Hollywood to make sound films, including Ann Harding, Aline MacMahon, Helen Twelvetrees, Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Leslie Howard.
Signed to a featured players contract with Paramount Pictures, Francis 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 per year, making a total of 21 films between 1930 and 1932.
Francis's career flourished at Paramount in spite of a slight, but distinctive rhotacism (she pronounced the letter "r" as "w") that gave rise to the nickname "Wavishing Kay Fwancis". She appeared in George Cukor's "thrillingly amoral comedy" Girls About Town (1931) and 24 Hours (1931). On December 16, 1931, Francis and her co-stars opened the newly constructed art deco 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. Paramount sued Warner Bros. over the loss. Warner Bros. persuaded both Francis and Powell to join the ranks of their stars, along with Ruth Chatterton. After her first three featured roles had been as a villainess, Francis was given roles with a more sympathetic screen persona such as in The False Madonna, where she plays a jaded society woman who learns the importance of hearth and home when nursing a terminally ill child. After Francis' career skyrocketed at Warner Bros., she was loaned back to Paramount for Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932).
From 1932 through 1936, Francis was the queen of the Warner Bros. lot, and increasingly, her films were developed as star vehicles. By 1935, Francis was one of the highest-paid actors, earning a yearly salary of $115,000, dwarfing the $18,000 Bette Davis – who would one day occupy Francis' dressing room – made. From 1930 to 1937 Francis appeared on the covers of 38 film magazines, second only to child sensation Shirley Temple's 138.
Soon after her arrival in Hollywood, she began an affair with actor and producer Kenneth MacKenna, whom she married in January 1931. MacKenna's Hollywood career foundered, having spent more time in New York with the couple's amicable 1933 separation; 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 reviews from The New York Times.
In October 1937, Francis met aviation businessman Raven Freiherr von Barnekow at a party of Countess Dorothy Dentice di Frasso's in Beverly Hills. In March 1938 Louella Parsons reported on their intended marriage and that Francis would retire from films, but by October the two were traveling separately and Francis was still acting; by December Barnekow had returned to Germany.
Francis' clotheshorse reputation and statuesque frame often led Warners' producers to concentrate resources on lavish sets and costumes rather than the quality of the storylines, a move designed to appeal to Depression-era female audiences and capitalize on her reputation as the epitome of chic. Eventually, Francis herself became dissatisfied with these vehicles and began openly to feud with Warner Bros., 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". After her release from Warner Bros., she was unable to secure another studio contract. Carole Lombard, who had been a supporting player in Francis's 1931 film Ladies' Man, insisted Francis be cast in her film In Name Only (1939). Francis had a supporting role to Lombard and Cary Grant, and it offered her an opportunity to engage in some serious acting. After this, she moved to supporting parts in other films, 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 had one lead role at the end of the decade opposite Humphrey Bogart in the gangster film King of the Underworld, released in 1939. The movie was a remake of Paul Muni's Dr. Socrates (1935), with Francis in the role of a doctor who is forced to treat Bogart's injured gangster character, and then gets caught up with the law. Originally titled Lady Doctor, the film was shelved then retitled Unlawful for reshoots to beef up Bogart's role. By the films release, Warner Bros. had again changed titles to King of the Underworld while demoting Francis to second billing.
With the start of World War II, Francis joined the war effort doing volunteer work, including extensive war-zone touring, first chronicled in the book Four Jills in a Jeep, written by fellow volunteer Carole Landis. 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 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. 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 Windy Hill, backed by former Warner Bros. 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. This incident was first reported as a fainting spell brought on by an accidental overdose from pills, with a complication of respiratory infection. Her manager and traveling companion had arrived at Francis' hotel room, and in an attempt to revive the unconscious actress with fresh air, burned her legs on the radiator near the window. She recovered in an oxygen tent at the local hospital; soon retiring from acting and then, public life.
"My life? Well, I get up at a quarter to six in the morning if I'm going to wear an evening dress on camera. That sentence sounds a little ga-ga, doesn't it? But never mind, that's my life ... As long as they pay me my salary, they can give me a broom and I'll sweep the stage. I don't give a damn. I want the money ... When I die, I want to be cremated so that no sign of my existence is left on this earth. I can't wait to be forgotten."
—From Kay Francis's private diaries, c. 1938.
Francis married three times: James Dwight Francis (1922–1925); William Gaston (1925–1927); Kenneth MacKenna (1931–1934); and it was erroneously reported by Walter Winchell her third marriage was to screenwriter John Meehan around 1929. She had affairs with Maurice Chevalier and Raven Freiherr von Barnekow.
Her diaries, which are preserved along with her film-related material in an academic collection at Wesleyan University open to scholars and researchers, paint a picture of a woman whose personal life was often in disarray. She regularly socialized with gay men, one of whom, Anderson Lawler, was reportedly paid $10,000 by Warner Bros. to accompany her to Europe in 1934, to keep her out of mischief.
In 1966, Francis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, but the cancer had already spread. She died in 1968, aged 63. Her body was immediately cremated; according to her will her ashes were to be disposed of "how the undertaker sees fit." Anxious to be forgotten, she wanted neither services nor grave marker.
Having no living immediate family members, Francis left more than $1 million to The Seeing Eye, an organization in New Jersey, which trains guide dogs for the blind.
|1929||Gentlemen of the Press||Myra May|
|1929||Dangerous Curves||Zara Flynn|
|1929||The Marriage Playground||Lady Wrench|
|1930||Behind the Make-Up||Kitty Parker|
|1930||Street of Chance||Alma Marsden|
|1930||Paramount on Parade||Carmen||Episode: "The Toreador"|
|1930||A Notorious Affair||Countess Olga Balakireff|
|1930||For the Defense||Irene Manners|
|1930||Let's Go Native||Constance Cook|
|1930||The Virtuous Sin||Marya Ivanova Sablin|
|1930||Passion Flower||Dulce Morado|
|1930||Paramount on Parade||Herself|
|1931||Scandal Sheet||Edith Flint|
|1931||Ladies' Man||Norma Page|
|1931||The Vice Squad||Alice Morrison|
|1931||Guilty Hands||Marjorie West|
|1931||24 Hours||Fanny Towner|
|1931||Girls About Town||Wanda Howard|
|1931||The False Madonna||Tina|
|1932||Strangers in Love||Diana Merrow|
|1932||Man Wanted||Lois Ames|
|1932||Street of Women||Natalie 'Nat' Upton|
|1932||Jewel Robbery||Baroness Teri|
|1932||One Way Passage||Joan Ames|
|1932||Trouble in Paradise||Madame Mariette Colet|
|1933||The Keyhole||Anne Vallee Brooks|
|1933||Storm at Daybreak||Irina Radovic|
|1933||Mary Stevens, M.D.||Mary Stevens|
|1933||I Loved a Woman||Laura McDonald|
|1933||The House on 56th Street||Peggy Martin|
|1934||Mandalay||Tanya Borodoff / Spot White / Marjorie Lang|
|1934||Dr. Monica||Dr. Monica|
|1934||British Agent||Elena Moura|
|1935||Living on Velvet||Amy Prentiss|
|1935||The Goose and the Gander||Georgiana|
|1935||I Found Stella Parish||Stella Parish|
|1936||The White Angel||Florence 'Flo' Nightingale|
|1936||Give Me Your Heart||Belinda Warren|
|1937||Stolen Holiday||Nicole Picot|
|1937||Another Dawn||Julia Ashton Wister|
|1937||First Lady||Lucy Chase Wayne|
|1938||Women Are Like That||Claire Landin|
|1938||My Bill||Mary Colbrook|
|1938||Secrets of an Actress||Fay Carter|
|1938||Comet Over Broadway||Eve Appleton|
|1939||King of the Underworld||Carol Nelson|
|1939||Women in the Wind||Janet Steele|
|1939||In Name Only||Maida Walker|
|1940||It's a Date||Georgia Drake|
|1940||When the Daltons Rode||Julie King|
|1941||Play Girl||Grace Herbert|
|1941||The Man Who Lost Himself||Adrienne Scott|
|1941||Charley's Aunt||Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez|
|1941||The Feminine Touch||Nellie Woods|
|1942||Always in My Heart||Marjorie Scott|
|1942||Between Us Girls||Christine 'Chris' Bishop|
|1944||Four Jills in a Jeep||Herself|
|1945||Allotment Wives||Sheila Seymour|
|1946||Wife Wanted||Carole Raymond||(final film role)|