Classic Movie Review: Who’s Kay Francis?

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Classic Movie Review by Ellen Bunton

(and her eager assistant, Meatball)


A Regular Monthly Feature

  The first Wednesday of the month.

Wednesday February 3 2016

 2016   🎉


Who’s Kay Francis?

I read somewhere once that there are five stages in an actress’s career:

Who’s Kay Francis?
Get me Kay Francis!
Get me a Kay Francis type.
Get me a young Kay Francis, &
Who’s Kay Francis?

Unfortunately, many people don’t remember or ever knew who Kay Francis was. Well let me tell you a little bit about her. She was born January 13, 1905, in Oklahoma City, OK, to Katharine Clinton Francis and Joseph Sprague Gibbs. Her father left the family when she was four, leaving behind little more than his genetic height. He was 6′ 4″, his daughter, Kay, 5′ 9″, making her one of the tallest leading ladies of the 1930’s.thekeyhole54


Her mother, born in Nova Scotia, had been on the stage, and Kay started her acting career in New York City just as the movie industry was migrating to the west coast. Kay signed a contract with Paramount Pictures and moved to Hollywood. She started in silent pictures and then changed studios to Warner Brothers and in the early to mid 1930’s she became the leading female star at the studio and one of the highest paid actresses in the industry. Many of Kay’s films could be considered ” soap operas” although “Trouble in Paradise” and “Jewel Robbery” showed she was more than just a pretty face.

Kay had always been what Hollywood called “a clothes horse.”  Being beautiful certainly helped–she wore those clothes well!  Although her roles started diminishing to secondary leads and the ” other woman” and other villainesses, they still allowed her wardrobe to be prominently displayed.kay smoking


The decline of her career could have been because there was a newcomer on the Warner lot named Ruth Elizabeth Davis, better known as Bette.  Bette Davis fought hard for the best roles. For whatever her reasons, Kay Francis took what she was offered.

During World War ll Kay and a small group of women, including comedienne Martha Raye, entertained the troops, battling (no pun intended) to go into combat areas that had been inaccessible to entertainers. They even made a film about their experience, in 1944, ” Four Jill’s in a Jeep” where they played themselves. She retired soon afterward.

Kay’s personal life was an enigma.

On the one hand, she kept explicit personal diaries and journals; on the other, she was quoted in a magazine saying that she “couldn’t wait to be forgotten.”  Ultimately, however, she left those same writings to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, available to the public. Between the years of 1922 and 1946 she married and divorced 5 times. She had no children,  and when she died in 1968 of breast cancer at the age of 63 she left over $1,000,000 to ” Seeing Eye, Inc.” which trained guide dogs for the blind.  Kay Francis was a complex woman.

There were many sides to this actress that went far beyond the magic of the silver screen. I’m not sure if she ever found what she apparently was searching for so passionately (pun intended) in life, on and off screen, but the next time you want to watch one of the ladies from the classic era that you might not be familiar with, catch a Kay Francis film.

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3 Responses to "Classic Movie Review: Who’s Kay Francis?"
  1. Alison Daniels says:

    I loved reading more about Kay Francis. Her films are frequently shown on TCM which gave me my first opportunity to see her. I had always heard she spoke with a “lisp” but that was not noticeable to me. My mother noted that Kay Francis made her film debut in The Cocoanuts, a Marx Brothers movie. Funny place for a primarily dramatic actress to get her start. It’s kind of sad how many big stars of yesteryear are all but forgotten today. but Kay Francis was certainly different in her looks and manner. Personally I enjoyed her in Mary Stevens, MD, Passion Flower, One Way Passage and The White Angel. She could play either the noble heroine or the elegant “other woman”(bad girl). I haven’t seen it but I note that she also played Jo March in a version of Little Men… can’t quite picture that! Thanks, Ellen, for a fun read.

  2. John Fahey says:

    When I reached the end of this article and read what she did funding guide dogs for the blind I thought ‘now this is a woman I’d like to have known’.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great read, Ellen! Love Hollywood of old.

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