Kay Francis revisited: One of the brightest & most underrated Hollywood stars of the 1930s
Kay Francis is the star of the day (April 9) on Turner Classic Movies, which is presenting 10 of her films.
One of the biggest Hollywood names of the decade, Kay Francis is only rarely mentioned today. There’s no Kay Francis appreciation society or cult following. For most film critics and historians, she might as well have never existed.
Yet Francis was one of the best film performers of her generation – and one who, despite the overall artificiality of plots and characters, exuded genuine warmth. In fact, no matter how mediocre her material – and a large chunk (perhaps the vast majority) of her movies were unworthy of her talent – she never “coasted” (like, at RKO, the otherwise capable Constance Bennett). Apart from tricks of the trade that one can spot here and there (and that a good editor or director should have gotten rid of), she was an honest performer who, like Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis, invariably gave her all.
Besides, Francis, sporting raven-black hair and light (blue/green?) eyes, was one of the best-looking – and most impressively garbed – performers of the era. Like Gloria Swanson in the 1920s, Francis was known as a “clotheshorse,” parading around the screen – in glee or in tears – while donning sumptuous and outlandish dresses, jewelry, and hats.
The best Kay Francis star vehicles being presented on TCM are two 1932 releases, both co-starring William Powell: William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery and Tay Garnett’s One Way Passage.
Jewel Robbery is an entertaining sophisticated comedy that clearly emulates what Ernst Lubitsch was doing at Paramount – e.g., Trouble in Paradise, another 1932 release coincidentally starring Kay Francis.
The comedy-melodrama mix One Way Passage is a broodier precursor to Leo McCarey’s Love Affair and An Affair to Remember. Francis and Powell star as two strangers who meet and fall in love while on board an ocean liner; however, like Irene Dunne/Charles Boyer and Deborah Kerr/Cary Grant, they both have other commitments. In Francis/Powell’s particular case, not of the romantic kind: one is facing death, the other the justice system.
Both Francis and Powell are at their very best in this unfairly neglected Academy Award winner (in the Best Story category, for Robert Lord), which also features a surprisingly effective Frank McHugh and the always excellent Aline MacMahon.
Kay Francis movies: TCM schedule (ET)
6:00 AM I LOVED A WOMAN (1933). A Chicago meat-packer tries to keep a rein on his social-climbing wife. Director: Alfred E. Green. Cast: Edward G. Robinson. Kay Francis. Genevieve Tobin. B&W. 91 mins.
9:30 AM SECRETS OF AN ACTRESS (1938). A leading lady falls for a married architect who’s invested in her play. Director: William Keighley. Cast: Kay Francis. George Brent. Ian Hunter. B&W. 70 mins.
11:00 AM DIVORCE (1945). A frequently divorced woman sets her sights on a happily married man. Director: William Nigh. Cast: Kay Francis. Bruce Cabot. Helen Mack. B&W. 70 mins.
12:15 PM GUILTY HANDS (1931). A district attorney tries to frame an innocent girl for the murder he committed. Director: W. S. Van Dyke. Cast: Lionel Barrymore. Kay Francis. Madge Evans. William Bakewell. B&W. 69 mins.
2:45 PM THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933). A woman loses her family after being falsely convicted of a crime. Director: Robert Florey. Cast: Kay Francis. Ricardo Cortez. Gene Raymond. Margaret Lindsay. B&W. 68 mins.
4:00 PM CONFESSION (1937). A glamorous singer commits murder to protect her daughter’s virtue. Director: Joe May. Cast: Kay Francis. Ian Hunter. Basil Rathbone. B&W. 87 mins.
5:30 PM JEWEL ROBBERY (1932). A jewel thief falls for a tycoon’s wife in Vienna. Director: William Dieterle. Cast: William Powell. Kay Francis. Helen Vinson. B&W. 68 mins.
6:45 PM ONE WAY PASSAGE (1932). An ocean voyage leads to romance for a dying heiress and a condemned criminal. Director: Tay Garnett. Cast: William Powell. Kay Francis. Aline MacMahon. Frank McHugh. B&W. 68 mins.
Kay Francis movie schedule via the Turner Classic Movies website.