Kay Francis (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 at theWarner Brothers studio, and the highest-paid American film actress. Some of her film-related material and personal papers are available to scholars and researchers in the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives.
Francis was born Katharine Edwina Gibbs in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1905. Her parents, Joseph Sprague Gibbs and his actress wife Katharine Clinton Francis, were married on December 3, 1903 in New York City at the Church of the Transfiguration, and they moved to Oklahoma City the following year. But, by the time Katharine was four, her father had left. Joseph Gibbs, who stood 6’4”, gave his daughter the gift of height – she was Hollywood's tallest leading lady (5 ft 9 in) in the 1930s. (Ingrid Bergman and Alexis Smith matched her in height, but did not become stars in Hollywood until the 1940s.)
While she never discouraged rumors that her mother, Katharine ("Kay") Gibbs, was a pioneering businesswoman who established the "Katharine Gibbs" chain of vocational schools, Francis was actually raised in the hardscrabble theatrical circuit of the period. In reality, her mother was a moderately successful actress and singer, who used the stage name "Katharine Clinton". In Nova Scotia where she was born to Capt. George Francis and Jennette Burgess Francis, she was known as Katie Francis. She performed at least one concert at Windsor, Hants County, Nova Scotia and was possibly part of a tour of her home province. Katie moved to the United States in 1897 with her parents. Katie Francis married Joseph Gibbs and became an American citizen. Her father Capt. George Francis returned to Nova Scotia before 1911 and died in the Freemasons Home in Windsor, NS in 1922.
Young Kay was out on the road with her mother, and attended Catholic schools when it was affordable, such as when she was a student at the Institute of the Holy Angels at age five. After 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. At age 17, Kay became engaged to a well-to-do Pittsfield, Massachusetts man, James Dwight Francis. Their December 1922 marriage at New York's Saint Thomas Church ended in divorce.
In the spring of 1925, Francis went to Paris to get a divorce. While there, she was courted by a former Harvard athlete and member of the Boston Bar Association, Bill Gaston. Kay and Bill saw each other only on occasion; he was in Boston and Kay 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. Francis claimed she got the part by “lying a lot, to the right people”. One of the “right” people was producer Stuart Walker, who hired Kay to join his Portmanteau Theatre Company, and she soon found herself commuting between Dayton, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, playing wise-cracking secretaries, saucy French floozies, walk-ons, bit parts, and heavies.
By February 1927, Francis returned to Broadway in the play Crime. Sylvia Sidney, although a teenager at the time, had the lead in Crime but would later say that Kay stole the show.
After Kay's divorce from Gaston, she became engaged to a society playboy, Alan Ryan Jr. She promised Alan's family that she would not return to the stage – a promise that lasted only a few months before she was back on Broadway as an aviatrix in a Rachel Crothers play, Venus.
Francis was to appear in only one other Broadway production, a play called Elmer the Great in 1928. Written by Ring Lardner and produced by George M. Cohan, Walter Huston was the star. He was so impressed by Francis that he encouraged her to take a screen test for the Paramount Pictures film Gentlemen of the Press (1929). Francis made this film and the Marx Brothers filmThe Cocoanuts (1929) at Paramount's Astoria Studios in New York.
By that time, film studios had started their exodus from New York to California, and many Broadway actors had been enticed to travel west to Hollywood to make films, including Ann Harding,Aline MacMahon, Helen Twelvetrees, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart and Leslie Howard. Francis, signed to a Paramount contract, also made the move, and created an immediate impression. She frequently costarred with William Powell, and appeared in as many as six to eight movies a year, making a total of 21 films between 1929 and 1931.
Francis's success flourished in spite of a distinct speech impediment (she pronounced the letters "r" and "l" as "w") that gave rise to the nickname "Wavishing Kay Fwancis."
Francis' career at Paramount changed gears when Warner Brothers promised her star status at a better salary. She appeared in George Cukor's Girls About Town (1931) and Twenty-Four Hours(1931). After Kay's career skyrocketed at Warners, she would return to Paramount for Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932).
In 1932, Warner Brothers persuaded both Francis and Powell to join the ranks of Warners stars, along with Ruth Chatterton. In exchange, Francis was given roles that allowed her a more sympathetic screen persona than had hitherto been the case—in her first three featured roles she had played a villainess. For example, in The False Madonna (1932), she played a jaded society woman nursing a terminally ill child who learns to appreciate the importance of hearth and home.
From 1932 through 1936, Francis was the queen of the Warners lot and increasingly her films were developed as star vehicles. By the mid-thirties, Francis was one of the highest-paid people in the United States.
She had married writer-director John Meehan in New York, but soon after her arrival in Hollywood, she consummated an affair with actor and producer Kenneth MacKenna, whom she married in January 1931. When MacKenna's Hollywood career foundered, he found himself spending more time in New York, and they divorced in 1934.
She frequently played long-suffering heroines, in films such as I Found Stella Parrish, 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. Too frequently, however, Francis' clotheshorse reputation led Warners to concentrate resources on lavish sets and costumes, designed to appeal to Depression-era female audiences and capitalize on her reputation as the epitome of chic, rather than on scripts. Eventually, Francis herself became dissatisfied with these vehicles and began openly to feud with her employers, even threatening a lawsuit against them for inferior treatment. This in turn led to her demotion to programmers such as 1939's Women in the Wind and, in the same year, to the termination of her contract.
"Box Office Poison" and revival
The Independent Theatre Owners Association paid for an advertisement in the Hollywood Reporter in May 1938 that included Francis on a list of stars nicknamed "Box Office Poison". Others on the list included Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Dolores del Río, and others. After her release from Warners, Francis was unable to secure another studio contract. Carole Lombard, one of the most popular stars of the late 1930s and early 1940s (and who had previously been a supporting player in Francis' 1931 film, Ladies' Man) tried to bolster Francis' career by insisting Francis be cast in In Name Only (1939). In this film, Francis had a supporting role to Lombard and Cary Grant, but wisely recognized that the film offered her an opportunity to engage in some serious acting. After this, she moved to character and supporting parts, playing catty 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 did have a lead role in the Bogart gangster film King of the Underworld, released in 1939.
World War II era
With the start of World War II, Francis did volunteer work, including extensive war-zone touring, which was first chronicled in a book attributed to fellow volunteer Carole Landis, Four Jills in a Jeep, which became a popular 1943 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.
Despite the success of Four Jills, the end of the war 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 results—the films Divorce, Wife Wanted, and Allotment Wives—had limited releases in 1945 and 1946. Francis spent the balance 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 one, Windy Hill, backed by former Warners colleague Ruth Chatterton. Declining health, aggravated by an accident in 1948 in which she was badly burned by a radiator, hastened her retirement from show business.
Francis married five times. Her diaries, preserved in an academic collection at Wesleyan University, paint a picture of a woman whose personal life was often in disarray.
In 1966, Francis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, but the cancer had spread and proved fatal. Having no living immediate family members, Francis left more than $1,000,000 to Seeing Eye, Inc., which trained guide dogs for the blind. She died in the summer of 1968 and her body was immediately cremated; her ashes were scattered.