Those fortunate enough to have seen Kay Francis movies from the pre code era, such as Jewel Robbery or Ernst Lubitsch’s classic Trouble in Paradise, know that Kay Francis steals every scene she’s in. Her magnetism doesn’t really lie in her acting ability, which was never something she had much of a reputation for (nor did that bother her much). She wasn’t known for her fast-talking, witty banter, like some of her colleagues, such as Jean Harlow. Nor did audiences identify with her street-smart sensibility, like they did with Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell.
In fact, to this day that which made Kay Francis the star she was cannot really be defined. Early publicity deemed her the “first vamp of talking pictures,” but she was much more than that. Mysterious, with a speech impediment that somehow only added to her appeal, Kay possessed an unusual combination of mystery, sophistication and tragedy. At 5’7, she was considered nearly freakishly tall by 1930’s standards (her height came from her father, who was 6’4). And with her dark features, her black center-parted hair and her ambiguously-ethnic looks, audiences found Kay to be an astonishing enigma.
Born in Oklahoma in 1905, Kay’s history is quite different from that of many of her contemporaries. She didn’t fall in love with acting at an early age, nor did she relish childishly in make-believe escapism like many young girls destined for stardom. Despite coming from a below-middle-class background, her mother managed to send her off to a prestigious boarding school which groomed her to be elegant, well-mannered and, most importantly, fashionable.
At 17 she married Dwight Francis, a wealthy man from Massachusetts, and took a job as an assistant for a socialite. It was during this time that the doors to the world of the social elite opened for her, and it was also during this time that she developed what would become a lifelong love of alcohol.
Working her way up the social ladder, Kay, now in New York City, attended many important parties and social events. She became known both for her wild (yet good-natured) behavior, as well as her remarkable fashion sense. Kay, with her unusual but stunning looks, and her tall, slender figure, could make any dress look good, and despite having far less money than those she rubbed elbows with, she always dressed exquisitely.
Eventually she and Dwight divorced, and Kay, keeping his last name, dabbled in the New York stage. One Broaway co-star, Walter Huston, suggested that Kay try out for Hollywood, which led to her first role in Gentlemen of the Press in 1929. This film led to another, and eventually she had a contract at Paramount Studios.
In 1931, after 20 or so films at Paramount, Kay was offered a more enticing contact at Warner Brothers. While at Warner Brothers, Kay became queen of the lot, starring in endless productions. With such a boost in stardom, Kay was allowed to work closely with Warner Brothers costume designer Orry-Kelly. Kay’s complete understanding of fashion allowed her to blossom on the screen and become a style icon of the decade, resulting in being honored the first best-dressed woman in America in 1936.
Kay’s stardom was rooted in her ability to play the sophisticated and chic, yet mysterious persona. Audiences couldn’t get enough of her light comedies, and female audiences couldn’t wait to see what incredible evening gown or fur ensemble she would appear in next.
Both onscreen and off, Kay maintained her high-profile image with her flawless fashion taste. Clean lines, tailored suits and gowns with lots of feminine but tasteful details kept her fans dazzled. Friends of the star even noted her interior design skills; while most of Hollywood was decorating their homes with all-white interiors and lavish, over-sized art deco design elements, Kay kept things simple, tasteful, and elegant with feminine color schemes and functional layouts.
However, Kay didn’t think much of her own celebrity. Having a focused, relentless work ethic, she considered it to be simply a way to make money. Kay didn’t feel the need to compete with other stars of the time, a testament to her down-to-earth demeanor and healthy ego. Because of this, she allowed Warner Brothers to give her less and less desirable scripts, resulting in grossly unsuccessful films, leading to her placement on the infamous list of “box office poison.”
What made Kay famous, which was her ability to wear drool-worthy fashion styles flawlessly, had by now become her worst enemy. Announcing that she was tired of being a “clotheshorse” she tried to get out of her contract at Warner Brothers, which resulted in even worse parts from then on.
As Kay’s roles grew less and less interesting, her stardom faded, and her drinking increased greatly. By the early 1940’s, Kay was taking B and C movie roles that were forgettable at best. Eventually she became a recluse, dying at age 63.
In 1939, Kay told a Hollywood reporter that she couldn’t wait to be forgotten. The often-insatiable drive for stardom never once consumed her, and her intense craving for privacy rivaled that of Garbo. In a sense, Kay got her wish; it’s unsettling how absent her name is from Hollywood history, especially when one considers how enormous her stardom was for most of the 1930’s. However, young movie fans are discovering her in the cracks, thanks to TCM and excerpts from her incredible diaries that can be found on the Internet. A woman of intense mystery, Kay continues to perplex and intrigue new audiences with a persona that’s refreshingly modern even in 2016, and with a style we all want to emulate 80 years later.