Kay Francis — Queen of Pleasure

by Kennifer Kellow-Florini

From 1929 to 1938 Kay Francis was the highest paid woman in Hollywood. Her best roles in the early 1930s saw her playing rich heiresses, the head of major companies and doctors. She was the epitome of glamour and new womanhood in films about women made for general audiences — something we don’t see even in women’s films today. So why is it so few people today know who Kay Francis was?
Born Katherine Gibbs in 1905 in Oklahoma City, her mother was a struggling actress and her father mostly absent. She grew up in relative poverty, but her mother managed to get her accepted to a boarding school, which lead to a better standing on the social ladder. At the age of seventeen, Kay went to secretarial school, learned shorthand, and started keeping a diary — a habit she would keep for life. Her diary entries were written in business shorthand. She filled its pages with self-criticism, tales of hedonistic parties, and morning-after regrets. Married and divorced by age nineteen, Kay went to Paris where, with even the most threadbare wardrobe (one black, one white, and one beige outfit), she wowed ex-pat society circles with her fashionable looks.
Kay returned to America and decided to try acting. While cast in a small part on Broadway, Kay met Walter Huston (father of John and grandfather of Angelica) who arranged a Hollywood screen test. In 1929, when the market crashed and the Great Depression began, she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures for $500 a week. Making 29 films from 1929 to 1931, she became a darling of fan and fashion magazines. On screen she was often paired with William Powell and, in 1932, they both left Paramount for Warner Brothers. Her contract paid her a whopping $2,000 a week in the toughest years of the Great Depression.

Kay’s greatest year in film was 1932 — one of the Depression’s worst years. Her sophistication and glamour along with her impish sense of fun made her the perfect actress for the kind of escapist films audiences flocked to see in the early 1930s. In the cynical depths of the time a kind of Robin Hood trope was popular where good guys stole from the rich (who could afford it) and made them look like vain idiots. These films were usually set in Europe because you could blame a naughty storyline on “those crazy Europeans.” In “Jewel Robbery” and Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece, “Trouble In Paradise,” Kay played wealthy, beautiful women wooed and robbed by debonair thieves. These were sophisticated continental comedies dealing with sexuality, attraction and infidelity — all strictly off-limits when the Code was enforced in July 1934.
Kay Francis did continue to make films after the Code was enforced. Her most famous role post-code was as Florence Nightingale in White Angel. She became queen of the “weepies” — what modern audiences would call tearjerkers. In 1936 she signed an even bigger contract with Warner, but a few flops, personal problems, and Warner Brothers themselves killed Kay’s career. Warner had signed Bette Davis and, by the late 1930s, they wanted to get out of the expensive contract they gave Kay and make Bette Davis their new star. Afraid of being poor, as she was in childhood, Kay was not about to break her contract. The studio gave her one horrible film after another in an effort to push her into breaking her contract so they wouldn’t have to pay her off. Kay finished out her contract, then signed a deal with poverty-row studio, Monogram, to produce three films for herself — a first for a female star. She was active in the war effort, and then returned to the stage for the rest of her career.
Modern audiences most likely don’t know Kay Francis because, when the Code went into effect, her Pre-code films were banned from re-release on television and in theaters until the late 1960s when restrictions began lifting. At the height of her fame Kay famously said, “I can’t wait to be forgotten!” But anyone who’s seen her Pre-Code performances could never forget her.

Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.

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