Box Office Poison: Kay Francis

Kay Francis.

When you hear the words “the queen of Warner Brothers,” who is the first person you think of? For many people, the answer is probably going to be Bette Davis. After all, she starred in several of the studio’s most prestigious films, like Dark Victory; Now, Voyager; and The Letter, just to name a few, so it certainly wouldn’t be an undeserved title. Over time, she became so closely associated with Warners that she was nicknamed “the fifth Warner brother.” But before Bette Davis, there was Kay Francis.

While Bette Davis was trying to make a name for herself in movies like Parachute Jumper and Fashions of 1934, Kay Francis had been starring in pre-Code classics like Jewel Robbery, Man Wanted, and One Way Passage for Warners, as well as Trouble and Paradise and Girls About Town at Paramount. She signed her first contract with Warner Brothers in 1932 when they offered her a better deal than Paramount was offering her.

By 1935, Kay Francis had reached the peak of her career at Warners when she officially became the highest paid star at the studio, receiving a salary of $4,000 per week and a lavish new dressing room. Following the success of I Found Stella Parish, she was given a new three-year contract with Warner Brothers even though her contract wasn’t up yet. Louella Parsons reported that this new contract was Jack Warner’s way of rewarding her for her cooperative nature and for never turning down a script offered to her. This new contract bumped her salary up to $5,250 per week.

Even though things were going extremely well for Kay at Warner Brothers at this point, she had lofty ambitions for where she wanted her career to go next. She aspired to work with Charles Laughton. Notably, she was interested in playing Edith Cortright in Dodsworth, but the part went to Mary Astor instead when Warners refused to loan her out. She was also interested in starring in adaptations of Tristan and Isolde and of Mildred Cram’s novel Forever, the latter of which fell through when it was discovered that Norma Shearer already owned the rights to it. Kay was even involved in the early stages of forming a studio similar to United Artists along with Richard Barthelmess, Clive Brook, and Ronald Colman, which also never came to fruition.

Lobby card for The White Angel with Kay Francis.

All was seemingly going well for Kay Francis — and then The White Angel came along. The Story of Louis Pasteur had been a big hit for Warner Brothers, so they decided to ride their own success by producing The White Angel with Kay Francis starring as Florence Nightingale. Not only was there pressure to live up to the success of The Story of Louis Pasteur, being given the chance to play a historical figure was an opportunity for Kay to move past her image as a fashionable glamour queen. But while Kay’s performance received many good notes, and a compilation of reviews featured in the Motion Picture Review Digest largely ranged from very positive to average-but-not bad, the movie as a whole didn’t make the impression Warner Brothers was hoping for. While The Story of Louis Pasteur earned two Academy Award wins for its writing (Best Writing – Original Story and Best Writing – Screenplay), The White Angel didn’t have the strong foundation that Pasteur‘s screenplay offered.

When Kay first read the script for The White Angel, she recorded her reaction in her diary: “Read my new script — dear God!” You might not expect that a biopic of Florence Nightingale would be particularly controversial, but getting approval from all the necessary parties proved to be surprisingly difficult. First of all, a key part of the movie was supposed to feature Florence Nightingale being presented to Queen Victoria. But when the production was denied permission to depict Queen Victoria in the movie, the reworked scene lacked the same dramatic punch as the original version would have had. The Breen office also took issue with scenes depicting brutality, which is highly restrictive when trying to tell the story of a woman providing care to soldiers wounded in a brutal war. One scene involving an amputation had to be cut.

The timing of the release of The White Angel also didn’t work to the movie’s advantage. A movie like The White Angel could have potentially benefitted from people seeing it for school assignments, as was the case for Romeo and Juliet with Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard. Unfortunately, The White Angel was released in late June 1936, after the school year had ended. Kay later said she regretted making The White Angel and producer Hal Wallis noted it was a box office disappointment.

Kay Francis and Errol Flynn in Another Dawn.

The White Angel was followed by 1936’s Give Me Your Heart, which was a more typical Kay Francis movie and was more successful financially than The White Angel. Of course, Jack Warner decided this meant that Kay should stick to her usual fare: movies full of glamour and melodrama. Give Me Your Heart was followed by 1937’s Stolen Holiday and Another Dawn. In her diary, she said of Stolen Holiday, “Script from studio — BAD! Too sweet — old hat.” Considering all the ideas Kay had for her career, getting stuck in the same old types of roles over and over was very disappointing.

Another Dawn is an interesting movie in the sense that a lot of key people involved with it didn’t particularly want to be involved. Warners had originally planned the movie for Bette Davis, who got placed on suspension after refusing to do it, which is how it ended up going to Kay Francis. Kay seemed utterly bored by her role and said of it, “I don’t do much in it. Things just happen to me. I am just a wife who has been unfortunate in love, as usual.” Errol Flynn didn’t really want to do the movie, either. Director William Dieterle only did the movie as a favor to Hal Wallis.

Reviews for Another Dawn were, at best, mediocre. Generally, critics thought the writing was weak and the premise was trite. A critic for the New York Times said of it:

“Not since the fabled phoenix has the Arabian desert blossomed into anything quite so stunning as Kay Francis and her extensive wardrobe in ‘Another Dawn.’ Too often, however, has it, or its romantic Hollywood substitute, beheld the the familiar triangular plot…The picture is not entirely without merit, of course. Herbert Mundin is in it, and the California sand dunes have rarely, if ever, been photographed more beautifully.”

Warner Brothers had wanted Another Dawn to be a special production, so “nice sand dunes” was hardly the reaction the studio was hoping for.

Costume test with Kay Francis for Confession.

1937’s Confession has undergone a critical re-evaluation over the years and has become popular among Kay’s modern day fans, but its initial reviews were somewhat mixed. Many critics thought it was Kay’s best movie in a while, but also thought the plot was a rehash of other Hollywood melodramas. By now, Kay was fed up with all the melodramatic roles and welcomed the comedic change of pace that First Lady (1937) offered. Unfortunately, First Lady was mostly well regarded for its writing and for Verree Teasdale, but Kay’s performance got some good notes from Variety and Hedda Hopper.

However, before audiences even had a chance to see First Lady, a career-altering event for Kay was happening behind the scenes. During her most recent round of contract negotiations, she had a very specific project in mind: starring in Tovarich alongside Charles Boyer and with Anatole Litvak directing. She felt strongly enough about it that she considered being able to do Tovarich a key condition of accepting this contract. Given the quality of material she had been recently been given to work with, she felt that Tovarich would be a surefire way to give her career a shot in the arm. When Warners announced that Claudette Colbert, on loan from Paramount, would be starring in Tovarich instead, Kay was angry enough to file a lawsuit to get out of her contract.

News of Kay’s lawsuit may have been surprising to many because, while some people found her cold and aloof, she wasn’t exactly known for being a diva, either. Remember how Jack Warner voluntarily gave her a new contract in 1935 as a reward for always accepting projects offered to her? The House on 56th Street and Mandalay were both rejected by Ruth Chatterton before Kay took them on without objection. When it came to work, she was extremely professional. She was punctual and always tried to keep her personal and professional lives separate. She was very reliable and had a nine-year streak of not calling out for even a single day off, which lasted until the production of Confession. There are many stories about her being generous and kind to others at the studio, at times rejecting special treatment on the set if it wasn’t also being given to extras. Of course, there were some disputes during productions, but Kay would often come back to smooth things over after calming down. In her personal life, she was known for leading a surprisingly modest lifestyle for a big movie star and didn’t even get a nice car for herself until 1937 — and even then, she preferred driving herself to hiring a chauffeur.

Filing a lawsuit wasn’t even Kay’s first line of action. She tried resolving the problem out of court, but was forced to go to court on September 3, 1937 when Warners refused to budge. In her suit, she accused Warner Brothers of putting her, “in pictures of inferior quality and putting her name in a special interstudio register which kept other studios from bidding for her services.” So not only was she prevented from doing Tovarich, she clearly hadn’t forgotten her disappointment of not being loaned out for Dodsworth.

Bette Davis before her court hearing.

Her case had some common ground with other lawsuits that had already been filed against Warner Brothers by James Cagney and Bette Davis. In all cases, pursuing those legal disputes was very risky for the stars involved. Bette Davis didn’t win her case, but she still got the better roles she wanted. On the other hand, James Cagney did win his case and his contract with Warner Brothers was nullified in 1936. However, other major studios weren’t willing to work with him because they’d be in a tough spot if Warner Brothers succeeded in getting the ruling overturned. This led to Cagney making two movies for the independent studio Grand National, both of which lost money. Cagney later returned to Warner Brothers in 1938 with better contract terms.

These types of legal disputes also had the potential for damaging the star’s reputation with the public. Both Cagney and Davis faced their share of slings from the media during their disputes. In Bette’s case, some tried to paint her as ungrateful and money hungry. But in a letter to Jack Warner written by Bette on June 21, 1936, months before her day in court, she talks about wanting a loan out clause in her contract and vacation time, and even offers to accept less pay if her terms were agreed to. (This letter is available to read on Stars and Letters, but doesn’t talk about her wanting better roles at Warner Brothers, which was another big part of her case.)

With Kay’s status as being a top-paid star, she certainly faced the risk of also being labeled money hungry. But similar to Greta Garbo, Kay Francis wasn’t a big fan of dealing with the media. Kay tolerated it more than Garbo, but she had her limits and valued her privacy. Unfortunately, this meant that some publications seemed to already be losing their patience with Kay even before her trial and were eager to cite specific examples of what they deemed bad behavior. In the July 3, 1937 issue of Picturegoer, there is a letter from the editor dedicated to Kay Francis, chiding her over reports of becoming too temperamental. These issues include a vague mention of trouble while filming 1934’s Wonder Bar, having a reporter thrown out of a party she hosted at a restaurant, not being attentive enough to British press on a trip to England, and arguing with director Joe May about dialogue in Confession. The letter also essentially blames her for the state of her career at that point, as if she controlled the projects she was given:

It seems very likely that nobody wanted to see a revival of the charming and sophisticated Kay Francis of One Way Passage and Trouble in Paradise more than Kay Francis.

Picturegoer ran another article about Kay Francis in their October 2, 1937 issue which opens under the pretense of being sympathetic, reminding people of her reputation for being highly cooperative with Warner Brothers, before citing some brief examples of “artistic temperament” during the productions of The White Angel (which they erroneously call The White Sister) and Confession before airing some grievances about Kay’s relationship with the press:

“It is particularly unfortunate that, amid her other troubles, Kay is not on the best terms with the Hollywood writers and is not getting a sympathetic press at a time that she needs it. She has never liked being interviewed, but until recently managed to maintain particularly friendly relations with the reporters.

The trouble all started when Kay gave a party some time ago. She lives in an extremely modest little house, and when she entertains on on any scale she does so in one of the larger Hollywood restaurants. On this occasion, a reporter gate-crashed.

No one likes to have her party gate-crashed, but Kay might have handled the situation more tactfully. She had the intruder ejected.

Her press vendetta has moreover been intensified by her friendship with Delmar Daves, a screenwriter she met during the making of The White Sister, and with whom her name has been linked in the romance rumors.

Kay has always felt that her marriage to Kenneth McKenna might have stood a better chance if it had not been for all the publicity that surrounded it from the outset, and she has openly resented press interest in her new romance.”

(One can’t help but wonder if the reporter who crashed Kay’s party worked for Picturegoer since they sure seemed salty about that incident.)

Not much is known about what, exactly, went on during Kay’s trial. What we do know is that, rather than having her contract nullified as Kay initially wanted, it was decided that Kay would finish out her contract at Warner Brothers. The official explanation was simply that Kay and Warner Brothers had reached an amicable agreement. Even other people who worked at Warner Brothers were rather baffled by the outcome and weren’t quite clear about what happened. Decades later, Bette Davis said of it:

“Out of the blue, it was announced she would complete her contract by starring in B-pictures! It was simply unprecedented and no reason was ever given. A huge embarrassment for such a star — she had many, many fans…Jack Warner was despicable to Miss Francis. I felt awfully sorry for her, and it certainly scared every actress in town. She said what she had to: that she was looking forward to retiring. Or, at least, taking some time off after working so hard. No one dared question her explanation, but it was known.”

Regardless of what exactly went on in the courtroom during Kay’s trial, her relationship with Warner Brothers was irreparably damaged and the agreement seems to have been anything but amicable. Jack Warner set out on a mission to make Kay miserable enough to break her contract so that the studio could sever their ties with her. But Kay refused to take the bait and continued to collect her big paychecks until her contract ended in September 1938.

Kay Francis in Women Are Like That.

Despite the quality of her recent movies, Kay was still considered a popular star among moviegoers. But despite her lasting popularity, Jack Warner insisted on putting her in what he considered the worst, most demeaning projects possible. First up was 1938’s Women are Like That, which was not particularly well received.

“The plot lacks both dramatic continuity and point. The mood wavers between connubial romance and connubial ruckus, without ever becoming persuasive.” – New York Herald Tribune

“It represents a courageous attempt to explain in the protracted seventy-very-odd minutes at its disposal certain aspects of a human problem which has baffled philosophers through the ages…There is only one question I must ask the authors of Women are Like That. It is, “Like what?” – New York Times

“Women are like that; so probably a good proportion of upper middle class women will like the extremely dull story, pseudo-intelligent dialogue, the romance between middle aged Francis, middle aged O’Brien. It is a woman’s picture for a comparatively small proportion of women at that. Estimate: weak programmer.” – Philadelphia Exhibitor

Some media outlets were also still taking jabs at Kay’s behavior. In an article titled “Kay and Pat are Like That!”, which ran in the January 1938 issue of Screenland, the writer does talk about the warm, friendly side to Kay, but it comes after the writer spends a considerable amount of time making heavy-handed efforts to paint Kay in a bad light while building up Pat O’Brien as the nice, easygoing good guy. After talking about how Kay filed her lawsuit after not getting to do Tovarich, they talked about how Pat O’Brien ended up doing Women Are Like That after rejecting another project:

“And it seems that Pat O’Brien was scheduled to go into Swing Your Lady but he didn’t like the script (neither did Joan Blondell who walked right off the set and took a course in hula dancing), and Pat didn’t want to pile up another suspension so he said holy mackerel and jumping catfish, haven’t you got something else around here I can do?”

Other highlights from that article include:

“A suing actress isn’t the most sociable person in the world — instead of the customary one chip she has the whole block on her shoulder — she is utterly convinced that the studio is trying to ruin her, so why should she be pleasant to anyone? The boys and girls from the publicity department hang an imaginary ‘Small-pox’ sign over the door of the stage and keep as far away as possible. Little people like you and me run like mad in the opposite direction. A suing star, it seems, has all the delightful charm of a coiled cobra.”

“On the set, she is slightly aloof, even when not suing, and doesn’t like to have crowds of tourists gaping at her when she is doing her scenes, or interviewers hanging around waiting to ask if she is going to marry Delmar Daves. On the other hand, Pat O’Brien, a cordial good-natured Irishman, and as natural as the day is long, likes nothing better than having mobs of people watching him act — in fact he and Humphrey Bogart even act better, if that is possible, when they have an admiring audience — and he doesn’t care what an interviewer asks him because his life is an open book. When Pat first started working at Warners, a guy asked him, ‘Mr. O’Brien, do you want your sets closed or not?’ To which our Mr. O’Brien replied, ‘If you want to tear down the sides of the stage and put in grandstands it’s all right with me.'”

Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway.

Warners hit the mark in demeaning Kay by making her do Women Are Like That, but following it up with 1938’s My Bill ended up backfiring by being more successful than expected. Secrets of an Actress and Comet Over Broadway, also released in 1938, both failed to make an impression with critics and audiences. Comet Over Broadway is notable for being another movie that Kay Francis starred in after Bette Davis refused to do it. Bette called it, “the first nothing script I was given since my court battle in England,” and claimed that she was sick but would have made an effort for better material.

Comet Over Broadway wasn’t the last time the careers of Kay Francis and Bette Davis would overlap. After Bette was put on suspension for refusing to do Comet Over Broadway, she was assigned 1938’s The Sisters, a movie that had been planned for Kay. Kay had expressed an interest in doing 1939’s Juarez, but it ended up going to — who else — Bette Davis. Prior to her lawsuit, Kay had been considered for Dark Victory, and she was interested in the doing the movie, but Jack Warner made sure the part went to Bette.

When Kay Francis was included in the Box Office Poison ad published in 1938, nobody was probably less surprised than Kay. This was exactly the sort of thing Jack Warner had been hoping for post-lawsuit and even in the few years leading up to the ad’s publication, she had no delusions about the quality of scripts she had been receiving.

In addition to assigning her the worst projects possible, Warners continued punishing Kay Francis behind the scenes. Her nice, big dressing room had been reassigned to John Garfield and, subsequently, to Bette Davis. When she wasn’t busy working on set, the studio had her do screen tests with young actors the studio was considering working with. Not only was this the kind of thing that would’ve been considered way beneath the pay grade of someone like Kay Francis, a lot of stars of her stature would consider it an insult to be asked to do it. But Kay still showed up every time and did those screen tests without complaint. Warners even resorted to doing completely petty things just to make her more miserable, like giving her call times that were several hours earlier than when she was actually needed on set and denying her lunch pass requests so that she couldn’t eat with friends in the studio commissary. But she was determined to ride her contract out to the very bitter end, as she said, “even if they put me in a bathing suit and have me walk up and down Hollywood Boulevard!”

Many other Warner Brothers employees were quietly sympathetic to Kay’s situation. The two who had the most influence and best understood what she was going through, Bette Davis and James Cagney, arranged a meeting with Harry Warner to advocate for better treatment for Kay since Harry had the power to overrule Jack Warner’s decisions. However, they weren’t able to get anywhere. There is some speculation that Harry Warner was actually the one behind the studio’s campaign of humiliation for Kay Francis, not Jack Warner, and it was blackmail for some incriminating information they had about Kay, possibly an affair involving another woman. However, I did not come across any meaningful evidence supporting this claim.

By the time she did King of the Underworld, released in 1939, she was still a bigger name than Humphrey Bogart. The script for King of the Underworld was reworked to enhance Bogart’s role, but much of the film still focuses on Kay’s character. Despite this, Warner Brothers decided to give Humphrey Bogart top billing in this movie; his first time getting top billing in a movie. Knocking Kay down in the billing order was such a blatant power move on the studio’s part that critics understood exactly what was going on and couldn’t help but comment on it. Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times, “We simply want to go gallantly on the record against what seems to be an act of corporate impoliteness.” Bogart also felt bad about the way Warner Brothers was treating Kay. Even the movie’s original title — Lady Doctor — feels like an insult with its laziness.

Kay’s last movie for Warner Brothers was Women in the Wind, released in April 1939, which some noted had an aura of people just being eager to get the movie done and over with as quickly as possible. Perhaps the most notable thing about the production of Women in the Wind is that it’s when Kay gave a widely-quoted interview that was the basis for an article in the March 1939 issue of Photoplay magazine. This is where the famous quote, “I can’t wait to be forgotten,” came from. That line was said when she was about to film the last scene of her last Warner Brothers movie.

This article includes many candid quotes that show someone at a real crossroads in their life. She talks about wanting to take time to relax, enjoy life, and enjoy the freedom of not being under contract. She talked about wanting to retire, but didn’t completely rule out the idea of doing more movies.

“I don’t say I’ll never make another picture because if I should happen to be in Hollywood and some producer offered me a good part, I’d jump at it. But as far as another contract, or making a career of pictures is concerned, I’m through!…The parade is passing me by and I don’t care.”

Looking back at her career and the way she handled things, she was remarkably honest in her thoughts:

“Perhaps I’d have been better off if I had fought for better stories, but the end didn’t justify the means. I’d have been suspended and the time I was under suspension would have been added to the end of my contract. So, instead of being free now, I would probably have had another year to go. And, even then, I’d have had no guarantee the stories I picked would have been any better. Even if they had been, the only difference would have been that I would be retiring in a blaze of glory instead of more or less inconspicuously — and this is the way I want it. I’ll be forgotten quicker this way.”

Despite her difficulties with the studio, it’s still clearly a bittersweet ending for her. Kay still had great relationships with many crew members at the studio and got a bit misty eyed over the fact that this was the first time she wasn’t hosting a wrap party for the cast and crew.

“I knew I’d start crying and so would some of the others. I didn’t want to become maudlin or sentimental. I didn’t want to say my goodbye that way. I want to remember all these people as friends with whom I used to kid — with whom I had swell times. I don’t want to remember them — or have them remember me — with long faces and red eyes. I want to saunter off the lot and out of their lives as casually as though the picture weren’t finished and we’d be meeting again in the morning.”

As Kay Francis left the Warner Brothers studio lot for the final time, she was saluted by the attendant at the gate. Her dispute with the studio took so much out of her that she never wanted to speak of it again, simply referring to it as “her great struggle.”

Kay Francis, Cary Grant and Carole Lombard in In Name Only.

After leaving Warner Brothers, she stayed active films for several years, mostly in movies for RKO and Universal but with a few for 20th Century Fox and Monogram also in the mix. Of her post-Warner Brothers movies, the best remembered is 1939’s In Name Only with Carole Lombard and Cary Grant. She also had the opportunity to appear in movies alongside people like Deanna Durbin and Rosalind Russell. 1944’s Four Jills in a Jeep is also notable for being inspired by a USO tour she did with Martha Raye, Carole Landis, and Mitzi Mayfair during World War II. After making her final film in 1946, Kay moved onto the stage and did touring productions of plays like State of the Union, Let Us Be Gay, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, and Goodbye My Fancy. However, health issues began to take a toll on her life and she gave her final stage performance on August 5, 1954. After her shoulder was fractured during a fall, she retired from acting.

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