One of the most glamorous stars of the 1930s, Kay Francis spent much of her screen time dressed to the nines in a series of the latest fashions. An imposing 5'9" tall, she received her start on stage and then graduated into the movie industry as a contract player at first, Paramount Pictures, and then Warner Brothers. Despite a mild speech impediment, she swiftly became one of Hollywood's premiere leading ladies, thanks to successes like "One Way Passage" (1932), "Trouble in Paradise" (1932), "Mandalay" (1934), and "I Found Stella Parish" (1935), and was the country's highest-paid actress in 1936. No one's idea of a wallflower, Francis relished the wild life, going through several husbands and numerous lovers, which resulted in a number of unwanted pregnancies. At the height of her fame, a falling out with Warner resulted in fewer prestige assignments for Francis and her popularity diminished. Once free from their dictates, she worked for various studios and devoted much of her free time to USO tours and entertaining American troops overseas. However, by the mid-1940s, film employment had dried up and fans would only be able to catch her in a handful of stage and television productions during the years that followed. A larger-than-life personality both on and off-screen, Francis was mostly forgotten in later years, but both the actress' life and acting career were too rich and intriguing for her to languish in such undeserved obscurity.
A native of Oklahoma City, OK, Kay Francis was born Katherine Edwina Gibbs on Jan. 13, 1905. Her father departed when she was still young, leaving Francis to be raised by her actress-singer mother. That early exposure may have intrigued her about the possibilities of such a life, but it would be some time before she decided to pursue show business. Following her days as a student at Miss Fuller's School for Young Ladies and the Cathedral School, Francis was engaged for a time as a secretary, but eventually decided to give performing a try. Confident and outgoing, Francis eventually made her Broadway bow via a revival of "Hamlet" (1925-26) before gaining additional experience with the Portmanteau Theatre Company. She returned to the Great White Way in the melodrama "Crime" (1927), the comedic "Venus" (1927-28) and George M. Cohan's "Elmer the Great" (1928). Her work in the latter led to a screen test and contract offer. As a member of the talent stable at Paramount Pictures, Francis first graced movie screens with small parts in the Marx Brothers' farce "The Cocoanuts" (1929) and "Gentlemen of the Press" (1929), but quickly progressed to a bigger assignment in the Clara Bow vehicle "Dangerous Curves" (1929).
Her first lead role came while on loan out to the Samuel Goldwyn Company for the lightweight adventure "Raffles" (1930), but Paramount soon followed suit and used her as the female star in pictures like "A Virtuous Sin" (1930) and "Scandal Sheet" (1931). However, they opted to let Francis go and she joined the ranks at Warner Bros., where she quickly made waves in vehicles like "Man Wanted" (1932), "Street of Women" (1932), and "One Way Passage" (1932). A particularly prestigious credit came with her participation in Ernest Lubitsch's superbly witty "Trouble in Paradise" (1932), one of Francis' finest movies and a key comedy from the period. The transition from silent cinema to talkies brought about the end of several major careers. Despite a slight speech impediment that caused her to pronounce "R" with a "W" sound and led to occasional jokes at her expense, Francis was able to maintain and grow her stardom. As was common for contract players of the time, the studio kept their crowd pleaser busy, but Francis still managed to raise considerable hell in her personal life. By that point, she had been through three short, unhappy marriages. Husband No. 4 was actor Kenneth McKenna, but she remained unlucky in love and the couple called it quits after two years. Reportedly quite sexually active both in and out of wedlock, Francis also underwent several abortions and reportedly had a high tolerance for alcohol. Her times away from the set were, by all accounts, anything but dull.
Francis' popularity with filmgoers continued to rise via pictures like "Mary Stevens M.D." (1933), "Mandalay" (1934), and "I Found Stella Parish" (1935). Unfortunately, a major rift developed between her and Warner Brothers. While several of her pictures had turned a major profit, it was felt that Francis' salary - the highest of any female performer at the time - was disproportionate to the amount of money coming in. Francis was also growing unhappy with the parts that she was being assigned. In response, Warner put her in a string of largely second-rate productions that gradually squelched her appeal. While there were occasionally interesting projects, such as the dramatically potent and visually stylish drama "Confession" (1937) and the political satire "First Lady" (1937), the damage was done and her star status had diminished by the end of the decade.
The Warner contract completed and now divorced from a fifth husband, Francis tried her hand at freelancing, appearing in the lackluster Universal Western "When the Daltons Rode" (1940) and toplining "Little Men" (1940), a forgettable adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel. She joined Jack Benny for the amusing remake of "Charley's Aunt" (1941), but could do little to enliven "Between Us Girls" (1942), a minor farce wherein she was cast as the mother of troubled actress Diana Barrymore. During this period, Francis also donated her time to the war effort by serving as a USO entertainer in the British Isles and North Africa. She joined fellow USO ladies Carole Landis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair in "Four Jills and a Jeep" (1944), a light-hearted musical loosely based on Landis' like-named book that chronicled their experiences together. Although "Four Jills and a Jeep" was a reasonably prestigious release, no additional big studio offers were forthcoming, so Francis began to work for B-movie outfit Monogram Pictures. "Divorce" (1945), "Allotment Wives" (1945), and "Wife Wanted" (1946) were fairly low-rent affairs, but Francis earned some additional experience by serving as a producer on all three of those quickies.
With her film career clearly running on empty, Francis resumed stage work, including a turn in "Windy Hill" (1945) and a Broadway run in the cast of "State of the Union" (1945-47) as a replacement for original lead Ruth Hussey. She was able to parlay the success of the latter into further live theater engagements, but in January 1948, Francis made unfortunate headlines by ingesting an overdose of sleeping pills. Reports conflicted on the details, but the actress also sustained severe burns on her legs and required a lengthy recovery period. She surfaced a couple of years later to appear on the television dramatic programs "The Prudential Family Playhouse" (CBS, 1950-51) and "Lux Video Theatre" (CBS/NBC, 1950-57) and made her final stage bow in a touring version of Somerset Maugham's "Theatre." Francis received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, but remained largely out of the limelight. By mid-decade, she had come down with cancer and the disease ended her life on Aug. 26, 1968. The majority of Francis' more than $1 million in personal wealth was left to The Seeing Eye, a service that trained guide dogs for use by visually impaired individuals.
By John Charles