Monday, October 6, 2008

Special Kay: Have you had yours today?

For the longest time I've had a very skewed opinion of Kay Francis. I'd only ever seen her in one movie, In Name Only (1938) with Cary Grant and Carole Lombard in which she plays a shrewish, downright nasty woman. I knew she'd had a vibrant pre-code career from reading Mick LaSalle's "Dangerous Women" and from blogs like "Trouble in Paradise." So my first real Kay Francis movie then was Trouble in Paradise (1932) an Ernest Lubitsch film that also stars Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marsahll. Not only was Kay Francis' image at stake but I was very excited to see an Ernest Lubitsch film that I hadn't seen before since he's one of my favorite directors. High expectations can frequently be a problem with movies and on first viewing I was a touch disappointed. I think I was expecting something a bit zanier, but this film is very sophisticated and funny in a winking, droll way. Though Kay's character isn't unsympathetic in Trouble in Paradise, she is a rival to Miriam Hopkins. It's hard not feel that if Herbert Marshall wasn't going to wind up with both women, in a Design for Living style compromise than you just have to root for Hopkins' scrappy, funny jewel thief . I can't help it, I always cheer for funny.

Herbert Marshal does a good job of playing a man genuinely torn between the two. It's difficult to know exactly when his con of playing male secretary to the female head of a perfume company becomes a genuine job that he enjoys and does well. In one memorable scene, he leads Kay Francis in exercises, in which she demonstrates that she can lie on the floor and kick her heels over her head. This was pre-code after all--nothing wrong with a little gratuitous caboose.

I just watched a much less famous Kay Francis vehicle, Man Wanted, in which she plays another female executive who becomes involved with her male secretary. Though Man Wanted is not in the same class as Trouble in Paradise, it utterly charmed me and I think I finally get whole Kay Francis appeal. She is witty, confident and always makes you believe that she is as every inch as ambitious as the character she plays on screen. With her widow's peak and her smoky deep voice, Kay Francis was something special. I wish there was an actress like her now making movies about smart women in power that didn't fall into the Devil Wears Prada stereotype. While Meryl Streep plays tough minded magazine editor in that movie the whole point of it is that she's lonely and mean-spirited because she's a woman in power who doesn't have time for fulfillment in her personal life. Streep humanizes the devil, but at the end of the day she's still a dragon in four inch heels; she's still the antagonist. Lois Ames is the heroine and though her personal life is unfulfilled she's not mean or petty. Even when she realizes she's been cheated on, she seems momentarily annoyed and hurt, but quickly recovers her poise to make a joke of it. This is a woman so sure of herself that men are like buses, you miss one and another one will come along in a little while. A few years later and a woman like Lois would be required to find happiness and retirement in marriage. One of the true evils of the production code was its insistence that woman not be shown being happy or fulfilled at work since they were supposedly taking jobs away from men. It's clear that we've never really regained the ground lost to the code, when a role like Streep's in the Devil Wears Prada stands out as being unusual.

The man, in Man Wanted is the very lovely David Manners who remains desirable despite being a tad immasculated by all that stenography. Manners, like Francis was very successful in the pre-code era and was a genuine matinee idol who popped up around the time talkies came in. He triumphed over fickle fame by retiring at the top of his game in 1936, to paint, write books and act in the occasional play. Manners will probably be forever known for his roles in Dracula and The Mummy, but he was also very good at romantic comedy, playing the straight man to comic actors Una Merkel and Andy Divine in Man Wanted.

I've loads more Kay Francis movies to look at and from time to time, I'll be adding them to the media room.


kda0121 said...

I have such a huge crush on Kay Francis. She is such a beauty and those eyes of hers are something. Now, of course, I have huge crushes on several other actresses of that era too, but Kay is definitely in my top five!

My initial opinion of Kay was also skewed by In Name Only. For years, that was the only movie I'd seen Kay in. I sometimes wish she and Lombard would've switched roles. I think Kay could've been as sweet, but I'm not sure that Carole could've been as nasty.

Now that TCM has re-introduced Kay to the world, people can understand what a HUGE star she was. She was queen of the Warner's lot for several years and her pre-code movies are some of the best from that time.

rab693 said...

Being first and foremost a Cary Grant fan, I too had only seen Kay Francis in In Name Only until last month. I recorded most of her movies shown on TCM and have been slowly working my way through them. I first watched Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage because she was paired with William Powell, and enjoyed both of them. I also enjoyed Trouble in Paradise, but agree that it wasn't as funny as I had expected based on the description I read. A bonus for me, though, was the presence of Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles.

Given what I've read about Kay's sense of style, I've been noting the clothes she wore and have to admit that many of the dresses are stunning. There is one particular dress in Jewel Robbery that fascinates me because I can't understand how it stays on as she is running around with William Powell!

Anne said...

I am going to see how many times I can work the phrase "gratuitous caboose" into everyday conversation.

AbbyNormal said...

I have been away on holiday and just caught up. (That is one reason your pkg is delayed - going in the post tomorrow).

I, too, have only seen In Name Only and was not interested in Kay Francis at all. I was surprised when I read that she was Bruce's fav leading lady. I thought that was a rather random choice, but he knew his stuff, so I had to give the choice merit. Since reading that, I have vowed I would watch a few more. Thank you for a few starters with your blog!