KAY FRANCIS AND BILL POWELL TALK ABOUT EACH OTHER
Screenland, August 1934.
Kay and Bill tell you what they think of each other as acting partners as well as personalities behind the make-believe of their roles as screen lovers.
By Maude Cheatham.
DECORATING Kay Francis’ dressing room is a treasured collection of photographs of the handsome heroes with whom she has played during her film career. Ronald Colman, Ricardo Cortez, Richard Barthelmess, and many others—for Kay’s screen life is spent collecting masculine hearts.
[Webmaster’s note: Kay and Richard Barthelmess never appeared together onscreen.]
In the most prominent spot of all is a large picture bearing the inscription, “From your perennial lover, Bill Powell.”
Kay explained, in that deep, husky voice so familiar to us on the screen: “Yes, we’ve been lovers in six pictures—but out romances never include the happy-ever-after sequence. Bill always leaves me in the final fade out!”
She checked them off. “In our first film together, ‘Behind the Make-Up’, he committed suicide. In ‘Street of Chance’, the only one in which we were ever really married, he was shot. This was my first leading part and I was terribly upset for fear my work wouldn’t be good enough for a Powell picture. But he was so fine through it all, helping and encouraging me, and by the time it was finished I had gained new confidence.
“In ‘For the Defense’, poor Bill was sent to jail. And on ‘One Way Passage’, we both died! In ‘Jewell Robbery’, he went away and I followed him, according to the scenario.” She added with a laugh, “I hope I caught him!”
“If I had been in ‘The Key’, Bill’s last picture under his Warner contract, as it was first planned, it would have been the old story again—he would have left me!
“Oh, yes, and in ‘Ladies’ Man’, he was killed, thrown off a high balcony—just after we had straightened out our romance, too!
“I remember when we started ‘Ladies’ Man’ we were neither one so enthusiastic over the story, and we’ve often laughed at B.P. Schulberg’s clever strategy in arousing our interest. He patted us on the back and Bill that no other actor was as capable as endowing the difficult character with the necessary qualities. Then he explained that there were three reasons why he put me in the picture. First, the movie audiences wanted to see us together again. Of course, this was his trump card and it pleased us immensely. Then he said my part was a sappy one and he was sure I would make it less sappy. The third reason was that Bill died in the end and left me and that was what the fans expected from us!”
With William Powell and Kay Francis, the screen’s fashion-plates and super-sophisticates, playing in six pictures together without a single flare-up nor a tiny scrap or even a hasty word, not one, who dares to say film stars are so temperamental?
“Congenial? Oh, very,” Kay brushed aside my question. “Making a picture with Bill is always a grand adventure. He’s generous to work with, has an unfailing sense of humor, is witty, and has a fine code of honor, and is so essentially a gentleman under all conditions.
“I shall never forget when we started ‘Jewell Robbery’. I was worn out having made four pictures in a row, finishing the last one at seven o’clock one night and starting ‘Jewel Robbery’ early the next morning. We were on location and it was frightfully hot and I became cross, very irritable. Finally I blew up in my lines and went all to pieces. Bill sauntered over and sat down beside me saying, quietly, ‘Kay, if I didn’t love you and understand how utterly exhausted you were, I’d, well, I’d spank you!’
“That made me laugh. We both howled at the imaginary picture his words suggested and this broke the tension I had been on. Everything was serene after that.
“We always laugh and joke when we are together; our humor seems pitched in the same key; but we are very serious when making a picture, for we feel it requires all our concentration. Bill has taught me to keep from getting a one-track mind regarding my role. In studying his characters he likes to twist the story around, figuring out different angles in the psychology of the persons involved, and you would be amazed how this broadens one’s understanding of the drama as a whole and of your own role in particular.”
After a moment’s thought, Kay said she considered Bill’s outstanding quality was his deep understanding, his ability always to see the other person’s side of the question. The only fault she could think of was his inability to be on time.
“He even kids himself by keeping his watch set exactly thirty-one minutes fast,” she merrily explained, “but even that doesn’t help much. He’s quite hopeless in this.”
Kay’s own life sparkles with varied experiences that give her, also, a vast understanding of love and people. Perhaps this is the key to their mutual congeniality.
Educated through European travel and exclusive schools, Kay took an early fling at business. She sold real estate, was a social secretary, and promoted Raquel Meller when she blazed through America several years ago. She’s been married three times, beginning at seventeen, and only recently divorced Kenneth MacKenna, and each married carried her into an entirely different environment. Besides, she’s won stage success and fame as a foremost motion picture star.
You would doubtless be surprised to see Kay Francis off the screen. She looks so much smaller and far more girlish than she does in her pictures. The day of our talk she was wearing a smart brown ensemble but she confesses she cares little for clothes—except in her pictures.
Some distant day kay wants to return to the stage and with new laurels. Well, some day, perhaps. But we film fans wouldn’t like to spare her or the combination of Powell and Francis, from our screens. They supply an ideal team of ultra-sophisticates.
Remembering Bill’s great charm and feeling the glow of Kay’s radiant personality, a thought flashed through my mind. A gorgeous thought. I hardly dare breathe it for I’m sure they will both take a shot at me when they read this. But—wouldn’t it be great, now that they are both matrimonially free, if this popular reel-love team of William Powell and Kay Francis should be duplicated in a real-life romance, with all the “happy-ever-after” sequences left into the drama?
WHEN I mentioned his many pictures with Kay Francis, I met an enthusiastic response from William Powell.
“Playing opposite Kay has been one of my happiest experiences since coming to the screen,” he said warmly. “She is not only a fine actress but a grand girl.
We’ve worked and played together so long that I couldn’t settle on any quality I admire most. We’ve made pictures at both Paramount and Warners studios, where we were both under contract. Also, we have gone around with the same little social group. She knew Carole very well (meaning Carole Lombard, the ex-Mrs. Powell)—and I knew Kenneth MacKenna (meaning Kay’s recently divorced husband).
“Kay is deliciously feminine, with a thoroughly unconscious lure that captivates everyone. She’s a very real person, vital, alive. She’s well-read and is a stimulating conversationalist. Kay also is blessed with a gorgeous humor, and with an uncanny understanding of a man’s mental process she always gets his viewpoint. She’s sincere, a square-shooter, a real comrade.
“An amusing thing about is when we are together is we become interested or excited we both drop into a fluttery stammer. She does ah-ah-ah, while I stutter fu-fu-fu. By the time we come to where we’re speechless with laughter. So is everyone who hears us.”
We were chatting over luncheon at Bill’s home in Beverly Hills. There was a serene and comfortable atmosphere pervading the beautiful rooms. With efficient servants the “feminine touch” seems no longer necessary in maintaining the perfect home.
It was a little disconcerting, I admitted to myself, as I watched the butler’s quiet serving of a menu no woman’s planning could excel. The French windows opened onto the patio and a garden, gay in a riot of flowers. Beyond, I could see a swimming pool with its shimmering reflection of the cypress hedge, fragrant in the noon-day sun.
It was peaceful and very pleasant. There were no outward evidences of heartbreak or disillusionment anywhere around, yet this was the very first house where Bill and Carole spent their brief life together. I wondered just how deep the crashing of his romance went in his heart. He appeared to be the same suave and poised Mr. Powell.
I spoke of this, “the suave and poised. I was biding my time to speak of Carole.
“Ah, be sure and call me suave and polished! Add sophisticated, too! Every story about me dwells and dwells on these adjectives,” and he flashed a little boy grin, not in the least sophisticated.
“If you but knew what it cost me to attain these qualities!” He teased. “Believe me, they were laboriously cultivated through years of effort. As a boy in school just beginning to dream of a stage career I was handicapped by an inferiority complex. Tragic as this was, it urged me on to self-expression. I yearned to have poise, to be suave above all else in the world, and in my determination to become an actor I forced myself to assume the mannerisms and characteristics of other people. I play-acted to myself, continually.
“Ten years on the stage helped. Then came pictures, and how I’ve enjoyed them. In my first film, ‘The Bright Shawl,’ I met Richard Barthelmess, and we have been great friends ever since. In my second, ‘Ramona’, I met Ronald Colman, who proved another true pal.”
I asked him how he kept fit—aside from a careful diet, for watching him at luncheon I’m sure he counts his calories. His reply is characteristic.
“It’s easier to keep from annexing the fatal ‘bay window,’ and jowls, than to lose them. So every day I look intently to the swimming pool. I think a lot about tennis, and talk a dandy game of golf. But, really, I keep fit by worrying. Sophisticated—poised—suave! Good Lord! Why, any little thing can upset me. I’m a very fine worrier and it makes me lose weight. I’m fittest when I’m lean. So there you are!”
Walking out into the garden I thought again of Carole. Everyone knows that Bill was madly in love with her. Yet in two years the marriage ended. Their divorce was one of those friendly affairs and they continue to go about together, being very comradey.
When I finally spoke of Carole, his reply was casual. He lives in an atmosphere of social poise, of cultivated sophistication where real feelings are kept out of sight.
“We all generalize, talk platitudes,” he said. “None of us speaks freely of vital things. Our ‘big moments’ are lived within ourselves and—alone. We don’t trot them out on parade. It just isn’t done.
“Life is built of experiences and no one ever really learns. A child burns his fingers in the fire and vows he’ll never do it again. But he does. He goes right on burning his fingers all through life.
“I don’t know what my future holds. I’m not making any wild assertions. I may marry again. I may not. You know, just having married and divorced doesn’t change me as a man. Perhaps I’m still susceptible to feminine charm!
“We all need women in our lives. They are the incentive for every man’s ambitions and achievements. When we are around twenty-five we can tell you all about the fair sex. But the older we become the less we know about them. All women are charming, lovely!”
Right now Bill Powell is more interest in his screen work than ever before, having recently set out on a free-lance adventure after being under studio contract for years. He feels this course will bring him more suitable roles. Already he has made “Manhattan Melodrama,” with Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, and “The Thin Man,” from Dashiell Hamett’s story. He has enough excellent parts lined up to keep him busy for more than a year. At that time, he rather wistfully suggested, he would like a real vacation in Southern France.
While our chat had been more or less serious, Powell has an engaging humor that seldom finds place on the screen. This is a loss. Perhaps in some of his new films he will be given a chance to lighten his sophisticated characterizations with his gift of wit that is so adroit and so effervescent. I think that facet of Powell’s character would appeal to the public.
Bill’s final works, as he stepped into his car to dash over to the studio, were, “I sincerely hope I shall make many more pictures with Kay Francis. It is such fun to work with her and also, a great satisfaction. You see, we speak the same language.”
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