According to her suit, Warner Bros. had placed Kay in roles “of inferior quality and had posted her name in a special inter-studio register which kept other studios from bidding for her services” (BF). Kay’s lawyers requested that her contract be terminated immediately. Whatever happened behind closed doors must have irritated Kay Francis so much to the point where she suddenly changed her mind. Her decision was now to stay at the studio and fight for her $5,200 weekly salary while finishing out her contract in B pictures. After much attention in the press, a settlement was officially announced in December.
“Out of the blue, it was announced [Kay] would complete her contract in B pictures!” Bette Davis remembered (BF). “…and no reason was ever given. A huge embarrassment for such a star–she had many, many fans.”
The Carole Lombard role in Twentieth Century (1934) had been written with Kay in mind (BF). The Mary Astor role in Dodsworth (1936) was originally offered to Kay (RC). George Cukor and David O. Selznick met with Kay August 30, 1936 about her casting in the Scarlett O’Hara role in Gone with the Wind (1939, PL). On all three occasions Warner Bros. had denied permission to loan Kay out and in return had given her less than stellar assignments. For years, Jack and Harry pleased Kay with financial rewards over artistic opportunities. By now that decision from both parties had taken its toll on Kay’s popularity with moviegoers. She was no longer the top name at the studio, and with Bette Davis gaining more popularity and critical acclaim, Kay accepted the situation with her usual grace. If she was going to have to finish out her contract in B programmers, at least she could do it while collecting one of Hollywood’s highest salaries.
But the battle she faced with the studio remained a dark memory that would follow Kay Francis for the rest of her life.
Women Are Like That (1938) started production on August 29, 1937, and, while the filming took place during Kay’s suit with Warner Bros., it can easily be considered her first screen ‘punishment’ from the studio. Despite her good chemistry with Pat O’Brien, the film was one of the worst of Kay’s career. Variety considered the movie “another disappointment for Kay Francis” (CR). My Bill (1938) followed. Although the film was the first of the B movies she would finish her contract with, it turned into an unexpected hit with audiences. (In fact, the film was so popular Kay did an adaptation of the material for the Hollywood Hotel radio program later that year and again in 1941 on Cecil B. DeMille’s Lux Radio Theatre.) A critic for the San Francisco Chronicle reported:
If Warner Bros. forced Kay Francis to play a middle-aged mother of four adolescents in My Bill in an effort to discipline her, their plan has boomeranged laughably. The picture, previewed a few nights ago, is a triumph rather than a humiliation, for Kay.
While describing My Bill as a “triumph” might overdoing it just a bit much, Kay certainly had done worse. Of her B movies she completed for Warners in 1938 it was her most profitable (see the box office page for listings).
As 1938 began, the public saw a major transformation in the presentation of Kay Francis from Warner Bros. Originally, Kay, Miriam Hopkins, and Jane Bryan were announced for the leads in The Sisters (BF). All Rights Reserved was to be another teaming of Kay and Errol Flynn (BF). Most importantly, the rights to Dark Victory had been negotiated for Kay in January of 1938 (SAB). Both The Sisters and Dark Victory were handed to Bette Davis, while All Rights Reserved never materialized. Instead, Kay was announced as a supporting player in the latest Boris Karloff vehicle, Devil Island (BF). Fortunately for Kay, the project never materialized. She found herself legitimately cast in Secrets of an Actress (1938), which was only notable because it was her last onscreen paring with George Brent, but most critics agreed the film was empty.
Amidst her professional headaches, Kay found time for a new lover. She first met Baron Raven Erik Barnekow on October 24, 1937 at one of Countess di Frasso’s parties. Erik was described by friends as a nobleman, aviator, inventor, stock broker, and businessman. According to legend, however, he was really a Nazi spy sent from Germany. In fact, Barnekow was really a deadbeat loser who milked Kay for her money and more than likely was a Nazi spy.
Her life at this point would have made one stellar melodrama, but her actual film material was getting worse and worse. Comet Over Broadway (1938) was a Bette Davis reject which is today considered to be so bad it’s actually good. Directed by musical legend Busby Berkley, New York Post film critic Irene Thirer thought, “When a Kay Francis production reaches the Palace for its New York premiere as the lesser portion on a double bill which features ‘Hard to Get,’ it’s a sorry state of affairs” (CR). Indeed it was. King of the Underworld (1939) was even worse. Costar Humphrey Bogart felt guilty for taking top billing over Kay (BF), while a New York Times critic wrote in his review of the film, “Miss Francis, once the glamour queen of the studio, gets a poor second billing.” Women in the Wind (1939), an unimportant drama about a female aviatrix, completed her contract with the studio.
At first, Kay Francis insisted on retiring from the screen when her Warner Bros. contract was finished. In fact, in an interview on the set of Women in the Wind, she made the facts quite clear:
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 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 (PL).
Her attitude towards the struggle made—and still make—many think of Kay Francis as a sellout. It didn’t help that her studio rival, Bette Davis, would become so remembered for being such a tough fighter. While many think of Davis was the hard-shelled, determined actress who fought for better roles, people began to think of Kay Francis as a movie glamour queen who only cared about a hefty salary because she lacked the real talent to stretch her career out after she’d hit the skids.
Though she did have intentions on retiring, Kay knew deep inside one good role could bring her back to the forefront. When RKO signed Kay Francis for the role of Maida Walker in In Name Only (1939), she had been unemployed for nearly six months. The film remains essential for several reasons. First of all, it’s the only real paring of Carole Lombard and Cary Grant in leading roles. Second, Kay receives equal billing to Lombard and Grant in the film and on all movie posters and advertisements, proving her popular status as late as 1939. Third, Kay’s excellent performance as the villainous wife nearly stole the film from her costars. And fourth, the film showcases her own determination to make it back to the top. Here she was on thin ice with her career virtually over while she was making her big screen comeback playing the evil villainous wife to the much loved Cary Grant (who played her husband) and Carole Lombard (who played the women Grant really loves). Her performance outshines anything she ever did, even her work in Trouble in Paradise (1932), and the reviews she earned were some of the best of her career.
After her triumphant comeback at RKO, Universal hired Kay for the part of Georgia Drake in It’s a Date (1940). Her character was the mother of Deanna Durbin’s Pamela, and although Kay was second billed to Durbin in the film, the Durbin pictures at Universal were some of the most popular in the country. The good exposure for Kay earned her some great reviews, particularly in Time, who thought that Kay’s character provided her with “her best part in many a long picture.” Universal kept Kay on their payroll for the opportunity to play opposite Randolph Scott in When the Daltons Rode (1940). Second billed to Scott, the cast also featured Broderick Crawford and George Bancroft, and was considered to be “straight, fast Western fare” by a critic for the New York Times. Kay Francis, it seemed, was on her way back to the top. But with her success in films back on the rise, her personal life bean to spiral out of control.
Kay’s relationship with Erik was anything but stable when England declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. Though she managed few calls here and here, Erik remained aloof when he returned to Germany on an American cargo ship. She spent the holidays with friends but was unable to enjoy the gatherings because of her depression. She cried while she decorated the Christmas tree with her mother. She cried through Christmas and the days following. And she remained sick in bed on New Years. As 1940 went on, Erik drifted out of Kay’s life for good. He had joined the German military soon after returning to Germany but was so emotionally traumatized by the circumstances that he shot himself in December of 1941. Though she never did find out exactly what happened to Erik, Kay accepted the circumstances and went on to have affairs with other men, though he heart still longed for the man she truly loved.
Upset in her personal life, Kay focused on her career and claimed to be thrilled as a freelance artist. “I believe that as a free-lance I can learn more about acting than if under a studio contract,” Kay told an interviewer. “I’m happier at it, for life takes on new interest. And the more we players free-lance, the better served the public will be” (PL). But the parts she was offered weren’t much better than Warner Bros. had. Though she was a top contender for The Rains Came (1939), the part went to Myrna Loy. In its place, Kay went to RKO and appeared in the second film version of the Louisa May Alcott favorite, Little Men (1940). Better received by the public than critics, a writer for the New York Times found the film “too obviously rigged for tears and laughs.” Play Girl (1941) was another film for RKO—this time on the low-budget scale, though the film gave Kay a chance to do some good light comedy. In fact, all of Kay’s releases of the year would be in a comedies. The Man Who Lost Himself (1941), made for Universal, was one of her better ones, which stands up today better than a lot of the fluff she was making back at Warner Bros.
Twentieth Century-Fox next employed Kay for the fourth film version of Brandon Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt (1941). One of the most successful movies of the year, the film placed eighth on the top grossing films of the year list (BF), and costar Jack Benny received a special Oscar at the 1942 Academy Awards Ceremony, the statue dressed in a skirt and smoking a cigar. The Feminine Touch (1941), made for Metro Goldwyn Mayer, featured a sort-of all-star cast, with Kay third billed to Rosalind Russell and Don Ameche. Today, Kay’s name being billed equivalent to that of Russell’s is proof of her star power as late as 1941. In fact, Kay’s popularity was such that Warner Bros. came knocking on her door for an appearance in Always in My Heart (1942). Kay accepted, but on her own terms. She demanded, and received, top billing and her hefty salary. The film was fluff used to promote Gloria Warren, a Warner Bros. answer to Deanna Durbin. Unfortunately for Warren, she never caught on with audiences and retired after only a few films. Universal then used Kay’s name to promote Diana Barrymore in Between Us Girls (1942).
The film was critical and commercial flop.
Like Myrna Loy, Kay Francis put her film work aside to focus on the World War. She volunteered at canteens, and began making appearances at bases all over the world. The first appearance was in July of 1942 in England with Mitzi Mayfair, Martha Raye, and Carole Landis. Excerpts of Landis’ diary, which chronicled the events the “Four Jills” witnessed, was published and materialized by Twentieth-Century Fox. With the success of Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) and Hollywood Canteen (1944) at Warner Bros., Fox decided to produce an all-star cameo extravaganza to capitalize on the interest of Hollywood and the World War. Landis, Mitzi Mayfair, Martha Raye, and Kay Francis (top billed) all starred in the fictionalized account of their journey. The film, titled Four Jills in a Jeep (1944), featured cameo appearances by Betty Grable and Alice Faye, among others. Previewing to mediocre reviews, the film was more popular with audiences.
When the War ended, Kay Francis was virtually unemployable in Hollywood. With her heyday long behind her, she next accepted an unusual offer from Monogram Pictures, one of the more notorious B studios for faded film stars. Monogram offered her the opportunity to star, top billed, and coproduce three projects. Her first feature for the studio was Divorce (1945). A preachy, cheaply produced drama about a home wrecker, the film costarred Bruce Cabot and was dismissed by The Daily News as “ridiculous.”
Kay’s second feature for Monogram, Allotment Wives (1945), is an unrecognized classic. The film is still a favorite among its admirers, and Kay’s performance is one of the best of her career. By the time she made the film, it was clear Kay had learned more about producing on a cheap budget. Costs were saved by improvising, and the storyline was easier to follow because of a more intriguing plot. At the time reviewers panned the movie, but critics today now recognize the film as a more interesting take on the Mildred Pierce (1945) success at Warner Bros. Actually, Allotment Wives makes it unfortunate that Kay didn’t go on to have success in film noir. She plays tougher and more realistic than Joan Crawford, with a physical appeal that’s much darker and deadly than Barbara Stanwyck’s. Her noir appeal was used again in Wife Wanted (1946), which turned out to be Kay’s last movie of her career. Again, the film today is considered so bad that its good, but it was a sad end to a career which could have gone in a completely different direction.
During the first few days on the Wife Wanted shoot, Kay received a telephone call from producer Leland Hayward. Ruth Hussey needed a replacement for her theatrical run in State of the Union, an offer which Kay graciously accepted. For the first time since In Name Only (1939), she found an offer she could really sink her teeth into. And an offer to return to the stage in a stellar Broadway comedy was far more appealing than the offer from Allied Artists to appear in a film version of Maurice Sandos’ The Maze.
(BF) Kay Francis: I Can’t Wait to Be Forgotten, Scott O’Brien, 2006, BearManor Media.
(CR) The Complete Kay Francis Career Record, Lynn Kear & John Rossman, 2008, McFarland.
(PL) Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, Kear & Rossman, 2006, McFarland.
(SAB) Stanwyck: A Biography, Axel Madsen, 1994, HarperPaperbacks.