JUST THREE YEARS
By Leonard Hall
Originally appeared in the October 1932 issue of Photoplay magazine.
Two scenes from the life of a clear-eyed, long-legged girl named Kay Francis—in which the whole comedy-drama of a Hollywood career will be unfolded.
IT’S mid-May of 1929 in Hollywood, and Hall is on the prowl.
I’ve seen that pioneer talkie, “Gentlemen of the Press,” in which Walter Huston is featured as the managing editor whose heart breaks while the presses rumble. But what catches my rheumy eye is a tall, grave-eyed and very beautiful girl named Kay Francis.
“Here,” I mutter through my long, gray muff, “is a child who is going fast and far in these new-fangled talking pictures.”
I decide, then and there, that I want my obituary to wind up “in addition to being a brilliant editor, writer and critic, the late Hall was noted as the journalistic discoverer of Kay Francis, screen star.”
So, deported to Hollywood by the boss, I wangle an appointment with this Francis child, and chug Kayward through a lovely Spring afternoon.
Over glasses of celery tonic, we talk—this tall, clear-eyed Francis girl and I.
She’s just another exile from the world of the New York stage, I find. She’s lonely, rattling around in a rented house in a strange tropical town where bird-songs batter her ear-drums and she is smothered by the scent of posies.
She’s working day and night at Paramount, she tells me—laboring as the menace in some now-forgotten circus monstrosity of a picture starring Clara Bow. She knows few people, and sees them seldom—Hollywood is still a mystery—she doesn’t know a yucca from a mimosa, and is too tired to care much.
“But you do like pictures,” I say, after another tug at the tonic.
“Of course I do,” she says, stabbing me to the gizzard with those magnificent optics. “I want to graduate, eventually, from these siren things and play sophisticated leads—the Katherine Cornell type of part.”
“Lady,” I answer, “I’ll bet my new red boots with the copper-toes that whatever you want out of this racket, you’ll get.”
And I meant it. With that I claps on my ten-year panama, shakes hands with the lady, and walks four mils out of my way, kerflummuxed by Kay Francis’ beauty, keenness and charm.
In due course an ecstatic piece appears in these inspired pages. It hails Kay Francis as the first great siren of talking pictures, and prophesies, with a dash of second-sight, that she will become one of the greatest figures in the new medium.
And that’s that. The months and years roll on.
And as I trundle along in my own little rut, I follow Kay’s career with joy, as she forges forward in fame and fortune. Warners buys her away from Paramount—her name flashes in lights on a thousand Broadways—her parts and her bank account swell handsomely. I’m very happy, as I think of that serious, beautiful girl who has blasted a great career out of a rocky new world.
And I don’t clap an eye on her, in the flesh, for three years.
IT’S the summer of 1932. Through a New York that is puffing and perspiring, Hall—older, grayer and crazier—is still on the prowl.
I slink into the Hotel Elysee—a small side-street tavern that is a favorite Gotham hideaway of picture people—and am announced to Miss Kay Francis, there stopping on a brief parole from the slave-galleys of the film colony.
I punch the doorbell of her sweet. The door is opened by Kay’s delightful husband, Kenneth MacKenna—himself an actor of tremendous charm and horse-power.
And here’s Kay, the star—a smiling welcome, hand outstretched.
I take it with vim, and appraise the situation.
And I think of the lonely girl trying to catch a spot of the rest in the new world of 1929.
The doorbell is ringing like a xylophone—callers, cracked ice, packages and pals. MacKenna leaps from phone to door with all the agility of an adagio dancer, while Kay holds court.
Mr. Clifton Webb, the noted dancing comedian, tail-coat type, is sitting on a sofa talking fourteen to the dozen. A girl friend of New York days, with whom, Kay has just had an enthusiastic reunion, is pushing Webb closely for first place.
Celery tonic—this time in a pitcher frequently replenished by MacKenna—splashes about. The room is a bedlam of bells, conversation and cries of “MY DEAR!”
Kay, it appears, has acquired a tough case of “rheumatic sore throat”—a new trick to me, and certainly not one coveted by a picture star whose living depends on her talk-box.
She and Webb discuss it.
“It started in my pharynx,” she says, “and then it got into the larynx.”
“My dear,” says Webb, “I know. I’ve had it. You’re lucky if it doesn’t get into your trachea!”
“It’s quite a bother.”
“It’s caused by acidity,” offers Webb. “You mustn’t eat any red meat.”
“All she eats is red meat,” remarks MacKenna, between phone calls.
“Why don’t you all come swimming?” suggests an unidentified man who has been looking for an opening.
“Sorry, we can’t,” says Kay. “A lot of friends are coming for dinner. And besides—my throat.”
AND so it goes. I quietly sit in my corner, feeling as though I were in the middle of a Kansas twister, and going up in the air with hencoops and silos.
“I liked that piece you wrote about me three years ago,” says Kay to me.
“I’m glad you did,” says I. “It was a pleasure to see you.”
“Do you want to go into the other room and talk a few minutes?”
“No,” says I, “let’s just sit here. I’m getting a good story this way.”
She looks at me quizzically, wondering what is going on inside my thick skull.
Finally I rise to go.
“Goodbye, Kay—thanks for the visit,” I say. “And take care of the throat.”
“Goodbye,” she answers. The rest of the crowd chatters on. A word of ta-ta to MacKenna, and the door closes on the steady thunder of small talk, dotted, with ringing bells.
Kay Francis, 1932 model. Still lovely, much more sure of herself, still with wide, frank eyes—and with the shining veneer of hardness with which Hollywood coats its hectic, successful children.
HEIGHO—Kay’s a star now. She lives in the midst of madness, which is one of the wages of fame and fortune.
As I go down in the elevator and sneak past the supercilious doorman into the sweltering street, I wonder how she feels about it all.
And can you understand why my mind did a running broad jump over three long years—to a lonely, vivid and very beautiful girl, ambitious and determined, fighting her way forward in a strange new land?
It seems to me that in these two little pictures I’ve tried to draw will be found all the laughter, cheers, and tears that the life of filmdom holds!