KAY FRANCIS FIGHTS FOR HER GLAMOUR
By Norman Payne.
Originally appeared in Pictuegoer Weekly
June 25, 1938.
CAN a Hollywood glamour queen play “mother”? Without losing her glamour I mean. We all know she may play fathers as she likes—play them for all they’ve got as you may say—without losing an inch in moral stature out of Hollywood way. But the moment she becomes, one the screen, an ordinary common or garden mother, she drops in Hollywood’s estimation from the realm of sex and beauty to the basement level of shop-spoiled goods.
You may feel like picking a quarrel about all this, but if you do, pick it with Hollywood and not me. I know how I feel about mothers who feed their families, work cheerfully in their own homes and mind their own business. I can’t think if it Hollywood considers them rather too ordinary to be glamorous, or even interesting. I wouldn’t have brought up the matter at all, but for the fact that it places, right up on the table, a nice little Hollywood problem story. You out to know about it. Especially if you like Kay Francis.
For Kay Francis is fighting a silent bloodless battle against the political tyranny of Hollywood. She is striving bravely to retain her glamour and play a screen “mother” at one and the same time. Oh, I know quite well that she has been a film mother before. Several times in fact.
But she hasn’t been a kind of middle-aged grass-widow with four huge children. Especially in what Hollywood calls a “B” picture. When the Hollywood producers label a picture “a ‘B’ effort” they aren’t being even in the mildest bit blasphemous, although it often seems to amount to the same thing. They merely admit that it is not a film of the tip-top class in the sense of cost.
Sometimes—frequently, in fact—they happen to discover after the picture has been made that it is much better than one which cost them four times as much. At such times they cough uneasily, reach out for the cuspidor and the telephone. The phone is to tell their publicity departments to spend more money putting over the expensive film, and “pipe down” on the “B” picture in case the wrong one succeeds most at the box offices!
However, that is getting into Hollywood politics; deeply I mean. Actually we have to uncover a few political irons to get to our story which is interesting enough as an example of what can happen in the mad scramble for film fame and fortune.
It has never been settled which came first, the chicken or the egg. Neither has anyone ever proved whether film stars came as a result of good screen plays or good screen plays as a logical result of film stars.
On this reckoning, who can say whether Kay Francis first flashed to fame on the strength of a good screen yarn, or whether the actress which is undoubtedly in her, made the public fall for her until she passed from a $100 a week actress to a $850 a week star [webmaster’s note: this was a 1938 British magazine; those figures are in pounds, not American dollars].
Kay thinks it is a safe bet that whether or not a star is made famous by any particularly lucky performance in any specifically suitable story, if she is to remain famous she has to get a fair sprinkling of good roles in reasonably credible stories. That was the jagged rock of contention upon which she came to grips with the Warner Brothers. She began to struggle so hard that she toppled off that same rock into rather dangerous waters. How she will come out—or whether she will—remains to be seen.
Over a year ago Kay told me over tea one day that she would feel happier if Jack Warner would permit her occasionally to go to some other studio to make a film. “I have been here at this Warner studio so long I must have gotten into people’s hair. It works this way, you know. After a while a kind of personal machine builds itself around a star limited to working in only one studio. Largely the same writers work on her scripts; the same handful of director are assigned to her films; the same “front office” conditions bear on each film she makes and even the same designers do her gowns. She is apt to become a ‘stock’ property. There is less opportunity for her to break new ground occasionally and that I what any star has to do if she is to keep on year after year.
“I got a spell of suffering mother roles until I was driven almost mad. But the studio people said ‘this is the kind of stuff the public wants from you, Kay; look at the returns from the box offices.’ Well, I argued that a change would send those figures still higher. Even if it was me the public so kindly went to see, there was a limit to the number of times a certain type of story or motif could be repeated.”
That was the way Kay felt about things.
Warners, on the other hand, said: “We are not going to loan Kay Francis to any other studios. We have made her what she is and we pay her one of the top most salaries any Hollywood star ever got. Why should we ‘cut in’ any other producer on our profits? Kay Francis is our A1 star and she will appear in only our own productions.”
Just when the Warners came to the conclusion that Miss Francis could no longer be fairly described as their “A1” star, no one in Hollywood seems quite sure, but it is not secret history that just over a year ago she began to rail furiously against the stories the studio was giving her.
Such pictures such as I Found Stella Parish hadn’t kept up the merry tinkle at the box office, said the Warner executive [webmaster’s note: Stella Parish did poorly abroad, but was a massive success in the US, which prompted Jack Warner to give her a raise before her old contract even expired]. To which Kay was apt to reply, “Do you wonder?” Perhaps you agree with her. But then no sustained improvement followed. The Kay Francis picture began gradually to lack the startling dramatic quality it had always had when she first emblazoned her name among the leading glamour stars of Hollywood. Another Dawn was just another story; Confession, a poor imitation of something once acclaimed as the great screen-play Mazurka.
By the time First Lady arrived and Kay was shown as only Americans can be, statuesque and chipper in high social circles, just like a Park Lane mannequin who suddenly had become wife of the President of the U.S.A., we began to feel certain something had gone seriously wrong somewhere. Though it was a change to see Kay Francis as a chatty, wisecracking society dressmodel—that’s really all she was although her husband was supposed to really be in the running for Presidency—we began to feel in sympathy with Kay herself when she had said, “this is a devilish lot worse than playing sob stuff.”
Kay grew daily more and more bitterly opposed to starring in expensive disappointments.
The Warner Brothers argued it was not their fault if her films were not as good as they used to be.
Kay replied that it certainly wasn’t her fault, either.
Somewhere a doubt crept in.
Suddenly the Warner Brothers announced that Kay Francis would star in a couple or three “B” class films.
Hollywood was stunned. What at 4,000 dollars a week? Doing the kind of story usually gave to a young actress waiting to be stars and drawing perhaps less than 400 dollars a week? What the dickens? Would Kay Francis stand for that? Wouldn’t she most likely walk out on the Warner Brothers? Hollywood held its breath.
Then the miracle happened. Flame scorched dynamite but there was no explosion!
Kay Francis who through the years of her fattest Hollywood success has not earned the reputation of being one of the easiest stars to get along with, was as docile as a child.
She had never been especially temperamental but she hadn’t been too ready to see the Press; she had a trace of that Garbo habit about her. Now she was changed. She received the Press with open arms. And when she talked to the film writers she said not one single word against this new Warner idea that she should star in cheap films. When the news went round Hollywood that her first “B” class role would introduce her as a mother with a daughter almost old enough to be married, and several other children besides, people wise to the wonderful ways of filmtown gasped and said, “de-glamourising her, eh?” Kay didn’t turn a hair.
She announced that as and when her present contract is through—in September of this year—she will marry Count Erik Barnekow.
“After that,” she added, “I shall place career second to personal peace and happiness…where it belongs.”
Kay definitely has declared she will sign no new contract with Warners. It is a forgone conclusion that if she were to negotiate such a contract, she would not be offered her present salary over a long period unless Warners had plans once again to take her out of “B” class films and put her back among their avowed glamour stars.
But the fact that Kay will not again sign a long-term contract with Warners—nor probably with any other company—doesn’t mean she will carry out her threat to become “nothing but a good housewife.” She will sign up picture by picture, as when she can do so with a certain conviction that the story she is going to make will be as good for her career, as her cooking may well be for the Count. Hollywood may have its own peculiar standards by which to judge the virtues of womanhood. But Kay Francis, woman of the world, traveler, ex-political-secretary and glamour star, knows that the outside world—particularly the women of the outside world—often refuses to be bamboozled by publicity into accepting Hollywood standards.
Kay intends to show, not only that she can stand her ground and do her bit of acting just as well in a $30,000 picture as in one which costs $200,000, but that she can play a real woman—a family woman—and still keep her glamour.
One of the cheap films Warners have cause Kay to make is titled, tawdrily, The Secrets of an Actress. Hollywood said, “That’s a nasty title.” Kay said, “If I am an actress my secret will be revealed about next October.”
What is that secret? That she will, after all, retire every from the screen?
Or that she has designed a plan whereby to regain her place among the most highly paid and highly popular “glamour” women of Hollywood?
Is she going to prove to the world once and for all, that feminine beauty, grace and charm, said to be inherent in the glamour women, can survive motherhood and even the drudgery of the kitchen? As a bride for the fourth time, will Kay Francis prove that glamour is not made of the stuff women pack away with scented orange blossoms and brides dream about as part of a past and faded glory?