Kay Francis Hears the East Calling



By Patricia Keats

Originally published in the January 1934 issue of Silver Screen

“On the road to Mandalay
where the flying fishes plu-ay—“

“Pipe down, you dope!” a voice roared right under my nose as I tip-toed onto a stage at the Warner Brother film factor.

Before I had time to go into a first class gasp of surprise with a dash of bitters, there was a discordant crashing piano chord and the contralto voice that been gaily caroling Kipling’s famous song, choked right in the middle of a good “plu-ay.”

I saw then that the irate assistant director (who do assistant directors always have to be so irate?) had his eyes directed towards a dim corner, where the legs of a grand piano poked around the edge of a piece of scenery–a bit of old waterfall left over from “Footlight Parade” I think.

“Lay off that piano! We’re shooting!” It was the assistant director again.

A smartly coiffed raven black head appeared out of the dimness and a very meek voice said, “So sorry.”

The assistant director’s eyes nearly popped out of his head and an expression of horror swept over his face. I thought surely he must be seeing Frankenstein—but no, it was only Kay Francis.

“Oh, Miss Francis, I-I-I didn’t know it was you,” he stuttered. “I’m—I’m awfully—“

“Forget it,” said Kay with a grin. “I’m used to being shushed when I break out in song. Why I’ve been shushed out of the best places in Hollywood.”

Contrite at having bawled out the star, the assistant director backed away—and into a nice fat Buddha—still apologizing, until the sound recorder dived out of his booth to tell Director Curtiz that he couldn’t be expected to catch dialogue if someone on the set was talking when the camera was on. And was the assistant director’s face red? And did I laugh? But it was all in the day’s work with Director Michael Curtiz, who continued philosophically on his way about making a box office best seller out of “Mandalay.” Curtiz has the reputation of being a director who takes his time—never hurries himself or his actors. The best crack about him was pulled by John Barrymore, who dropped in to see the Marathon dancers one night about the end of the endurance test, took a glance at the fairly stagnant couples and cracked, “Why they’re being directed by Curtiz.”

I never saw Kay so exotically charming as she was that day. She wore a glove-fitting silver gown that didn’t spare the details—and such interesting details.

“I’m supposed to be White Spot from a hot spot in Rangoon,” Kay explained. “I’m the principal reason why men leave home—and stay away. And this is supposed to be the most notorious night club in Rangoon,” she went on, pointing out the colorful Oriental motifs of a huge café set. “And regardez (webmaster’s note: this is how it appears in original text; I think it’s supposed to be “regarding”) the bar. Wouldn’t the Vendome like to have that little number for its next costume party?”

“Is it authentic?” I asked. With all the questions in the world to ask, why do I always pick out such stupid ones? I think it’s because when I was in school the idea was to ask the teacher so many questions that she wouldn’t get around to asking any of us.

“I don’t know about its authenticity,” Kay obliged. “I’ve never been in Rangoon. But shall I tell you about the time I was in Hoboken? No? Alright, then—look at that crooked stairway. They tell me that there’s one just like it in a famous Shanghai night club.”

I gazed in dismay at a flight of steps that rose steeply to a balcony on which several tables were placed. The steps were set at uneven intervals, which is an old Oriental custom I learned. And they looked pretty tough going if a person had to navigate them in a hurry. You’d have to do an old-fashioned schottische—one, two, three, hop—to obtain the best results.

Kay had to leave then to do a short scene in which she had to dance across the floor in the arms of Ricardo Cortez—which is a break for any girl, if you ask me. Ric is still one of the most sought after young men in Hollywood, though his attentions lately seem to have centered on a young society woman named Christine Lee. But only last year this time Ric and Joan Crawford were tangoing night after night at the Cocoanut Grove and the Gold Room—and what a fascinating couple they made on the dance floor. But let’s not belittle Kay. Slithering out there in the Cortez arms she made the Red Headed Woman look like a high school girl, and the Worst Woman in Paris like nothing so much as a rank amateur.

At the various tables around the dance floor were enough nationalities represented to start a new League of Nations. Cute little Chinese serving girls in yellow silk pajamas; Burmese ladies with their quaint hair dresses looking like shiny black onions perched atop their heads; Hindus, immaculate in occidental clothes, with their white turbans adding an incongruous touch; trim English subalterns in stiffly starched mess jackets, looking like a lot of Doug Jrs., and Bruce Cabots at the Grove; flashily dressed white girls of uncertain nationality representing the Rangoon demimonde. And on a small stage was a group of Burmese dancers posturing in time to the weird strains from a native orchestra. And when he Burmese posture they posture.

Warner Oland, clad in loose fitting white linens, crossed my range of vision.

“Aha, I see it all now,” I said. “Ricardo Cortez is the hero. Warner Oland is the crafty old villain who is setting the head vamp in this naughty dive on Roc’s trail. Ric probably has some important papers which they mean to get, or a rare old emerald worth millions that the Maharajah of Hotspot gave him for serving a dozen or so of his wives from drowning in the sacred pools. Plot number 6.” (I was mistaken. I discovered later that it was Plot number 7.)

“No, ma’am,” said Ric. “I’m no hero in this picture. I hero so rarely these days that I’m neglecting my profile. I’m the heavy again, worse luck. Just a soldier of fortune who sells the girl who loves him—Kay, of course—to Warner Oland for a shipload of guns he hopes to sell for fancy prices to the natives. Oland wants Kay for the head gal in his joint here. (Imagine swapping Kay for a lot of old guns—why Mr. Cortez must be mad.)

“You see,” Ric continued, “I’m an utterly bad villain. Later, I decide I want my girl back, and I follow her when she tries to go straight, an when she turns me down I commit suicide and make it look like murder, and she’s arrested and—“

“Wait a minute,” I shouted. “You’re breaking my heart. I want to get out before all that starts happening.”

“You don’t have to worry,” Kay assured me, freshening up her makeup for the next scene. “We go on location tomorrow and all the dirty work is done on a river boat up near Stockton, which, unfortunately, is over a night’s ride from Hollywood. We took some early scenes in the picture on Catalina Island—which also is a bit far for commuting. I wonder what the location chooser for this picture has against me.”

I found out Lyle Talbot had been chosen for the leading man in the picture. He plays a young doctor with an unsavory past who meets Kay on the river boat when she is trying to run away from Oland’s dive. The part had been originally intended for George Brent, but for some reason or other Talbot had been chosen to succeed him. Lyle had just gotten home from the hospital, after his terrible car accident, the day the studio called him, and although he was still pretty weak and shaken up he promised to take the plane for Stockton the next day. The old trouper instinct. The show must go on. But inasmuch as Lyle still has a gash on his head and his arm is in a sling the script writers had to get busy and do a little explaining for a battered up leading man in their story. Lyle and Kay did a swell job together in “Mary Stevens, M.D.”, so, personally, I’m darned glad Lyle has the part. He gets more and more popular in Hollywood everyday—and the nurses at the hospital reported that while he was there he received more wires, telephone calls and flowers from women than any young actor who had ever sniffled their chloroform. The Countess di Frasso’s flowers were very much in evidence.

A call for “Lights” and “Quiet” and Kay was back on the set again to do her “tripping” scene down the jerry-built stairway, and I’m here to tell you it was a real “trip.” Hollywood’s best dressed actress started down the steps, looking languidly toward the dance floor. One heel got caught in the train of her gown, and down she came, bumpity bump BUMP. And pride goeth before a fall.

“*-*-*-“ said Miss Francis.

Director, cameramen, assistants, extras, dancers, everyone, even I, rushed forward to help her.

“Hurt?” Director Curtiz asked solicitously.

“What do you think?” Kay groaned rubbing a tender spot. That same spot which has been so well featured in “The Bowery” and “The Fire Chief.”

But Kay refused to let a little thing like that make her call off work for the day. She really was considerably bruised, but as she remarked to me, “The bruises aren’t where they show.”

As if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day, right on top of Kay’s tumble, in walked Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson and a gang of Admirals, piloted by a Warner Brother. Now, whether the U.S. navy is going to continue to be dry or not, I don’t pretend to know. It’s been a long time since Secretary Daniels limited the navy’s grog to straight grape juice. At any rate I am sure Secretary eyes sparkled a bit when he spied the elaborate bar at the end of the café set. Kay must have noted the sparkle, too, for she led the distinguished visitors over to the bar and cordially invited them to have one on the house. There was a click of soles on brass.

But ah—their illusions regarding the movies must have been rudely shattered that day, for after one sip at their mint juleps, served in honor the Secretary, who is a Virginian, yas suh. I noticed they all sat down as if each and every one contained ginger ale—and shiver me timbers, they did.

The Sec and the Admirals were good scouts, though, and posed for pictures, and all of them tried to get as close to Kay as possible (but I don’t think she slipped her telephone number to any of them), and the photographers had a field day.

When the last gold braid had disappeared I again sought out Kay and demanded to know the finish of “Mandalay.” After all, there was just a chance that it might not be Plot number 7. There was a slight suggestion of Plot number 9.

“After you fall in love with Lyle Talbot, the renegade doctor, and have fought off the villainous Cortez, and he has committed suicide and made it look like murder, and you get arrested—then what? I asked.

“If you want to know how I get out of that mess and at least get around to a happy ending, you’ll have to wait until you see the picture on the screen. It’s much too good a story to spoil for you.”

Which I call a mean trick on a trusting gal—and now I’ve got to wait a month to see whether its Plot number 7 or 9. But from what I saw of the glamourous Kay, no matter what the plot is, I wouldn’t miss seeing that picture. I’ve never seen Kay more fascinating and enticing, and if the men don’t go for her in a big way in her role of “White Spot” I’m going to quit guessing.


Webmaster’s notes: Cortez doesn’t commit suicide in the movie, Kay poisons him. Her character’s nickname is “Spot White”—not “White Spot.”

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