With Ruth Chatterton as director, and Patsy Ruth Miller on board for the production of Windy Hill, Kay Francis had made her triumphant return to the stage on September 20, 1945 (CR). Reviews and public response were largely positive, but Kay was forced back to Hollywood because of her Monogram contract. Now free from Hollywood, Kay Francis decided to set her sights on returning to the stage and leaving her film career behind for good. A year later, she made her first appearance in State of the Union on September 2, 1946 at the Hudson Theatre in New York. Reviews for the production were some of the best Kay ever received, and the play was so popular it ran for 765 performances (CR).
For her next two projects, Kay dusted off two old hats: Frederick Lonsdale’s The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and Rachel Crothers’ Let Us Be Gay. Fay Kanin’s Goodbye, My Fancy followed. The popular success of all three shows gave her the idea that her work in a new play, George Oppenheimer’s Mirror, Mirror, would garner her the opportunity to return to Broadway (BF). Unfortunately, a critical backlash and lack of public response killed the deal. Mirror, Mirror was the only Kay Francis play to flop with audiences. She revived herself with a healthy run in Somerset Maugham’s Theatre, which toured for over two years until Kay’s last appearance on August 9, 1954. Ironically, on that night Kay did something she had never done before, she ended the play by getting off the stage and greeting her audience in the isles, after which she walked out of the lobby (PL).
Kay Francis’ career came to an end unintentionally that night. By the time her next intriguing offer came about, it was too late. She was offered the opportunity to play Lana Turner’s mother in Madame X (1966), but turned the part down because she was terminally ill with the cancer that would ultimately end her life. After her years as an actress, Kay did some traveling but mainly entertained a small group of friends and kept to herself. The death of her mother on January 29, 1957 severed her last tie to a family connection. Anna Weissberger, the mother of Kay’s attorney, looked after her in her later years while Kay’s romance with Theatre costar Dennis Allan hit the rocks.
Decades of heavy smoking and drinking eventually took its toll on Kay’s health. She lived in an era where people literally drank and smoked themselves to death. By the mid 1960s, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Ruth Chatterton, Marion Davies had passed on while Joan Crawford and Bette Davis took work in low-budget horror flicks and Norma Shearer remained a distant memory of the past. It must have been frightening to have out-lived her own era. As biographers Lynn Kear and John Rossman pointed out in their Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, Kay’s world was in art deco surroundings while gowned in a breath-taking Orry-Kelly creation. To think of her in the turbulent 1960’s is almost impossible.
Kay Francis died on April 26, 1968 in her New York apartment. Her seven page will left bequests to twelve people, while the majority of her nearly two-million dollar estate was left to The Seeing Eye of Morristown, New Jersey.
After her death, Kay’s legacy became virtually forgotten. Historians wrote her Paramount work off as unimportant, considered her Warner Bros. movies sheer run of the mill glam dramas, and dismissed her freelance material (particularly her stint at Monogram) as an embarrassing end to an uneventful career. But after decades of being ignored by critics and the general public, Kay Francis reemerged in the 1990s; her popularity growing rapidly ever since.
The launching of Turner Classic Movies in 1994 helped resurrect the work of many forgotten or misinterpreted stars. Almost overnight Kay Francis took on a new importance in classic cinema. She was back to being considered Warner Bros. most important asset from 1932 until 1938, while the overrated Bette Davis was put back in her place. Kay’s freelance work, especially In Name Only (1939) and Allotment Wives (1945), was rediscovered as more entertaining than the melodramas she made at the peak of her success as a box office champ.
In 2006 two biographies, Scott O’Brien’s Kay Francis: I Can’t Wait to be Forgotten and Lynn Kear and John Rossman’s Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, were released. Two years later, Kear and Rossman put together the definitive Kay Francis reference book, The Complete Kay Francis Career Record. In September of 2008, Kay was Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month.
Maybe her legacy was never as forgotten as people assumed. Whatever the case, despite a lack of color, high definition, or crisp sound, the films of Kay Francis remain some of the most intriguing movies ever made because of her combination of unique beauty, throaty voice, aloof personality, and, above all, intelligence to overcome any obstacle handed to her.
Kay Francis lives.
—Michael O’Hanlon, August 26, 2008
(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, 2006, McFarland.
(PL): Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, Kear & Rossman, 2008, McFarland.