LUCKY THIRTEEN Kay Francis believes in this number—and you can’t blame her, for it has played a big part in her meteoric career.
By Herbert Cruikshank.
Originally appeared in Modern Screen, November 1930.
Look at her again. The girl on the cover. The perfect oval of her face. The fathomless sea-grey eyes. Those provocative lips, with their prompt suggestion of the Mona Lisa. The keen, clean-cut contours of her figure. The poise. That truly regal bearing. Now close your eyes. Can’t you see her as—
A dainty, languorous, drawling daughter of the old South—the final perfect bloom evolved from a family tree deep-rooted in aristocracy through countless generations. Chivalry dueling for her favors…the scent of magnolia…a background of trysting-trees veiling romantic meetings with festooned Spanish moss.
Or imagine her the unattainable darling of a dozen D-Artagans. Gallants bending in adoration over slender finger-tips…slender blades flashing to whatever cause she lists.
Perhaps a princess persecuted…a queen deposed by an envious rabble…the last of a mighty dynasty…the scion of some ancient house tossed to the arms of Hollywood on the turbulent foam of the post-war maelstrom…a ruler of destinies…a mistress of men…maker—and breaker—of empires.
In whatever vivid pigment your imagination paints her, Kay Francis looks the part. Obviously the ages have harbored long to produce her perfection. Obviously, too, it was created to grace high places. Yet, as sometimes happens, fate, in a final moment of carelessness thwarted its own ends. For instead of being born in the palace of some royal line, Kay Francis made her debut in Oklahoma City. Yet, it was Friday, the thirteenth (webmaster’s note: Kay later said this wasn’t true).
YET she has a certain heritage. There was something of feudal holdness in the wanderings of old Grandfather Franks through the western wilderness. He wasn’t always old, and in his youth the boom-towns of the frontier were his familiar habitat. He married twice, and of the second wedding in his house was born a daughter, Katherine, who became Kay Francis’ mother.
With real romance dying, the girl turned to the world of make-believe for her adventuring, and as Katherine Clinton, gained some measure of fame as a player of parts in repertoire companies. Thirteen months after her marriage, a daughter, Katherine, came. The infant travelled through the West—California, Colorado—as the parents followed their nomadic life.
Still a very little girl, the young actress-mother put the child in school in the East, and from that time the future Kay Francis spent a dozen years in the convents of the Holy Angels at Fort Lee, New Jersey—and the Holy Child Jesus, in New York City. After these preliminaries she was “finished” at Miss Fuller’s School, at Ossining, and in the Cathedral School at Garden City.
ONE of the earliest recollections of the theatre dates back to a memorable evening, when, at the age of three, she sat in a box with a family friend, while her mother, then leading lady for the Daly Repertoire Company, enacted a tragic role upon the stage.
“Mother had to be shot just before the third act curtain,” reminisces the latest cinema sensation, “and when the big scene came, the audience was properly keyed up for it. The shot was fired. Mother cried out tragically. She staggered and fell while the slayer watched horrified at his deed, and the audience gripped its chair-arms.
“The atmosphere was stifling with silence and tenseness. Then I turned to the friend who was ‘minding’ me, and piped up, ‘don’t be frightened—mother’s not really dead—she’s only acting!’
“My childish voice carried everywhere in the theatre. The audience became hysterical with laughter. They had to ring down the curtain. The part I remember best is the spanking I received in the dressing room. After that episode I saw mother’s portrayals from the wings—not from out front.”
“Kay,” for so they called her, made her own bow in the theater not as a player, but as a playwright. Stewart—by name—she composed the class play at the Cathedral School. It was presented in 1921—and Kay was sixteen at the time.
BUT, almost literally born in the theater, it was not surprising that the youngster wished to follow in her mother’s footsteps. A life of one-night stands had destroyed much of the elder woman’s illusions regarding the stage as a career, and her objections to starting her daughter along that thorny path resulted in the abandonment of the theatrical ambition in favor of a New York business school course in stenography and tying. But the curly-ques of shorthand, and the unromantic repetition of “now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party” on one of Mr. Underwood’s machines didn’t quite fit in with Kay’s ideas of life.
In a final effort to keep her from the stage, the girl was sent abroad for an eight month’s tour of the isles and the continent. When, upon her return, she persisted in her determination, parental opposition was withdrawn—but no special assistance was forthcoming.
Her very best role was Shakespearian. Kay was the queen of the players in a modern “Hamlet.” Then she returned to the stamping grounds to familiar to her mother, and trouped through Cincinnati, Dayton, Indianapolis and “points West” with the Stuart Walker Company.
WHEN next she saw Broadway it was as a full-fledged thespian, and she managed to remain on the Big Street as a member of the cast in “Venus”—later in “Crime”—and finally with Walter Huston in “Elmer the Great.” Oddly enough, her next talkie, “The Virtuous Sin,” features Kay opposite this actor, and it was with him, too, that she made her movie debut in “Gentlemen of the Press.”
That picture was photographed in the Paramount New York studios, and at the time, director Millard Webb sought a blonde for the part. But the megaphone-man knew a discovery when he saw one, and he was too clever to pass up a bet like Kay Francis because she happened to be a brunette.
They do say that there was quite a romance building between Millard and Kay during those days on the Long Island lot. But the Webb preference for blondes finally asserted itself in his marriage to Mary Eaton. And even before this Paramount had signed Katherine Clinton’s little girl to a Hollywood contract. Westward she went, and three days after her arrival in the Santa Fe Railroad’s excuse for a station, she was playing in Clara Bow’s picture, “Dangerous Curves.”
Not even a Brooklyn Bonfire could overshadow the work of this glamorous newcomer. A half-dozen other roles followed in quick succession. And each of them was increasingly important. In a word, Kay Francis joined the ranks of those who come, and see, and conquer Hollywood. Not only did she acquire an immediate following with the fans, but she established herself in the good graces of the studio, and attained instant popularity in the first rank of cinema society. In fact, it wasn’t long before she and Ronald Colman became close friends. And when divorce made Ronnie Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor, it became necessary—or at least customary—for Kay to deny engagement rumors as “silly.” Nevertheless, Malibu says what a fine couple they’d make.
ON the screen Kay Francis has been a “dangerous woman.” Yet in life she is far from the popular conception of a siren. She has an easy, unruffled attitude, and is seldom shaken from her poise. She possesses a powerful personality, and the ability to control her emotions to an amazing degree.
She has oodles of temperament—but no temperamentality. There is a distinction. The girl is acutely sensitive and keenly alive to impressions. Decidedly high-strung, she keeps herself in utter control. Her energy is never wracking temperamental outbursts familiar to the studios. She is quick to perceive, and grasps t once a director’s idea of characterization. She doesn’t complain at any amount of labor necessary to get just the proper shading.
She is tolerant and friendly. Although she possesses a pungent and unfailing sense of humor, and has a hearty laugh, her fun is never unrestrained or boisterously hilarious. According to Bill Powell, she is most popular with discriminating men of a sensitive type, because, he says, she understands them. Perhaps that description fits Ronald Colman better than any other chap in the cinema city. Powell, by the way, is godfather to the Francis dog.
Kay has been termed “the best dressed woman in Hollywood,” a title that pleases her not at all, for she would willingly depart from all pretense of beauty or sartorial elegance to play a role with dramatic possibilities. In her new film she has abandoned the sleek, boyish pompadour style of hair-dress which is distinguished as a “Kay Francis bob,” for an ear-covering coiffure which terminates in a coil of hair at the back of her neck.
Her present maid has been with her for several years—evidence of an even disposition. She likes substantial foods, and is one of those fortunes who dares east as she pleases without fear of adding unwanted weight to her 115 pounds. Her perfume is a blend of several which she mixes herself, and from which she never departs. She shines as a hostess—yet doesn’t work at it perpetually—and doesn’t inflict herself upon her guests. She has a contralto voice which is especially pleasing. The studio helpers—prop men, electricians, and the rest—are all “for” her. To them, severest critics of the stars, she’s proven regular.
ONE of her few superstitions is that there’s luck in odd numbers, as Rory O’More is quoted in the poem. Thirteen has played its part in her life. From the date of her birth on the thirteenth day of the thirteenth month following her mother’s marriage, through the production of “Hamlet” where her name was thirteenth on the program, to her arrival in Hollywood and her first assignment to work on stage thirteen, the number has pursued her. Strangely, the number of her house is 8401, and her automobile license is 1-W—750. Both combinations total thirteen.
Following the thirteen thought—1930, the digits which add up to thirteen, has been a fortunate year for her. And in ’31—which is 13 reversed—you’re quite sure to see the girl on our cover a star in her own right. For Kay Francis is one of the brightest prospects to illumine the film firmament since the days when pictures were speechless.