OKLAHOMA DEFIES BROADWAY
Picture Play Magazine, November 1930
A TREAT for numerologists, Kay Francis was born on Friday, January 13th, in the thirteenth month of her mother’s marriage. Just what this indicates I have no idea, but it is probably something very complicated. All that the layman can deduce is that the thirteen-ridden infant turned out rather well. Someone has obviously made a grave error in advancing the misfortune theory which tarnishes this number. If a combination of thirteens can produce—together, of course, with the usual requisite circumstance—a Kay Francis, then fie on your superstitions. (Cries of “Right-o!” and “Fie on your superstitions!” from myriad male throats.)
I pondered on the fallacy of numbers as we sat in her dressing room. There was Kay feeling slightly uncomfortable. She hasn’t yet acquired the movie capacity for “giving to her public” through the medium of the press.
“In theater,” she observes, “no one particularly cares where, when, how, or why you were born, what your favorite salad is, or your opinion on the Indian salt strike. And they don’t give a whoop about your sex life. You have one or you haven’t—it’s all the same to them. They have sex lives of their own and would be terribly bored by a recital of anyone else’s.”
When she arrived in Hollywood, via the Paramount studio, she was considerably disconcerted by the almost cynical curiosity manifested in picture players. In the midst of gathering her forces for a big scene, some eager-penned son or daughter of the press would rush up and demand her theories on career versus marriage.
“In the first place, I don’t theorize about marriage. It works or it doesn’t, depending only on the participants. In the second place, I never have theories of any kind when I’m about to go into a big moment for the camera and posterity. One idea at a time is all I can manage.”
She laughed. Most things are, for the matter, very funny to Kay. For which reason, it is almost impossible to annoy her. Even the confusion of studio mechanics doesn’t stile her humor. The possessor of steady nerves and a sense of keen amusement, she indulges in no displays of temperament. Thus making obvious one of the reasons why Hollywood’s resentment of stage recruits has dwindled.
But this is getting us nowhere. Miss Francis was born in Oklahoma City on and notwithstanding the date previously mentioned, thus proving that looking like a sketch in Vogue has little to do with Park Avenue. Her mother was Katherine Clinton, an actress of note who gave up her career after marrying Kay’s father. When Kay was a year old, her family moved to Santa Barbara, later to Los Angeles, then to Denver.
When the pride of Paramount’s dress designers was four years of age, her mother took to New York. There Miss Clinton returned to the stage and Kay began a school career which included convents in Fort Lee, New York, Garden City, and Massachusetts, and concluded at Miss Fuller’s School for Young Ladies at Ossining. After this educational orgy, Kay drew a deep breath and faced the world.
Having too much energy for leisure, she looked about for something to do.
“I hadn’t been especially interested in the stage, but since that was my mother’s profession it natural occurred to me as first choice. Mother, however, discouraged it. Parents who are of the theater are always aghast at the possibility of their offspring contracting the virus. They themselves will never definitely leave the stage, but they try to guard their children from becoming drugged with the same love of it, to the extent of cheerfully enduring all the hard work and disappointments that go with it. But if the theater is in your blood, the precautions seldom work.
“Mother was too sensible a person to forbid my going on the stage. But she advised against it and I respected her judgement. So after looking around for something else to do, I decided on a business career, of all things.”
Enrolling in a secretarial school, she studied shorthand and type-writing and emerged, at the end of the course, a completely different secretary for some lucky financer. And immediately, with blithe inconsistency, she abandoned all thoughts of typewriters and such and went to Europe! There Kay wandered aimlessly around Francis, Holland, and England.
“It was an awfully rough crossing and the third day out I was the only woman on deck. Sitting in the rain and wind on the top deck, I had a sudden feeling of tremendous self-confidence. I felt very indomitable. All I could think of to decide about was a career. So I determined to make good. And at nothing so simple as stenography. Mother had impressed me with the difficulties and travail of the theater. That would be the real triumph, I thought. It was the stage or nothing, from then on.”
As soon as Kay landed, she announced the momentous decision. Her mother resignedly agreed that if she must, she must—but it would be without the unfair advantage of parental aid and influence. And it was quite on her own that Kay—then Katherine—a few weeks later obtained the part of the Player Queen in a modern dress version of “Hamlet.”
The tall, dark, inviting-looking young player queen was considerably talked about on Broadway. But Kay, who has a head on her shoulders which no amount of pleasantry can inflate, wanted to make sure. When “Hamlet” closed, she joined Stuart Walker’s stock company and served a rigid apprenticeship in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Dayton, after which she returned to New York. Opposite Chester Morris in “Crime,” and Walter Huston in “Elmer the Great,” Kay Francis was a name of importance around Times Square. And national fame, as an adjustment to movies, was imminent.
John Meehan, who had directed Kay on the stage, was codirecting with Millard Webb, Paramount’s “Gentlemen of the Press.” Meehan and Walter Huston, who was the star of the piece, determined that Kay should crash pictures by means of the sirenic heavy of this picture. Kay was equally determined that she shouldn’t.
“The very thought of movies scared me off. D.W. Griffith had made a test of me three years before and it was a notable fiasco. I was convinced that the screen was not for me, and I tried to forget it.”
Meehan and Huston, however, made life miserable until she satisfied them by going over to the Paramount studio for a test. This one turned out differently and gave her the added advantage of being audible. Less nervous of the camera now that she could use her voice and with the promised association of a director and star with whom she loved to work, Kay signed the little scrap piece of paper.
Following “Gentlemen of the Press” and the Marx Brothers’ “Cocoanuts,” Miss Francis was signed to a Paramount contract and shipped to Hollywood. She had, at the time of writing, just finished “Raffles” with Ronald Colman, having been borrowed by United Artists for this picture.
In the recent “For the Defense,” with William Powell, and in the Colman opus, she was given her best cinematic opportunities so far. Playing a heavy in her first film threatened, in the way of movies, to doom her to a succession of villainous roles.
“What I’d like to do,” she said, “is women of the sort of type Katharine Cornell plays. They are living, breathing people women whose very vitality makes them dramatically interesting. When you get such characters to analyze and project, then you really know why you insisted on turning actress.”
Asked if she had made this quite reasonable suggestion for herself to the studio, Kay made vigorous denial.
“I’m no fixture yet. Give them time to find out whether or not I am a potential flop. Doing a few plays doesn’t necessarily qualify me for pictures. I’m still learning the trade.”
If you asked me—and please do—I think she already knows it rather well. A good trouper, whether lighted by footlights or by Kleigs. Kay’s performance in “Street of Chance” was authoritative and sensitive, and in “Raffles” she comes fully into her own.
“No one could give really a bad performance in a Colman picture,” she said. “He is so delightful to work with that the whole company is keyed up to him. Although I did attempt to demolish him one day, poor dear. I had on a very elegant gown, with train, and was ready to make an entrance. I swept in, feeling quite effective—and tripped over a rug and fell headlong, bringing Ronnie and a couple of chairs down with me. Francis, the human butterfly!”
Even the publicity departments, that most hard-boiled studio element, adore Kay Francis. And this, in spite of the major difficulty she gives them in the matter of information. Nonpulsed by the ten-page form she was requested to full out with her likes, dis likes, waist measurement, etcetera, she blithely coped the answers put down by the star sitting next to her on the set. When asked her opinion on screen kisses, she tells the p.d. to make up an opinion for her and anything they say will be all right.
“Hobbies seem to be terribly important. And I haven’t any. I have a dog and a cat and a canary and a goldfish, but they aren’t hobbies. But I suppose, sooner or later, I’ll be caught in a weak moment and they’ll run up a picture of Miss Francis, that irrepressible child of nature, romping among her goldfish.”
She wears clothes like no one else along our Boulevard, drives a Ford coupe, calls her Scottish terrier Snifter, because he is a snifter of Scotch, has been married but isn’t now, likes California, because it is a good place to work and is near Honolulu, is punctual for appointments, and she is altogether a most ingratiating person.