Greeted at the train station by photographers and fanfare, a 24-year-old Kay Francis was hyped up by Paramount’s publicity department as a possible fashion rival to Constance Bennett and Lilyan Tashman. (PL) The competition didn’t seem easy at first. Kay later recalled:
When I first came out here, I was scared to death. I had heard how mean picture people could be to people on the stage. I hadn’t much self-confidence anyway. I didn’t know what to do about the camera. (PL)
Kay’s first assignment in Hollywood was Dangerous Curves (1929), a Clara Bow star vehicle that gave Kay a different opinion on Hollywood stars:
It’s wonderful how helpful Hollywood folks are. When I worked with Clara Bow, she was simply too grand. She said to me, “Now, Kay, I’m the star, so naturally they train the camera on me. But if you’ll cheat over just a little, you’ll get in it just right, too. You’ve got to keep that face in the camera you know, darling.” (PL)
In a review for the Washington Post, one critic thought that Kay’s performance in Dangerous Curves made her “the possessor of one of the most charming voices yet to come through the microphone and she shows signs of becoming the vampire supreme of the screen.” (CR) It was type-casting from there. Illusion (1929, with Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Nancy Carroll), The Marriage Playground (released that same year, with Fredric March and Lilyan Tashman), and Behind the Make-Up (1930, with William Powell and Fay Wray) all featured Kay as two-timing, manipulative, ice-cold vamps. Illusion exists only in soundtrack form (CR). It’s the only movie Kay Francis ever made which is now lost. (BF). Marriage Playground was Kay’s first teaming with Fredric March, and Behind the Make-Up was her first work with William Powell. With little over a year in Hollywood, Kay Francis was making big impressions with costars, directors, producers, and most importantly, critics and the general public.
Her new-found importance in Hollywood was rewarded when Paramount gave Kay her first real lead in Street of Chance (1930). Her second pairing with William Powell, Kay’s part as Powell’s sophisticated and sympathetic wife was a real departure for her. “Kay Francis,” wrote a critic for the London Times, “is terribly fetching and her acting gives a sympathetic touch to an unsympathetic character.” (CR)
Paramount solidified Kay as one of their most important stars with an expensive Technicolor appearance in their most prestigious movie of 1930, Paramount on Parade. Typical of the popular movie revues of that period, Paramount on Parade was a good exposure for Kay, and her appearance in “The Toreador” was the first and only time moviegoers would get the chance to see Kay in Technicolor. A Notorious Affair (1930) followed. Arguably Kay’s best performance until that point, her dark and scheming performance as the Russian Vamp stole the film from experienced costars Billie Dove and Basil Rathbone. One critic for the Los Angeles Evening Herald thought that Kay gave the “most disturbing portrayal since Hell’s Angels.” (BF)
For the Defense (1930) was Kay’s third pairing with William Powell. One of her better early films, she plays the wife of a corrupt lawyer (Powell) who avoids serving time in prison regarding her liability for a car accident which Powell pleads guilty for. Raffles (1930) was Kay’s second loan-out, this time to United Artists for the Samuel Goldwyn production. Really a Ronald Colman movie, Raffles offers Kay little to do but wear clever costumes, though she was second billed in a movie that was one of the top grossing films of that year. (BF) Let’s Go Native (1930) was proof that Paramount had little idea of what to do with Kay Francis. This time she’s fifth billed and walking through an odd pairing of Jack Oakie and Jeanette MacDonald in one of the most absurd musical comedies of that era.
She followed a minor appearance in a bad movie with a lead appearance in a good one. The Virtuous Sin (1930) was Kay’s second film pairing with Walter Huston and her first real starring role (although she is second billed). Clearly she had learned a great deal within her first year in movies, because she’s more comfortable in front of the camera than ever, with her acting more mature and refined. (During the shoot, Kay also began dating costar Kenneth MacKenna, who became her third husband a year later.) Passion Flower(1930) was Kay’s first top-billed appearance and her final film of that year. A forgettable one (with the exception of the stunning publicity stills of Kay taken by George Hurrell), it went unnoticed by critics and audiences of that time.
Kay solidified her position in Hollywood with a social life that included parties with Jessica and Richard Barthlemess, Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer, Rhea and Clark Gable, William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, Samuel Goldwyn, Jeanette MacDonald, and Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who later wrote of Kay:
I never had the privilege of working with Miss Francis in a film. I knew Kay and Kenneth socially in the early ‘30s. Kay was lovely and very popular. She brightened many social occasions with her sparkling charm and wit. I don’t think she ever warmed up to Hollywood. I think of her as a true bon vivant. (PL)
But Kay’s social life was not without scandal. Throughout her first year in Hollywood she reportedly had affairs with Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, and Gary Cooper, among others. (PL)
The New Year began with a marriage to Kenneth MacKenna on January 17. Around this time, Kay confided in her diary that she resented the intrusions of reporters. This need for her personal privacy became a major problem for her in the coming years.
Scandal Sheet (1931) was her first release of the New Year. Third billed, she appeared in few scenes in a role that really only allows her to wear nice costumes. Ladies’ Man (1931) was her fourth teaming with William Powell and first work alongside Carole Lombard. The Vice Squad (1931) was more unimportant junk from Paramount. The studio’s decision to put her in such a role most likely stemmed from her decision to reject a new contract offer. Kay Francis, along with Ruth Chatterton and William Powell, signed a deal with Warner Bros. the following year for a hefty increase in salary and the promise of new-found stardom.
While still at Paramount, RKO next bid on Kay’s services for Transgression (1931). A campy soap opera, the film revealed what would later become the ideal Kay Francis formula: tears, sin, fashion, and forgiveness by a wholesome man who ultimately loves her. MGM then received Kay for second billing in Lionel Barrymore’s Guilty Hands (1931). A murder mystery costarring Lionel Barrymore (who also directed it), this was probably one of her best films of that year.
Paramount ended Kay’s employment with four of the better movies she would ever make for the studio. 24 Hours (1931) might have given Kay limited camera time, but the finished product was an excellent dramatic film. Girls About Town (1931) was a clever Pre-Code romp about gold diggers directed by George Cukor. It’s arguably one of the best movies she ever made for Paramount, probably because of her great chemistry with costars Lilyan Tashman and Joel McCrea. The False Madonna (1932) might not have been Kay’s best, but it was a starring role from a studio that had only recently discovered her importance to them. Strangers in Love (1932) was Kay’s last work with Fredric March and one of her most charming pictures.
Soon after completion of Strangers in Love, Kay Francis packed her bags along with William Powell and Ruth Chatterton and headed on over to Burbank, California for employment at a new studio. This opportunity would allow her to emerge as one of Hollywood’s top box office attractions.
Text Citation Sources:
(BF): Kay Francis: I Can’t Wait to Be Forgotten, written by Scott O’Brien.
(CR): The Complete Kay Francis Career Record, by Lynn Lear and John Rossman.
(PL): Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, also by Kear & Rossman.