VAMPING WITH SOUND:
Regarding Kay Francis, the First Menace of the Talkies
By Leonard Hall
Originally appeared in the October 1929 issue of Photoplay.
NOT so long ago a long-legged, short-haired, frank-eyed girl stepped boldly upon a big sound stage at the Long Island studio of Paramount Pictures.
Her name was Kay Francis (Katherine for short), and for three brief years she had strutted upon the speaking stage. Never in her life had she stood unarmed before a snarling motion picture camera.
Director Millard Webb said, “One, two, three, go!” She went! The next day, two things had happened.
First, Kay Francis, as the snaky secretary in “Gentlemen of the Press,” had given one of the most astonishing performances in the history of motion pictures.
Second, she had appeared, in a blaze of glory, as the first great vamp of the audible pictures, using a type of male-killing technique that is perfection itself for the new form of entertainment.
Movies go and talkies come, but screen sirens must and will go on forever. Sound or silent, there is always a menace in skirts that must stand between the fine young hero and the sweet young heroine before the last reel.
The styles in screen vamping have changed with the times, hats and skirt lengths.
The old school of cinema siren, incarnate in Theda Bara, is no more. It’s rough and tumble, catch-as-can style of attack will never do for talking pictures, for its physical and vocal acrobatics would sound like a fox in a hen yard in the ears of the demon microphone.
The modern, up-to-date man-killer of the screen must be a far smoother and more seductive article. A come-hither look and a provocative rolling of the eyes and hips must do the work that the half-nelson and strangle hold performed in the dear old days.
AS the first great practitioner of this new school, as shown by her work in “Gentlemen of the Press,” Kay Francis stands alone.
Others will come, do their dirty deeds, and pass, but as the pioneer of the clan, Miss Francis will occupy a sizable place in this yet unwritten history of the talkies.
If you have already seen her first picture, you are acquainted with Kay’s methods. If you aren’t, here’s a brief explosion of vamping technique, 1929 model.
Instead of circling her male prey looking for punishing hold, she stands still, fixing the victim with a steady gaze that half repels, half commands. As she takes her stance close to the unhappy male, there is an air about her that said, “Well, you fool, take it or leave it,–but if you leave it you’re an idiot!”
Fascinated by the attitude of the siren and utterly undone by her compelling charm, the poor fellow has no more chance than a rabbit transfixed by the eye of a cobra. Unless he falls dead of heart failure, or the house is struck up by lightening, he is a gone coon.
KAY FRANCIS’ work in “Gentlemen of the Press” was great, not so much for what she did as for what she left undone. She made no passes at the unlucky Walter Huston—she merely exerted every cubic ounce of her fascination and let nature take its course. And so she stands forth as the forerunner of the perfect vamping technique for the talkies.
It didn’t take the smart talent at Paramount long to see what they had in Kay Francis when they looked at the rushes of her scenes.
The projection machine had hardly stopped whirring before they had her Jane Hancock on the dotted line of a long term contract. Before she caught her breath she was aboard a fast train bound for the Hollywood foundry of Paramount. Still gray with desert dust, she was hurtled into the latest Clara Bow Production, “Dangerous Curves,” and what she did to the unsuspecting Dick Arlen, in that picture, will be everybody’s business when the world sees it.
Even while the cameras were grinding on the Bow film, Paramount was planning to shoot its newest find into another picture called “Youth Has Its Fling.” The “Youth” referred to is a handsome young newcomer named Phillip Holmes, twenty and new to the world. And he will fling into those scenes in which he runs head on into the terrific, demanding fascination of the tall, handsome Francis Girl.
And then Heaven help young Mr. Holmes, for only Heaven can!
WHEN I talked to Kay Francis, she was sitting in the living room of her little Hollywood bungalow—and I kept my distance, too.
I remembered only too well what had happened to Walter Huston when he came within that fatal radius of her charm.
She had just finished the long, horrible grind of the Bow picture. Night shooting, to avoid off-stage noises—until three or four in the morning.
She hadn’t seen Hollywood, she hadn’t had any fun.
But she was in her second big film, her third was planned, and she was happily hotfooting it for fame and fortune.
TIMID as I was, I thought I could manage a question or two.
“Do the camera and ‘mike’ scare you?” I asked.
“No,” said Miss Francis, “what is there in a ‘mike’ to scare you after you are used to 1,500 people? And once you get used to observing the camera lines by instinct, there isn’t anything to worry about.”
At that, I couldn’t imagine a sill old camera scaring this big, self-possessed gal. She is the type that frightens the old guard of silent picture actors into fits.
No wonder, when, after they have made a Great Mystery of the Art of Acting before the Camera, they see this untried girl step before one and give a motion picture performance of the very first rate!
“Do you miss the theater?”
“Yes, I miss it some, but this is a great chance for me, and everyone at Paramount is swell to me, and I’m happy. Will you have a dash more of that ginger ale?”
“I Will. And do you enjoy knowing over helpless members of my poor sex?”
“I’ve placed menaces right along, and I suppose I’ll have to, for a while. But I’d like to do sophisticated heroines.”
Sure—and she probably will, too. But the world reeks with heroines, while there are only a few superb demons like Kay Francis. What could Eddie Foy have gotten by playing Hamlet?
But this had gone far enough. Again I thought of Walter Huston and Dick Arlen and young Holmes, and shivered.
“Well, thank you, Miss Francis,” I stuttered. “I guess I’ll have to be going now.”
“Do have just a touch more of this ginger ale,” she said, leaning forward.
“No thanks!” I really must be moving,” I said, and rushed out the door, falling the last two steps and pursued by a gust of merry laughter, but no applause.
That was the finale of my interview with Kay Francis, the first great vamp of the talking pictures, and standard bearer of the new come-hither school.
If you come within gunshot of her tremendous fascination, take my advice and follow my example—get on your bicycle and pedal away with no back looks.
Run, do not walk to the nearest exit.
Remember what happened to Walter Huston!