Friday, December 14, 2007
SO FEW PEOPLE DO WHAT THEY SAY THEY'LL DO
I meet lots of people who tell me they have a book idea or that they're writing a book or a book proposal, but few people ever go beyond the old "half a page of scribbled lines" that Pink Floyd talks about. Even if they do, they rarely have the talent and the relentlessness required to actually get published.
So far only two people who've told me they wanted to write a book actually did. One was a university lecturer and the other is Scott O'Brien.
I met Scott about nine or ten years ago, when I was researching my first book. Someone put me in touch with him because he had an extensive collection of Kay Francis films on video. He was also, clearly, an expert on Kay Francis and, according his account -- this part I don't remember -- I told him he should write a book. However, I didn't think he ever would for two reasons: 1) Few people do what they say they're going to do, even if they really, really want to; and 2) The market for a book on Kay Francis struck me as fairly non-existent. I thought there SHOULD be a book on Kay Francis, but I wasn't sure that such a book could ever be published.
Well, he's done it, and it's good: Extensively researched, considered, well-written. He talked to everybody. He nailed down facts (such as her real birthday: She was actually younger than some books have said), and he did right by his subject.
Kay Francis was an actress who said she couldn't wait to be forgotten, but she doesn't deserve to be forgotten, and thanks to Turner Classic Movies her films have found a new audience. She was one of the great pre-Code women, and if you're curious about her, Scott O'Brien has written the book that has everything you want to know.
For an overview of Kay's life and career read the following excerpts from a Turner Classic Movie blog interview:
Kayriffic: Biographer Scott O’Brien on Kay Francis
Posted by Moira Finnie on September 4, 2008
Kay Francis was a presence in movies between 1929 and 1946. Her acting was characterized by her elegantly comic, audacious, sometimes melodramatic, yet wistfully tender and groundbreaking portrayals of independently minded women. Thanks in part to TCM, she has renewed fame. Interest in the nearly forgotten actress has also grown in recent years with the rediscovery of films of the pre-code era, and the changing attitudes toward cinematic portrayals of women, (for better and worse). Kay Francis was on screen from the shaky years of the early talkies through the war years, and TCM offers a festival of 42 of her films this month–some very rarely seen outside of an archive, and few of which are available on dvd. This month’s festival of all things Kay offers an unprecedented opportunity to review the range of films that Ms. Francis appeared in over time. The films include some of her earliest work, such as Raffles (1930) and Cynara (1932), (pairing her with Ronald Colman), as well as some of Kay‘s last movies, (which allowed her to produce as well as star at the low-rent studio Monogram), including Divorce (1945), and the critically noted Allotment Wives (1945). Since TCM has chosen to honor Kay Francis as the Star of the Month in September, I thought that this might be a good time to have a chat with Kay‘s biographer, Scott O’Brien, the author of Kay Francis: “I Can’t Wait To Be Forgotten” (BearManor Media). In this thoroughly researched and nimbly written homage, Scott O’Brien, chronicles her films, her adventures, her later career on stage and and long years in retirement. Drawing on years of research and the actress’ revelatory diaries, (which were written in a form of shorthand, and only relatively recently deciphered by scholars at Wesleyan University ), Mr. O’Brien succeeded in bringing this complex woman to life on the page.
Moira: Welcome Scott, and thank you for helping me shine a spotlight on Kay Francis this month. As someone who’s only discovered what racy fun her movies are in the last few years, I was wondering: When did you first become aware of Kay Francis?
Scott: My first impression of Kay Francis wasn’t exactly “ecstatic.” At 16, I especially enjoyed watching over-the-top moments from Bette Davis films. My parents, who were old movie fans, drove me into San Francisco for a film revival double-bill: Of Human Bondage and One Way Passage. Davis’ wildly momentous “I wipe my mouth!” scene with Leslie Howard made the whole trip worth it. Kay Francis? She just seemed like a normal everyday person to me. While working on my Master’s Degree in Library Science (1971-73), I went with friends to see Trouble In Paradise. I had matured. Kay’s subtlety as an actress was like drinking fine wine. We were all raving about her afterwards. Upon seeing a revival of Confession, I was completely hooked. In 1976, George Eells’ book “Ginger, Loretta, & Irene Who?” had a fascinating, yet depressing mini-biography on Kay. A couple of decades later, when Mick LaSalle was researching his insightful work, “Complicated Women,” I loaned him some of Kay’s films. I told him about Kay’s diaries at Wesleyan University, and suggested his next project should be a biography on Kay. He told me, “No, Scott. You should write Kay’s biography.” In 2003, I finally got tired of waiting for someone else to tell Kay’s story, and took Mick up on his suggestion.
Kay Francis: Living Large and Riding High:
Born in Oklahoma City in 1905, Katharine Edwina Gibbs was the child of actors, and, after growing up while travelling with her soon divorced mother as she appeared in stock companies throughout the United States and in a series of boarding schools, became Kay Francis. This metamorphosis came roughly around the same time as America discovered jazz, bathtub gin, and the joys of a woman with a mind of her own. With her dark hair, piercing blue eyes and svelte, tall figure, not to metion her innate sense of style and intelligence, she soon found her way in New York of the 1920s. It was a world she relished, after an early first marriage while still in her teens, (eventually there would appear to be at least three more acknowledged walks down the aisle before she washed her hands of the institution).
Ostensibly intending to supporting herself as a stenographer, her strikingly exotic, dark good looks and sparkling manner, as well as a her youthful penchant for intense partying, experimentation and sexual recklessness, made Kay, who was still quite impressionable, a card-carrying member of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lost generation. Falling in with a fast crowd, she shared an apartment and several adventures with the newborn New Yorker Magazine‘s Lois Long, whose job was to report on the burgeoning nightlife in the big apple. Looking far more sophisticated than she may have felt, she soon was attracting a dizzying array of cosmopolitan men, many of whom wound up on the pages of the diary she began to keep at the time. A fairly typical entry read “July 8–My seventh man–God I hate myself.” Kay‘s strong sexuality bloomed throughout this period. Inevitably, at a time when it was illegal for a woman to purchase contraceptives, this led to other diary notes such as “July 16–Another operation! My God who is the father!” The aimlessness of her frothy existence wore on her, despite the pleasure it brought with it.
Kay eventually fell into modelling and acting, leading to travels to Europe and back. she understudied Katharine Cornell in Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat and even appeared in a modern-dress production of Hamlet as The Player Queen opposite Basil Sidney’s melancholy Dane on Broadway in 1926. When asked by Sydney at her audition if she knew the play, she reportedly lied, “Know it! Why Mr. Sydney I played the part as a child!” As she later said in her analytical way, she really wasn’t the “stage-struck” type, especially since “[Mother] effectively stripped the profession of any false glamour it might have had for me”…”When I first went on stage, I didn’t know–whether it was to be merely a temporary way of earning a living or whether it was to be something more. I just went at it calmly and to the best of my ability, not with any of the feverish, pushing anxiety of the usual stage-struck girl. Probably that’s why I was lucky. Perhaps if I’d been all tied up in knots about it, I’d not have had half as easy a time.”
One key figure, familiar to TCM addicts, was to have a significant impact on her theatrical and cinematic life. His name was Walter Huston. The two met in 1928 as part of the George M. Cohan Broadway production of Ring Lardner’s baseball yarn, Elmer the Great.
Moira: Could you please explain how Walter Huston, who will be seen opposite Kay in Storm at Daybreak (1933) as well as Always In My Heart (1942) later this month, played an instrumental role in the development of Kay’s career on stage and the screen?
Scott: Kay said of Huston in 1935, “I owe my entire career to him. We were cast together in Elmer the Great and he did more for me than any coach ever could have done.” Huston had selected Kay, then known as Katharine Francis, for her first major role on Broadway. He was also instrumental in getting Kay her first film role in Gentlemen of the Press (1929). Soon after Kay arrived in Hollywood she stated, “I’m not sure just how I would have come through all this if I had not been able to draw encouragement and inspiration from Walter Huston. …. I would not have signed if Walter hadn’t advised me to. He has been the most remarkable and kindest friend a person could have.”
Moira: While Huston and Francis went on to appear in a total of four films together, his mentorship of the actress helped her to gain a foothold in Hollywood, where she would form several teams with some memorable leading men–some of which will be seen this month. The talkie era had arrived, and stage trained thespians who also photographed pleasingly were a precious commodity, (even if they did, as Kay demonstrated charmily many times, a bit of trouble pronouncing the letter “r”–a quirk that screenwriters tried to help her with, but which is amusingly acknowledged in the upcoming Frank Borzage film on TCM, Living on Velvet).
Scott, some of the movies being shown this month, such as Raffles (1930) and Cynara (1932), paired Kay Francis with Ronald Colman. I’m eager to see these films, as well as the diverse crowd of other leading men she worked with throughout her career, such as Charles Bickford in Passion Flower(1930), William Powell in the delicious Jewel Robbery (1932) and Trouble in Paradise (1932) and George Brent in Living on Velvet (1935). Did Kay have a favorite leading man? Was there any actor she wished she could have worked with more often?
Scott: Kay acknowledged her simpatico with four actors: Ronald Colman, William Powell, Walter Huston, and Herbert Marshall. She had praises for all four. During her retirement, Kay frequently mentioned her affection for “Bart” Marshall to her close friends Jetti and Lou Ames.
In May 1935, Kay revealed her onscreen fantasies, thusly, “Charles Laughton and Clark Gable are actors whom I have not yet worked with, and would like to. But my real screen ambition is to play opposite James Cagney. He is the leading man of my dreams. Unfortunately, I am afraid Warner Brothers will never be able to find a story with suitable parts for us both. And, anyhow, perhaps I’m a little too tall for Cagney to give me a really effective and affectionate sock in the jaw?” Kay found Cagney irresistible. She likened Cagney to a leopard, ready to spring, and was surprised to discover that in person, Cagney was “astonishingly quiet and modest.”
Personally, I find the pairing of Kay and Ronald Colman in Cynara (1932), stunning ......
Moira: Scott, as an expert on all things to do with Kay Francis, could you please mention what makes each of her best films worthwhile to you as well as to the newer Kay fan?
Is there any one Kay Francis movie that you would recommend to someone completely unfamiliar with her?
1.) Trouble in Paradise (1932): Kay postponed her honeymoon to do this film. It was rare for her to work with a top-notch director. Lubitsch brought things out in Kay that helped make this her best all-around film. Kay brings a delicious humor to the proceedings. She’s intoxicating. (THIS is the film to see if you are not familiar with Kay Francis). Below: A sublime triangle in Ernst Lubitsch‘s film, featuring Kay, Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall at their zenith.
2.) One Way Passage (1932): Kay’s best outing with William Powell. Director Tay Garnett kept the tempo brisk, and with a supporting cast like Aline MacMahon, Warren Hymer and Frank McHugh, he couldn’t go wrong. Powell enjoyed working with Kay (they were a popular screen-team, before he met up with Myrna Loy). He told writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, “Kay is as responsive as a violin. I love to talk out scenes and business with her. She’s a wonder, really.” Below: Kay with William Powell in the shipboard romance.
3.) Confession (1937)* : I have met a number of people who become “hooked” on Kay after seeing this 1937 film, which has an exceptional narrative structure and plot. Kay carries the film dramatically. Variety thought Confession to be “her most important production in several years.” Kay noted that the director, Joe May, was “driving everyone crazy” on the set, (even allegedly having the actors perform to the pace of a metronome). Jane Bryan, who plays Kay’s daughter, concurred, saying May had them “marching through the film like sleepwalkers.” But, somehow, it all works. Below: Filming Confession with Basil Rathbone.
4.) In Name Only (1939): Kay’s first film after leaving Warners was considered a solid “comeback” for her. She embodies the role of Cary Grant’s venomous wife, and she plays it in spades. She’s cold, cruel, calculating and fascinating. Below: A duplicitous Kay with Nella Walker, Charles Coburn and Cary Grant in a scene from In Name Only. Though bad girl Kay gets her due, her character has her reasons for her game.
5.) House on 56th Street (1933): A giant box-office hit for Warners. Critics cheered Kay’s portrayal in which she moves from motherhood-to prison inmate-to card shark. One reviewer put it succinctly, “Miss Francis is one of the blessed who never overact. She has converted the rest of the cast, who behave like human beings throughout.”
6.) Give Me Your Heart (1936): Kay gives this tear-jerker class by her intelligence and ability to show vulnerability. The New York Times complimented the film, calling it “an affecting, mature and sophisticated drama of mother love.” The high-point is a scene between Kay and the woman who is raising a child Kay had out of wed-lock. The same review noted, “It is a crackling scene they have contrived.” It was films like Give Me Your Heart, filled with fashion and tears, that made money for Warners. This film genre also kept Kay “stuck” professionally.
7.) Mandalay (1934): Exotica par none. To discover how Kay can pull off the impossible, see this. She’s a trollop in Rangoon, who finds redemption while on board a steamer headed for Mandalay. After pairing up with an alcoholic doctor (Lyle Talbot) and sort-of murdering her ex-pimp boyfriend (Ricardo Cortez), things begin to look on the bright side. Another Warner film that made a whopping profit. Below: Kay in a whopper of an outfit designed by Orry-Kelly for the film, Mandalay.
8.) Keyhole (1933): This film from 1933, established the formula for Kay’s tenure at Warners: clothes, jewels, sophistication, heartbreak, blackmail, pulsating romantic interludes, an ex-lover who meets his doom, and above all, Kay. The Los Angeles Times commented, “… there is Kay Francis herself, as warm and appealing a personality the screen has to offer. There is a lack of artificiality about Miss Francis that makes her refreshing.”
9.) Notorious Affair (1930): After borrowing Kay from Paramount, Warners took note of Kay’s potential during the production of this film. She smoldered on celluloid. Warners made her an offer she couldn’t resist. It was a smart move, career-wise. Notorious Affair, has Kay playing the scheming Countess Olga, London’s most daring horsewoman, who is also a sensation in her boudoir. In spite of her wild role, Kay makes Basil Rathbone and Billie Dove appear like foolish incompetents. It’s amazing to watch Kay put them both in the shade.
10.) Another Dawn (1937): This is my personal favorite. Kay’s beauty was at its peak. Based on a Somerset Maugham short story, Kay finds herself falling for dashing Errol Flynn in a remote British desert outpost. During exquisitely photographed interludes, the romantic duo philosophize about life, while Kay’s husband (Ian Hunter) is absorbed in plans to battle a pesky desert sheik. The film was shot with two endings. Had Flynn gone to meet his doom at the finish, the film would have had far more dramatic impact. Eric Wolfgang Korngold wrote a impressive score, which was chopped up during editing. A number of scenes are missing. Still, Another Dawn is wonderful to look at, and the performances are all keyed nicely to the mood Maugham intended. Below: A romantically yearning Kay with a very young Errol Flynn in Another Dawn. Off camera, Kay “saw too much of his boyish mischief to be fooled by his charm.” She added, with a sigh, “That boy hasn’t one camera angle that isn’t perfect. It’s quite appalling.”
Runners up: Cynara, Man Wanted, Street of Women, Allotment Wives, Mary Stevens, M.D.
Moira: Thanks so much for bringing your encyclopediac knowledge and insight into Kay Francis to the Movie Morlocks, Scott. Since I enjoyed your book on Kay so much, could you please tell me if you have anything planned for the future?
Scott: You’re very welcome. As a matter of fact, my next book is coming out this Fall. It is Virginia Bruce: Under My Skin (BearManor) and you can read more about it at the BearManor website.