Kay Francis

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Kay Francis
Francis in 1935
Katharine Edwina Gibbs

(1905-01-13)January 13, 1905
DiedAugust 26, 1968(1968-08-26) (aged 63)
New York City, U.S.
Years active1925–1951
James Dwight Francis
(m. 1922; div. 1925)
William Gaston
(m. 1925; div. 1927)
(m. 1931; div. 1934)

Kay Francis (born Katharine Edwina Gibbs; January 13, 1905 – August 26, 1968) was an American stage and film actress.[1] After a brief period on Broadway in the late 1920s, she moved to film and achieved her greatest success between 1930 and 1936, when she was the number one female star and highest-paid actress at Warner Bros. studio.[2] She adopted her mother's maiden name (Francis) as her professional surname.

Early life[edit]

Katharine Edwina Gibbs was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Territory (present-day Oklahoma), in 1905, the only child of Joseph Sprague Gibbs and Katharine Clinton (née Francis), an actress.[3]Wed in 1903, her parents divorced in 1909 when Kay's mother left her alcoholic father and took Kay with her.[3]

Her mother had been born in Nova Scotia, Canada, and was a moderately successful actress and singer on a hardscrabble theatrical circuit under the stage name Katharine Clinton. Kay often traveled with her mother.[3] Kay attended Catholic schools when it was affordable, becoming a student at the Institute of the Holy Angels at age five.[4] After also attending Miss Fuller's School for Young Ladies in Ossining, New York (1919) and the Cathedral School (1920), she enrolled at the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in New York City. While there she did nothing to discourage the assumption that her mother was the pioneering American businesswoman who had established the Gibbs chain of vocational schools.[citation needed]

In 1922, 17-year-old Kay was engaged to James Dwight Francis, a well-to-do man from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Their marriage, at New York's Saint Thomas Church, ended in divorce three years later.[5]

Stage career[edit]

In the spring of 1925, Francis went to Paris to get a divorce. While there, she was courted by Bill Gaston, a former athlete at Harvard and member of the Boston Bar Association. Secretly married in October 1925, their marriage was short-lived,[6] with only occasional visits between Bill in Boston and Kay in New York City following her mother's footsteps onto the stage.

She made her Broadway debut[7] as the Player Queen in a modern-dress version of Shakespeare's Hamlet in November 1925.[8] She often "borrowed" wardrobe for fashionable nights out in New York that were reported on by the day's press. Francis claimed she got the part by "lying a lot, to the right people". One of them was producer Stuart Walker, who hired her to join his Portmanteau Theatre Company. She soon found herself commuting between Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana. She played wisecracking secretaries, saucy French floozies, walk-ons, bit parts, and heavies.

By February 1927, Francis returned to New York and got a part in the Broadway play Crime.[9] A teenage Sylvia Sidney had its lead, but later said that Francis stole the show.

After Francis's divorce from Gaston in September 1927, she became engaged to society playboy Alan Ryan Jr. She promised his family that she would not return to the stage – a vow that lasted only a few months before she was playing an aviator in a Rachel Crothers play, Venus.[10]

Francis appeared in only one other Broadway production, titled Elmer the Great in 1928.[11] Written by Ring Lardner, produced by George M. Cohan, and starring Walter Huston, the play nonetheless flopped. Though flat broke at the time, Francis was unwilling to ask friends for help and determined to "crawl out of this mess herself."[6]

Huston had been impressed by Francis's performance and encouraged her to take a screen test for his new studio, Paramount Pictures, and the film Gentlemen of the Press (1929). Paramount offered her a starting contract of $300 per week for five weeks.[12] Francis made Press and the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts (1929) at Paramount's Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens, New York before moving to Hollywood.[13]

Film career[edit]

Francis in a 1930 Paramount Studios publicity photo by Otto Dyar[14]

Major film studios, which had formerly been based in New York, had relocated successfully to California. With the coming of sound pictures, even more Broadway actors were enticed to Hollywood, including Ann Harding, Aline MacMahon, Helen Twelvetrees, Spencer Tracy, Paul Muni, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Leslie Howard.

Signed to a featured players contract with Paramount Pictures, Francis also made the move and created an immediate impression. She frequently co-starred with William Powell, first teaming in Street of Chance (1930) when David Selznick fought for the pairing after having seen Francis briefly in Behind the Make-up (1930). It worked, and they appeared in as many as six to eight movies together per year, making a total of 21 films between 1930 and 1932.[15]

Francis's career flourished at Paramount in spite of a slight, but distinctive rhotacism (she pronounced the letter "r" as "w") that gave rise to the nickname "Wavishing Kay Fwancis". She appeared in George Cukor's "thrillingly amoral comedy" Girls About Town (1931)[16] and 24 Hours (1931). On December 16, 1931, Francis and her co-stars opened the newly constructed art deco Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, with a gala preview screening of The False Madonna.[17]

In 1932, Francis's career at Paramount changed gears when Warner Bros. promised her star status at a better salary of $4,000 a week. Paramount sued Warner Bros. over the loss.[18] Warner Bros. persuaded both Francis and Powell to join the ranks of their stars, along with Ruth Chatterton. After her first three featured roles had been as a villainess, Francis was given roles with a more sympathetic screen persona, such as in The False Madonna, where she plays a jaded society woman who learns the importance of hearth and home when nursing a terminally ill child. After Francis's career skyrocketed at Warner Bros., she was loaned back to Paramount for Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932).[19]

Mainstream successes[edit]

a comely brunette in a white hat and jacket is captioned as the queen of pleasure for the film The House on 56th Street.
The House on 56th Street (1933) trailer

From 1932 through 1936, Francis was the queen of the Warner Bros. lot, and, increasingly, her films were developed as star vehicles. By 1935, Francis was one of the highest-paid actors, earning a yearly salary of $115,000, dwarfing the $18,000 Bette Davis – who would one day occupy Francis's dressing room – made.[20] From 1930 to 1937, Francis appeared on the covers of 38 film magazines, second only to child sensation Shirley Temple's 138.[21]

Soon after her arrival in Hollywood, she began an affair with actor and producer Kenneth MacKenna, whom she married in January 1931.[5] MacKenna's Hollywood career foundered, having spent more time in New York with the couple's amicable 1933 separation; they divorced in 1934.[22]

Francis frequently played long-suffering heroines, in films such as I Found Stella Parish, Secrets of an Actress, and Comet Over Broadway, displaying to good advantage lavish wardrobes that, in some cases, were more memorable than the characters she played—a fact often emphasized by contemporary film reviewers. As Belinda in Give Me Your Heart (1936) with co-stars George Brent and Roland Young, her performance had "reticence and pathos" and garnered welcoming reviews from The New York Times.[23]

In October 1937, Francis met aviation businessman Raven Freiherr von Barnekow at a party of Countess Dorothy Dentice di Frasso's in Beverly Hills.[24] In March 1938, Louella Parsons reported on their intended marriage and that Francis would retire from films, but by October the two were traveling separately and Francis was still acting; by December, Barnekow had returned to Germany.[24]

Francis's clothes horse reputation and statuesque frame often led Warners' producers to concentrate resources on lavish sets and costumes rather than the quality of the storylines, a move designed to appeal to Depression-era female audiences and capitalize on her reputation as the epitome of chic. Eventually, Francis herself became dissatisfied with these vehicles and began openly to feud with Warner Bros., even threatening a lawsuit against them for inferior scripts and treatment.[25] This, in turn, led to her demotion to programmers, such as Women in the Wind (1939), and, in the same year, to the termination of her contract.[26]

"Box Office Poison" and revival[edit]

In First Lady (1937) trailer

The Independent Theatre Owners Association paid for an advertisement in The Hollywood Reporter in May 1938 that included Francis, along with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn and others, on a list of stars dubbed "box office poison".[27] After her release from Warner Bros., she was unable to secure another studio contract. Carole Lombard, who had been a supporting player in Francis's 1931 film Ladies' Man, insisted Francis be cast in her film In Name Only (1939).[28] Francis had a supporting role to Lombard and Cary Grant, and it offered her an opportunity to engage in some serious acting. After this, she moved to supporting parts in other films, playing fast-talking, professional women – holding her own against Rosalind Russell in The Feminine Touch, for example – and mothers opposite rising young stars such as Deanna Durbin.

Francis had one lead role at the end of the decade opposite Humphrey Bogart in the gangster film King of the Underworld, released in 1939. The movie was a remake of Paul Muni's Dr. Socrates (1935), with Francis in the role of a doctor who is forced to treat Bogart's injured gangster character and then gets caught up with the law. Originally titled Lady Doctor, the film was shelved, then retitled Unlawful for reshoots to beef up Bogart's role. By the film's release, Warner Bros. had again changed titles to King of the Underworld while demoting Francis to second billing.[29]

World War II era[edit]

Two woman leaning toward each other are laughing and dressed in World War II oversized military coats and helmets
Kay Francis and Mitzi Mayfair from Four Jills in a Jeep (1944)

With the start of World War II, Francis joined the war effort, doing volunteer work with the Naval Aid Auxiliary,[30] where she was named head of the NAA's Hospital Unit.[31] She also performed extensive war-zone touring, first chronicled in the book "Four Jills in a Jeep", written by fellow volunteer Carole Landis.[32] It became a popular 1944 film, Four Jills in a Jeep, with a cavalcade of stars and Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair joining Landis and Francis to fill out the complement of Jills.

At the end of the war, Four Jills was given a four-star production by 20th Century Fox, but still needed distribution through Monogram, and the decade found Francis virtually unemployable in Hollywood. She signed a three-film contract with Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures that gave her production credit as well as star billing.[33] The resulting films Divorce, Wife Wanted and Allotment Wives had limited releases in 1945 and 1946.

Francis spent the remainder of the 1940s on the stage, appearing with some success in State of the Union and touring in various productions of plays, old and new, including Windy Hill, backed by former Warner Bros. colleague Ruth Chatterton. Declining health, aggravated by an accident in Columbus, Ohio during a tour of State of the Union in 1948, when she was badly burned by a radiator after passing out from an accidental overdose from pills, hastened her retirement from show business.[34] This incident was first reported as a fainting spell brought on by the pills, with a complication of respiratory infection. Her manager and traveling companion had arrived at Francis's hotel room and, in an attempt to revive the unconscious actress with fresh air, burned her legs on the radiator near the window.[34] She recovered in an oxygen tent at the local hospital; soon retiring from acting and then, public life.[5]

Personal life[edit]

"My life? Well, I get up at a quarter to six in the morning if I'm going to wear an evening dress on camera. That sentence sounds a little ga-ga, doesn't it? But never mind, that's my life ... As long as they pay me my salary, they can give me a broom and I'll sweep the stage. I don't give a damn. I want the money ... When I die, I want to be cremated so that no sign of my existence is left on this earth. I can't wait to be forgotten."

—From Kay Francis's private diaries, c. 1938.[35]

Francis married three times, to James Dwight Francis (1922–1925); William Gaston (1925–1927); and Kenneth MacKenna (1931–1934). It was erroneously reported by Walter Winchell that her third had been to screenwriter John Meehan around 1929.[36] She had affairs with Maurice Chevalier and Raven Freiherr von Barnekow.[37]

Her diaries, which are preserved along with her film-related material in an academic collection at Wesleyan University open to scholars and researchers, paint a picture of a woman whose personal life was often in disarray.[35][38] She regularly socialized with gay men, one of whom, Anderson Lawler, was reportedly paid $10,000 by Warner Bros. to accompany her to Europe in 1934, to keep her out of mischief.[39]

In 1966, Francis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, but the cancer had already spread. She died in 1968, aged 63. Anxious to be forgotten, she wanted neither services nor grave marker. Her body was immediately cremated, and according to her will her ashes were to be disposed of "how the undertaker sees fit."[5]

Having no living immediate family members, Francis left more than $1 million to The Seeing Eye, an organization in New Jersey, which trains guide dogs for the blind.[40]



Year Title Role Notes
1929 Gentlemen of the Press Myra May
1929 The Cocoanuts Penelope
1929 Dangerous Curves Zara Flynn
1929 Illusion Zelda Paxton
1929 The Marriage Playground Lady Wrench
1930 Behind the Make-Up Kitty Parker
1930 Street of Chance Alma Marsden
1930 Paramount on Parade Carmen Episode: "The Toreador"
1930 A Notorious Affair Countess Olga Balakireff
1930 For the Defense Irene Manners
1930 Raffles Gwen
1930 Let's Go Native Constance Cook
1930 The Virtuous Sin Marya Ivanova Sablin
1930 Passion Flower Dulce Morado
1930 Paramount on Parade Herself
1931 Scandal Sheet Edith Flint
1931 Ladies' Man Norma Page
1931 The Vice Squad Alice Morrison
1931 Transgression Elsie Maury
1931 Guilty Hands Marjorie West
1931 24 Hours Fanny Towner
1931 Girls About Town Wanda Howard
1931 The False Madonna Tina
1932 Strangers in Love Diana Merrow
1932 Man Wanted Lois Ames
1932 Street of Women Natalie 'Nat' Upton
1932 Jewel Robbery Baroness Teri
1932 One Way Passage Joan Ames
1932 Trouble in Paradise Madame Mariette Colet
1932 Cynara Clemency Warlock
1933 The Keyhole Anne Vallee Brooks
1933 Storm at Daybreak Irina Radovic
1933 Mary Stevens, M.D. Mary Stevens
1933 I Loved a Woman Laura McDonald
1933 The House on 56th Street Peggy Martin
1934 Mandalay Tanya Borodoff / Spot White / Marjorie Lang
1934 Wonder Bar Liane
1934 Dr. Monica Dr. Monica
1934 British Agent Elena Moura
1935 Living on Velvet Amy Prentiss
1935 Stranded Lynn Palmer
1935 The Goose and the Gander Georgiana
1935 I Found Stella Parish Stella Parish
1936 The White Angel Florence 'Flo' Nightingale
1936 Give Me Your Heart Belinda Warren
1937 Stolen Holiday Nicole Picot
1937 Another Dawn Julia Ashton Wister
1937 Confession Vera Kowalska
1937 First Lady Lucy Chase Wayne
1938 Women Are Like That Claire Landin
1938 My Bill Mary Colbrook
1938 Secrets of an Actress Fay Carter
1938 Comet Over Broadway Eve Appleton
1939 King of the Underworld Carol Nelson
1939 Women in the Wind Janet Steele
1939 In Name Only Maida Walker
1940 It's a Date Georgia Drake
1940 When the Daltons Rode Julie King
1940 Little Men Jo
1941 Play Girl Grace Herbert
1941 The Man Who Lost Himself Adrienne Scott
1941 Charley's Aunt Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez
1941 The Feminine Touch Nellie Woods
1942 Always in My Heart Marjorie Scott
1942 Between Us Girls Christine 'Chris' Bishop
1944 Four Jills in a Jeep Herself
1945 Divorce Dianne Carter
1945 Allotment Wives Sheila Seymour
1946 Wife Wanted Carole Raymond (final film role)

Short subjects[edit]

  • Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 3 (1936) as Herself – Observer
  • Show Business at War (1943, Documentary) as Herself (uncredited)


  • The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies with Filmographies for Each (Performing Arts). Daniel Bubbeo. MacFarland & Co., 2001. ISBN 0786411376, ISBN 978-0786411375
  • Callahan, Dan, Kay Francis: Secrets of an Actress, Bright Lights Film Journal, May 2006. Retrieved December 4, 2006
  • Nemeth, Michael. "Alluring Lady", Classic Images. September 2022
  • Kear, Lynn; Rossman, John (2006). Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-7864-2366-8.
  • Kear, Lynn; Rossman, John (2007). The Complete Kay Francis Career Record. ISBN 978-1-4766-0287-5.
  • O'Brien, Scott (2006). Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to Be Forgotten. BearManor Media. ISBN 1-59393-036-4.
  • 1910 United States Federal Census, Fort Lee, Bergen County, New Jersey, Election District 11


  1. ^ Obituary Variety, August 28, 1968, page 63.
  2. ^ "$209,100 TO KAY FRANCIS; Actress Topped Warner Brothers Salary Rolls Again This Year". The New York Times. February 22, 1938. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 29, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c Bubbeo, Daniel (2013). The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies, with Filmographies for Each. McFarland. pp. 86–98. ISBN 978-0-7864-6236-0. Retrieved October 4, 2017.
  4. ^ Enumerated on May 28, 1910 (Ancestry.com)
  5. ^ a b c d Lynn., Kear (2006). Kay Francis : a passionate life and career. Rossman, John, 1945-. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-2366-8. OCLC 62493473.
  6. ^ a b Scott., O'Brien (2007). Kay Francis : I can't wait to be forgotten : her life on film & stage (Expanded 2nd ed.). Albany, Ga.: BearManor Media. ISBN 978-1-59393-106-3. OCLC 213488597.
  7. ^ "Kay Francis". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  8. ^ "Hamlet". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  9. ^ "Crime". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  10. ^ "Venus". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  11. ^ "Elmer the Great". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  12. ^ Kear, Lynn; Rossman, John (February 12, 2015). Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-5499-0.
  13. ^ Institute, Bathroom Readers' (June 1, 2012). Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into New York. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-60710-651-7.
  14. ^ Art, Elvehjem Museum of (June 1, 1987). Hollywood Glamour, 1924–1956: Selected Portraits from the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Chazen Museum of Art. ISBN 978-0-932900-15-9.
  15. ^ O'Brien, Scott. Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten: Her Life on Film and Stage 2nd Edition. BearManor Media.
  16. ^ ""Paramount Before the Code" at Film Forum – Nymag". New York Magazine. June 16, 2005. Retrieved February 29, 2020.
  17. ^ Tillmany, Jack; Dowling, Jennifer (September 27, 2006). Theatres of Oakland. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4396-3405-9.
  18. ^ O'Brien, Scott (2013). Ruth Chatterton, Actress, Aviator, Author. BearManor Media.
  19. ^ Truhler, Kimberly. "Style Essentials--Kay Francis Battles in Bias Cut through 1932's TROUBLE IN PARADISE". Retrieved June 4, 2020.
  20. ^ Sikov, Ed (October 30, 2007). Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis. Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 978-1-4299-2195-4.
  21. ^ Slide, Anthony (2010). Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 131. ISBN 978-1-60473-413-3.
  22. ^ "Kay Francis Parts From Her Husband; Warner Brothers Announce 'Amicable Separation' Of Film Star And Mackenna. Were Married In 1931. Remain The 'Best Of Friends' -- Actress Here For A Brief Vacation From Studio". The New York Times. December 20, 1933. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 29, 2020.
  23. ^ Nugent, Frank S. (September 17, 1936). "THE SCREEN; The New Criterion Makes Its Bow to Broadway With 'Give Me Your Heart,' Starring Kay Francis". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved August 25, 2019.
  24. ^ a b Kear, Lynn (2006). A Passionate Life and Career. U.S.: McFarland. pp. 104–110. ISBN 0-7864-2366-8.
  25. ^ "Kay Francis sues Warners". Florence Morning News. September 5, 1937. p. 1. Retrieved February 29, 2020.
  26. ^ Nemeth, Michael. "Alluring Lady", Classic Images. September 2022
  27. ^ "Box-office Busts". Life. May 16, 1938. p. 13. Retrieved September 8, 2012.
  28. ^ O'Brien, Scott. Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten: Her Life on Film and Stage 2nd Edition. BearManor Media.
  29. ^ O'Brien, Scott. Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten: Her Life on Film and Stage 2nd Edition. BearManor Media.
  30. ^ "Kay Francis at Kircassock House, USO Tour, December 1942". June 24, 2018. Retrieved June 4, 2020 – via Flickr.
  31. ^ p.124 Kear,Lynn & Rossman, John Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career McFarland; Illustrated edition (January 11, 2006)
  32. ^ Landis, Carole (1944). Four Jills in a Jeep. Random house.
  33. ^ Smyth, J. E. (March 2, 2018). Nobody's Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-084083-9.
  34. ^ a b "The Chicago Tribune | Kay Francis' Life & Career". March 13, 2015. Retrieved December 16, 2018.
  35. ^ a b "The Kay Francis Papers". Wesleyan Cinema Archives. Retrieved December 16, 2013.
  36. ^ Kear, Lynn; Rossman, John (February 12, 2015). Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-5499-0.
  37. ^ Champion, Allison Brophy (September 25, 2008). "The many facets of Kay Francis". The Daily Progress. Retrieved June 4, 2020.
  38. ^ "The Wesleyan Cinema Archives". Wesleyhan.edu. Retrieved September 8, 2010.
  39. ^ Mann, William J. (2001). Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910–1969. New York: Viking. pp. 83–84. ISBN 0-670-03017-1.
  40. ^ O'Brien, Scott. Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten: Her Life on Film and Stage 2nd Edition. BearManor Media.

External links[edit]