Kay Francis — Working Girl (1932) 🇺🇸
Kay Francis, divorcee at 20, had to find a new life.
Broadway knew Kay Francis as a girl who lived for a laugh but Hollywood has transformed her.
by Adela Rogers St. Johns
There was a terrible storm at sea. The great ocean liner fought its way through giant waves that pounded against the steel sides with a crash of cymbals. Above, the black clouds menaced with blots of lightning and mad downpours of rain. The ship seemed to struggle through chaos toward an unseen goal.
A girl wrapped in a heavy coat, a tarn pulled down over her eyes, stood at the rail. No one else had ventured on deck, but the storm fitted her mood and she was recklessly careless of consequences.
For behind her lay what seemed the wreck of her life. An ex-wife at twenty. At twenty she had lived the span of a great love, a romantic sixteen-year-old marriage, two and a half years of bliss and agony combined, a Paris divorce.
No wonder her eyes were smoldering.
While the storm raged, young Mrs. Francis faced the problems which have confronted thousands of ex-wives. The liner floundering up and down in the boiling waves under dark skies was very like herself. The storms of life had torn this girl from her moorings. The only life she had known since she came to adolescence lay behind her, a mere black and white record upon a French court.
A divorcee at twenty.
What should she do with the long life that stretched ahead of her? How was she to fill up that endless procession of days? Must she drift as so many ex-wives drifted, filling her days with any sort of thing called fun?
Her heart ached, not for the man she had divorced, but for the shattered dreams, the torn illusions. Such a short time before she had stood at the altar with all a very young girl’s high hopes and rosy faith in love. She had seen ahead to the days of Darby and Joan, as they two grew old hand in hand.
Now that was gone and life looked very empty. She wanted no more of love that could do such brutal things to anyone.
But she was by no means an ignorant girl. Though she had been brought up in convents, she was of her generation. Facts were to be recognized, that was all. A typical post-war young woman. She knew pretty well what happened or might happen to a young divorcee with green eyes, black hair, the figure of a Parisian mannequin and nothing to do.
“Ex-Wife” hadn’t been written then, but she knew. On the trackless waves she saw written the old story. The pathetic effort to fill empty hours. The fear of being alone that leads to cocktail parties and night clubs. The surface laughter which passes for happiness and for which nowadays so many ex-wives pay a high price.
Then it came to her that the ship on which she stood had work to do, a place to go, a goal to achieve. That was why it would defeat the storm and come eventually into port.
“I must do something,” she said to herself aloud. “I must have work to do. I must keep busy.”
She knew that she could never be happy in the aimless life of mere social drifting from one luncheon to another, one bridge party to another, one evening to another. There was too much vital energy in her.
“I will go on the stage,” she said.
Her mother, Katherine Clinton, had been an actress. But Kay had never thought of the stage, because she had married as soon as she was out of the convent.
Now it seemed that the stage was her place. It was fascinating work that would hold her interest, occupy her time, force her to give her best to make good. Kay Francis had in her a streak that insisted upon making good at any-’ thing she tried to do.
On the dock she told her mother and her uncle what she planned to do.
They laughed at her. Little Kay on the stage? Why, she didn’t have any talent. She’d never shown the slightest interest in the theater. She had enough money. She had better come home and rest and wait — for what they didn’t say, but probably for an advantageous second marriage.
Kay narrowed those amazing gray-green eyes, set in long, ink-black lashes and under severe black brows. Ten days later she was rehearsing for the role of the player queen in the modern version of “Hamlet.”
“Luck,” she says. Probably she is right. That first chance is so often luck. It’s the years afterwards that count.
When they asked her her name she said simply, “Kay Francis.” It was her married name, but for a long time she had regarded it as her only name and it never occurred to her to change it. She had no idea how famous it was to become.
For at first she had no great ambition. Success came without much effort. Her looks. Her alluring, low voice. Her ability to wear clothes. Automatically this combination insured her getting along.
Two things she did in those New York years, while in “Crime” and “Elmer the Great” she made fairly reputable hits. She worked and she laughed. Everyone now has something of a laugh complex. Laughter fills up almost all the blank spots.
The people who knew Kay Francis in New York thought of her as a play-girl. Always ready for anything. “A lot of laughs” was her main object. The men she went around with were nearly always the ones who could make her laugh hearty. She was the life of the party, could always be counted on for wisecracks, quick answers, amusing ideas.
There wasn’t a more popular girl on Broadway than the laughter-loving, gay, witty Kay Francis, who loved a good time and knew how to have it.
Broadway’s playgirl. A straight-shooter. A grand kid. But she never took anything, neither men nor work, seriously. They didn’t know that she had once taken a man much too seriously and had been badly hurt. No, Kay Francis had decided, as young folks so often do, that the way to beat life at its own game was never to take anything seriously, never to believe in anything and then you couldn’t be disillusioned, never to build up any dreams and then you couldn’t be rudely awakened, never to throw your whole soul into the keeping of another human being and then you couldn’t be disappointed.
Be a play-girl. That was the system.
When I went to see her the other day, she came in very late whistling, “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day.”
Seeing me, she said, “And you don’t know how true that is.”
Kay Francis takes her work seriously now, believe me. She works harder, longer, more intensely, than any other girl I know in Hollywood. In two years the most time she has had off is three days. When she isn’t actually shooting, she’s getting clothes, being fitted, posing for photographs, studying lines.
“Once in a while I go to a party,” she said. “But usually I’m so tired at night I can just get my make-up off and flop into bed. I don’t have time to read. I never get a chance to play tennis. What do I do? I work, by gosh.”
She sank down in a big chair and dragged off her little felt hat. Her face is striking, but not beautiful. It is more interesting than most beauty. The great charm for the eye lies in the coloring. But her face has a greater charm for the mind. It is a very expressive face, a recklessly expressive face. Most beauties cannot afford too much expression. But there is never a moment when Kay’s face is in repose.
When you are talking, she listens with her eyes and her mobile red mouth, and her very pretty nose, as well as with her ears. She’s a swell audience, and so few women nowadays remember that charm. If you say anything, she shows you just what impression it has made. Her vivid interest stimulates you to talk and to talk better than you can.
William Powell, who has worked with her in three fine pictures, told me to watch for that.
“I hate talking to blank faces,” said Bill, who is himself dynamic and dramatic and full of enthusiasms of every kind. “You say something. Nothing happens in the face opposite you. So you say it again, with more detail. Finally you find yourself running on and on and growing more and more annoyed. Kay is as responsive as a violin. I used to love to talk out scenes and business with her. She’s a wonder, really.”
Of course, Kay thinks Bill is a wonder, too. She says he was so kind to her, when she first began the new medium of the talkies.
“When I came out here,” she said, pushing her black hair back from her forehead with a careless hand, “I was scared to death. I had heard about 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.
“Really, it’s simply wonderful how helpful everyone has been. Ronny Colman and Bill and Clara Bow. When I worked with Clara she was simply too grand. She’d explain to me about camera angles, and say, ‘Now look, 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.’ “
Kay lit a cigarette and relaxed, her head back against the cushions.
Her house is small and very attractive. It stands in a group of trees, in one of those cunning little hillside canyons between Hollywood and Beverly Hills. A comfortable house. Kay lives there alone.
“I like living alone,” she told me. “I have to be alone at times and the only chance I get is when I’m at home. I don’t see how people live who are never alone. I couldn’t do it. Besides, it’s convenient. I like a small house. Even if I had a lot of money, I wouldn’t want a big one. Why complicate existence? Aren’t there enough things you have to do without taking on a lot of extraneous ones? I make a swell bachelor girl, really, I’m not domestic. I want to live simply, comfortably, with as little annoyance as possible.
“This house is okay for me, though maybe the sightseeing wagons will never stop in front of it. I can get anywhere quickly. That’s another thing. I can’t bear to waste half my life getting from one place to another. That’s all poppycock. Eliminate. That’s my philosophy. Eliminate waste of time, energy, effort. Leave yourself as free as possible.”
“For what?” I said.
She stared at the ceiling. Her eyes have that clairvoyant look, as though she saw beyond the present, the surroundings. She looked terribly tired, almost exhausted. But at the same time terribly alive. The white tiredness of her face made her eyes bigger, more brilliant.
“Leave yourself as free as possible for what?” I said again.
“Work, I guess,” said Kay Francis.
“You think work is the important thing?” I said.
“No,” she said, emphatically. “You can’t generalize about that sort of thing. Work happens right now to be the important thing to me. It’s filled my life. I’m mad about it. I love it. I love acting. Every thing about the studio is — is marvelously lovable to me. I’m beginning to understand what acting can be.
“I love to come home at night and work out a part, visualize it, think up business, get inside the character. I love shooting, when we work hours to get results.
“It has satisfied me completely. And it seems to me something that cannot fail me.”
She sat up straight, talking with voice and face and hands.
“But that might not be true for anyone else. You may be different, or the circumstances of your life may be different. Some women may find love, children, home more important. But what I say is that we had better stop complicating existence and get simpler, so that we can be free to do whatever the important thing is.”
So Hollywood has changed Broadway’s play-girl into a work- woman. Work has solved those problems which beset her, has answered the need of the ex-wife for something to fill her time well.
I saw her last night at a party. Her escort, as usual, was the handsome and distinguished young Kenneth Mac Kenna. She looked stunningly well-groomed, very sophisticated, with a print frock and scarlet shoes.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” she said, “that most people don’t know. Parties are more fun when you work hard and only go once in a while.”
Kay Francis is headed for big things in pictures. She’s ambitious now, not for fame nor for money, but for more and more opportunity to work. To do better work. In “For the Defense” and “Behind the Make-up” she is superb.
Ex-wife has become Kay Francis, screen star. It’s a great idea.
“It’s wonderful how helpful Hollywood folks are,” says Kay Francis. “When I worked with Clara Bow, she was simply grand. She said to me, 'Now, Kay, I’m the star, so naturally they train the camera on me. But, if you cheat a little, you’ll get in it just right, too. You’ve got to keep that face in the camera, you know, darling.’”
Kay Francis likes to live alone. “I have to be alone at times,” she says. “I don’t see how people live who are never by themselves. I couldn’t do it. I make a swell bachelor girl, for I’m not domestic. I want to live simply, comfortably, with as little annoyance as possible. Eliminate. That’s my philosophy.”
Kay Francis’ mother was an actress, Katherine Clinton. Kay had no idea of adopting a stage career until her marriage crashed. She was a divorcee at twenty. Ten days after applying at the managers’ offices, Miss Francis landed a job in a Broadway production. It was just luck, she explains. She had no particular ambitions at that time. Broadway knew her as something of a playgirl. Now that she has made a hit on the screen, Broadway wouldn’t recognize the transformed Kay. She loves work. Indeed she says work is the most important thing in life to her right now.
Photo by: George Hurrell (1904–1992)
Next Month Adela Rogers St. Johns will tell you the colorful story of Marion Davies.
Source: New Movie Magazine, February 1932