At the peak of her career in the mid-1930s, Kay Francis was one of the most popular, well-respected, and highest-paid actresses in Hollywood. And yet, having already cranked out over 40 films by the age of 30, she seemed burned out by the movie business, famously telling an interviewer, “I can’t wait to be forgotten.”
It seems that she got her wish. Her name is seldom if ever mentioned alongside her contemporaries such as Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, or Katharine Hepburn. Francis was certainly their equal in stature and talent, but, because of an early retirement from films, she has sadly been neglected except by the most hardcore film buffs. She deserves to be remembered.
The Chestnut Hill Film Group is doing its part by presenting a double feature of Francis’ best films May 2 at the Woodmere Art Museum: “One Way Passage” and “Trouble In Paradise,” both released in 1932.
A look at Francis’ filmography shows that she was a pioneer for women in film. She was one of the first movie actresses to play more than just an ingenue or bland love interest in a male-dominated movie. From her first appearance in the newspaper movie “Gentlemen Of The Press” in 1929, she showed that she was nobody’s fool, always playing strong, independent women – perhaps most notably so in 1933’s “Mary Stevens, M.D.,” in which she plays one of the first female doctors ever seen in film (which, unlike today, was an unusual sight 90 years ago). Tall and husky-voiced, Francis’ unique screen presence added elegance and wit to dozens of 1930s and ‘40s films. She co-starred with everyone from Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart to Jack Benny and The Marx Brothers.
Francis made her last film in 1946, then worked in stage plays well into the 1950s, and quietly retired until her passing in 1968.
In “One Way Passage,” Francis plays Joan Ames, a woman who is terminally ill and decides to spend her last days on a cruise from Hong Kong to San Francisco. On board the ship, she meets and falls for Dan Hardesty played by William “The Thin Man” Powell, who is a murderer being transported to San Francisco by the police to be executed. Both knowing that they don’t have much time left to live, they spend the cruise having an eleventh-hour shipboard romance before their time is up. This was Francis’ personal favorite of her films, and her sixth pairing with William Powell. The two have great chemistry, and the film is a compelling if bittersweet drama, one of many seldom-seen gems from the golden age of Warner Brothers films. Familiar character actors like Frank McHugh, Warren Hymer, and the great Aline MacMahon are the scene-stealing comic relief.
Francis was best known for dramas such as “One Way Passage,” but was also very deft in comedy roles. Directed by the master of the tastefully risqué and joyfully cynical, Ernst Lubitsch, “Trouble In Paradise” finds con artists Gaston and Lily (suave Herbert Marshall and effervescent Miriam Hopkins) first conning each other, then deciding to work together to con wealthy perfume company owner Mariette Colet, played by Francis. The con artists convince her to hire them as secretaries, then plan to rob her after they have gained her trust. Of course, complications ensue and Gaston and Mariette fall in love. I won’t give away the rest.
It’s probably the best film either Francis or Lubitsch ever made. The script is clever, unpredictable, and very funny. The three stars are perfectly cast and work wonderfully together, joined by a great supporting cast including Edward Everett Horton, Charlie Ruggles, C. Aubrey Smith, and Robert Greig. Written by Lubitsch with his longtime collaborator Samson Raphaelson and beautifully shot by Victor Milner, it’s a classic of sophisticated and witty comedy, qualities which sadly seem to be lacking from so many of today’s so-called “comedy” films.
Both of these films have been shown on Turner Classic Movies, but because of their age and relative obscurity, you’re unlikely to have the opportunity to see them on a theater-size screen with a live audience, the way they were intended to be seen. The Woodmere’s screening is giving you a rare opportunity to do just that. I hope you will consider coming to this show and celebrate the work of a great actress at a time when we celebrate women in film as they advocate for stronger and more diverse roles. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
And, if I haven’t already enticed you enough, there will also be free cookies served.
“One Way Passage” and “Trouble In Paradise” will be shown starting at 7:30 p.m., doors open at 7 p.m. The Woodmere is at 9201 Germantown Ave.