Remembering Kay Francis on Her 113th Birthday

Kay Francis, born 113 years ago today, is perhaps something of an acquired taste for modern audiences. One of the biggest stars of the 1930s, she was largely forgotten until Turner Classic Movies, bless their hearts, helped to revive and renew interest in her career.

For our part, we happily watch virtually any picture that features her name in the credits.

Here are 10 things you should know about Kay Francis…

Happy 112th Birthday, Kay Francis!

Fashion plate and Queen of the Women’s Pictures Kay Francis was born Katherine Edwina Gibbs 112 years ago today in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Here are 10 KF Did-You-Knows:

  • Though Francis was born in Oklahoma City, she didn’t live there long. Much of her childhood was spent on the road with her mother, Katherine Clinton, who was an actress. At age 17, Francis, who was then attending Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School in New York City, married the first of her five husbands—one James Dwight Francis, member of a prominent (and well-to-do) Pittsfield, Massachusetts, family. That marriage, like the four other matrimonial knots Francis would eventually tie, unraveled in relatively short order.
  • Shortly after her 1925 divorce, Francis decided to follow her mother’s example and pursue a life on the stage. In November of that year, she made her Broadway debut as the Player Queen in a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
  • After a handful more Broadway roles, Walter Huston, her costar in the 1928 production of Elmer the Great, encouraged her to take a screen test for Paramount Pictures. She did, and was given roles in Gentlemen of the Press (1929) and the Marx Brothers‘ first picture, The Cocoanuts (1929), both of which were filmed at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in Queens, NY.
  • Soon thereafter, Francis moved to Hollywood where her striking looks and model’s figure (she stood 5’9″, very tall for an actress at the time) helped her career to ascend. From 1929 to 1931, she appeared in more than twenty films.
  • Warner Brothers wooed Francis away from Paramount in 1932, and it was there that she experienced her greatest success. By the mid-’30s, Francis was the queen of the Warner Brothers lot and one of the highest-paid people in the United States. From 1930-37, Francis appeared on the cover of more than 38 movie magazines, second only to Shirley Temple (who racked an astonishing 138 covers over that span).
  • At Warner Brothers, Kay became known as a clotheshorse. Her ability to wear stylish clothes well was highly valued by the studio and admired by fans; in fact, she eventually came to feel that Warner Brothers put more more of a focus on her on-screen wardrobe than her film’s scripts, as she came to be unalterably associated with the sort of weepy melodramas that were then known as “women’s pictures.” We fully understand the frustration she felt at the time, but we’ll admit that we love those pictures and adore Francis’ performances in them.
  • Francis’ great success came in spite of a noticable speech impediment: She pronounced R’s as W’s (ala Elmer Fudd). As such, our favorite line of Kay Francis dialogue appears in Mandalay (1934), which was directed by Michael Curtiz and in which Kay starred with Ricardo Cortez, Lyle Talbot, and Warner Oland. It’s great fun to hear her intone, “Gwegowy, we awwive at Mandalay tomowwow.”
  • Francis’ personal life was something of a mess. An exceedingly liberated person, sexually, she slept with both men and with women—and plenty of them, and none of her five marriages lasted very long.
  • Francis’s career fell as quickly as it had risen. She was through with the movies (or perhaps vice versa) by 1946, when she appeared in her final picture, Wife Wanted, a budget quickie made for the infamous Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. Aside from some stage work in the late ’40s and a couple of TV appearences in the early ’50s, she avoided the spotlight thereafter and was largely forgotten by the public (until Turner Classic Movies began to feature her pictures prominently in its programming and her star again rose among old-movie buffs).
  • When she died in 1968 of breast cancer, Kay Francis left more than one million dollars to The Seeing Eye, Inc., an organization that trains guide dogs for the blind.

Happy birthday, Kay Francis, wherever you may be!

Kay Francis

Happy 112th Birthday, Constance Bennett!

Actress Constance Bennett was born 112 years ago today in New York City. Here are 10 CB Did-You-Knows:

  • Bennett was born into a theatrical family. Both her parents, Richard Bennett and Adrienne Morrison, were actors, as was her maternal grandparents, Rose Wood and Lewis Morrison.
  • Bennett’s two sisters, Joan and Barbara, were also actresses (though Barbara’s career was brief), but it was Constance who was the first to enter motion pictures, appearing in silent pictures filmed in and around NYC and making her Hollywood debut in Cytherea (1924).
  • After giving up films upon marrying Philip Plant in 1925, Bennett, after divorcing Plant, returned to her film career just as talking pictures were taking off.
  • Bennett was, for a brief time in the early 1930s, the highest paid actress in Hollywood.
  • Like Kay Francis, Bennett’s ability to wear fine clothes well played a big role in her success.
  • Bennett Was cast in the role of Ellie Andrews in It Happened One Night but withdrew when Columbia Pictures declined to allow her to serve as producer of the film. Claudette Colbert, who took over the role, won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in the picture.
  • Bennett starred in the Janet Gaynor/Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand role in What Price Hollywood (1932), which was a clear inspiration for the A Star Is Born pictures.
  • Less in demand in pictures by the 1940s, Bennett began working in radio and in the theatre. Her stage debut came in 1940 in Noël Coward‘s Easy Virtue.
  • Bennett Was married five times; the final marriage, to US Air Force Colonel (later Brigadier General) John Theron Coulter, lasted by far the longest—from June 1946 until Bennett’s death in July 1965.
  • Because of her marriage to Coulter and in recognition of her efforts in providing relief entertainment to US troops stationed in Europe during and after World War II, Bennett was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Happy birthday, Constance Bennett, wherever you may be!

Constance Bennett

Happy 112th Birthday, George Brent!

George Brent, born George Brendan Nolan 112 years today in Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland, enjoyed an odd sort of career. By any measure, he achieved great success, but outside movie-buff circles, he’s all but forgotten today. Odd, considering that when he arrived in Hollywood, he was touted as the next Clark Gable. The comparison seems almost laughable today, so low-key was Brent compared to the man once known as the King of Hollywood.

George Brent was a rebel during the Irish War of Independence, though how active he was is open to question; he acknowledged having served as a courier for IRA leader Michael Collins. In any case, the British government put a price on his head, at which point Brent (then Nolan) saw fit to hightail it to the United States.

Brent started his career in the theatre, touring in a production of Abie’s Irish Rose and acting in stock theatre around the country. In 1927, he debuted on Broadway in Love, Honor and Obey. Also in the cast? None other than Clark Gable.

Brent headed for Hollywood a couple of years later, appearing in minor roles for Universal and Fox before signing a contract with Warner Brothers in 1932. It was at Warners that Brent achieved his greatest success. Perhaps the greatest strength of his low-key (but hardly milquetoast) on-screen persona was that he was a perfect complement to strong leading women, holding his own but never overshadowing them.

George Brent

Given how little he’s remembered today, it’s remarkable to consider how often George Brent worked with some of the most iconic actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He made eleven features with Bette Davis (enjoying an offscreen romance with her as well), six with Kay Francis, five with Barbara Stanwyck, four with Ruth Chatterton (to whom he was married from 1932–1934) and two with Myrna Loy. He also played opposite Ruby Keeler, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Madeleine Carroll, Jean Arthur, Merle Oberon, Ann Sheridan (to whom he was married from 1942–1943), Joan Fontaine, Claudette Colbert, Dorothy McGuire, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball and Yvonne De Carlo. That’s a line-up of costars that any leading man might envy.

By the late 1940s, Brent was appearing in mostly B pictures, and he retired from films in 1953, though he continued to act on television for another seven years. He was married five times, and if you read some of his early interviews, it’s not hard to see why most of those marriages didn’t work out. Brent clearly had no interest in being tied down and seemed to resent the responsibilities that relationships carried with them. “No woman will ever own me,” Brent once said. “I own myself.”

But he and his fifth wife, former model and dress designer Janet Michaels, were together for 27 years until she passed away in 1974.

George Brent, who suffered in later years from emphysema, died in 1979 in Solana Beach, California.

Happy birthday, Mr. Brent, wherever you may be!