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 99th Birthday, Robert Mitchum!

The iconoclastic Robert Mitchum was born Robert Charles Durman Mitchum 99 years ago today in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Here are 10 RM Did-You-Knows:

  • His father, a railroad and shipyard worker, died in a train accident when Mitchum was two. He was raised by his mother and stepfather, a British army major.
  • Mitchum had issues with authority from an early age, and he spent much of his teens on the road. At 14, he was charged with vagrancy and spent time on a Georgia chain gang (he escaped).
  • While living with his older sister in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, he was expelled from Haaren High School, at which point he traveled the country by riding the rails, working for the Civilian Conservation Corps and earning money as a boxer.
  • He once worked as a ghostwriter for an astrologist (this delights us, by the way).
  • He recorded several record albums, including a Calypso record titled Calypso — Is Like So…, and generally was not dubbed when he sang in a movie.
  • Mitchum was arrested on September 1, 1948, for marijuana possession. He spent a week in the L.A. county jail and after being convicted, spent 43 days at a prison farm in Castaic, California. In 1951, the conviction was overturned, and many years later, Mitchum told TCM‘s Robert Osborne the arrest never happened, that it was all a publicity stunt. (What’s the truth? Your guess is as good as ours.)
  • Though he was true to her at times only in his fashion, Mitchum and his wife, Dorothy, remained married for more than 57 years until his death in 1997.
  • Mitchum was the voice of the “Beef…it’s what’s for dinner” television advertisements from 1992 until his death.
  • Mitchum was known for passing on roles that later proved to be iconic, among them Gen. George S. Patton, played by George C. Scott in Patton, and Det. Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry, portrayed by Clint Eastwood.
  • Mitchum was a big fan of Elvis Presley‘s early music and tried to sign him to appear in Thunder Road, but Col. Tom Parker‘s asking price was too steep for the independent production.

Happy birthday, Robert Mitchum, wherever you may be!

Robert Mitchum

Happy 109th Birthday, Katharine Hepburn!

Katharine Hepburn was born, well, Katharine Houghton Hepburn (what, you expected her to resort to the artifice of a screen name?) 109 years ago today in Hartford, Connecticut. It’s almost startling to be reminded on such occasions that Ms. Hepburn passed on in 2003, as it’s difficult to imagine any malady or even the passing of time itself prevailing over her strong will. We’re fully prepared to believe that she left us then, at age 96, only because she was ready to go and gave the okay.

We recommend that you pay Ms. Hepburn the honor of watching at least one of her movies today. TCM‘s airing a good number of her best from 6 a.m. till 8 p.m. ET. The Philadelphia Story, airing at noon, is our favorite, but you can hardly go wrong with Stage Door (8 a.m.), Holiday (10 a.m.), or Woman of the Year (2 p.m.) or any of the pictures they’re airing.

Happy birthday, Ms. Hepburn, wherever you may be!

Katharine Hepburn

Extra! Extra! Read All About It!

There’s a woman who serves as just the slightest irritant every day during our morning commute by trying to foist upon the new edition of one of those 10- or 12-page free daily newspapers—AM New York or the like—as we make our way through the Fulton Street subway station in lower Manhattan.

We don’t kid ourselves that our face is particularly memorable—dozens of women over the years have easily wiped it from their memories—but wouldn’t you think she’d eventually begin to recognize our hats? After all, among the many people who pass her every day, how many are wearing fedoras? Very few, we would think.

We consistently decline the proffered paper, but every morning, she throws her arm out in front of us, folded fishwrap in hand, like a human turnstile that we must make our way past.

Read All About It: A newsboy holds a folded paper aloft as he hawks his wares.

But today, she won us over, if only temporarily. we still didn’t take a paper, but we smiled as we ran her one-woman gauntlet because she’d changed her newsie’s rap. We don’t know if perhaps she’d watched an old movie on TCM last night or what, but this morning, her barker’s pitch went like this:

“Renovate Penn Station! Renovate Penn Station! Read all about it!”

Read all about it! It’s the first time in our life we’ve actually heard someone call out that oh-so-familiar phrase as they hawked newspapers! The only thing missing was an “Extra! Extra!” or two, but that’s nitpicking.

It made our morning, we don’t mind telling you, and we won’t be the least bit surprised if the warm glow we’re experiencing doesn’t last well into the afternoon.