PASSING FASHION: KAY FRANCIS AT WARNER BROTHERS

September 15, 2015

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In 1935 Kay Francis was one of the highest paid women in Hollywood, a glamorous star who set fashion trends based on the gowns Orry-Kelly designed for her. In 1939 Warner Brothers terminated her contract. This rapid fall from corporate favor is documented in three films the Warner Archive recently released on DVD:  I Found Stella Parish (’35), The White Angel (’36), and Confession (’37). All feature Francis as the suffering center, absorbing the sins of the world in sacrifice for the virtues of motherhood and mercy, expressed in extreme close-ups where Francis radiates a divine glow. Stella Parish and Confession are urban melodramas that offer Francis the opportunity for multiple hair and costume changes, one of the main pleasures of any Francis film, whereas The White Angel, a Florence Nightingale biopic, keeps her in heavy woolen nursing gear. It was the latter that disappointed Warners. It was perceived as a flop (though it actually turned a profit), and started the downshift in her career. None of these movies are masterpieces (see Trouble in Paradise for that), but contain the compensatory pleasures of any Francis film – gorgeous gowns, a dizzying array of haircuts, and a heart-tugging melodrama of female self-sacrifice.

I Found Stella Parish, directed by studio stalwart Mervyn Leroy (I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang) was such a success on its New York opening that WB extended Francis’ contract well before it was to expire. Based on a John Monk Saunders story called “The Judas Tree”, it is the story of London stage sensation Stella Parish (Francis), who disappears right after another smash hit debuts. A shadowy figure from her past appears in her dressing room, threatening to reveal a violent secret. In order to protect her daughter, Parish flees home to the US, and is trailed by a reporter, who reveals her past involvement in a murder case. Fashion is closely tied to identity. On the ship from London to the US,Francis hides her identity as a gray-haired granny in what looks like conservative mourning clothes. When she takes off the wig and returns to her natural age, reality sets in, the past still on her trail.

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Parish abandons her daughter to keep her free of scandal, and hits the stage to cash in on her newfound fame. Francis goes from grand dame lead in London to vaudeville circuit curiosity, her wardrobe getting tawdry, her language salty. There are no surprises in the film, but it hits its marks, and Francis is reliably stunning in Orrin-Kelly’s draping, backless gowns, and she positively glows with mother-love:

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The White Angel is something else entirely, a drab biopic of Florence Nightingale’s reformation of England’s nursing corps during WWI. Director William Dieterle, who had directed Francis before in the fast-paced screwball heist film Jewel Robbery (’32), seems bored with the material, as does most of the cast and crew, although there are a few nice tracking shots of Nightingale checking on wounded veterans, lit only by a lantern. But Francis wasn’t right for the role, and she knew it: “I shudder to think of that one”, she said in 1938:

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More importantly, the studio was displeased. Producer Hal Wallis:  “In scene after scene, reacting to the sight of the injured…she looked completely blank. We weren’t too happy with the picture. The White Angel was well directed, but miscast, and Kay Francis had lost the box office she once had. It was one of our box office failures.” Though he overstated the financial failure (it made $886,000 domestically on a $506,00 budget), the perception was something of a disaster. And once she lost that shine, she had trouble getting it back, not that WB was giving her great opportunities to succeed.

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Confession (1937) is the most fascinating film of the three (and the least successful at the box office), directed by German expat Joe May (Asphalt). The film was a remake of the Pola Negri movie Mazurka (1935), and reportedly May was militant about copying the film down to the second, showing up to the set with a stopwatch to make sure the shot length matched exactly. The movie has a complex flashback structure, delving into the past of Vera (Francis), as she is being tried for murder. A one-time actress in operettas for Michael Michailow (Basil Rathbone), she had later married, divorced, and lost her daughter in the split. Each phase of her life brings a different haircut and wardrobe, from the chin-length blonde locks of her court date, to a curly golden wig of her nightclub routine, back to her days as a happy-go-lucky brunette. Francis doesn’t even appear in the film for the first twenty minutes, a bold narrative strategy that focuses on secondary characters in elaborate tracking shot sequences, in and around a transit station, and then up and through a dinner theater. The lengthy prologue ends with Francis in a tacky patterned dress and wig, desperate to end that segment of her life. And so she does, with a gunshot to her male tormentor’s torso. The film has a strong sense of female solidarity, as Vera finds sympathy and tenderness from the second wife of her husband  and the estranged daughter who was the cause of it all. The intensity of that bond is terribly moving, and May’s roving camera and cluttered mise-en-scene provides a background of  a life in disarray. After the disappointing returns on The White Angel and Confession, WB started giving her cheaper projects, eventually shunting her off to their B unit, until they terminated her contract in 1939.

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