Sunday, December 28, 2008
I Found Stella Parish (1935)
Kay Francis ... Stella Parish
Ian Hunter ... Keith Lockridge
Paul Lukas ... Stephen Norman
Sybil Jason ... Gloria Parish
Jessie Ralph ... Nana
Barton MacLane ... Clifton 'Cliff' Jeffords
Eddie Acuff ... Dimmy
Joe Sawyer ... Chuck
Walter Kingsford ... Reeves, the Editor
Harry Beresford ... James
Robert Strange ... Jed Duffy
Produced by Harry Joe Brown.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.
Story by John Monk Saunders.
Screenplay by Casey Robinson.
Music Direction by Leo F. Forbstein.
Original Music by Heinz Roemheld.
Art Direction by Robert M. Haas.
Gowns by Orry-Kelly.
Cinematography by Six Hickox.
Film Editing by William Clemens.
A First National Picture.
Released November 4, 1935.
A star at Warner Brothers for three years before I Found Stella Parish went into production, Kay Francis emerged as the Queen of Warner Brothers lot after the public wane of Ruth Chatterton around early 1933. When The House on 56th Street (1933), a Ruth Chatterton reject which was subsequently given to Kay, emerged as one of the most profitable of Warner Brothers’ films of that season, Kay got the royalty title at the studio, but there was still a level she needed to rise up to. It was a star level which boosted celebrity names like Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo.
I Found Stella Parish matched the success of the films all three ladies were making at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and now Warner Brothers could proudly hype their Kay Francis as Crawford’s box office equal. The film might not have been original or brilliant, but it was a commercial blockbuster, doing record business in New York and forcing Jack Warner to give Kay a significant salary increase before her old contract had even expired.
By 1935, Kay Francis was the undoubted Queen of Warner Brothers. Her yearly salary registered at $115,000 while Bette Davis, despite an Oscar for Dangerous, registered at $18,000---a startling difference, but proof that an Oscar didn’t hold much importance with the public perception of film stars. Today, one movie isn’t really better than the other, but Dangerous will automatically get all the notoriety because of Davis, which is, no offense, ridiculous.
Stella Parish was based on John Monk Saunder’s “The Judas Tree,” and involved a backstage plot about an actress’ desperate attempt to protect her daughter from knowing the secrets of her shady past. It was the ideal Kay Francis formula, and filmed with a prestige that surpassed a number of Warner Brothers’ other releases of that year, headlined with names nearly as big as Kay’s.
Director Mervyn LeRoy and producer Harry Joe Brown seemed to go all out on I Found Stella Parish. Filming began on August 19, 1935 and much detail was paid attention to in terms of costumes and sets. The Complete Kay Francis Career Record pointed out that Kay’s Grecian scenes required Perc Westmore to design a blue-white wig, to which Orry-Kelly responded by designing a blue-white gown. Because of this, LeRoy insisted on using a blue-white set, which Lynn Kear and John Rossman admitted “seems like a lot of work for a black-and-white film.” But it was proof of Kay’s importance at the studio.
The New York Daily Mirror noted that the film was “Splendidly directed and played by an unusually strong company.” Other reviews had nothing but mostly strong praises for Kay’s work.
“I Found Stella Parish did record business in New York,” Kay biographer Scott O’Brien wrote in Kay Francis: I Can’t Wait to be Forgotten. Because of the movie’s massive commercial success, Jack Warner gave Kay a new contract before her old one even expired. This was the one which promised her the lead in Tovarich, and gave her a major salary increase. It was because of this bonus that Bette Davis went right back supporting parts at Warner Brothers while Kay triumphed in top productions which made her a major box-office attraction.
Trivia: I Found Stella Parish was the first and only time Kay Francis would work with legendary director Mervyn LeRoy.
I Found Stella Parish was the first of seven onscreen pairings between Kay Francis and Ian Hunter.
Sybil Jason, who plays Kay’s daughter in the film, also played Kay’s daughter three years later in Comet Over Broadway (1938). She’s best known for playing “Becky” in Shirley Temple’s 1939 classic, The Little Princess -which also featured Ian Hunter.
The film opened on November 4, 1935 at the Strand Theatre in New York City.
The film reunited Kay with Paul Lukas, who had appeared with her in Illusion (1929), Behind the Makeup (1930), and The Vice Squad (1931). It was also their last appearance together onscreen.
The film was an immediate success, which prompted Jack Warner to give Kay a new contract although her old one had yet to expire. On November 6, 1935, the Los Angeles Examiner printed the news from Louella Parsons, “Jack Warner told her that she had accepted any story given to her without a word and had always been gracious and lacking in unpleasant temperament, that he wanted to show his appreciation by handing her a voluntary three-year contract.”
That three-year contract was the same one Kay would eventually try to legally get herself free from in 1937. It also made her one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood and, eventually, the highest paid actress on the Warner Brothers lot.
By 1935 Warner Brothers was already receiving negative feedback from fans about their lack of care about Kay Francis vehicles. On February 16, 1935, gossip queen Louella Parsons reported in the Los Angeles Examiner, “[Hal Wallis] says they are acquiring plays, one by one, suitable for her, so that they will have a list to choose from. A few days ago, I Found Stella Parish, the dramatic story of an actress, by John Monk Saunders, was purchased for Kay in mind.”
On October 30, 1970, I Found Stella Pairsh and Torch Singer (1933) were screened at The New School, for the purpose of showing the difference between PreCode melodramas to those made under the tyrannical Production Code. Torch Singer starred Claudette Colbert and Ricardo Cortez. Colbert was given the lead in Tovarich (1937) which was originally purchased for Kay. Cortez appeared with Kay in four films.
On November 1, 1935, Kay, Sybil Jason and Ian Hunter promoted the film on the Hollywood Hotel radio show.
I Found Stella Parish opens in London, England. Opening scenes reveal huge promotional ads reading “Stephan Norman Presents Stella Parish in ‘The Brief Hour.’” This is opening night, and Stephen greets Stella backstage before the show to wish her luck and give her a pep talk before she goes on. They have known each other for three years, ever since Stephen discovered her in some small gig and gave her a major chance. They agreed to build an air of mystery about her, making her aloof and socially unavailable to the public. The only time she is scene is in lobby stills, and she has never granted interviews to reporters.
However, tonight is crucial in the careers of both Stephan and Stella, and he persuades her into accepting an invitation to a party he is throwing after the show ends. She takes to the stage and is welcomed by a major audience appreciation. When the curtain closes, a standing ovation is followed by huge bouquets of flowers being brought to Stella as she receives her audience appreciation. But a mysterious visitor awaits in her dressing room, one who knows the dark secret of Stella Parish’s shady past.
“You sure had those monkeys goggle-eyed out there tonight. I’d like to see the looks on their faces if I told them what you and I know. I bet you they’d swallow their monocles.”
“You can’t scare me,” she insists, with tears running down her face.
The guests wait at Stephan Norman’s for two hours and still no sign of Stella Parish. One of the notable guests is Keith Lockridge, a legendary reporter who is an expert at getting the juiciest stories for his publishers. He is with Stephan when they receive word from a cable that Stella has decided to leave the stage forever. On the hunt for the dirt, Lockridge goes with Stephan to Stella’s apartment only to hear that she has packed and left, leaving only the maid behind to straighten up the place for the landlord. Lockridge takes the maid out to a bar and gets her drunk so she’ll loosen her lips about Stella’s life and maybe her whereabouts.
Keith manages to track Stella back to a steamship heading to the United States. Onboard he hears nothing of Stella’s presence onboard, but is taken by an elderly woman whose toes are stepped on by Keith twice before he starts to suspect something else is going on. Interested, he takes to a little girl named Gloria, whose elderly aunt just happens to be the elderly woman who Keith had the bad run in with. What Keith doesn’t yet know is that the elderly woman is Stella Parish in disguise, and that Gloria is her daughter, not her niece.
In New York, Keith pretends to run into Stella, Gloria, and Nana, Stella’s Mother, in a park, pretending not to know that Gloria’s mom is Stella Parish. They go to lunch, and Keith feeds Stella a bunch of fluff about how the elderly woman he met onboard the steamship was one of the best people he has ever met in his life. This is trick into manipulating Stella that she can trust him, and she begins to.
Alone with Gloria in their apartment, Keith pumps her for information on her mother while they play around as performers. Stella and Nana return, and Stella realizes that she has come to fall in love with Stephen. Thinking he can be trusted, she tells him her story.
Back in her starting days, Stella was married to vaudevillian Clifton Jeffers, a hard drinking jealous husband who was very possessive of Stella. When she realized she was pregnant with his child, she consulted a male friend, her husband walked in, though the worse, and killed him. Both Stella and Clifton were convicted for murder, and Stella’s baby was born while she was in prison. She got out quick, moved to England, met Stephan Norman, and the rest is history.
Keith tries to get his publishers to cool on the idea of printing the information on Stella because he has fallen in love with her. Of course, it’s too late, and there is a major explosion in the media.
Surrounded by reporters in her apartment, Keith walks in and receives a deserved scolding in front of the other reporters. She explains how he sucked his was into her life, and even pumped her kid for information. With that, she tells them all to hit the road and gets Nana alone for a chat about what has to be done about this.
Stella decides that Nana should take Gloria away---raise her alone. Stella promises to support them by working as an actress, taking jobs only where she is going to make the most money. Unfortunately, time begins to take its toll, and people loose interest in Stella, and she is lowered into working cheap burlesque shows for small cash. She has his rock bottom, with Stephan Norman coming right on cue.
Alone with Stella backstage, he explains that she should return to England, where she was made a star in the first place. She reluctantly agrees to cross continents again, and return to the London stage for “This Brief Hour.”
Doubting her own talent and chances for a comeback, Stella begs Stephan to draw the curtain and forget the whole thing. Giving her a pep talk, Keith appears and tells Stella she has no choice but to go on, and tells her that Nana and Gloria are in the audience. Crying, she asks how he could do such a thing to her, and he explains that she doesn’t have to comeback for Stephan, Nana, or even herself, but for Gloria. Stephan then explains that it was Keith who urged him to contact Stella for a comeback, and that it was Keith who did major damage control in the press, and now it is Stella’s time to return to what she does best.
With that, she blows Gloria a kiss from the stage, and takes her call, receiving a major audience applause as she makes her entrance. Smiling, tears flow down from Stella’s face as she enjoys the fact that she has come to perceiver.
Ian Hunter probably was a wise choice for Lockridge. I can’t think of another actor who could have won the audience sympathy after acting like such a snake. By the final scenes, one really does want Stella to forgive him, even after all he has done, and when he goes to see her when she is confronted by all the reporters, one just wants to jump into the scene and explain everything to Stella for him. It’s funny to watch him play the wolf opposite Sybil Jason’s Little Red Riding-Hood in the apartment. His growls and facial expressions are completely realistic.
Paul Lukas and Jessie Ralph do well with their roles, even though they aren’t allotted much camera time and are given dull characters.
The real star of this piece, of course, is Kay Francis. She rises to top form here as a movie star. While this isn’t her best acting, I Found Stella Parish is the type of film which represents Kay Francis as a movie personality. She’s intelligent, talented, stylish, and has a heart of gold underneath her exotic persona.
She’s stunningly photographed throughout the entire production. Even in the scenes where she is wearing no makeup she is gorgeous. Watching her perform in “This Brief Hour” makes one want to see her in a production of Troy or something. She’s gorgeous in those Trojan costumes. This was her first work with director Mervyn LeRoy, and was also her last.
Released to inconsistent reviews, Stella Parish became a commercial blockbuster, one which solidified Kay Francis as a top contender in Hollywood. She had already earned the Queen of Warner Brothers title, but now she was giving stars such as Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer a run for their box office. Not surprisingly, I Found Stella Parish was one of Warner Brothers’ most successful films of the 1935 movie season.
Kay Francis, who has been skirmishing with light comedy in her recent pictures, returns to the lachrymose drama in the Strand's new photoplay, "I Found Stella Parish." If First National has overlooked any of the familiar devices for wringing the last tear from the reluctant duct, the omission is not sufficiently marked to be mentioned. Not merely is the story too, too tragic, but Mervyn LeRoy has directed it in the cadence of a graveyard processional.
Against the constant burblings of the players and the amazing style parade that Miss Francis always manages to stage, the picture unrolls the somber tale of a woman who found life thwarting her at every turn. The great Stella Parish, only of the London stage, wants only to protect her child from learning the sad facts of life—particularly those of her mother's early life.
When those facts threaten to become known, Miss Parish flees in disguise to America, only to be betrayed by a British newspaper man with whom she had come to love. Seeking still to protect the child, the mother makes the traditional sacrifice. She sends the youngster away and, to provide for her care and education, goes so low in the theatrical scale as to make "true confessional" appearances in burlesque and the eight-a-day vaudeville circuits.
A happy ending—although, naturally, Miss Francis faces it with tear-filled eyes—is contrived at last, but with what contortions no one will know unless he happens to visit the Strand this week or can gather it from the sobs of departing audiences. All told, here is a sorry tale and one that has but few redeeming qualities. Among these may be mentioned Ian Hunter's portrayal of the reporter and Sybil Jason's (with some reservations) performance as the child. Miss Francis's unfortunate lisp continues to plague this corner; it makes even more unbelievable the notion that London could regard her Stella Parish as the Duse of the day.
Published in the New York Times, November 4, 1935.