Warner Brothers employed a weak list of contract players throughout 1930. That year alone James Cagney and Joan Blondell had made their film debuts in Sinners’ Holiday (1930). Barbara Stanwyck completed her first film, Illicit (1930), for the studio. Bette Davis was still grinding out B movies at Universal. But at the time those names, now legendary, were still unknown. Kay’s decision to switch studios might have been provoked by something more important than a higher salary. Back at Paramount she was forced to share the spotlight with dozens of other stars on her level. Now at Warner Brothers, she placed second only to Ruth Chatterton in terms of studio competition, but was the star of her own movies. There would be no more fifth billings or thankless second leads, as her first movie for the studio would prove.
Man Wanted (1932) was taken from the Robert Lord story, A Dangerous Brunette. A breezy, light comedy about the modern woman’s option for marriage and a career, one of the most noticeable differences is a larger number of close ups and modeled lighting. Everything in Man Wanted is fitted to Kay’s screen persona, and her teaming with David Manners provided moviegoers the opportunity to watch one of the most attractive onscreen couples of the time. Though not entirely clever or unique, critical reviews for Man Wanted were surprisingly favorable. Street of Women (1932) followed. The property can largely be considered the movie that solidified Kay’s importance in the fashion world of that time. Paramount had given Kay some clever creations, and Man Wanted afforded her the opportunity to be stylish and professional, but in Street of Women she plays the owner of a dress salon and wears some of the most breath-taking costumes one will ever see in a 1930s movie. Its hands down the film that made Kay Francis a major influence on the style of that time.
Her career hit a critical peak with her four following movies. Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage (both 1932) marked Kay’s final parings with William Powell. The first opportunity was given to Kay when Barbara Stanwyck proved unavailable. A clever comedy about a crook and stylish sophisticate, the film was one of the most daring movies of its time, and Kay’s kittenish performance was well received by critics. One Way Passage was a well made weepy about a dying heiress and a condemned criminal. Biographers Lynn Kear and John Rossamn thought the film was “one of the best arguments for Kay being considered one of Hollywood’s greats.” The film garnered Kay a Photoplay award for “Best Performance of the Month.”
Paramount next requested Kay’s services for the first time since her departure from the studio. Her assignment was the lead in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble In Paradise (1932). Considered to be one of the greatest pictures ever made, Trouble In Paradise is a film that never fails to entertain. “Miriam Hopkins may have received first billing on the credit card,” wrote a critic for the Los Angeles Evening Herald Express, “but Kay Francis, borrowed from Warner Brothers, steals the honors. And what a lovely little thief she is!” The film marked the peak in Kay’s career, and while she certainly rose to a higher status over the course of the next four years, it can easily be said that Trouble In Paradise was the most important picture Kay Francis ever made. Cynara (1932), Kay’s final release of the year, was another teaming with Ronald Colman for a Samuel Goldwyn production at United Artists. A major success of its time, Cynara, along with One Way Passage and Trouble In Paradise, was considered by critics to be one of the must-see movies of that year.
William Powell was Warner Brothers’ original choice to play Kay’s leading man in The Keyhole (1933), but a contract dispute caused Powell to pack his bags and move over to MGM. Replaced with George Brent, the Francis/Brent chemistry caused a response from audiences almost immediately (as the William Powell/Myrna Loy pairings at MGM caused a more celebrated chemistry). And at least with her new leading man beside her, it was Kay Francis who was the box office name that drew the money in. In the past, Kay had often found herself in the role of Powell’s girlfriend or love interest, but now she was starring in Kay Francis vehicles, tailor made for herself to be front and center. Storm at Daybreak (1933) was her last loan out to another studio (this time to Metro Goldwyn Mayer for what was a Greta Garbo reject). The World War I drama might not have been spectacular, but it’s a good movie with Kay, Walter Huston, and Nils Asther all rising to top form.
The last three Kay Francis movies of 1933 included Mary Stevens, M.D., I Loved a Woman, and The House on 56th Street. The first was one of Kay’s best and one of the best examples for her being considered one of Hollywood’s greats. I Loved a Woman was a shoddy Edward G. Robinson tale about an adulterer who, yes, loved a woman. The House on 56th Street is hands down the best of the whole bunch. Many point to this film, a Ruth Chatterton reject, as being the movie that made Kay Francis a household name.
Mandalay (1934) is a PreCode classic about a woman (Kay) sold into prostitution by her lover (Ricardo Cortez), then murders him and gets away with it. Reviews were tepid, and Ruth Chatterton had turned down the material, but Kay made it into one of her most enjoyed movies. Wonder Bar (1934) was structured like Grand Hotel (1932) in a different form. Instead of a truly “all-star cast,” the movie was highlighted with big names like Kay Francis, Dick Powell, Dolores Del Rio, and Ricardo Cortez who ended up just playing second fiddle to a faded Al Jolson, then on a serious decline as a box office star. Kay’s appearance in the film was limited, and Wonder Bar was the first time Kay publicly complained about her casting. Dr Monica (1934), well received when first released, is today known as one of Kay’s worst movies.
Her importance at Warner Brothers was highlighted by the success of her movies. Mandalay earned $629,000 with a profit of $83,462. Dr. Monica---which was pulled from the screen weeks after its release because of the Production Code---earned $443,000 with a profit of $70,962. Wonder Bar, which had Kay top billed over the all-star cast, earned $2,035,000 with a profit of $756,962. Ruth Chatterton’s Female earned $451,000 with a net loss of $6,615. Bette Davis’ Ex-Lady earned only $283,000 with a profit of $60,385. So anyone who wanted to underestimate Kay Francis as a top Warner Brothers star at the time need only look at the box office receipts from her movies. Bette Davis was still a B movie star, Ruth Chatterton was on the wane, and Kay was taking over for the top female position at the studio. And by the end of 1934, Chatterton’s contract ended with no option for renewal. As for Davis, Of Human Bondage (1934), her most famous film of the year, grossed only $592,000 with a loss of $45,000. Kay’s position in Hollywood at the time was greater than both stars.
Professionally she was about to really hit her stride, but her personal life was a complete mess. Kay’s marriage to Kenneth MacKenna was ending when 1934 rolled around. After months of tension and explosive arguments, Kay and Kenneth divorced on February 21. She began an affair With Maurice Chevalier soon after her split from MaKenna, but not even a new lover could make things better for Kay. On May 16 she attempted suicide by slitting her wrists with broken glass. Almost dying after losing nearly two quarts of blood, she was rescued by her maid who called an emergency ambulance. Ironically, Kay’s suicide attempt occurred during the filming of her most prestigious movie for Warner Brothers thus far, British Agent (1934), proving that fame and fortune were not the real keys to happiness.
Feeling hopeless in her personal life, her attitude and depression found their way into her career as well. As a result, Kay began settling for assignments turned down by lesser stars. The House on 56th Street, Mandalay, and Dr. Monica were Ruth Chatterton rejects. British Agent and her role in Wonder Bar had been turned down by Barbara Stanwyck. On the contrary, Living on Velvet (1935), her next movie, was handpicked for her by Jack Warner. The only notable aspects of the film were Kay’s second teamings with George Brent and Warren William, and the fact that Kay’s wardrobe was the real draw of the picture. The trailer literally showed a montage of the Orry-Kelly gowns worn by Kay throughout the film. Stranded (1935) was Kay’s third pairing with George Brent and the only movie of Kay’s screenwriter Delmer Daves [her lover at the time] worked on. The Goose and the Gander (1935) was a real departure for her, and one of Kay’s most delightful comedies. The film can easily be referred to as the best of the Kay Francis-George Brent pairings.
With a turning point in Hollywood underway, Kay Francis reached the peak of her popular success over the next three years. Movie attendances were back up to pre-Great Depression numbers, and Kay’s importance at Warner Brothers was solidified with the success of her next movie, I Found Stella Parish (1935). A major hit with audiences of the time, Variety thought the film was a “Powerful story of an actress and mother love. For Kay Francis I Found Stella Parish is an ideal vehicle. She is one of the screen’s most charming women, and as Stella Parish of the London stage she is always a cameo of film loveliness.”
With a new-found confidence in the talents of their top female star, Warner Brothers made their only opportunity to garner her recognition from the Academy Awards with a movie biography about Florence Nightingale titled, The White Angel (1936). Censorship problems ruined what could have been an excellent script. After the success of The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), Jack and Harry Warner wanted an immediate prestigious follow-up to the outstanding Paul Muni masterpiece. The San Francisco Chronicle commented, “Kay Francis is beautiful enough and glamorous enough to transcend the monotony of a nurse’s uniform. And, by the way, that is something few Hollywood actresses can do…One other woman on the screen completely dominates the situation by merit of her light and spirit, and that woman is Garbo.” But the film was a major flop.
Surprisingly, The New York Times highly praised The White Angel, finding Kay’s performance “sincere and eloquent.” But the audiences stayed far away from the theaters. The film was a box office flop by most accounts, earning a not-so-hot $1,416,000. Unlike Greta Garbo’s Queen Christina (1934) or Norma Shearer’s Marie Antoinette (1938) the film had an empty story with no elaborate costumes or settings (though the lack of Hollywood glamour provided a more realistic touch to the film, which took place on the battlefront of possibly the bloodiest war in history).
Give Me Your Heart (1936) was a complete turnaround. The major success of the movie proved that it was not Kay who was responsible for the failure of The White Angel, but a lack of care from the screenwriters on the Warner Brothers lot. After the releases of Stolen Holiday (1937; Kay’s only movie with Claude Rains) and Another Dawn (1937; Kay’s only movie with Errol Flynn) Variety listed the top ten most popular female motion picture stars: Myrna Loy, Loretta Young, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Alice Faye, Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Jeanette MacDonald, and Janet Gaynor. Her position as the sixth most popular leading lady in Hollywood was made more official with a major salary increase. Now receiving $5,200 weekly, Kay topped the Warner Brothers payroll for both 1936 and ’37, earning more than her boss, producer Hal B. Wallis.
Confession (1937) can arguably be written off as the last great movie Kay Francis ever appeared in (and is no doubt the second best movie she ever made, the first being Trouble in Paradise). In the film Kay went “from opera to cabaret and, finally, to a courtroom on trial for murder.” Today we recognize the movie as one of the all-time great mother-love dramas, but when it was released critics and audiences found it just another “Kay Francis melodrama.” The film’s European touch proved an ineffective accomplishment in the eyes of critics at the time. A take-for-take remake of Mazurka (1935), the production of Confession was a complete mess. Director Joe May screened the film regularly on the set and even kept a stopwatch to match the scenes up perfectly. More than once did Kay walk off the set, and Joe May never made another movie for Warner Brothers, even after the success of the film.
In an effort to lift her sprits, Jack Warner allowed Kay the opportunity for comic relief. The chosen property was First Lady (1937), a film adaptation of the great Broadway success. “I am so tired of suffering for my art,” Kay told an interviewer. “For picture after picture I’ve had to shed buckets of tears over my little child or my poor, thwarted lover or something. I’m sick to death of crying.” Unfortunately, the failure of the movie was like a knife in the back for her, and after being replaced in Tovarich (1937) by Claudette Colbert, Kay Francis filed suit against Warner Brothers on September 4, 1937.
The Town’s Epitome of Glamour was ready for war against the toughest studio in town.