Five Films to Celebrate the Onscreen Style of Kay Francis

Born on this day in 1905, the actress spent the 1930s as one of the decade’s most fashionable stars.


Kay Francis with Herbert Marshall in 1932’s “Trouble in Paradise,” with costumes by Travis Banton.

If you love classic films, chances are you’re familiar with the work of Kay Francis, who was born on this day in 1905 and ranks high on the list of the most popular and stylish actresses of the 1930s. While Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were building the careers that would carry them into the 1940s and beyond, Francis was already at the height of her stardom in the 1930s, cast in films that typically portrayed her as a stylish woman who falls in love with the wrong man. Such storylines were eagerly sought by Depression-era audiences seeking escapist fare that always included glamorous costumes worn by Francis, whose poise and lanky frame were perfect for the decade’s fashion.


In addition to her reputation as a glamorous clotheshorse, Francis also was known for the soft R’s in her speech (she often was cruelly mocked as “Kay Fwancis”), while in later years, her most personal thoughts were exposed in the extensive diaries she kept, which revealed her healthy appetite for both men and women (check out Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career).


But as long as she wore the latest fashions, Francis might have been forgiven all her sins, especially during the pre-Code era. Indeed, among fans of film and fashion, Francis rivals perhaps only Norma Shearer as the ultimate 1930s star, who demonstrated in multiple roles that the key to success could be found in a dramatic story and a succession of smart day dresses and elegant bias-cut gowns. If Kay Francis isn’t yet on your radar, now is the perfect time to get to know her films; here are five to get you started:


Mandalay (1934)

Starring Kay Francis, Ricardo Cortez, Warner Oland and Lyle Talbot

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Costumes by Orry-Kelly

(Not available for purchase; occasionally shown on Turner Classic Movies)


Unlike the socialites she often played, in Mandalay Francis plays Tanya, who is stuck in Rangoon when she’s abandoned by her sleazy gunrunner boyfriend, Tony; after telling her to “put on that white dress that I like so much, and on your shoulder the lotus flowers,” he leaves her behind with Nick, who runs the local nightclub, to pay off his debts. Tanya becomes the club’s “hostess” — the quotes are intentional, as it’s implied that her role (she’s now known as “Spot White”) might extend beyond hostess duties in this pre-Code film. She decides to remake her life and, now calling herself “Marjorie,” hops a river steamer to Mandalay; onboard she falls in love with a depressed, alcoholic doctor — and runs into Tony, now on the run from the law. He threatens to expose her true identity and her past unless she helps with his escape, so she poisons him. Tanya/Spot/Marjorie ultimately isn’t blamed for Tony’s death, but she still atones for her sins in true 1930s fashion by following the doctor to Burma’s interior as a volunteer nurse for black-fever victims. As “Spot White,” Francis glams it up in looks like the Orry-Kelly metallic gown seen here, among the most spectacular costumes in her catalog of work. Mandalay is only 65 minutes long, making it a great introduction to Kay Francis on film.


One Way Passage (1932)

Starring Kay Francis and William Powell

Directed by Tay Garnett

Costumes by Orry-Kelly

$14.95 on DVD, available at ShopTCM.com


The ideal Kay Francis marathon would include three of her films from 1932, starting with One Way Passage, a perfect melodrama of the period. Francis plays Joan Ames, a socialite who’s dying of an unnamed disease, while Powell is a murderer who’s been caught and is being returned to San Francisco for his execution. The two meet aboard the transatlantic voyage and fall in love; but she never tells him she’s dying, and he of course never tells her he’s being sent to the electric chair. This is a perfect Kay Francis role, which allows her to play a range of emotions, all while wearing fabulous traveling clothes. The great supporting cast includes Warren Hymer as the detective in charge of keeping Powell in custody, as well as Aline MacMahon and Frank McHugh, who conspire to keep the lovers together as long as they able. Before the fade-out, however, the final scene suggests that the lovers ultimately found a way to stay together.

One Way Passage was remade in 1940 as ’Til We Meet Again, starring Merle Oberon and George Brent, with Orry-Kelly once again signing on to do the costumes. But Oberon doesn’t quite bring the sophisticated pathos to the role that has made One Way Passage a favorite among fans of Kay Francis.


Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Starring Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Costumes by Travis Banton

$39.95 on DVD, available at Criterion.com


Travis Banton amps up the drama with the costumes for Kay Francis in this film, in which she plays Mareitte Colet, the wealthy owner of a perfume company, who becomes prey to the con artist, Gaston, and Lily the pickpocket, played by Marshall and Hopkins, respectively. But Gaston didn’t anticipate falling for Mariette, while Lily realizes she’s jealous. As this is a pre-Code film, there’s a wonderfully suggestive scene in which Francis enters Marshall’s Paris hotel room, and after seductively removing her jewels, they have the following exchange:


Mariette: When a lady takes her jewels off in a gentleman’s room, where does she put them?

Gaston: On the … on the night table.

Mariette: But I don’t want to be a lady.


Banton’s costumes are highlighted beautifully in this film, including the below scene in the hotel hallway, blocked as though it’s intentionally meant to show off the back detail on Francis’s gown. The ending of Trouble in Paradise is also pretty terrific, and unexpected — and no, we won’t spoil it here.


Jewel Robbery (1932)

Starring Kay Francis and William Powell

Directed by William Dieterle

Costumes by Orry-Kelly

Available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video


Powell and Francis made seven films together, starting with Behind the Make-Up in 1930, so by the end of that run the pair exhibited a wholly natural chemistry, and it shows particularly well in Jewel Robbery, a film that seems to echo Trouble in Paradise, but without the pesky interference of the character played by Hopkins. Powell is a gentleman jewel thief who in the midst of a robbery gets mixed up with a bored baron’s wife, played by Francis — and naturally they fall in love. By now it may become apparent that costume designers created gowns that favored Francis’s back and shoulders, and that’s especially true in Jewel Robbery, in which Orry-Kelly designs a velvet dressing gown that seems to defy gravity, as it’s both backless and far off her shoulders.


I Found Stella Parish (1935)

Starring Kay Francis and Ian Hunter

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Costumes by Orry-Kelly

$17.99, available at WBShop.com


There’s plenty of opportunity for high drama and fab costumes in I Found Stella Parish, in which Francis plays the titular Stella, a London theatrical star who mysteriously disappears on the opening night of her latest play. It turns out that a man waiting for her in her dressing room knows all about her past, causing Stella to flee to America with her young daughter and the girl’s caretaker, the aptly named Nana, played by Jessie Ralph. Hunter is a newspaper reporter that spies the trio on the transatlantic voyage and decides there’s a good story there — but he didn’t count on falling in love with Stella in the process. Her secret (no spoilers) is eventually revealed, and she must go to great lengths to earn back both her public image and the family life she previously enjoyed.

Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times said of I Found Stella Paris, “Not merely is the story too, too tragic, but Mervyn LeRoy has directed it in the cadence of a graveyard processional.” Then again, Nugent also knew why audiences flocked to a Kay Francis film: “Against the constant burbling 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.” By contrast to such a tale, the lives of many Depression-era fans must have looked pretty good in comparison.




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