Today is the birthday of Kay Francis (Katharine Edwina Gibbs, 1905-1968).
Most folks in my set discover her from her role as the vamp in the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts (1929), in which she is, frankly, kind of non-descript and dull. Like me, most folks who discovered her through this film are flabbergasted to learn that immediately thereafter she went on to become Warner Brothers’ number one female star, and the highest paid American film actress.
With her sultry, low voice, cute speech impediment (“r” came out like “w”, Elmer Fudd style) and slinky manner she was often in demand for bad and/or misunderstood type dames. Her heyday was 1930 through 1936, when her films included Raffles (1930), Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Wonder Bar with Al Jolson (1934). (There were scores of other movies beyond these, most of which have been forgotten but which made gobs of money in their own day).
In 1938 she wound up on that famous “box office poison” list put out by the Independent Theatre Owners Association, along with Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, et al. Still, she managed to soldier on until the mid 40s, appearing in films like the 1941 Charley’s Aunt remake starring Jack Benny and Four Jills in a Jeep (1944). At the beginning of her career, Francis had also been in four Broadway plays, including Ring Lardner’s Elmer the Great (1928). She was a second generation actress; she grew up barnstorming on the meller circuit with her mom Katherine Clinton.