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Monday, July 20, 2015

Kay Getting The Double-Cross at Warners

Was King Of The Underworld (1939) A Broom To Sweep Francis Off The Lot?

To hear tell from Kay Francis bios, she was all but cleaning spittoons at WB as they applied late 30's push to be rid of her. KF wouldn't quit, however, not so long as Warners was bound to no-option pay checks they unwisely agreed to when Kay was hot. Her star having set by '39, it was Humphrey Bogart who'd be billed above the title for King Of The Underworld, a crime cheapie (negative cost: $235K) of a piece with what Bogie had been doing in sleep since The Petrified Forest. He's as much amusing as dangerous here, a would-be Napoleon of hoods who's flattered when Francis refers to him as a "moronic" type. Comedy as trump to mayhem kept these programmers out of harm's way that was censorship, violence held at minimum with assure that baddies like Bogart get just deserts (he dies yet again here --- a ritual so common as to be spoofed by montages in at least one HB documentary done to celebrate his 60's cult).

The Francis factor lights up modern day interest as much as Bogart did a half-century back, she being the old movie face on more recent rise thanks to TCM unspool of KF backlog. Ordeal of final Warner years lend stature to Kay as indomitable in the face of organized abuse --- they really did try every means of humiliating her right off the lot --- but Francis wouldn't budge. For this kind of money, she said, "I'll sweep the stages if they give me a broom." Forget B. Davis and O. DeHavilland as Joans Of Arc against studio tyranny ... Kay was the one who really beat bosses at perfidious game, and kept all of marbles besides, for what did Bette and Olivia accomplish beyond spend of thousands in legal fees and loss of income thanks to studio suspension clause? King Of The Underworld turned up on TCM last week in HD, thus the watch. It's also on DVD from Warner Archive.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Kay Francis later became the co-producer of her own pictures at Monogram, the battling little independent company. The Monogram affiliation didn't add to her prestige but at least she could work on her own terms. Monogram treated her with some deference: I read somewhere that company chief Steve Broidy asked everyone to wear suits and neckties on Francis's first day at the studio.

Her timing was excellent in that theater chains were beginning to play more Monogram product at the time. First-run houses that hadn't bothered with Monogram were now scheduling the studio's pictures regularly, so Francis did benefit from the exposure.

9:23 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Interesting story about Broidy and Monogram, Scott. I liked their "Allotment Wives," with Francis, and "Divorce" is not bad.

10:51 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon talks about Kay Francis and Warner bloopers:


Interesting item on Kay Francis. I do remember the title (and only that) "King of the Underworld". One can somewhat appreciate how Bogey was cynical and brooding and boozy by some accounts before the tide turned for him, big time, in the '40s, with movies and titles like these. You make the point very well: he'd done it all by then.

I don't think I can remember EVER seeing a movie starring Kay Francis! I know her instead from her many (unfortunately!) inclusions in those delightful "Break-ups..." compilations apparently assembled for an annual employee's Christmas bash held at the downtown Biltmore Hotel. She's not only in several of them, she's often featured heavily in them, individually! Why? Lots of line-blowings. I suppose if you were beating up on an actor you could quite easily make them look silly by favoring their screw-ups over the general average; still, she gave them plenty to work with, it would seem. At one time I speculated, childishly I guess, that this may have been the reason she went out of favor at WB. Dumb. Far more likely, as you say, her star simply faded. It happens. It's happened, in fact, to former young stars who were fairly ubiquitous thirty-odd years ago and have fallen out of the mix by now, or suffered 'demotion' from films to TV. Though many would argue that's no demotion anymore, it's more like a promotion, many TV shows being far more adult and engrossing than what's reheated and reserved at the movies.

Why, I wonder, hasn't it occurred to anyone at the WB Archive (or, Collection, whatever they call the outfit lately) to compile all the "Break-ups..." featurettes into a collection you can buy? I'd love it! I'd just watch them from stem to stern. Chances are however it might not run longer than a half-an-hour! I never applied a stopwatch to any of them. And do you happen to know when they stopped putting those together? Seems to me they peter out by the late '40s. Likewise, which was the FIRST year they did one?

1:31 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Craig ---

Good question about Warner blooper reels. There are certainly enough of them to make up a dedicated disc release, as each was around ten minutes long, and the reels continued being done through at least 1950 (I've seen, for instance, ones from "Young Man With A Horn").

The earliest Warner bloopers I recall dated back to 1935, and yes, Kay Francis was there right from the beginning ...

1:35 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Warner Archive, this is an idea whose time has come! Mr. Reardon has an excellent suggestion.

You can see nine of the Warner blooper reels on YouTube:

The series was known as BREAKDOWNS OF 19xx, later renamed BLOW-UPS OF 19xx. Some of the jokes are very inside, as when Jack Warner muffs take after take of a speech welcoming a visiting dignitary. A title comes on, guessing that Warner must have "stock in Brulatour." This is a reference to Jules Brulatour, industry supplier of raw film stock.

5:19 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Way back when i first saw this on TNT, it was immediately followed by a Paul Muni movie -- I can't remember the name of it -- which was the original version of "King of the Underworld." Muni played the Francis role!

3:00 PM  
Blogger Jan Willis said...


The Muni original was Dr. Socrates (1935). Great cast.

It was interesting that author W. R. Burnett's popularity made him part of the marketing campaign for the Muni version.

11:10 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

Kay Francis, when she was good, had a nice warm, natural quality and - crucially for a 'Big' star - could convey something 'knowing' behind her eyes. I think she has enjoyed a resurgence because her technique appears quite 'modern' in a way that Bette Davis performances from the same period completely lack.

6:56 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers Kay Francis:

Yes, that "knowing" look.

Kay Francis had a quality that suggested someone who had experienced life, apart from the quality of the dialog or the complications of the plot. In "One Way Passage," her lush beauty belied any infirmity, but her eyes betrayed the truth of her character. In other pictures, she might be gazing at the object of her affection or seemingly at no one at all--an intimate reverie with some memory or ideal--the eyelids slightly lowered, the head back, and one sensed a yearning that might never find fulfillment.

The pity for her and others is that the female stars of the time only seemed to enjoy a brief vogue, perhaps half a dozen years. Their careers might be rather longer, just not the luster of their stardom.

There were exceptions. Unfortunately, Kay Francis was not among them.

8:17 PM  

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