The Siren moves on to Mandalay (1934), another film she saw while awaiting Ben's debut. This one was directed by Michael Curtiz, Warner Brothers' jack-of-all-trades, and a director whose reputation has been burnished in recent years by admirers such as Spielberg and Soderbergh. The Siren, however, was watching this one for Kay Francis.
The movie came out in 1934, but apparently it was slipped into release just before the Production Code was etched onto stone tablets. The opening shot of Kay on a boat in Rangoon harbor is one of the nicest you will ever see of this actress. Loose-fitting tropical blouse drooping off of one shoulder, Kay waves energetically as lover Ricardo Cortez approaches in a dinghy. The shot has a refreshingly natural, unposed feel to it, and she looks innocent and happy. But this is a Kay Francis vehicle, so that doesn't last long.
Cortez, you see, is a gun-runner wanted by the authorities. To square his debts and save himself from being turned in, he leaves poor Tanya Borisoff (Francis is supposed to be Russian) as payment with the local bordello owner. After a night spent reflecting on Man's Perfidy, Tanya calls off a brief hunger strike and resolves to make the best of things. Next thing you know, she is sashaying down a staircase in the greatest silver sheath of all time, as a grumpy bordello patron remarks, "They call her Spot White. It should be Spot Cash." (The nickname seems to derive from Francis's all-white wardrobe in the picture, though it's never really explained.)
The Siren thinks of Curtiz's signal virtue as pacing. His films move, often at breakneck speed. Something like Mandalay, with a complicated plot fully teased out over 65 minutes, stands in pleasant contrast to a modern genre movie like X-Men, in which half an hour of exposition is combined with almost zero actual character development. In very short order, after pulling a lucrative bit of blackmail on local official Reginald Owen, Tanya leaves town in a variation on the treatment Claire Trevor got in Stagecoach. But again, this is a Kay Francis movie, and she leaves in a killer white suit, with cushy accomodations on a slow steamer to Mandalay. On the boat she meets and falls in love with an alcoholic doctor With a Past, Lyle Talbot. But Tanya's own past intrudes in the form of Cortez, who turns back up, in the way all rotten exes eventually do. The female audience that loved Kay so much must have enjoyed seeing Cortez get his just deserts more than once, as his character proves as difficult to bump off as Rasputin. I especially liked the bit where he gets stuffed through a porthole.
Mandalay is tosh, but it is enjoyable tosh, and nine-tenths of the pleasure is definitely Kay. You hear a lot about her lisp, but it honestly isn't as prominent as people make it out to be--more Barbara Walters than Elmer Fudd. Still, it is usually irresistible to film writers looking for a laugh, like Jerry Vermilye discussing Mandalay in The Films of the Thirties:
'If you touch my garter, I'll scweam,' she warns a lustful gentleman early on. [The gentleman is actually the consul she is blackmailing, and Tanya is mocking him. -C.] Sympathetic screenwriters usually helped Key avoid these verbal pitfalls, but Mandalay scenarists Austin Parker and Charles Kenyon must have had a grudge against her; near the film's climax, they have her address costar Lyle Talbot with 'Gwegowy, we awwive in Mandalay tomowwow. We ah two wecked people.'
Cute (although with that second quote Vermilye conflates two separate lines), but the Siren thinks Francis deserves better than jokes about her speech impediment. Though she was hardly a talent for the ages, there was something lovable about this actress. She had huge dark eyes and a slightly receding chin, combined with a low and gentle voice. The effect was of someone easily wounded and in great need of tenderness, though her movie plots usually offered her precious little of that. Her fans flocked to see her suffer, as in The House on 56th Street, a somewhat overwrought but touching movie where the troubles life heaps on her last through 30 years (and some unfortunate blonde wigs). Given a script with genuine wit, as with One Way Passage or the superb Trouble in Paradise, Kay had a gently mocking manner well suited to high comedy.
Her friends remembered her as a kind and generous person, with a warmly self-deprecating manner. She was dismissive about her looks and never had much regard for her own talent. As long as her salary stayed on a steady incline, she took the roles she was offered. As a result, her image was worn down eventually, as Warner Brothers increasingly relied on her name to redeem inferior vehicles. When at last she began to fight for better parts, it was too late. By 1938 her period of greatest stardom was over, and she was labeled "box-office poison" in the celebrated Hollywood Reporter ad. Unlike fellow drugs on the market such as Hepburn and Crawford, Francis didn't get a chance to surmount the stigma.
From the beginning, she was famed for being a clotheshorse, and though she hated the label, no one wore 'em like Kay. In Hollywood fashion history, Audrey Hepburn had the European tastefulness, Marlene Dietrich was the iconoclast in trousers, Julie Christie had the swingin' attitude, but Kay is tops in the Siren's book. She could wear even a ludicrous gown and make it seem chic. Given a truly elegant ensemble she could take your breath away. She was tall, slender and flat-chested, with a slight give-a-damn slouch that defied you to question why the hell she was wearing white in the middle of the Burmese jungle.
The picture you get in Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, by Lynn Kear and John Rossman, is melancholy. The authors make heavy use of Kay's diary, which was really more of a month-by-month calendar. But instead of just jotting down "buy bread" or "call mom," Kay used shorthand to note liquor consumption and all of her sexual conquests. That frequently filled up the margins, too, with entries like "Swell time but got very drunk. T[allulah] B[ankhead] called me a lesbian" and "We baptized the library floor. Good fucking" and "Slept with him and he may be the best of them all! Christ, I am a slut." (That possible best of them all, if you're interested, was agent Charles Feldman.) Her appetite, encompassing both men and women, was huge. She had four marriages but no children, opting instead for a jaw-dropping number of abortions. As a bit of social history, the ease with which well-connected, well-off Kay got abortions is telling; she had four the year she turned 23.
Several times the sheer volume of Kay's conquests made the Siren reach for a cold cloth to put on her forehead. (Even the authors say plaintively in the preface, "Believe it or not, we truly wanted to find out more about her career ... but the diary focused on her sex life.") Alas, nothing brought the actress much happiness. The book's Kay pursues pleasure but seldom finds it. Eventually the career withered and died, too, killed by public weariness with Kay's kind of pictures and blocked by the rise of a greater Warner star of the four-hanky saga, Bette Davis. Kay made no movies after 1946. In later years she drank too much, but retained a measure of her appeal even in bad times.
Actor-director Harold J. Kennedy ... described how Kay kept her sense of humor during one incident. 'I remember taking her one night to a little restaurant upstairs in the East Fifties when she fell down and it took three of us, the head waiter, the owner and myself, to carry her down the stairs and out into the street. The owner and the maitre d' were holding Kay slumped between them while I was trying to hail a cab when a young sailor went by and stared at her. "Is that Kay Francis?" he said. Kay half-opened her eyes and smiled that million-dollar smile. "I used to be," she said.'
Kay Francis doesn't have the name recognition of a star like Katharine Hepburn or Marlene Dietrich, but her reputation is kept alive by unusually devoted fans. James Wolcott has mentioned his affection for her more than once, and the Web boasts several lovingly detailed Kay sites. The Siren hopes to see more of Kay's movies, as more people succumb to her charm.