Thursday, August 14, 2008

Kay Francis on TCM in September

A signal goes up from Brooklyn to James Wolcott on the Upper West Side:



Looks like Turner Classic Movies' September Star of the Month is our own Kay Francis. The Siren has written before of her love for mellow-voiced, velvet-eyed Kay, her inimitable way with a chic frock and her ability to combine sophistication with a sense that life was wounding her. Francis had peaked by the mid-1930s and her films are not easy to come by. The Siren has been complaining privately to pals that TCM seemed to be slipping a bit in its commitment to programming the rarities. She takes it all back.



Here are the ones the Siren wants to catch. All times EDT:

Cynara (1932), directed by King Vidor. An early piece about adultery, discussed in David Shepard's book on Vidor. Kay plays the wronged wife, Ronald Colman the straying husband, Phyllis Barry the shopgirl who turns into an early form of bunny-boiler. (Sept. 11, 9:30PM)

Jewel Robbery (1932) (William Dieterle). The Siren likes Dieterle and this movie matches Kay with her One Way Passage costar, William Powell. (Sept. 4, 9:15 PM; Oct. 9, 6:15 AM)

The House on 56th Street (1933). (Robert Florey) The Siren's long-ago intro to Kay, discussed at length in Lawrence Quirk's The Great Romantic Films. She wears a terrible blonde wig for most of the film but the Siren has fond memories of this movie, which combines Doomed Romance with Sacrificial Mother Love. (Sept. 12, 11:15AM)

The Keyhole (1933) (Michael Curtiz). A blackmail melodrama with a plot highly typical of Kay's pictures of the period. (Sept. 19, 8:45AM)

Living on Velvet (Sept. 5, 6:45AM)
Stranded (both 1935) (Sept. 25, 3:15AM)
These are the two films Kay made for genius Frank Borzage, the great high-Romantic director whose films are about as easy to come by as reservations at the Waverly Inn. Consequently we cinephiles are starving for more and the prospect of two with Kay has me drooling. Although, to be honest, so scarce are this auteur's movies that TCM could drop me a line promising "Friday at 10 AM: PIECE OF KITSCH, directed by Frank Borzage" and the Siren would be dragging out the blank discs. Of everything on the schedule these are the two I will cry if I don't manage to record.

Stolen Holiday (1937) (Michael Curtiz). Aside from Curtiz, the Siren is intrigued by Kay opposite Claude Rains, who plays a crooked financier in over his head. (Sept. 11, 4:30AM)


Finally, just as a bonus, three that apparently aren't on the schedule, darn it:

Let's Go Native (1930) (Leo McCarey) Kay has a small part in this early musical farce directed by the great McCarey. Kay has a duet with Jack Oakie, "I Gotta Yen for You." This the Siren gotta see.

The Virtuous Sin (1930) Extremely early Cukor film co-directed with Louis J. Gasnier. Possibly (probably?) not very good but there aren't many Cukor movies the Siren hasn't seen so she's got a filmography to finish off.
Girls About Town (1931) See The Virtuous Sin, except this one is all Cukor and it's supposed to be good. Plus it has gold-diggers and the Siren loves gold-digging movies.

The Siren has already seen, and highly recommends, One Way Passage (1932), one of the most romantic movies ever made and, no matter what you've heard, bright and snappy, not mushy at all; Lubitsch's great Trouble in Paradise (1932), Kay's best film and Miriam Hopkins's best as well; and Mandalay, a fast-moving trek through some dens of iniquity and atmospheric rear-projection, directed by Michael Curtiz.

35 comments:

wwolfe said...

"Jewel Robbery" is terrific. I was lucky enough to see it a hundred years ago - OK, only thirty - at the incomparable Theater 80. (I think if more movie theaters were located in former speakeasies, there'd be more good movie theaters.)

Karen said...

Drooooooool......the "wavishing Kay Fwancis"!

Oh, thank the heavens above for DVRs. This is going to be a slice of paradise.

I've seen almost none of the ones TCM is showing, apart from Jewel Robbery which is very nearly as delicious as Trouble in Paradise.

I can't wait....

Jonathan Lapper said...

Whaddya know, my wife and I have been complaining about TCM for the very same reasons. Naturally after having it for years you get used to seeing a lot of the same movies over and over again (I wonder sometimes if Robert Osborne ever gets sick of having to do another intro for, say, The Maltese Falcon) but we subscribe to the viewers guide and have never thrown away any of the back issues (they're reading material in the downstairs bathroom). Anyway, we did a little experiment a few months ago to see if we were crazy - and we weren't (at least not in regards to this). We went through the guides to see what year the eight o'clock (EST) movie was made in. Sure enough, in the last five years they have steadily increased by decades. While years ago many of the primetime movies were made in the thirties, the majority now are late forties, fifties and early sixties(!). By the way, don't bother trying this out with this months schedule. For the Summer Under the Stars month many of the celebrated stars have movies in the thirties and forties so it's a little better this time of year.

Anyway, it's somewhat dismaying. In five more years are most of the prime time schedule flicks going to be sixties and seventies with everything before relegated to the early morning, afternoon or late night hours? And in ten years is it going to be eighties movies? God I hope not.

Whew, okay, tyrade over. I was thrilled to see Kay Francis on the cover of the new guide as were you. I hope this signals a return to sticking more strictly to the twenties, thirties, forties and early fifties.

And unlike Karen I haven't seen nearly as many of them so I look forward to it very, very much.

Dan Callahan said...

The two Borzage/Kay films are both fascinating, especially "Living on Velvet," which has a classic "love at first sight" moment and even a startling bit where Kay makes fun of her famous lisp. I'll put in a word for "The Goose and the Gander," which is a lot of fun, a small comedy, but nicely done.

I too am interested in seeing the Claude Rains/Kay movie, "Stolen Holiday." Also Kay with Edward G. Robinson in "I Loved a Woman."

I have (very grainy) copies of the three rarities you mention that aren't showing on TCM. The two Cukors are as good as the two Borzages...and "Let's Go Native" !!?! That one you have to see to believe. That it was allegedly directed by Leo McCarey is only the first of its puzzles...

I still haven't seen Kay's first film, "Gentlemen of the Press," with Walter Huston. I hope it isn't lost.

Andrea Janes said...

I know virtually nothing about Kay Francis, so I'm looking forward to getting schooled!

Plus, I'm excited about "Going Native" since I'm a big McCarey fan... September promises to be an interesting month.

Andrea Janes said...

Wait, I just re-read your post.
*Not* on the schedule? Darn it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Stolen Holiday is an absolute must-see. It's the Stavisky story with the great Claude Rains as the suave swindler and Kay as his fashionable and gorgeously dressed wife. While it isn't as detailed as the version Alain Resnais made decades later -- with Belmondo, Boyer, Annie Duperey a Sondheim score -- this is still quite something to see, especially as the events depicted happened only a few years prior to this film's making.

Gerard Jones said...

Thank you for alerting us, Siren!

Cynara I've never seen but want to. I have yet to see a '30s Vidor that wasn't full of beautiful and energetic moments.

And Jewel Robbery is one of my all-time favorite movies! I expected little from it and had that great rush of discovering an "overlooked gem," but I think even I'd been hyped to expect a lot it still would have satisfied. Hilariously cynical in the way only those early '30s movies set in decadent aristocratic Europe could be. And Kay is wonderful, not having to be elegant and tragic as she so often had to be. There's a febrile urgency about her that's almost Carole-Lombarian at moments.

House on 56th Street I found pretty disappointing, mainly because it's one of those movies that zooms through decades and allows neither actors nor viewers to settling into a character or situation.

The Key Hole is a blast. I watched it twice just a couple of weeks apart. The best argument I've seen for why George Brent is better than people think he is. And seductive Havana locales.

I haven't seen either of the Borzages, but I'm programming my TiVo the second I hit "Publish Your Comment."

Haven't seen Native, Virtuous or Girls but all sound worth seeing, just to see how those three directors used Kay. And I'm totally with you on the other three. One Way Passage is one of the most bracing treatments of death I've seen. As a total sucker for Terry and the Pirates exotica I loved Mandalay. And how can words do anything but lessen the glow of Lubitsch's best movie?

Oh, and Borzage's Piece of Kitsch is one of my favorites! Right up there with John Ford's Potboiler, Preminger's Odd Self-Indulgence, and of course Hitchcock's classic Dial C for Completion of a Contract Obligation.

Noel Vera said...

Those Borzage are at ungodly hours. Oh god.

Is Kay any sexier than when she's peeking out from below both her legs in Trouble? I don't know. That scene still makes me dizzy (as in: all the blood draining from my head). I know only one woman in the world who has a similar effect on me (and strangely enough she works in movies too).

To Piece of Kitsch throw in Howard Hawk's Constipated But Cool

Maya said...

Thanks for the guidelines, Siren. I know very little about Francis. I'll only be able to catch the second half of the series since I'll be at festival the first half of September.

Erich Kuersten said...

Thank god I got TCM in time for this, and thanks Siren!

Isn't Kay Francis also in an underseen film called GIRLS ABOUT TOWN? Or am I thinking of someone bigger boned?

At any rate, I love her in THE COCOANUTS (1929), coming on to Chico and Harpo, swimming through the thick air of early static talkies.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Yes she's in Girls About Town with Lilyan Tashman. It's a really fun early Cukor and an obvious forerunner of Sex in the City. Cukor pal Andy Lawler and the magnificent Eugene Pallette are also featured in the cast.

Mr. Cukor used to joke about Kay Francis a lot with Judy Garland during the making of A Star is Born. If a take wasn't good he'd say "Not up to Kay Francis." If it worked beyond expectations he'd tell her "Better than Kay Francis."

Gerard Jones said...

That's a nice anecdote, David...

Kay is an interesting case because she was so upfront about acting for the money, not glory or self-expression. As she said (and as became the title of a biography), "I can't wait to be forgotten." So she never had a truly sublime moment (as far as I can see), one of those moments when her entire being and life story and passion and madness all focus in perfect authenticity. On the other hand, she rarely stretched in the wrong direction and fell down. Her entire career is played within a spectrum of competence: from just competent enough to delightfully just right.

No surprise that a measured director like Cukor would both appreciate and denigrate that competence, and that a more volatile actress like Judy, who really did live for the audience (and surely never longed to be forgotten!), would fall short of her sometimes and shoot way over her head at others.

Noel Vera said...

I'd argue that her legs over her head in Trouble was a sublime moment. Don't know how she felt about it, but I certainly did.

Gerard Jones said...

Yes, the legs over the head was sublime indeed. I don't know if it focused her entire being and life story and passion and madness into one moment...but it sure did mine.

mndean said...

They showed Stranded a few months back, and I got a copy of it. It was an interesting Kay film, but her costar was George Brent, who I have problems with (he's rather dull at times). Pretty good movie overall, but for me not enough Kay, who could look sexy even in her Traveler's Aid uniform. When her romantic rival is Patricia Ellis, it was like seeing Kay swatting a bitchy blonde gnat.

Erich Kuersten said...

I can't stand George Brent! Seeing Bette Davis fight over him with the Miriam Hopkins and Mary Astor in those Edmund Goulding pictures, horrific! They're so out of his league! As a guy, you just want to punch him or ignore him every second he's onscreen.

Gerard Jones said...

My God, I have seen Stranded--I just didn't recognize it by the title! And it's a total bore! That one they can leave off the Borzage DVD set...

And before anybody writes Brent off completely, you've got to see him in at least one of his early '30s movies where he got to be a twinkle-eyed Irish bastard and they hadn't decided to make the dull, respectable whatever-he-was later. Especially Keyhole with Francis or The Rich Are Always with Us with Ruth Chatterton. You may still not like him, but at least you'll know he had a little something once.

Vanwall said...

Hmmm. Brent may have had something, just not sure what it was - he has his his moments, however.

Kay had something, tho - she has her own little special place in the pantheon, and if anyone thinks that maybe being just good enough is just good enough, Kay Francis proved she had something special as well - she was much more fun to watch than a lot of other actresses. TCM gets a attaboy.

mndean said...

Generally, Brent comes across as a solid, dull citizen (way duller than Fred MacMurray, say) who looks as if he should be writing insurance policies rather than acting. But he had moments even in later films. Other than those mentioned, he does come across pretty well in the unfortunately-titled Housewife, where he plays a singularly beat-down office manager until his wife Ann Dvorak (the brains of the outfit, as the film makes clear) gives him the nerve (and the liquor and a lot of good ideas) to pursue his ambitions. Later, after his success, his ambitions include being seduced by Bette Davis, but never mind, it's a code movie, so he and Dvorak end up back together. It's not as interesting a Brent film as The Rich are Always With Us (never saw Keyhole, unfortunately), but he could do adequate work occasionally.

Gerard Jones said...

I think Kay is one of those stars whose acting ability than all the rest--poise, presence, stance, grin, and those EYES. And that cute little speech impediment. And that way she had, even in glamorous or hard-bitten roles of being somehow...I want to say "nerdy." A very winning hesitancy and awkwardness. Compare her fallen woman in Mandalay to similar characters by Dietrich, Crawford, Stanwyck, Davis--they could all beat her at theatrics, but she had a vulnerability unlike any of them.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That vulnerability was most successfully mined by Lubitsch in Trouble in Paradise.

Karen said...

I'll chime in on the George Brent issue as well. Believe me, erich, I know where you're coming from on the Brent loathing. My sister and I used to groan whenever we saw that he was the leading man on some never-seen Bette Davis film. But gerard, vanwall, and mndean aren't wrong when they point you to his early stuff. The film that shocked me out of my automatic Brent avoidance was Stamboul Quest, in which he is positively insouciant. (It also features Myrna Loy barely wearing a spectacular black and jeweled evening gown, if you need further inducement.) The other films mentioned are also definitely going to surprise you.

I don't know what the heck happened to him in the mid-'30s to make him so stolid and wooden (we've been making fun of Bogart in Dark Victory, but Brent is easily as ridiculous), but it's definitely not the only side to him.

Erich Kuersten said...

Thanks Karen! Yeah, he's not as bad in Dark Victory as he is in THE GREAT LIE or THE OLD MAID....(shudder).

As for VICTORY, You know something weird's going on in the casting and directing when the best supporting male actor in a film is a drunk Ronald Reagan!

I'll certainly keep an eye out for these early films of which you speak

Gerard Jones said...

My interest in Brent changed dramatically when I learned about his real life: Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Irish horn dog, IRA operative. Supposedly even left Ireland for the USA because there was a bounty on his head (not sure who by--Black and Tans, maybe). Off camera apparently had a wicked charm and was very popular with a fascinating range of challenging women--married Ruth Chatterton and Ann Sheridan, long affair with Bette Davis. I figured a guy like that must have shown something interesting on screen...and indeed he did, before someone at Warners decided they needed him to be the Reliable Boring Guy.

VP81955 said...

Note that Kay's turn as TCM's star of the month in September will be followed in October by Carole Lombard (in the month of the centennial of her birth!) and Charles Laughton in November.

And for my memories of Theater 80, go to my blog, "Carole & Co.": http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/29850.html

(For those who can't read the end, it's "29850.html")

Gerard Jones said...

I've just learned that Manny Farber died yesterday. Anyone whose eyes have been opened to the beauty and verve inherent in overlooked commercial movies, especially the quick and the cheap, owes a debt to Manny. I hope wherever he is he's got good stuff to watch.

tomcervo said...

"Stolen Holiday (1937) (Michael Curtiz). Aside from Curtiz, the Siren is intrigued by Kay opposite Claude Rains, who plays a crooked financier in over his head. (Sept. 11, 4:30AM)"

As David E notes, the Stavisky case. It may not have Sondheim or Boyer, but it does have Claude Rains, who makes Belmondo look like Travis Bickle. If you're casting a man who could run a national swindle, Rains is your only choice.

For once Kay gets to act with a leading man as sophisticated as she; she glows with pleasure in their scenes, on parole from the likes of Ricardo Cortez.

cdt said...

Yes, this:
"And before anybody writes Brent off completely, you've got to see him in at least one of his early '30s movies where he got to be a twinkle-eyed Irish bastard and they hadn't decided to make the dull, respectable whatever-he-was later."

and, this:
"My interest in Brent changed dramatically when I learned about his real life: Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Irish horn dog, IRA operative. Supposedly even left Ireland for the USA because there was a bounty on his head (not sure who by--Black and Tans, maybe). Off camera apparently had a wicked charm and was very popular with a fascinating range of challenging women--married Ruth Chatterton and Ann Sheridan, long affair with Bette Davis. I figured a guy like that must have shown something interesting on screen...and indeed he did, before someone at Warners decided they needed him to be the Reliable Boring Guy."

Brent did all right in JEZEBEL (why in the hell would Bette want milquetoast Fonda, when she oughta Let George Do It?), and he's aces with me due to one movie, THE PURCHASE PRICE with Miss Stanwyck. A farmboy, looking for a wife, who can keep his hands off Babs on the wedding night? Suuure. But they had chemistry, and a toughness that they didn't get to use in their more mannered pics.

1930s Girls About Town said...

Yay! We finally bought a DVD recorder because of this! Plus the rare (non-Kay) "Three Loves Has Nancy" on 9/8! OK, and Lombard's "Lady By Choice" on 9/16 - may as well get her "In Name Only" before The Keyhole on 9/19 while we're at it.

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Erich Kuersten said...

wow, it's touching to hear so much defence of Herr Brent, though Cdt, I can't agree with you on THE PURCHASE PRICE, but then again I can't remember much about it (just that I didn't like it). I'm willing to give him a chance though, and will certainly record any of the aforementioned should they come down the mighty TCM tubeway.

I need to get a DVD recorder too.

Karen said...

Dunno if anyone, including the Siren, is still reading the comments here, but I just had to say that I am having a blissful time during the first Thursday of Kay Francis month.

Right now, I'm watching Living on Velvet, which has the jaunty, younger version of George Brent as well. Heavenly. Brent has just made fun of Kay's speech impediment, asking her to recite "Around the rugged rocks, the ragged rascal ran."

BWAH.

Erich Kuersten said...

Wow, I just saw ONE WAY TICKET. Amaaazingly good. Powell and Kay are so classy and sweet together you just melt for them, especially with death so present, and all the great cops and drunk robbers business is so well done and humane, I was floored by the sheer guts and beauty of this movie.