Follies of 1938, Chapter 2: Kay Francis, Pretty Poison (YMRT# 10) / by Karina Longworth


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In May 1938, the Independent Theater Owners Association published a full-page paid editorial in The Hollywood Reporter, branding a number of big stars — including Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn and others — as “poison at the box office,” and urging the studios to cut their ties to expensive names who no longer had the drawing power they once did at the box office, in part because they symbolized a type of glamour which seemed, in 1938, to be falling out of fashion.

All of the above named stars, while damaged by the bad press in the moment, went on to make “comeback” movies that helped to cement their legacies. That wasn’t the case for another actress mentioned in the ad, Kay Francis, who in 1938 was still Warner Brothers’ highest paid star — even though she had tried to sue the studio the previous year for casting her in too many bad movies. After roaring her way through New York in the 1920s as a flapper it girl, Kay Francis hit her career peak in 1932, the year she starred in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, but eventually she essentially lost her spot in the movie star firmament to Bette Davis. Today we’ll talk about the idea of box office poison, trace how and why Kay Francis became the embodiment of the meeting of 1930s movie star glamour and a devil-may-care pursuit of pleasure that marked pre-Code Hollywood, and explain why that magical combination wasn’t long for the world of the studio star system.

!!!Show notes!!!

For the first time, I’m going to suggest that if you haven’t already listened to the first episode in our 1938 series, you might want to go ahead and do so before you hit up this one. I mean, you don’t have to, but it will give you a better understanding of the general scene in 1938, and the context of the now-infamous “box office poison” scandal. 

That episode was heavily sourced from Catherine Jurca’s Hollywood 1938: Motion Pictures Greatest Year, a book which served as a starting point for this chapter. The other two MVP texts this week were Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career by Lynn Kear and John Rossman; and A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960 by the great Jeanine Basinger. The former is a fun, dishy read, making stellar use of Francis’ own, incredibly bawdy diaries. The latter is simply one of my favorite film books, the best kind of historical criticism with a personal bent. They’re both available as e-books, and would make for great summer reads. 

Kay Francis appeared in over 60 films, and I’ve only been able to see less than 10 of them. In fact, this episode was delayed by at least a full day due to my difficulty getting my hands on a few films I felt I needed to see. After giving myself a very mini Francis Film Festival this week, there are two films that I cannot urge you strongly enough to seek out. First, there’s Jewel Robbery, a William Dieterle romp that’s in the vein of Trouble in Paradise (I’m not sure which film she actually shot first; they both came out the same year), but more vulgar. There’s a touch of stoner comedy in it, and Kay’s character is almost as, shall we say, sex positive as she apparently was in real life. That movie is good. One Way Passage, directed by Tay Garnett, is fucking great. I thought I had maybe seen this last summer in a Garnett retrospective at the Paris Cinematheque, but turns out I was mixing it up with two other madcap love-at-sea movies, Trade Winds and China Seas. Tay Garnett is really good at romantic-comedic-semi-tragic boat movies, and One Way Passage is, I think, the best of them. And short! 

One problem I had this week is that the supposed best currently operating video rental store in San Francisco only carried one Kay Francis film, Trouble in Paradise. I ended up buying a few DVDs from the Warner Archive (including One Way Passage), and watching a few others (including Jewel Robbery) on iTunes. There are still other films that I want to see that I haven’t yet been able to find. 

Totally coincidentally, TCM devoted part of two days to her earlier this week, but that did me no good because the apartment I’m subletting doesn’t have cable. Still, the only film they showed that I regret not being able to see was Frank Borzage’s Stranded. These YouTubeclips are all I’ve seen of either of Francis’ Borzage movies; by the looks of it, Living on Velvet has more of Kay as I like her. Dan Callahan and Farren Nehme Smith have seen far more of Francis’ films than I have, and their writings on her are an invaluable guide to separating Francis’ wheat from her chaff. 

Next week, I’m going to do a Howard Hughes/1938 crossover episode, and then the week after that, jump far, far ahead in time. After that, I’m going to take a couple of weeks off, and then come back in mid-to-late August with new episodes, and (hopefully) a slightly revamped website. If you have any requests or suggests, that’s what Twitter is for


"Preludes for Piano #3" by George Gershwin

Of Separation from the Heat soundtrack, by Elliot Goldenthal

"Roads" by Portishead

"Moonlight Saving Me," performed by Blossom Dearie

"Soul le soleil exactemente (orchestre)," by Serge Gainsbourg

"Born to Be Blue," performed by Chet Baker

"The Operation," by Morrissey

"White," by Frank Ocean

"Gymnopedie (piano) No. 3 - Lent et Grave," by Eric Satie, performed by Frank Glazer

"Halo," by Loveliescrushing

Theme from Dark Victory, performed by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

"Teardrop," by Loveliescrushing

"Gnossiennes No. 1," by Eric Satie, performed by Frank Glazer

"Sex and Dying in High Society," by X