Suffers in Dresses

Her films were invariably melodramatic, often illogical, always peppered with bizarre situations.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a line, a situation, even a moment[…]which has any check on reality. [This] is the main reason people went to movies back in the 1930s…

Audiences didn’t want reality.

Kay suffers, and then suffers some more, as she constantly changes clothes[…]and few wore clothes more attractively than Kay Francis[…]

A perfect example of what was then known as ‘The Kay Francis Formula’. Movies like this kept Warner Brothers in the money for years.

– Robert Osborne,
‘Turner Classic Movies channel host

I became a Kay Francis fan based on her performances in comedies. Over the past two years, I’ve been wondering why she made so few, spending more time in melodramas. Thanks to the enlightening explanation above, her career choices now make sense to me. Francis made those movies because they were what people wanted from her. Moviegoers liked seeing her play characters whose defining characteristics are emotional turmoil and striking outfits.

People can see the same actress very differently. Kay Francis is one of three performers who recently reminded me of that. Joan Blondell and Claudette Colbert are the others. My favourite Colbert performance is in “It’s a Wonderful World”. I like Blondell most in “There’s Always A Woman”. I assumed that anyone who likes the two actresses would agree with me. I was shocked to discover that some people think they were miscast in those films! It has been suggested that Colbert and Blondell were better off playing more mature characters. I marvel at the diversity of human opinion.

Many Kay Francis fans must have thought “I Found Stella Parish” and “Stranded” were good, because her popularity did not begin to wane until years after them. My reaction to both movies was mostly one thought: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste…so is Kay Francis”.

“Trouble in Paradise” contains what I define as a perfect Kay Francis performance. I doubt she ever played another person who was as glamourous, sexy, saucy, and desirable as Madame Colet. To me, she is the ultimate ideal Kay Francis character – fashionable and eloquent, oozing style through both words and wardrobe.

“Jewel Robbery” is another movie with a Kay Francis performance that I can treasure. She acts with giddy enthusiasm, a breath of fresh air after being subjected to her more oppressive downbeat movies. The only thing I love more than what Kay does in this movie is the way she does it, especially in her first and last scenes. If I had to choose my favourite last shot in movie history, it would be hard to decide between “Jewel Robbery” and “Queen Christina”.

There’s an episode of “The Simpsons” that starts with Bart and Lisa playing a game using made-up Native American names. Inspired by the 1990 film “Dances with Wolves”, Bart chooses ‘Dances In Underwear’ for himself and refers to his brainy sister as ‘Thinks Too Much’ (a good name for me too). I think the most appropriate name for Kay Francis in such a game would be ‘Suffers in Dresses’.

It sounds like many 1930s film fans were pleased to see her do that and not much else. As long as the majority liked Kay as victims in gaudy costumes, she was justified in sticking to that formula. After all, embracing her typecasting kept Kay popular and financially stable for years. I’m trying to just be grateful for my favourite Kay Francis performances, instead of being frustrated that so few exist.

It’s difficult for me to be okay with Kay’s career trajectory. I watch some of her movies and wonder how people could be satisfied with them. I feel like fans should have demanded more from her. I don’t know if doing so would have inspired Kay to be pickier about roles. If I could, I’d take a time machine into the 1930s and set myself up as an agent to stars like her. After successfully giving career advice to ‘Suffers in Dresses’ (i.e. do more comedies!), I’d go on to help Greta Garbo (‘Wants To Be Alone’) and Clara Bow (‘Flirts With Everyone’).

I have a lot of love for these actresses. If only more of their performances reinforced that love, instead of testing how much disappointment it can endure. Greta Garbo played too many misguided women who cheat on lovers (often without convincing reasons), instead of roles like ‘Ninotchka’ and ‘Marguerite Gautier’, which expanded her horizons as an actress. Clara Bow deserved better men to flirt with in movies, instead of being stuck with wimps and weirdos. As for Kay…imagine if most of her films had been as interesting as her clothes in them. Instead of ‘Suffers in Dresses’, she might have been better described as ‘Makes Good Movies’!