Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
To Kay Francis, 1932 was just another long year. She had made The False Madonna, Strangers in Love, Man Wanted, Street of Women, Jewel Robbery, One way Passage, Trouble in Paradise and Cynara (yes, all of those in ’32).
Of these, One Way Passage was Kay’s favorite and Trouble in Paradise was her best. But before these two, one of her most charming pictures released that year was Jewel Robbery. In what can be considered almost a preface to Trouble in Paradise, she plays a cheefully jaded Baroness who becomes the enthralled victim of a very unorthodox and very polite robbery, subsequently falls hopelessly in lust with the suave gentleman robber, and vice versa.
We meet Baroness Teri (Kay Francis) in the bath, being pampered for her morning routine, as her friend Marianne (Helen Vinson) visits to talk through the day. They are to go to Mr. Hollande’s high-end jewellery store, where Teri hopes to receive a gift from her husband: an enormous diamond. Hijinks ensue when a personable gentleman enters and states: “With your permission, Mr. Hollande, we’re robbing your shop.” The robber (William Powell) puts on music and encourages the hostages to chat. After the robbery they will either consent to smoke a special cigarette (pot, one has to assume) or be locked in the vault. Teri refuses both, and is ultimately left alone in the store unharmed. What a thrill for Teri, when she subsequently receives an enormous bouquet of roses and her diamond is mysteriously returned to her. Apart from being a frothy comedy, with wonderful chemistry between the two leads, there are digs at the culture. From the perception of ‘respectability’ – “A peaceful night?” she exclaims to her robber, “In my bedroom??” – to the way the police profile their so-called suspects.
1932 would end up being the pinnacle of Kay’s career. She had just left Paramount to be able to sign with Warner’s. She had semi-reluctantly conceded to marriage to Kenneth MacKenna the year before, a marriage which would struggle on until 1934.
The downturn in quality of Kay’s roles is a little hard to explain. She was a superstar, after all, and could have insisted on the roles that were best for her. But she mostly deferred to the studio who, as so often with extraordinary women, may not quite have known what to do with her. When her option with Warner was renewed, then, artistically it might have been better for her if it hadn’t. Still, the security of being employed by a studio would be a relief for Francis, who -above all else- appreciated the benefits of financial security. “Money is handy stuff. I don’t think I’m mercenary, but when all those horrid bills start piling up the first of the month it’s reassuring to know you can write checks with a free hand.”1 There are several quotes, intimating she was “only” in it for the money. “Money? Is that all she cares about in Hollywood? It is. Exactly all.”2 Her work in Trouble in Paradise belies this, though, as she turned down another movie for the same pay, but could not resist working with Lubitsch. She desired sophisticated leading roles, but may not have had the fortitude to hold out for them.
Though lucrative years for Kay, 1932 – 33 were crisis years in America. The vertiginous economic downturn left many in desperate poverty. Unemployment was nearing an eye-watering 25 percent and on March 5 1933 the banking system would be shut down entirely. Kay may personally have been in clover on the back of her 1932 successes, 1933 signalled a decrease in the quality of her roles nonetheless. Instead of appreciating her as a comedienne, best in light sophisticated roles, more and more she was cast in mediocre melodramas. And though her presence still garnered positive reviews, Kay did not like them and they have not stood the test of time. Nor, perhaps, did the glamourous, sexy, who-gives-a-fig comedies, seem so fashionable anymore, in the face of so much desperation. The Hays code did not help matters either: the less-than-subtle double entendre, and flexible morality in film would be quashed soon after. Her marriage, perhaps predictably, was also in decline. The breakup has been attributed to a sense that Ken couldn’t cope with Francis’ success. That he somehow resented his wife’s enormous box-office draw. While that may well be the case, the truth is Kay drank a lot, misbehaved a lot, and, crucially by this time, according to her friends had lost a lot of her self-confidence as well.
There were later films, of course. Even ones in which Kay was allowed to be glamorous. There is the ever-popular Mandalay, a melodrama with a plot so lurid and euphemisms piled on so thick that it has aged less-than-elegantly, but looks beautiful none the less. Or Stolen Holiday with Claude Rains, where there is no chemistry at all with her wholesome would-be beau (Ian Hunter), and in which even Rains can’t seem to inject any real energy. The only small chuckle comes from Francis’ character describing herself as a “clotheshorse”. Which she certainly was, if only partly.
Famously Kay has said in later life that she would prefer to be forgotten, and she very nearly got her wish. But in a new age of digital media, and convergences of classic film nerds on the internet, films such as Trouble in Paradise are still being watched and enjoyed all these years later. That one even got a lovely Criterion release, and I’d argue that within Kay’s varied filmography, Jewel Robbery deserves a little bit of that love too.
1: Lynn Kerr and John Rossman, Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, (2006), p 99
2: Ibid, p 110