Kay Francis was born Katharine Edwina Gibbs in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1905. Her parents, Joseph Sprague Gibbs and his actress wife Katharine Clinton Francis, were married on December 3, 1903 in New York City at the Church of the Transfiguration, and they moved to Oklahoma City the following year. But, by the time Katharine was four, her father had left. Joseph Gibbs, who stood 6’4”, gave his daughter the gift of height – she was Hollywood's tallest leading lady (5 ft 9 in) in the 1930s. (Ingrid Bergman and Alexis Smith matched her in height, but did not become stars in Hollywood until the 1940s.)
From 1932 through 1936, Francis was the queen of the Warners lot and increasingly her films were developed as star vehicles. By the mid-thirties, Francis was one of the highest-paid people in the United States. She frequently played long-suffering heroines, in films such as I Found Stella Parrish, Secrets of an Actress, and Comet over Broadway, displaying to good advantage lavish wardrobes that, in some cases, were more memorable than the characters she played—a fact often emphasized by contemporary film reviewers. Too frequently, however, Francis' clotheshorse reputation led Warners to concentrate resources on lavish sets and costumes, designed to appeal to Depression-era female audiences and capitalize on her reputation as the epitome of chic, rather than on scripts. Eventually, Francis herself became dissatisfied with these vehicles and began openly to feud with her employers, even threatening a lawsuit against them for inferior treatment. This in turn led to her demotion to programmers such as 1939's Women in the Wind and, in the same year, to the termination of her contract.
After this, she moved to character and supporting parts, playing catty professional women—holding her own against Rosalind Russell in The Feminine Touch, for example—and mothers opposite rising young stars such as Deanna Durbin. Francis did have a lead role in the Bogart gangster film King of the Underworld, released in 1939. With the start of World War II, Francis did volunteer work, including extensive war-zone touring, which was first chronicled in a book attributed to fellow volunteer Carole Landis, Four Jills in a Jeep, which became a popular 1943 film of the same name, with a cavalcade of stars and Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair joining Landis and Francis to fill out the complement of Jills.
Declining health, aggravated by an accident in 1948 in which she was badly burned by a radiator, hastened her retirement from show business. Francis married five times. Her diaries, preserved in an academic collection at Wesleyan University, paint a picture of a woman whose personal life was often in disarray. In 1966, Francis was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, but the cancer had spread and proved fatal. Having no living immediate family members, Francis left more than $1,000,000 to Seeing Eye, Inc., which trained guide dogs for the blind. She died in the summer of 1968 and her body was immediately cremated; her ashes were scattered. Learning more about actress Kay Francis has made me want to see her movies and discover what her appeal was in those 1930s movies. It was a time when movies were an escape from the stress of the day, and no other actress of the time seemed to be more fun to escape with than Kay Francis...