Kay Francis was a tremendous asset as a performer, her peak period in the 1930s drawing audiences in hysterical droves to each film. Combined with her striking twilit beauty, eminent public image of haute couture, and resonance as a skilled actor of both comedy and drama, Francis’s “bankability” rendered her a cathedral among Hollywood star stables. Moviegoers mired in the devastation of the worsening Great Depression found an idol in her screen persona of strength and unflagging resolution. The elegant glamour characteristic of Kay Francis features—the unfailingly lavish grandeur of wardrobe and set design—served as a famously healing oasis of freshness, loveliness, and splendor amid the real life social ruin waiting just outside theater walls.
After 1932, the most successful year of Francis’s career, Warner Brothers began putting her in middling projects more suited to a B-actor, which the headlining screen goddess had time and again proved she was certainly not. Francis’s salary during this time was something of a Hollywood centerpiece. In 1935, the true beginning of the end of her career, she cleared the year with $115,167 [a modern value of $1,935,814.36 when adjusted for inflation in 2013]. In 1936, she earned $227,100 [$3,762,344.46 in 2013]. In 1937 and 1938—unquestionably her most occupationally disappointing years—she made $209,100 [$3,343,857.50 in 2013] and $224,000 [$3,658,348.94 in 2013], respectively (In 1937, Francis was the top-paid of all stars at the studio. As a matter of fact, she even made more than her boss, Hal Wallis. In 1938, James Cagney was named the top-paid Warner star for the year, but even then only surpassing Francis by $10,000.)
Francis filed suit against Warner Bros. in 1937 after she was, again, suddenly passed over for a lead that was promised to her despite having been in agreement that she would be assigned to it two years earlier in 1935. Still further, the suit described that the studio had consciously forced her to submit to “roles of inferior quality” and had even posted her name in an exclusive “interstudio register” blacklist without her consent, which made certain that other studios could not propose for her to be loaned out for work in individual productions (in effect trapping her services as an actress at Warner Bros.). Heated feuding ended in a tense settlement, but in the meantime Warner Bros. bitterly amplified their unnecessary disruption of her remaining career. Their apparatus of retribution began taking to form in Bette Davis, who in 1938 had been suddenly given roles that Francis had campaigned for, been promised, and announced in long before. Exasperated, Francis asked for the possibility of being considered for a different film, but she was again flatly rebuffed by studio suits.
Francis’s retaliation to Warner Bros. was served quietly and with astounding endurance: she simply remained at the studio. Both in spite of and because of its now vastly open oppression of her as an employee, the star did not want to be bullied out of her contract by the men upstairs. She took the punches with startling reticence, never complaining, apparently determined to see her contract out to its end. Francis’s films instead grew exponentially more absurd, and less and less care was being shown to productions that billed her. Her castigation escalated when she was put into the B-movie unit, which, among its other purposes, was used “to punish ungrateful, uppity actors.” Privately, Kay responded to this by declaring that so long as she was paid a salary, “I’ll sweep the stages if they give me a broom.”
Devoting resources to going “out of their way to make Francis’s life difficult,” this period at Warner Bros. was “one of the more sordid chapters in our history,” as articulated by a studio employee. “Since there was too much money at stake for us to allow her to graciously decline our final offer of a 50 percent settlement, the only other means at our disposal was to force her to quit. So began a campaign of harassment and humiliation.” Francis was ordered to aid in screen tests. “It was unthinkable to use high-salaried actors, let alone stars, for the embarrassing task of playing second fiddle to raw newcomers, but again, contractually her refusal would have resulted in an immediate suspension. Swallowing her pride and pocketing her paycheck, for the next six days she reported to the test stage.” Perhaps the climax of this abuse of the great star crackled at last when the studio denied Francis a lunch pass for two guests at the commissary in a more public attempt to mortify her.
Francis lost yet another promised role to Davis. Her career as a respected Hollywood actress of the Warner Bros. studio, which had begun with such dynamism and ovation, met its end with disgraceful anticlimax. Francis—still of supernatural fortitude, though wearied by the obscene war with an establishment that had shamelessly sought to destroy her—expressed a morbid eagerness to be erased, thoughtfully conceding, “I’ll be forgotten quicker this way.”