Flawless: Kay Francis’ Jewel Heist Comedies

Kay Francis is not the best remembered of the screen goddesses of the 1930s. She is overdue for a revival; she has an idiosyncratic aura that makes her stand out. Her waves of dark hair, distinctive brows like exaggerated commas, and sleepy, almond-shaped eyes make her a sophisticated beauty, both angelic and wry. A slight speech disorder (her r’s sound more like w’s) add to her unique appeal. She’s a luxury commodity, always enhanced yet never upstaged by the fabulous styles of the day. If it’s a Kay Francis joint, you’re going to get your fill of satin, tulle and gold lamé. Her slinky gowns are always extravagantly adorned with sequins, beads and feathers, but the clothes never wear her. Her effortless chic builds up her characters, who are always independent and self-possessed.

As with all the great stars, it’s the coexistence of paradoxical qualities that make Francis indelible. She has a unique ability to simultaneously embody both sheer elegance and pure sex. And like all great stars, she’s a timeless reflection of her own time. Francis embodies the spirit of the Pre-Code Era: poised and witty, slyly suggestive and insinuating without ever slipping into vulgarity.

As the highest-paid female star of the early ‘30s, Francis made an astonishing number and variety of films, including the Western When The Daltons Rode and the Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts. She also played women trapped in melodramatic love triangles, but she was rarely a stereotypical sloe-eyed vamp or femme fatale: her sense of humor always makes these characters more complex. It’s a combination of wit, insouciance and warmth that really made Francis what she was.

Francis shines brightest in movies about jewel heists: William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery and Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, both from 1932, featuring Francis as wealthy women targeted by thieves, only for them to quickly realize that she is far more dazzling than anything hanging around her neck. Jewel theft movies are a very specific subset of the heist genre. Watching people lift great piles of cash is fun, but stealing jewelry involves an extra level of panache and aesthetic inclination. The savoir faire and elegance of the scheme should match the beauty of the jewels themselves. In luxurious settings, and among glamorous characters, different kinds of longings—aesthetic, financial, and sexual—are tangled into complex knots. These plots and themes suited Francis’ striking appeal and urbane patina, and allowed her to play independent characters who choose their own paths. 

Jewel Robbery is a delicious caper, totally irresistible in its gleeful Pre-Code immorality. Francis’s Teri, a Viennese society woman, has been suppressing her boredom with her wealthy older husband with a lackluster affair and a much more earnest longing for diamonds. Her husband is haggling to buy her a great honking rock when they’re held up by a group of jewel thieves, led by a mystery man known only as “The Robber.” Francis charms as the unapologetically pampered Teri; she shades her pouting with enough of a winking edge to make it more funny than grating. Once the robbery is underway, Teri does nothing to disguise her absolute glee at the thrill of it all. Nor does conceal the thrill she gets from The Robber himself, played by the always-dapper William Powell. When Teri first gets a good look at him, her face goes incandescent and woozy. “I think I’m going to faint,” she says, smiling, leaving little doubt as to the real reason why. 

Powell and Francis were frequently cast opposite each other, and it’s easy to see why. The dialogue between the pair is winking and sizzling. (At one point they make a toast to “merely man”, “merely woman” and “whatever joins them.”) Because the dialogue is so bold, the delivery has to be deft. Francis and Powell find a frequency that’s witty and polished while still emphasizing all the implications. What feels both strikingly modern, and also emblematic of the Pre-Code era, is the emphasis on female fantasy and a woman’s right to choose freely in love. Teri makes it quite clear that her hesitance about running away with The Robber is mostly superficial, and that what she really wants is the fantasy of being abducted. While she wavers a bit about her final choice, The Robber leaves the decision in her hands till the very end. 

The question of a woman’s choice in love takes a more bittersweet turn in Trouble in Paradise. Francis’ charisma reaches sublime heights in this jewel heist story that reveals hidden depths of the subgenre, and plays up the romantic comedy subplots that often accompany them. Lubitsch focuses on a love triangle, as famous thief Gaston Monescu plans to rob Francis’ Madame Colet, a wealthy widow, by posing as her secretary. The plan goes awry as Gaston falls in love with Madame, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend and accomplice Lily. 

Before she meets Gaston, Madame’s life is luxurious but dull. She’s well aware of her own allure, and swans around in fur-trimmed wraps, looking like the cat that’s got the cream. She half-heartedly entertains two fuddy-duddy suitors. “Don’t be so downhearted, Major,” she tells one of them. “You’re not the only one I don’t love.” 

Gaston ignites the part of Madame that longs for sex and adventure. Their first meeting is subtler than Jewel Robbery’s daring Meet Cute, but its carnal subtext is still there, implied with great finesse. Francis and Herbert Marshall’s Gaston seem magnetically drawn to each other, their faces moving together in many almost-kisses. But Gaston seduces Madame with an unusual, bossy servitude. He tells her everything that’s wrong with her household affairs, and, with all the audacity of a master thief, charms Madame by telling her she’s wearing the wrong shade of lipstick. Gaston caters to her every need and has a languid manner, with the implicit suggestion that he could fulfill other needs, if asked. Ultimately, she makes the first move, and she doesn’t pussyfoot around it. “You’re conceited,” Gaston tells her in the almost-kiss that’s about to become a real one. “But attractive,” she counters, confident of and reveling in all her movie-star allure. 

Unlike the glorious fantasy world of Jewel Robbery, Trouble in Paradise ends with a dose of reality. Madame Colet must decide if she can trust a thief and live a life on the run, without her creature comforts. Here, Francis tempers her incandescent aura with wistful melancholy, something beautiful and sad in her glistening eyes. The rueful Madame’s hidden feelings require Francis to plumb hidden depths. The way she meets the moment is a testament to Francis’ gifts, which are a joy to rediscover. 

Ten of Francis’s films, including “Jewel Robbery” and “Trouble in Paradise,” are currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

Julia Sirmons writes about film, media and performance. Her work has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room, CrimeReads, The Theatre Times and Another Gaze. She has a PhD in Theatre and Performance from Columbia University.

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