Friday, September 5, 2008

An appreciation of Kay Francis

Kay Francis is TCM's Star of the Month for September, meaning that they're going to be showing a lot of movies from the early to mid-1930s. They don't show up so often, as Francis' film career ended in the mid-40s and she's not very well-remembered today, so for the most part I can't comment on them. They're also generally unavailable on DVD, unlike the movies of those who went on to become bigger stars.

Indeed, Francis' career was in decline by the late 1930s, as she was overtaken by Bette Davis as the queen of the Warner Brothers' lot, and with America's entry into World War II in 1941, she started touring with the USO. This work was dramatized in one of the Francis movies that is available on DVD, Four Jills In a Jeep. There's not much to the plot; four female entertainers feign wanting to help the troops by going on tour to Europe to perform in front of them. The military commanders call their bluff, and so our four heroines get sent overseas. There's the usual trifling plot line about girls falling in love with soldiers, too, but that's not the reason to watch a movie like this.

Four Jills In a Jeep is like Hollywood Canteen, or other morale-boosters of the war years, in that the reason to watch them today is as documents of the performs in them doing their routines. The "four jills" are Francis, Mitzi Mayfair (in the photo above), Carole Landis, and Martha Raye (more on her later). In addition to them, however, we get a big band leader (in this case, Jimmy Dorsey); and entertainers like pin-up queen Betty Grable, or dancer Carmen Miranda, playing themselves. Probably the one drawback to Four Jills In a Jeep is that Fox didn't make this one in Technicolor.

As for Martha Raye, her career may or may not have been the subject of a Hollywood movie. In 1991, Bette Midler starred in For The Boys, about the long and tempestuous career of a woman who performed with the USO. Raye claimed that the movie was based on her life, and wanted financial compensation for her life story having been used without her permission. However, the matter was never settled, and Raye died after a long series of illnesses in 1994.

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