There is no movie genre that makes me ugly cry more profusely than the maternal sacrifice melodrama. Perhaps Barbara Stanwyck has played the most famous of these mothers in Stella Dallas (1937), where she stood in the rain, an outcast, looking through the window at her daughter's wedding, eyes glimmering with proud tears, but Kay Francis more than made her mark as a suffering mama. In a pair of new releases from Warner Archive, the actress suffers nobly and jerks tears relentlessly. If that sounds unbearable, it isn't. These are well-paced, entertaining dramas.
In I Found Stella Parish (1935), Francis is a celebrated London stage actress who is also mother to a charming six-year-old played by Sybil Jason. When a blackmailer threatens to reveal an unpleasant incident from her past, she goes incognito and slips away with her daughter to the States. Her cover is blown by a curious reporter (Ian Hunter) who realizes too late that he wants to help, not expose the actress.
Of course one of the most important elements of a good maternal sacrifice flick is the child. After all, there is no tension if the kid doesn't seem worth the fuss. Francis has a charming chemistry with Sybil Jason, who is adorable, but not so precocious that she steals the spotlight from her leading lady. The South African actress had been imported from her British home to be the Warner Bros version of Shirley Temple. While she doesn't quite have Temple's sparkle (and who did?), she's an appealing actress, wide-eyed, earnest and not too cloying.
Francis had an interesting ability to manipulate her audience. When her eyes become wide with grief and fill up with tears, she is clearly playing on your emotions, but the actress never comes off as too melodramatic or silly. You can see her acting, but you can also see how her heart is hurting, and it is devastating. As Stella Parish she uses all her tricks, moving efficiently through her troubles, but always with great heart and warmth.
Confession (1937) reteams Francis with Hunter as a husband and wife whose happiness is threatened by the concert pianist (Basil Rathbone) who conducted her in her successful career as an opera singer, and who is still determined to possess her. He forces a scandal through which Francis is divorced and forced to leave her daughter with her father.
Francis barely exists as a singer in cheap clubs, always searching for her child. Soon after she finds her, she discovers the teenager kissing the very pianist who destroyed her life. Unable to bear the degradation of her daughter, she kills him. The trial that follows is grueling for the singer, and not due to fears of her own fate, but because she wants to spare her daughter from the public shame of learning of her past in the courtroom.
I've never seen Francis' glamour more thoroughly trashed in a film. At first, efforts to make her look sleazy are only somewhat successful. Plastered with heavy make-up and sporting a curly Harpo wig, she somehow still comes off as lovely and statuesque, if gaudy. By the trial scene she finally looks thoroughly ravaged, though her look would still gain her some cred in the Goth crowd.
All this deglamorizing was perhaps an attempt to make something more of Francis than her well established reputation as a gorgeous, suffering clotheshorse. However, with or without the glitz, she was always able to communicate the greater depths beneath her beauty. Francis may not have had the fire of contemporaries like Davis and Stanwyck, but she was always a pleasure to watch; she had her own, unique power, a sort of tenderness propped up by a steel backbone.
In the moving final scene of Confession, a simple special effect is used to communicate the emotion beneath Francis' controlled appearance. The gentleness and wisdom with which she approaches that moment is all her own. Though she never had a child herself, the actress effectively demonstrates the maternal pull, and how it can inspire great sacrifice.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.