September 16, 1930 – Anne Francis:
“Of course, I don’t like being the vamp, but sexy roles are the plums these days.“
Honey West is a television series that aired on ABC in 1965–1966 with 30 episodes in its single season. Based upon a series of novels, the first in 1957, the series starred Anne Francis as female private detective Honey West.
Honey West was probably the first female private detective to appear on television (Does Nora Charles count?). The series was historic, marking the first time a woman played the lead character in a network series where her character’s name is the title. Francis first played West in a second-season episode of Burke’s Law (1963-66), which led to this series, a sort of spin-off. West drove a Jaguar convertible in the Burke’s Law episode and was twice referred to as the “private eyeful”. She carried a gun and was trained in martial arts. I feel like Honey West was supposed to be an American version of the character Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) from the British series The Avengers (1961-69).
In the television series, Honey West has a pet ocelot, Bruce, and in one episode the series Daktari (1966-69), which is set in Africa, is playing on her television screen and Honey says: “…why do we always have to watch this show?” Honey’s feline demeanor meant that she was costumed in animal-prints, and so was her apartment’s décor, although for her fight scenes she wears a black jumpsuit like Emma Peel’s leather jumpsuit. Like Peel’s sports car, Honey drives similar-looking American convertible. And like Peel, West often went goes an assignments that seem to require provocative clothing.
Honey West lasted just one season. Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was number one in the ratings for that timeslot and ABC decided it would be cheaper to import The Avengers. Yet, Francis still received nominations for a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy statuette for her performance.
Because I’m a Boomer, I thought first of Honey West when I thought of Francis. But maybe you may know of her from the lyrics: “Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet \ Oh-oh at the late night, double-feature, picture show“, which were sung over the opening credits of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), which also references the cult sci-fi flick Forbidden Planet (1956). Francis was only woman in the cast of Forbidden Planet, and somehow the sexy Francis has an innocence as “Altaira”, the stand-in for Miranda in this outer space setting of William Shakespeare‘s The Tempest.
In Forbidden Planet Francis wears a mini-skirt as the teenaged(!) daughter of the exiled Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). She has never seen any man except her father until a group of U.S. astronauts led by Leslie Nielsen arrive on the scene. She wants to know all about this kissing thing from the new arrivals. There is this exchange when she is forbidden by her father to have contact with the Earthlings, she beams up Robby T. Robot (Ariel), purring:
“Robby, I must have a new dress, right away“.
Altaira: “Oh, but this one must be different! Absolutely nothing must show – below, above or through.”
A: “No, just eye-proof will do.”
Born in Ossining, New York, Francis began her career when she was a kid. Francis:
“I didn’t come from a show-business family; neither of my parents were involved in it. Actually, someone said to my mom that they thought I’d make a good child model, so she took me up to the John Robert Powers modelling agency, which was the top one in New York City at that time. We were sitting in the outer office with a lot of other folks and Mr Powers himself came out of his office door, looked around the corner, pointed at me, and said, ‘I’ll take that one!’ And that’s how it all started, when I was just six years old.”
She started performing on radio and made her Broadway debut when she was 11 years old. She was Anne Bracken in the program for the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin-Moss Hart musical Lady In The Dark (1941) starring Gertrude Lawrence and Danny Kaye. The show brought Francis a one-year contract with MGM. Sadly, the studio cast her in just small roles in three films. In 1950, she was finally cast in a major role. It was in United Artists’ So Young, So Bad, a sordid tale about juvie girls living at an authoritarian reform school, and Francis is simply terrific as an abused teenage mother with a thing for her doctor (Paul Henreid).
Her performance caught the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck, who signed Francis to contract with 20th Century-Fox. She made five films for the studio, including two where she plays the daughter an especially hissy Clifton Webb: Elopement (1951) and Dreamboat (1952). She was finally allowed to play a grown up, a landowner in 19th-century Haiti in the title role of Lydia Bailey (1952), filmed at the Fox Ranch, because nothing says Haiti like The Valley.
Francis returned to MGM where she had good supporting roles in a series of good films with a range of good parts. In Rogue Cop (1954), she plays the drunken discarded moll of a gangster (George Raft). In the thrilling Bad Day At Black Rock (1955), she is, just as in Forbidden Planet, the only woman in the cast. She plays a tough garage owner who doesn’t want Spencer Tracy to find out the secret of her Black Rock where “somethin’ kinda bad happened”, and who meets a tragic end.
Francis was is a series of Juvenile Delinquent School Dramas, one of my favorite genres. In Blackboard Jungle (1955) she is the pregnant wife of a teacher (Glenn Ford), who is the victim of threatening notes and phone calls from a depraved, deprived student. Francis is really good in this one, but the film is now mosyly remembered for being the first with a Rock ‘n’ Roll soundtrack this one by Bill Haley And The Comets. She is impressive as Paul Newman‘s war-widow sister-in-law in 1956’s The Rack (write your own joke). In the taught The Hired Gun (1957), she is sentenced to hang, unusual for a woman in a western, for murdering her husband.
There was something about her that seems so right for Film Noir. In Girl Of The Night (1960), a nasty gritty noir, Francis plays a high-priced prostitute, exploited her pimp, but in the end she finds help thanks to psychotherapy.
“It is the one film I’m most proud of. I was going through analysis at the same time and I was playing going through analysis on that film. It was quite a workout, and it really beat me up.”
None of her work in films could keep her from the lure of good salaries in television. Francis:
“I had reached the end of my rope as a contract player at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They were always looking for a new face, so I thought, forget it, I want to do television. In those days, that was the death knell for an actor. You worked television; you didn’t do film.”
But for me she will always be Honey West, the sexy, liberated detective, with the help of hunky Ericson (who had played her cowardly brother in Bad Day At Black Rock).
For the next three decades Francis kept working, and I love that about her. She went ahead and did guest spots on television series, including four episodes of Dallas in the 1980s.
Francis wrote Voices from Home: An Inner Journey (1982) a book about her belief in mysticism and psychic phenomena. Diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, it finally took her in early 2011, gone at 80.
I had recently remarked about how Francis packs such a wallop in the beginning of Funny Girl (1968). She played the Ziegfeld Follies lead Ziegfeld girl, “Georgia James”, only to disappear after the first half hour. I can picture her Georgia giving young Fanny Brice wry advice. For years, bitchy queens would repeat the rumor that mean Barbra Streisand had Francis scenes cut when she saw how radiant Francis was in their scenes together.
My friend, curator/historian/writer Meg McSweeney related to me that shortly before she died, Francis published an “Open Letter to Barbra Streisand” on her website:
It has gnawed at me for years that you have believed that I blamed you for cutting most of my scenes from Funny Girl. I felt the sadness of the misunderstanding all over again when I read a supposed quote of yours last year saying that you had heard me blame you on a TV talk show. The only talk show I did on the subject was on Johnny Carson, and Joey Bishop was subbing that night. I tried to make it plain that I did not blame you and had no idea why I was cut from the film. To this day, I don’t know the circumstances that caused the decision, but I am led to believe it probably had to do with the length of the film. The sub plot of Georgia’s histrionics with Florenz Ziegfeld was really not necessary to the story about Fanny Brice.
In all fairness, I understand that the press believed that I felt that way because my public relations person, who was also a very dear friend, did believe it, and she made the statements that were attributed to me. I was caught in the middle, and rather than point a finger at her, I did the best I could to refute the story whenever confronted by an interviewer. The whole thing was messy and painful. I had never been embroiled in that sort of ruckus before. I know you were going through a lot of flack, as well during those stormy days when first you hit Hollywood (or It hit you!). I had hoped then that it would all blow over quickly, but when I saw the quote you allegedly made recently, I felt awful once more.
At the age of 35 (over the hill in those days!), the role of Georgia was a great gem for me, and I had high hopes (I had just come off of Honey West) that it would do a lot for my career. The flashy role, along with the drunk scene (which hit the editor’s floor) pretty much cinched the prospect of a supporting nomination with the Academy that year. So, you can understand the humiliation when each day a note would be slipped under my dressing room door, ‘omit scene so and so’. The scene named would always be the one I had been called in to do that day. I am not whining, dear lady. We’ve all taken our lumps in this business. I’m just sharing with you what was going on at that time with me. You had your own problems. I marveled at how you handled yourself on your first encounter with the alien world of the film industry.
I have had the greatest respect for your talent and for what you have made of yourself, Barbra. You are a brilliant woman and I have always wished you the very best. One more time, it is important for me before I leave this planet to say, I have never accused you of having the role of Georgia cut to the quick.