I found…that Kay Francis is an acquired taste. Predominately known as a pre-Code clotheshorse my experience prior to this consisted of watching her in Trouble in Paradise (1932) where she plays the straight man to the wacky antics of Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins. I Found Stella Parish works in the same vein as the story of another famous “Stella,” Stella Dallas (1937). Stella Dallas perfects the overall tone I Found Stella Parish looks for as this Mervyn Leroy-directed soaper spends too little time on the actually story in favor of playing up its leading lady.
Successful actress Stella Parish (Francis) is forced to flee London with her young daughter (Sybil Jason) in tow. When a nosy reporter (Ian Hunter) ingratiates himself into Stella’s life, it threatens to ruin everything.
It’s impossible avoiding comparisons between this and Stella Dallas; both came out within two years of each other, feature a mother/daughter relationship, and the main characters share the same name. Where Stella Dallas gets things right is the narrative. Stella Dallas works hard for her daughter but finds their relationship threatened through societal factors she can’t control. Ultimately, Stella sacrifices a relationship with her daughter for the greater good.
I Found Stella Parish doesn’t exactly know what it wants to accomplish, starting out as a mystery – why did Stella Parish flee London? – before settling into a maudlin and mawkish romance between a reporter and a movie star. The mother/daughter relationship, wonderfully established in the introduction and lovingly returned to in the finale, seems like more of an impediment than the entire reason for the film’s existence. Her daughter isn’t necessarily a prize to be won or lost, but a presence, which is odd since Sybil Jason is touted out and adored by everyone, including the camera, on par with Shirley Temple.
Much of this stems from how inconsequential the plot is. Stella walks into her dressing room after a successful night only to be met with a shadowy, unseen presence. It’s a moment that terrifies the woman enough to flee with her child, yet that sense of fear and dread never lasts. Once Stella and Gloria are on the boat the film segues into a sweet story with reporter Keith worming his way into Gloria’s, and by extension Stella’s, affections for a story. Even then, his various teletypes aren’t played up to be something to fear because the script waits too long filling in the gaps on why Stella’s running. And once Stella reveals her past…it gives her publicity as opposed to putting her in hot water.
Cinematographer Sidney Hicox certainly makes everyone look good, particularly doe-eyed Francis and Jason. In fact, there’s an overabundance of close-up and medium shots on their faces, drawing out every single glistening tear through the film’s overextended 85-minutes.
Francis sells the part of devoted mother, and while the play she’s in at the beginning seems incredibly over-the-top Francis is game. The stuck on old-lady makeup when she’s on the boat with Gloria looks ridiculous, “uglying up” a beauty, but once it’s gone you can almost see Francis sighing with relief. She runs the gamut of emotions, again all captured exquisitely. Jason’s adorable as the precocious Gloria who seems more laconic about the supposed horror of their situation than anyone. She’s cute and gets a song to sing as well, acting as a cross-breed between the cherubic innocence of Temple and the dark looks of Jane Withers. Refreshingly the men come off as utterly boring and interchangable, with Ian Hunter totally unremarkable as the man Stella presumably loves.
I won’t lie, I was bored stiff with I Found Stella Parish. I have another Kay Francis film to watch, Confession (1937), and maybe that’ll be the film to turn me into a fan. As it stands, Francis and her work in this are fine but severely limited.
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