On DVD: Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway (1938)


No actress gave the classic melodramatic weeper more depth than Kay Francis. In a genre crafted to manipulate emotions, she threw herself into the drama with such abandon that you can’t help forgiving her for working your tear ducts so relentlessly. Now on DVD from Warner Archive, Comet Over Broadway (1938) showcases the actress at her glamorous, self-sacrificing best.

Francis plays an ambitious newsstand worker who lives with her husband and baby daughter. She spends her days reading Variety and her nights performing in community theater, always dreaming of big stage success. When her husband accidentally kills a visiting famous actor who he suspects of putting the moves on Francis, he is put in prison for life.

Determined to get her man out of jail, the guilt-ridden Francis hits the road with her daughter, working her way up from carnival entertainer to Broadway star. Along the way she meets an aging actress on the verge of retirement. She notes the trouble Francis has raising a child on the road and insists that she take on the task of raising the young girl. Though reluctant to part with her, she agrees that it is the best for her daughter.

As the years pass, Francis falls in love, reunites with her daughter and fights for her husband. She is criticized for her ambition and her poor mothering, but is nevertheless determined to do things her own way. There are syrupy strings, eyes full of tears always on the brink of falling, and sacrifices galore.

Sybil Jason plays Francis’ daughter. It’s her second pairing with the actress, they were also mother and daughter in I Found Stella Parish (1935). As in that film, they have a pleasing chemistry, playing off each other well in some of the film’s most emotionally wrenching scenes. Jason was groomed to be a sparkling Shirley Temple type, but she was more appealing as a dramatic star, always approaching her roles with sincerity and genuine warmth.

Bette Davis rejected the lead of Comet Over Broadway because she felt it was beneath her, which is fair, it was. However, in Francis’ hands this is a perfect melodrama. She knew exactly what she was doing in this kind of film and in her way she is just as good as Davis because, like her, she knew her lane and she kept in it.

Few genres are more derided that melodrama, but if it is done well, it essentially thrives in its own universe. It is a heightening of reality, grabbing directly for your emotions and if it is the ride you want to take, Comet Over Broadway is the perfect expression of the form.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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