Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Arlene Francis' Line

When you mention the name “Arlene Francis,” you don’t think of an actress. And you certainly don’t think of an impressionist. But that’s what she did before arriving on the panel of “What’s My Line” in 1950.

Searches of old newspapers reveal she headed to Hollywood in 1932 where she won a role in the movie Murders at the Rue Morgue. That October, before heading back to New York, she made an appearance on KFWB’s The Big Show, one of several local variety shows on the air in Los Angeles. It may have been her first appearance on radio. She was billed as a “comedy monologist,” a ‘30s term for stand-up comedian. Variety didn’t specifically report what she did in her act.

The following year, she was leading the cast of “Bridges to Cross” at the Lyric Theatre in Summit, New Jersey and had been picking up roles on The March of Time on WABC, the CBS flagship. But she then landed a regular network radio show in 1934. She and Fred Uttal co-starred in 45 Minutes in Hollywood, a half-hour show on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. (I suspect the “45” was a pun on the title of the 1926 movie 45 Minutes From Hollywood). The two did impersonations of Hollywood stars; Kay Francis, Jean Harlow and Constance Bennett were in Francis’ repertoire, according to an ad in the Boston Globe.

Here’s a personalised story from the Washington Post radio column of July 17, 1934.
Radio Waves and Ripples
RAVEN-haired, girlish-figured Arlene Francis, now very much a star as C. B. S.’s radio mimic, first directed her dark brown eyes at a microphone about a year ago.
Within a few months she had impersonated movie personalities of such widely divergent characteristics, mannerisms, emotional traits and voices as Lupe Velez, Claudette Colbert, Evelyn Venable and Betty Davis. ‘Twas all done with plenty of zip and fire. Columbia knew they had a “find.”
But Arlene had tried her hand, brain and personality at nearly everything faintly connected with grease paint and amber spots before she blossomed as a mike star. Children’s playlets, neighborhood dramatics, Broadway bits, posing for painters and even a term at gift shopping sustained her until we noticed a C. B. S. photograph not long ago of “Arlene Francis.”
Mi gosh! We looked a little closer. Was it the same girl? We thought we remembered her during our callow youth as the girl “in our town” who swept along accompanied by a growlish-swank-looking Russian wolf hound. Well! It was. And she was known to us boys then as Arlene Kazanjian.
She appeared betimes in exotic Parisian things that formed suitable conversation for local dowagers. She stole the show during local “play contests.” She made mysterious visits down town. “Rehearsing” she said. And Charley Chambers, whose brilliant illustrations you’ve seen in many a magazine and on countless billboards, asked her to come over to his studio one day. He said ecstatic things about her unusual coloring.
That was during college days and our first rash hounding of city editors. However, Arlene was conscientiously hounded casting directors and studio offices. And now here she is along with Columbia’s famous array . . . a full-fledged radio personality.
We played the King in “Hamlet” once. But, alas. It’s too late . . . and think of all the typewriters that would have been saved.
Her radio and stage careers expanded—on one NBC broadcast in 1934, she played in “Macbeth” opposite Ray Collins and Walter Tetley—and included the hostess’ job on The Hour of Charm with the Phil Spitalny orchestra (1936) and a co-host spot on the game show What’s My Name? (1938) on the Mutual network. By 1940, she and Tom Slater had recorded so many 60-second commercials for Lydia Pinkham that one was heard somewhere in the U.S. every three minutes, six days a week.

Let’s boot ahead to January 17, 1943, where the New York Herald Tribune talked about Francis’ stage career. Frankly, it was never very successful; she later joked a bit about it in her autobiography. It’s a side of Francis that those of us who watched her on “What’s My Line” never saw.
To Tell Truth, Actress Thinks Play Is Really Zametchatilna
By Helen Ormsbee
ARLENE FRANCIS is not a player to whom a Broadway hit is just one more on her list. Before she started toting that army rifle as Natalia, the sergeant from Russia in “The Doughgirls,” she had acted in seven Broadway plays that failed. So to her Joseph Fields’s comedy about war-time Washington is a red-letter production.
Those Russian exclamations which she uses in the play express her sentiments. “Eta chudna,” meaning “It’s wonderful,” will do pretty well. But the real mouth-filler is “Eta zametchatilna! This is something like, “It’s colossal.” (“Only Russians mean more,” she explains.) She feels approximately like that.
“It was only coincidence, of course, but a mind reader told me something about this engagement,” she admitted the other day. “At a party I went to in August, he asked each guest to write a question on a card. You might know what my question was.” (This was perhaps why the mind-reader knew.) “I was rather ashamed to have put it down, but I wrote, ‘When shall I have my next engagement?’
“Without looking at what I had written, he told me, ‘I can’t see anything for you in September or October, but November is better. Yes, I’d say Nov. 17.’ It turned out that they sent me word about this part on Nov. 16, and rehearsals commenced on Nov. 17.”
Still, Miss Francis didn’t know it would really happen that way. September and October went by, and so far the mind reader was only too correct.
“One day in November,” Miss Francis continued, “I was making a recording at a studio around the corner from Max Gordon’s office. I’ve been in radio for eight years, you know, and I often do recordings. Going to the theatrical offices and being turned down isn’t pleasant, but that day I thought ‘I’ll do it.”
Up in the Gordon office at the top of the Lyceum Theater I found about all the blondes in New York waiting to try for parts. As my hair is black, my chances didn’t look good. Blondes only, I was told. Still, they said to step into the other room, and when I did there sat George Kaufman and Joseph Fields.
“They looked at me and shook their heads. I was leaving when one of them said: ‘There’s the Russian girl. Would she do for that?’ and they asked me whether I could manage a Russian accent. I speak several languages, and in radio I’ve used any number of dialects, so I told them yes.”
That afternoon she gave a reading of her present role for Kaufman, the director. Her accent was not what it has since become, for she was later coached by Maxim Panteleiff, a member of the “Doughgirls” cast, who is Russian. Under the circumstance, though, Miss Francis thought she did very well. She was quite carried away by her own performance. But Kaufman merely thanked her politely. She went home and waited day after day to hear from him.
“I gave up hoping after a while,” she said. “Then one day when I had gone out there came a telephone call asking me to report for rehearsal next morning. Hattie, who has been my maid for several years, answered the telephone and was beside herself with delight. ‘I sure will give her the message,’ she said over the wire. ‘Why, this is the call she’s been waitin’ for!’”
In private life Miss Francis is the wife of Neil F. Agnew, a vice-president of Paramount Pictures. This interview took place in the Agnews Park Avenue apartment at an early lunch before a matinee.
“The gun that I wear slung over my shoulder in the play weighs twenty pounds,” she confessed, “and when I come in carrying a big dog besides, they feel pretty heavy. The dog is a Boxer—thirty-two pounds of him. I have to toss him and the gun around as though they were nothing, but my back is still strapped up from learning how to do it.”
The actress, like William Saroyan, is of Armenian extraction. Her father is Aram Kazanjian, a portrait photographer, and her uncle, Dr. Varaztad Kazanjian, is an authority on plastic surgery.
“Radio gave me my start, and I can’t say enough for the training it gives one in acting,” she added. “My first chance came through a friend in an advertising agency, and after that I was kept on. It didn’t pay for much at first, but it was splendid practice.
“Orson Welles was beginning then, and I was in many dramas and sketches with him. He was full of originality. He has been very loyal to people who worked with him then, and has often put opportunities in their way. I played in two of his stage productions, ‘Horse Eats Hat’ and ‘Danton’s Death’—which were among those seven failures I told you of. But when the stage productions closed, there was always radio going right along. In radio I’ve acted dizzy blondes, and felt blonde while I was doing them.”
For more than three years Arlene Francis conducted a quiz program on the air. “What’s My Name?” was the title. In February she will be back with this entertainment on Sunday nights—her night off from “The Doughgirls.”
“When ‘The Doughgirls’ went into rehearsal we all worked hard, but it didn’t feel like work,” she said. “The rehearsals never seemed long. One thing I notice about George Kaufman was that he never calls a person down before the rest of the company. He gets the whole cast together and talks about everybody’s work—a word here, a word there, and somewhere in the list is the thing that was wrong and has got to be changed. Then, too, he can tell you just where the laughs will come, and how a pause or a look will bring a laugh that wasn’t there before.”
You can see why Miss Francis is in the mood to think that “zametchatilna” is the word for her present engagement.
Francis may have seen radio as some kind of fallback from her real job, acting on the stage, but she was far more successful in the lucrative world of top echelon broadcasting than she was in the theatre. Especially with game shows. In 1943, she emceed Blind Date, which later moved into television. While still hooking up men with eligible ladies, Francis made her first appearance on “What’s My Line” (the second broadcast on February 16, 1951). Her warmth and friendliness was just what programmers wanted. She added NBC’s Home show to her resume, and in the early ‘60s was appearing on all four radio networks, her Mutual show being based out of WOR New York.

“What’s My Line” left the CBS network in 1967, but returned in syndication for a while in the ‘70s, with the charming Francis still on the panel. Her radio career carried on until she was told on March 1, 1984 after 23 years and nine months that WOR decided, as they say in radio management, “to go in a different direction.” In other words, a cheaper direction. Francis was still hosting a syndicated TV show called The Prime of Your Life. On the episode after her last day at WOR, The Prime of Your Life featured a segment on Alzheimer’s Disease. That’s what claimed Arlene Francis on March 31, 2001 at the age of 93.


  1. Arlene Francis was so cool -- and often funny as hell. Was it just me, or did she and Kitty Carlisle seem to have almost identical voices?

    1. I never thought so, MFM, but you have a point. Kitty also seemed a little more reserved than Arlene, though I really like her on To Tell The Truth.

  2. Arlene showed a bit of her comic style paired up with Jimmy Cagney in Billy Wilder's 1961's "One, Two, Three" which came out around the time of the height of What's My Line's popularity

  3. I remember back in the sixties when most local television stations had the " Shock ", and " Son Of Shock " packages from Universal Pictures. My dad pointed out to us that the young woman who was Bela's first victim in " Murders at The Rue Morgue " was Arlene Francis. Could have knocked me over with a feather. I was a big fan of " To Tell The Truth " and Arlene Francis. Also " What's My Line ".