Remembering Anne Francis (1930-2011)

Francis died Sunday, Jan. 2, of pancreatic cancer at a rest home in Santa Barbara, Calif. She was 80.

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Silver Screen / Getty Images

See androids fighting Brad and Janet /
Anne Francis stars in
Forbidden Planet /
Uh-uh-uh-uh, oh-oh —
At the late night, double feature, picture show.
— “Science Fiction Double Feature,” a song from Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show

The poster artwork for Forbidden Planet — MGM’s 1956 reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a science-fiction parable of ego vs. id — showed a fearsome cyborg holding a sleeping blond in a diaphanous gown that highlighted her gaudy curves. The blond was Anne Francis, the machine was Robby the Robot, and the poster had nothing to do with the movie: Robby was a gentleman scholar among automatons, a protector of Francis’s character Altaira, not a menace to her. But that image may be the one that sprang to the minds of moviegoers this week, when the actress’s death was announced. Francis died Sunday, Jan. 2, of pancreatic cancer at a rest home in Santa Barbara, Calif. She was 80.

A lifelong trouper in radio, TV, theater and films, Francis is best known for a flurry of mid-’50s MGM features, for a couple of indelible episodes of The Twilight Zone and for her one-season TV sleuth series Honey West in 1965-66. In her admirers’ memories, she conjures up a description that her co-star William Lundigan enunciated in their 1951 comedy Elopement: “Tall, blond, willowy, sort of ripples when she walks… She’s got those Minnie Mouse eyes, turns ‘em on you like a pair of headlights. Her voice is soft and husky — kind of makes you feel as though your back is being scratched.” (See NewsFeed’s tribute to Anne Francis.)

It happens that Lundigan is talking about another woman, but the attributes fit Francis, who was only 20 during the Elopement shoot. She was tall (5ft.-8in.), a seemingly natural blond, with large, lasering blue eyes and an expressive alto voice. Francis also had a forehead so high and smooth that she could have been one of the Metalunans from another ’50s space epic, This Island Earth. The actress’s signature feature — a mole just to the right of her lips — was so distinctive, it was written into the Elopement script. “What’s that?” asks her groom-to-be Lundigan. “It’s a mole,” she replies. “I was born with it. Don’t you like it?” He smiles and whispers, “I like everything you were born with.”

She was born Sept. 16, 1930, with that mole and a work ethic that never quit. The daughter of Philip Marvak, a businessman, and his wife Edith, Anne was a photographer’s model by her fifth birthday. (Pictures from the breadth of her career can be seen on annefrancis.net, the website she maintained until shortly before her death.) She was on television when it was just a gadget, appearing in CBS-TV’s first color tests before World War II. At 10 or 11 she was on Broadway with Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark and spent her teens in countless radio soaps, including Portia Faces Life and When a Girl Marries, where her child’s voice matured into its permanent, woman timbre. In 1948, when she was 17, she got bit roles in the MGM musical Summer Holiday and David O. Selznick’s Portrait of Jennie. She was back in New York, working on TV’s proto-thriller series Suspense in 1949, when Hollywood casting directors noticed that this reliable young actress was also a knockout.

There’s no doubting Francis’s worthiness as a pinup. Yet what came across, in her two-decade movie and TV prime, was not sultry ostentation but a preternatural poise and a questioning intelligence. Her beauty cloaked her brains without obscuring them. In one sense, she was a blend of Hollywood’s two most popular female types in the ’50s: the bombshell blonds Monroe and Mansfield — an adolescent’s notion of squeaky-voiced sexuality — and smart, slim vixens like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. You’d think someone would have seen Francis as the golden mean between these extremes, yet the studios that employed her (Fox from 1951 to 1954, then MGM for the next three years) had trouble deciding what to do with her.

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