Their frequent solution: cast her as a gorgeous bookworm, whose closest relationships are with father figures. That prim, stern comedy star Clifton Webb played her doting dad in two films: Elopement, with Francis as a prodigy of architectural design, and Dreamboat (1952), where her character is a literary scholar in horn-rimmed glasses and a trim gabardine suit; she’s writing her college thesis on the contention that Homer was not the sole author of The Iliad and The Odyssey because “No one man could write so much trash.” In Forbidden Planet she is the science-loving daughter of the planet’s only adult human, Walter Pidgeon; and in The Rack she is Pidgeon’s daughter-in-law, trying to help young Paul Newman through a wartime charge of aiding the enemy. In these roles, her hair was always pulled back, in an implicit dare for any man to let it down and unleash the beast. That was the goal of Francis’s young male co-stars: the thawing of an ice goddess.
The women Francis played usually saw men as curious subjects for further research. She treats her first kiss with Jeffrey Hunter in Dreamboat as an alien-earthling encounter, peculiar but pleasing. In her best-known role as Altaira, isolated on the Forbidden Planet after catastrophes have wiped out her mother and the rest of the colony, has grown up with only her father and a deer and a tiger she treats a pets. When she spots her first male humans — astronauts from Earth — she says, “I so terribly wanted to meet a young man, and now three of them at once!” When she invites spaceship commander Leslie Nielsen to join her for a swim in the pool, he notes regretfully that he didn’t bring his bathing suit. “What’s a bathing suit?,” she asks. Teetering toward camp, the movie is played seriously by the whole cast. And no one had a tougher challenge than Francis, since she’s wearing either various forms of a 23rd-century cheerleader tunic, or nothing.
In these busy years she played opposite some of Old and New Hollywood’s top leading men: Newman, Dick Powell in Susan Slept Here (as a vamp who morphs into a spider-woman during the film’s comic ballet sequence), Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Bad Rock (as the only woman in a threatening town) and Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle (as Ford’s ailing, pregnant, jealous wife). She appeared with Ford again in the 1957 Navy comedy Don’t Go Near the Water, with Earl Holliman stealing her from wolf-man Jeff Richards, just as Nielsen had from Warren Stevens in Forbidden Planet. That comedy, which demoted her to second female lead, ended her MGM contract and, oddly, cued a three-year absence from major film and TV work when Francis was still in her 20s — and at the presumed peak of her appeal.
Movies were increasingly a man’s preserve; women who wanted meaty roles often went into TV drama, where the pay was less and the shooting schedules brisk but the rewards of fully imagined and realized characters greater. In his first season of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling gave her one such juicy part in the episode “The After Hours.” She played Marsha White, a young woman shopping in a department store for a gift, a golden thimble, for her mother. But an elevator operator takes her to the store’s ninth floor, deserted except for an insulting sales girl and, in the showcases, just one object: her thimble. Locked in overnight, she comes to realize her strange destiny. A gloss on the Philip K. Dick theme of the android who dreams he’s human, “The After Hours” focuses every scene on Francis, monitoring her face for clues, as bafflement escalates into rage and then settles into acceptance. It’s a splendid use of Francis’s persona: at once friendly and doll-like, human and otherworldly.
In 1960 she took the starring role in Girl in the Night, an indie-style drama about a lonely call girl misused by her madam (Kay Medford). Francis thought this was her best film work, and the film is remembered warmly but fuzzily; it is not available on DVD. She did lots more TV, including her second Twilight Zone: the ultra-weird “Jess-Belle,” Earl Hamner, Jr.’s folk-horror tale about a mountain girl so desperate for another woman’s man that she makes a pact with a witch and turns into a leopard. That was 1963, and two years later Francis got a shot at starring in her own TV action drama, Honey West.