FRANCIS, ARLENE

U.S. Talk Show Host/Performer

Arlene Francis played a key role in television's first decades as performer, talk show host, and guest star, appearing on many shows and proving herself to be one of the medium's most durable personalities. At the height of her popularity in the mid-1950s, she was rated the third most recognized woman in the United States.

Francis had a diverse and successful career on television, preceded by a versatile career as "femcee," actress, and radio performer. Her film career began in 1932 with Murders on the Rue Morgue and one can listen to her work as an actress on radio as early as 1936 on the Columbia Radio Workshop. During World War II she was the "femcee" of a radio show called Blind Date, a forerunner of The Dating Game, and she worked regularly as a featured actress on the Broadway stage before coming to television in the early 1950s. She appeared in a simulcast version of Blind Date from 1949-52, and also on such shows as By Popular Demand and Prize Performance, but it was as a regular panelist on the popular quiz show, What's My Line?, that Francis became a household name on television. Known for her elegance and good humor, Francis would trade repartee each week with such figures as columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, publisher Bennet Cerf, and poet Louis Untermeyer.

Though What's My Line? was her bread and butter show over the next twenty five years, versatility continued to mark Arlene Francis' career. In September 1950, shortly after she joined the panel of that word and wit show, she became the first "mistress" of ceremonies for NBC's Saturday Night Revue: Your Show of Shows, and she appeared frequently on other television shows in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Francis also made a major contribution to the history of television talk as host and managing editor of NBC's Home show. Home was the afternoon show teamed with Today and Tonight, in NBC President Sylvester "Pat" Weaver's trilogy of daily talk on NBC in the 1950s, each show anchored by a "communicator." Network executives knew that women represented a major part of the daytime audience and were key decision makers on consumer purchases. Home was NBC's attempt to capture that audience. To quote from the 1950s film, On the Waterfront, Arlene Francis "coulda been a contender." She was certainly one of the foremost talk show hosts on television in the 1950s and if her show had continued into the 1960s, her national status as a talk show host might have been assured. But Home, despite great popularity among its audience, was canceled after three and a half years when Weaver was forced out of NBC by network founder David Sarnoff. Ultimately, Arlene Francis' career as a national talk show host was a casualty of forces that were moving network television away from strong women hosts, serious topics, sustaining shows and public service, and toward immediate bottom line profits--the same forces that drove Edward R. Murrow from the air at CBS.

As host of Home, Arlene Francis established patterns of daytime talk that are still with us today. This daytime talk "magazine" of the air was designed to provide intelligent conversation and up-to-date information for a largely female audience, though men were in the audience as well. From 1954 to 1957, Arlene Francis was, along with Arthur Godfrey, Murrow, Dave Garroway, and Jack Paar, one of the founders of television talk. It was not until Phil Donahue rose to national syndication prominence two decades later that another national talk show host would make a similar appeal to women audiences. With more support from NBC management, or if Weaver had been able to continue as president, the Home show might have continued to build an audience and sustained itself into the 1960s. As it is, the story of Arlene Francis role on Home reveals the limitations placed on women talk show hosts in the male dominated world of 1950s television.

The tensions placed on Francis' life as the managing editor and "boss" of her show are reflected in a 1957 Mike Wallace Interview on ABC. Wallace begins his interview with Francis by saying that a lot was being said and written about "career women" in America. "What," he asks her, "is it that happens to so many career women that makes them so brittle? That makes them almost a kind of third sex?" Francis replies: "Well, what happens to some of [the women] who have these qualities you've just spoken of, is that I suppose they feel a very competitive thing with men and they take on a masculine viewpoint and forget primarily that they are women.... Instead they become aggressive and opinionated. While men do it, it is part of the makeup of a man, and a man has always done it all his life. I do not think it is a woman's position to dominate." Yet when NBC came to Francis toward the end of Dave Garroway's long reign to ask her to co-host Today with Hugh Downs, she refused. Unresolved issues of power, issues that Barbara Walters was to struggle with and resolve in the 1960s and 1970s, limited Arlene Francis's options in the mid-1950s. By the end of her life Francis was considerably more reflective of her dilemma. In her autobiography, she writes that she had come to realize "how deeply my inability to express myself without becoming apprehensive about what 'they' might think had affected me. In short, my 'don't make waves' philosophy had inhibited my life to an incalculable extent.... I had forgotten that a few waves are necessary to keep the water from becoming stagnant."

In the later 1960s and 1970s, it was Arlene Francis' friend Walters, the person who did take the co-host position with Hugh Downs on the Today show, who became the preeminent national woman host of public affairs and news talk on television.

-Bernard Timberg


Arlene Francis
Photo courtesy of Peter Gabel

ARLENE FRANCIS. Born Arline Francis Kazanjian in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 20 October 1908. Attended Finch Finishing School and Theatre Guild School, New York City. Married 1) Neil Agnew, 1935 (divorced, 1945); 2) Martin Gabel, 1946; one child, Peter. Actress in film and radio from 1932; debuted on stage, 1936; took time off in World War II to sell war bonds; hosted and starred in television shows from 1949; regular panelist on What's My Line, 1950-67; host and editor-in-chief of NBC-TV's daytime talk show Home, 1954-57.

TELEVISION SERIES

1949-55 Soldier Parade
1949-53 Blind Date
1950      By Popular Demand
1950      Prize Performance
1950      Saturday Night Revue (Your Show of Shows) 1950-67 What's My Line
1953-55 Talent Patrol
1954-57 Home
1957-58 The Arlene Francis Show

FILMS

Murders in the Rue Morgue, 1932; Stage Door Canteen, 1943; All My Sons, 1948; One Two Three, 1961; The Thrill of It All, 1963; Fedora, 1979.

RADIO

45 Minutes From Hollywood; March of Time; Cavalcade of America; Portia Blake, 1941; Amanda of Honeymoon Hill, 1941; Mr. District Attorney, 1941; Betty and Bob; What's My Name?, 1941; Blind Date, 1944; It Happens Every Day; The Arlene Francis Show; Emphasis; Monitor; Luncheon at Sardis.

STAGE

One Good Year, 1936; The Women, 1936; Horse Eats Hat; Danton's Death, 1938; All That Glitters, 1938; Journey to Jerusalem, 1940; Doughgirls, 1942; The Overtons, 1945; The French Touch, 1945; Once More With Feeling; Tchin-Tchin; Beekman Place; Mrs. Daily; Late Love, 1953; Dinner at Eight; Kind Sir; Lion in Winter; Pal Joey; Who Killed Santa Claus?; Gigi; Social Security.

PUBLICATION

Arlene Francis: A Memoir. (With Florence Rome). New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.

 

See also Talk Shows; Weaver, Sylvester "Pat"