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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
Photo courtesy of Peter Gabel
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.
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
1957-58 The Arlene Francis Show
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.
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.
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.
Arlene Francis: A Memoir. (With Florence Rome). New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1978.
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