Monday, January 10, 2011

Anne Francis

Most of the obituaries for Anne Francis, who died last week, seemed to emphasize her most famous movie, “Forbidden Planet,” which belongs in the category of Cult Films I Never Have Gotten Around to Watching.

I guess I’m more partial to another film she made around that time at MGM: “Bad Day at Black Rock,” with a cast that also featured Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and John Ericson. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing a 1950s film that still holds up, though the basic setup has been copied to death and beyond: A stranger with a mission travels to a small town where he is made to feel violently unwelcome. The motive behind the antipathy (I’ll let you find out for yourself) certainly isn’t dated.

“Bad Day” can also be seen (by me, at least) as a confrontation between two generations of actors: young punks Marvin and Borgnine think they can beat the crap out of Tracy, who is much older and whose character has one arm. They find out they’re wrong.

Years before I saw “Bad Day” I saw Anne Francis in what might have been her most famous role, in the TV series “Honey West.” It ran only one season, but I always remembered it.

Some years ago a cable TV station ran a bunch of episodes. The bad news, I found, was that the episode themselves didn’t hold up that well. The plots weren’t much, and although Honey West was supposed to be a very independent, I-can-take-care-of-myself lady, it seemed that near the end her partner, Sam Bolt, who was played by John Ericson (who’d played her brother in “Black Rock”), was always coming to her rescue.

The good news was that despite these limitations, Francis came across very well as a woman who was tough-minded and refused to take crap from anybody. In one episode, I believe Honey was supposed to be a bodyguard for a little girl. Honey made it clear that she didn’t like kids. On another series, the lead character and the girl would have been buddies by the final commercial. I don’t think this was the case here. (It didn’t help that the girl, as I remember, wasn’t sweetness and light either.)

Honey West’s refusal to get all mushy at the end impressed me – I wondered whether her attitude influenced the great Sue Grafton when she created Kinsey Millhone, who also has professed a lack of fondness for kids.

For years Anne Francis had a website in which she would write sweet little essays. She was obviously a nice person, and I’m sorry I never met her. But she’ll always belong in that pantheon of 1960s actresses whom I always remember from my growing years, along with Elizabeth Montgomery, Paula Prentiss (of the too-short-lived series “He and She”) and Diana Rigg, whose “Avengers” character, Emma Peel, was at least as tough as Honey West – with the addition of cool wit.

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