Next up in the series profiling major figures in Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed is Francine Larrimore, who made theatrical history as Roxie Hart in Chicago.
Francine La Remée was born in France on August 22, 1898. She moved to America as a child, and made her debut on the New York stage in Where There’s a Will (1910), under the name of Larrimore. Her uncle was the great Yiddish actor, Jacob Adler, and her cousin, Stella Adler, would later become a leading teacher of acting.
At fifteen, Francine appeared alongside Holbrook Blinn in Edgar Wallace’s The Switchboard, and later in George V. Hobart’s Moonlight Mary. Her first major success was in the Rudolf Friml musical, Sometime (1918), while in Nice People (1921), she co-starred with Tallulah Bankhead and Katherine Cornell.
Known for playing vivacious, ‘pouty girls’, Francine could sing, dance, and had excellent comic timing. In Parasites (1924), she joined a cast including Clifton Webb, and in Noel Coward’s This Was a Man (1926), she played Carol Churt, whose “vivid personality is composed of a minimum of intellect and a maximum of sex.”
In late 1926, Francine won a part which would redefine her career – but it nearly didn’t happen. Jeanne Eagels, fresh from a sensational four-year run in Rain, was cast as Roxie Hart, celebrity murderess, in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ Chicago. However, Eagels was unhappy with almost every aspect of the upcoming production. After arguing with director Sam Forrest about how Roxie should be played – she wanted a sympathetic portrayal, whereas Forrest favoured burlesque – producer Sam Forrest agreed to find a new director. But even after replacing him with her friend, George Abbott, and hiring new actors, Eagels was still dissatisfied.
Chicago was rescheduled to open on December 20 at the Apollo Theatre in Atlantic City, but this didn’t appease Jeanne. On December 12, she withdrew from the project. Producer Sam Harris was scrambling to locate an actress to replace her and settled upon Francine Larrimore. This Was a Man was scheduled to close the Saturday night before the Monday premiere of Chicago. For ten days, Francine performed in one role while rehearsing the other. Originally tailored for Jeanne, Roxie was now rewritten for Francine.
Chicago opened on schedule – and to acclaim – in Atlantic City, before moving on to New Haven, Connecticut. The play’s foul language aroused indignation and calls for censorship from some patrons. Turning the controversy to his advantage, Harris closed the play in New Haven three days early and moved the play to New York’s Music Box Theatre on December 30. “With only ten days of rehearsals and nine days playing out of town,” one critic observed, “Francine Larrimore appeared in Jeanne Eagels’ shoes before a critical first night audience and did more than make good.” Chicago made Francine a star, just as Rain had done for Eagels, and her next role, in Let Us Be Gay (1929), was also a hit.
Even after Jeanne’s untimely death in 1929, Francine Larrimore’s professional life often shadowed that of her tempestuous rival. Columnist Ward Morehouse recalled that Sam Harris had optioned Sidney R. Buchman’s Storm Song for Jeanne. When she died, Harris relinquished the rights to Robert V. Newman, and Francine eventually took the lead. The production toured before coming to Broadway, with Larrimore’s illness closing the show in Washington, D.C. Storm Song never reopened, and her next role was in a 1931 comedy, Brief Moment. She was also the lead contender for a proposed 1932 revival of Rain on Broadway, but those plans were abandoned.
Eagels’ tempestuous life was the barely concealed subject of Shooting Star, which opened at the Selwyn Theatre on June 12, 1933. Francine Larrimore was cast as Julie Leander, causing her to be described as a ‘ghost player’ for the tragic diva. “Shooting Star is more like a skyrocket than a star,” Stephen Rathburn wrote in a review for the New York Sun. “Miss Larrimore did the best she could, but it is doubtful if a constellation of stars could prevent this drama from falling.”
Shooting Star closed after just sixteen performances. Francine’s next, and final Broadway role was in Spring Song (1934.) She also appeared in a handful of films, including John Meade’s Woman (1937), and an uncredited part in The Devil’s Daughter (1939), a ‘race film’ shot in Jamaica and starring Nina Mae McKinney. Like Jeanne Eagels, who lost out on playing Sadie Thompson in Hollywood’s version of Rain, Francine would never portray Roxie Hart on the screen.
She was married twice, first to songwriter Con Conrad (famed for hits like ‘Margie’ and ‘Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me’), and then to Henry T. Mannon, who died in 1972. Francine Larrimore died in New York, aged seventy-six, on March 7, 1975.