Friday, July 31, 2020

Frances Farmer Still Fascinates

Frances Farmer, whose myth and reality still compete 50 years after her death.

When I watch the real Frances Farmer on 1958’s This is Your Life versus Jessica Lange as a lobotomy-dazed Frances from 1982, it sums up for me the dichotomy between the real woman and the misery myth that’s been sold for five decades. Just type ‘Frances Farmer’ in a You Tube search and see what comes up. At least half the results are the most sensationalistic clips from the ’82 film bio or “tributes” that focus on the negative facts and fictions of Farmer’s life.
The infamous episode of 'This is Your Life.' At least Frances Farmer showed class & dignity!

Frances’ appearance on This is Your Life is composed, considering all that she had gone through, and then obliged to relive it in front of a TV audience. Frances Farmer comes across as articulate, thoughtful, and responsive—not the spooky zombie Jessica Lange portrays her as in the final scenes of Frances. And considering her rough ride in life thus far, Farmer looked lovely at 45.
Jessica Lange as a ghostly 'Frances,' after appearing on 'This Is Your Life.'

Frances Farmer died of esophageal cancer at age 57 in 1970. From then through 1982, Farmer’s life was the subject of a memoir that was completed by a friend, a later biography that made even more sensational claims, and finally, the nearly-total fiction film bio that launched Jessica Lange as a dramatic actress. The cherry on top of this showbiz soap opera sundae was when another misunderstood Washington-born artist, Kurt Cobain wrote the myth-inspired song, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” An eerie coincidence is that the Frances film bio came out a year after another movie myth buster, Mommie Dearest—a film that also buried and cemented a movie star image for decades to come. And Joan Crawford’s “horror” myth also inspired a rock tune, Blue Oyster Cult’s “Joan Crawford Has Risen from the Grave.”
Paramount found Frances Farmer's "difficult" personality problematic.

For me, the big question regarding the career of Frances Farmer is this: Did she get written off merely because she was “difficult?” I’m not talking about when she hit bottom in the early ‘40s, I’m referring to the late’30s, after Come and Get It. Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn faced similar battles with their respective studios—pushing back on foisted upon images, fighting for good roles and fending off bad ones, resisting inane publicity stunts, etc. During that same time, Davis sued Warner Brothers and Hepburn, labeled box office poison, fought to go back to Broadway, too. Yet, Bette and Kate persevered, and eventually prevailed. Frances often fought these battles, but didn’t emerge the ultimate victor because she didn’t have the stability or steel-willed self-confidence of Davis and Hepburn.
Frances Farmer, whose great beauty shown more when Paramount's
hair & makeup department work was subtle and not slathered on.

Frances Farmer certainly had all the gifts to be a great movie star. Frances had the similar beauty of fellow Paramount star Carole Lombard, the husky voice of a Dietrich, talent and intensity, and she could sing, to boot. And Farmer was very serious about her career as an actress. So what if she was “difficult” over her career and image? That didn’t stop a lot of other actors who went on to great careers. It seems strange to me one aspect of a Farmer negated all the good things about her. Perhaps the problem was like this quote made about Elizabeth Taylor, in terms of ET surviving stardom: A fighter when she had to be, a diplomat when it paid to be. With Farmer, it was certainly the latter that was problematic.
Frances Farmer in college, looked very contemporary & natural.

I remember a Hollywood anecdote, when news of Marilyn Monroe’s firing and subsequent death rocked the movie biz. If memory serves, it was Walter Wanger who recalled at Paramount, when B.P. Schulberg had fired fragile Clara Bow from a film, and never forgot studio boss Adolph Zukor’s reaction: “Our job is to make stars, not fire them.”
This led me to do some research on Paramount and Clara Bow. Paramount had just gone through great turmoil with Bow, one of their greatest female stars. Despite her huge audience, Clara’s emotional stability, dramas, and scandals came at a time when Paramount itself was in dire financial straits. The studio survived, Clara was fired and soon retired, but I wonder if studio head Zukor and the ‘suits’ just didn’t want to go through all that drama again with Frances Farmer.
Frances Farmer became a hit in her second movie, as leading lady
to Bing Crosby, in 1936's 'Rhythm on the Range.'

What’s interesting is that Farmer scored with flying colors as a lovely leading lady to Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the Range. Then Frances made a strong dramatic impression with Edna Ferber’s Come and Get It, in a dual role, as the tart with a heart mother and the good daughter. Howard Hawks adored working with Frances, but left the film in a dispute with Sam Goldwyn, and was replaced by William Wyler. Both were great directors, but whose styles were like night and day. Hawks worked fast and had a loose improvisational style, a bit like the later Robert Altman. Wyler on the other hand was painstaking and meticulous, like George Stevens. Willie was also inarticulate if he didn’t get what he wanted, calling for dozens of takes, to the frustration of his actors. Frances clashed with him, but so what? He wasn’t a Paramount director.
Frances in her breakout dual role, in 'Come and Get It.' Here she is, as the barroom mama.
And Farmer later, as the good daughter in 'Come and Get It,' with Joel McCrea.

With Cary Grant in 1937's 'The Toast of New York.'

After The Toast of New York with Cary Grant and Edward Arnold, why was Frances stuck in so many junky genre pictures? Some folks have pointed to the disappointment of costly Toast for Farmer’s career stalling. I don’t buy it, since co-star Grant had been kicking around in movies for five years, yet hadn’t broken out as a star, and nobody held it against him. Why didn’t Frances get to work with Paramount’s Mitchell Leisen or Preston Sturges or get scripts by Billy Wilder, like later Paramount girls Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake? Both women had their charms and they had to do junk, too. But Paulette and Veronica got far better star-making material, and even together, they didn’t have half the star potential that Frances possessed.
With Fred MacMurray in 1937's 'Exclusive.'

Ironically, Frances and Veronica had very similar career trajectories. Though Veronica was a decade younger, she swiftly took off as Frances did, with Lake barely past 20, as well. Like Frances, initial solid film work, Lake got stuck in genre garbage, and in less than a decade, her career was quickly over. Veronica, too, experienced pretty messy emotional ups and downs, and a drinking problem. Farmer died in ’70 at 56 and Lake passed at 50 in ’73.
With Tyrone Power in 1942's 'Son of Fury.'
This was Frances Farmer's last major motion picture.

A book could be written about the “what ifs” of the life and career of Frances Farmer. What if Frances had the wherewithal and opportunity to freelance like Barbara Stanwyck did? Barbara signed short-term contracts at Paramount as well as Warner Brothers. Yet, Stanwyck also did much of her best work freelancing. Carole Lombard left Paramount in 1937 to pursue dramatic roles, so there seemed to be paucity in the dramatic department at Paramount.
I can think of many movies that Frances Farmer might have given fine performances in. Disclaimer: the movies and roles I’m about to mention is not a knock on the actors who actually played the roles, but offering as examples of what Frances was capable was as an actress. Don’t light up your Internet torches, please!
Frances Farmer with Luther Adler in 'Golden Boy.'
WHY didn't Paramount option this property for their star?
It would have been good business sense and created good will with their star.

For instance, after Frances fought to go back to the stage and appear in Golden Boy, which was a hit and she received good reviews. Why didn’t Paramount buy the property for her? Imagine if Zukor had bought the property and borrowed new WB star John Garfield, in the lead role he longed to play? Instead they got stuck doing Flowing Gold a few years later at WB.
John Garfield, who amazingly lost the role of 'Golden Boy' to Luther Adler,
would have been perfect with Farmer in a screen version.
Instead they got teamed in 'Flowing Gold!'

I think Frances might have played a number of Barbara Stanwyck roles quite well, such as Double Indemnity, or The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Farmer, with her husky voice, would have made a fine film noir fatale, such as Joan Bennett’s roles in The Woman in the Window or Scarlet Street. How about Frances as a '40s Hitchcock blonde? Or how about Farmer in some of Dorothy McGuire’s more serious roles, like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Gentleman’s Agreement? Frances Farmer was just three years older than McGuire and had that intelligence and strength that Dorothy possessed.
Though Frances Farmer was heralded as major talent by the likes of
  Cecil B. DeMille and Howard Hawks, Paramount shackled Frances
to either glorified B-movies or merely decorative roles.

I can see Frances in the career women type roles that Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn played. Frances also had the rare quality of being physically beautiful but also intelligent and would have been quite believable as a professional or an artist type. And as Frances reached her 40’s in the ‘50s, Farmer could have played many roles in Tennessee Williams and William Inge film adaptations. And Frances, who preferred realism over glamour, could have fared quite well in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a character actress. I can totally see Frances working with Robert Altman, or like Kate Hepburn, going back to the stage while holding out for the occasionally good older woman roles in post-studio era Hollywood.
I was struck by this 1958 TV publicity photo of Frances Farmer. Despite decades
of hardships, 20 years later, Frances' strong beauty was still with her at 45.

As it stands, there are glimpses of what might have been in the brief list of Frances Farmer movies.  Frances is animated in Rhythm on the Range, versatile in Come and Get It, strong-willed in Flowing Gold, and gorgeous in The Toast of New York and Son of Fury. There are others, too, like Exclusive and Ebb Tide, and glimmers amidst the genre junk.
It's startling to see Frances, '40s-style, as most of her work was from the '30s.
What a great film noir fatale Farmer would have made.

Frances Farmer is almost always worth watching. Even in certain studio stills, Farmer’s eyes are alive with intelligence and intensity. As a person, like Monroe, Garland, and Clift, Frances Farmer struggled with emotional and substance issues in an era not yet empathetic or equipped to deal with them. As an actor, the great tragedy of Frances Farmer was that she was a modern star, trapped in Hollywood’s “golden” era.
The myths and what ifs of the life of Frances Farmer still intrigue movie lovers today.
FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 


  1. it's a nice article about a great beauty and i agree that she should have amounted to more. but the article omits her relationship with odets, who used and abused her, and probably wrecked her self esteem. bad relationships are not helpful for anyone tending toward alcoholism.

    1. Hi, I focused on Frances' career more with this piece (my second one). Also, I know that Farmer's relationship with Odets was rocky, and frankly, that theater crowd didn't sound much better than the Hollywood schemers you read about. Thanks for checking this one out... Rick

  2. I thought the TV movie with Susan Blakely and Lee Grant was much better than Jessica's "Francis" (and yes, it's also about all the bad stuff).

    1. I've never seen the TV movie taken from FF's own memoir, though some of the info there is questionable, too. But I'd like to see as a comparison. You know who I thought looked like Frances and has perhaps the same fragility? Tuesday Weld.
      Cheers, Rick