Bright Lights Film Journal

Happy 100 Years of Frances Farmer

When witches lay curses down upon the cowardly townsfolk about to hang or burn them, it’s almost always “I’ll be back to haunt your ancestors in 100 years!” Is it time then for Frances Farmer to return for that long-awaited revenge on Seattle, the patriarchy, the legal system, Hollywood, and the American Medical Association? Let’s hope!

Frances Farmer is now a name associated with patriarchy’s zero tolerance approach to opinionated, unstable sex symbols (some such as Katherine Hepburn sidestepped it through Yankee ingenuity), though that is mainly through the film bio starring Jessica Lange, which I still haven’t worked up the nerve to see. There’s a lot of conjecture involved as to whether Farmer had a lobotomy but later sources including her sister say this was just the author’s drive to paint a lurid pro-feminist and anti-lobotomy campaign. Well, I say sometimes the ends justify the means. Print the legend, baby. If anyone can shred the face of shithead patriarchy it’s Jessica Lange. And as an icon, Farmer’s come too far as the face of wronged female vengeance, punching out cops and challenging the whole system as out of order, to ever change back into a mentally disturbed alcoholic who maybe made a bad choice going for the mental hospital instead of jail, and never should have lost her temper or been placed under her mother’s care, in an escalating sequence of bad luck events that today would probably be shrugged off as icons behaving badly (and giving the press a lot of chances to throw stones, ala Lohan). But according to some reports she later found a comfy life as the host of an afternoon movie on a local Indiana TV station, and on the stage, where she probably never should have left, though it’s to our benefit that she did, for at least we have a few glimpses of this rare method-ish goddess with the husky voice.

If she was an alcoholic, then maybe that explains it–both her genius and her refusal to take any shit, her contempt for the bullshit social order — I know what it’s like to not quite understand or be able to admit why you can’t just have a Scotch in the shower or three long swigs of vodka instead of eggs for breakfast and just feel great or why handcuffs and mysterious bruises, crashed cars and fat lips, seem to bloom around you as if the alcohol was a dark kind of soft sunlight. And if she stood up to bullying cops and judges, then awesome. Fuck them. She only said and did what we all felt. She didn’t have a filter; what genius actress does?

I’ve only seen one of her movies, Come and Get it (1936), an 1800-era Edna Ferber tale ala Giant, spanning generations, two directors (Hawks being the first), two cinematographers, and Farmer playing her own daughter, leading to an uneven tone that nonetheless works…. for awhile. Edward Arnold stars a restless capitalist who lets Farmer’s first incarnation–his true love–go so he can marry into a partnership with a big east coast paper mill. He then becomes one of those jealous older patriarchs angry a younger man is going for the daughter of the woman he let get away, even if its his son Joel McRae. It’s hard to feel anything but creeped out by this guy, and to marvel at his lack of self-knowledge. But this guy was a common feature of films in that era, usually played by Edward G. Robinson, ala Hawks’ own Tiger Shark and Farmer is great as the clip joint prostitute-singer, like an older version of Slim in To Have and Have Not. “Okay, give me something to put in his drink,” is her “you now how to whistle” – even her creamy singing voice seems like Bacall’s.

And then there’s her classic beauty, and a natural powerhouse style of sensitive/tough acting sets her in that apart realm from mortal humans, like Carroll Baker and James Dean were set apart in Giant. and like Marilyn and Clift in The Misfits. She brings out the best in the actors around her, but they can’t really touch her in those places they didn’t even know were there, and it feels very method, this subsuming of her sentimentality under an élan of tough cool, the cool she initially has and loses when Arnold gives her money to get back home. For her daughter in the next era, she’s as awkward and naive as her mother character was assured and knowing. They don’t even need different hairstyles to tell them apart, so thorough are her renderings. But it’s with the daughter that the problem starts, the film remembers it’s post-code, and girls must be girls not women and Hawks leaves to be replaced by the much less aware of the power of drinks, cigarettes, songs, and trying to get the girl to take the next boat, stage, bus, or plane home. Instead Wyler leans back on the old saws of the power mogul blind to his secret desires, vainly trying to recapture his Rosebud. What was once a ribald tale of deforestation and choosing wealth over love becomes the time dishonored tale of the wealthy man’s younger mistress rebuffing him running off with his son, and the Hawksian grit and tick-tock momentum gives way to flowers and white dresses and montages of buying finer things.

“Eaglebauer.”

But hey, the older Farmer character can really deliver the Hawksian goods. Consider the scene of her wedding to Swann (Walter Brennan), she begins it reading Barny’s wedding announcement in the paper, Swan comes in for her and there’s a moment that passes between them, and she locks her eyes in on his face and calls him “the kindest man I ever knew,” and suddenly the tears stop because she finds a grace note in that flush of gratitude and she knows suddenly that if she just keeps this grace note in her mind she can salvage some kind of happy life out of the luxury-stuffed crevasse Barney’s dumped her in. All she’ll be losing is being in-love, which is the sacrifice most people make anyway when the latch onto a spouse. And Jeeze, really, who can be in love with Edward Arnold? No actress is great enough to make that believable.

So here we are, 100 years since her birth, and suddenly it doesn’t matter whether or not Farmer got a lobotomy or ran off and lived happily ever after, or found a level of fame outside the system, so she could drink unmolested.  Now we have a handy comparison when other starlets are put on trial for acting out, getting uppity, driving drunk, and going insane, Kong-style, from the never-ending snap of flashbulbs, the uncaring hands of make-up, hair, wardrobe, lighting, directors, and dialogue coaches, all drilling you through your day with nary a shred of personal space. If you are sensitive, a poetic soul, I can only imagine how much Valium you would need to not go crazy like these girls often do. But Valium wasn’t on the market until 1963; in your day, Francis, there was only the booze.

The sweet, sweet booze. Punch anyone who’d take it from thee…  and rain down fire on the house of Joseph Breen. Or just come back as fire, dignified, skillful, and burn all the liars to crisps. Frances, for your suffering, your art, your iconic status as a victim of the fixed system, which we so sorely need to crush, and for your jaw-dropping beauty and vast depth of acting talent, happy 100th birthday! If ever you had a curse to bring down upon Seattle and us all, now would be the time. They deserve it. And you deserved better.

Please also read the amazing Kim Morgan’s 100 FF birthday wishes on her essential Sunset Gun!