Frances Farmer:  Fans say Frances could become Cult Heroine

By Rita Rose – Part Three of a series

Frances Farmer and Joel McCrea

Costarred in Goldwyn's 'Come And Get It'


Under Frances Farmer’s picture in West Seattle High School’s 1931 "Blue and Gold" yearbook, it reads: "Won renown throughout the nation."

During her senior year, a routine creative writing assignment landed Frances in the spotlight when her English teacher submitted the essay to a national competition, and it won the $100 first prize. Her glory was short-lived, however, when "God Dies!" and its atheistic subject matter caused a furor in church groups across the nation.

It was Frances’ first taste of public criticism for her honesty – a situation that would repeat itself throughout her life.

The 18-year-old went on to star in her senior class play, "The Queen’s Husband," sang in the school’s annual operetta, and graduated as salutatorian of her class. That fall she entered the University of Washington, following her older brother Wesley’s footsteps in journalism.

But she soon gravitated toward the theater department, becoming a protégé of drama professor Sophie Rosenstein, an ambitious woman who wielded a lot of influence over her.

Ms. Rosenstein’s ties with left-wing theatrical groups helped Frances win a trip to Russia in 1935. "The Voice of Action," a Communist newspaper, sponsored a subscription drive contest, which Frances won after – it is suspected – Ms. Rosenstein used her influence with the editors and "bought" the contest out from under a political activist from Aberdeen, Wash.

Again, Frances was in the headlines as she made her long journey to the Soviet Union against the wishes of her family

Preferred Theater

Glowing reviews in local productions landed Frances in Hollywood where she made her first film, Paramount’s "Rhythm on the Range" with Bing Crosby.  Critical acclaim came with her first loan-out to Sam Goldwyn for 1936’s "Come and Get It" with Joel McCrea.

The actress always maintained that the stage was her first love, and she only used her Hollywood films as a stepping stone to Broadway.  She publicly denounced Hollywood and everything it stood for, which aroused the ire of the studio brass.

Despite her theatrical preference, her films are the only tangible aspects of her career left.

She mad several more major motion pictures, playing opposite such stars as Cary Grant in "Toast of New York," John Barrymore in "20th Century Limited," Robert Stack in "Badlands of Dakota," Fred MacMurray in "Exclusive," Ray Milland in "Ebb Tide" and her last important picture, "Son of Fury" with Tyrone Power.

Barry Allen, film buyer for Heaston Productions in Indianapolis and an avid movie buff, became a fan of Frances’ as a child moviegoer.

As a fan, Allen is "very fond" of "Badlands of Dakota" but puts down "South of Pago Pago" with Jon Hall as "truly awful."

He also notes that "Ebb Tide" is her only film in color, and that it was filmed at the same time as "Exclusive." (Frances was so exhausted by her double duty that she collapsed on the set.)  "Many of her films were not memorable, " Allen pointed out.

Couldn't Beat Her

Another Indianapolis fan, Dave Smith, had an unusual relationship with Frances during her WFBM years.  He was her chief rival on WISH-TV as program director of Channel 8’s "The Early Show," opposite her time slot.

"We tried everything – everything – to unseat her in the (local) ratings, but we never succeeded," offered Smith, now a professor in telecommunications at Ball State University.

Smith didn’t take too hard, however, because he had a great respect for Frances.  As a tribute to the woman he admired so much on the screen, he co-sponsors an annual event called "Cine Indy,’ a three-day classic film festival which always includes a Frances Farmer film.  "Cine Indy" has been held the first weekend in November since 1980.

Smith’s business partner, Conrad Lane of Muncie, is another film buff and head of education at Ball State.

Lane also draws a parallel with Frances as host and film critic on WIPB-TV’s (Channel 49) Saturday night and Sunday afternoon movies.   Lane says he shows Frances’ movies often, and that he and Smith have compiled a book on her films and are currently seeking a publisher.

He and another fan, Gregory T. Fisher of Lapel, were in town recently to visit Frances’ crypt in Oaklawn Memorial Gardens.  During a luncheon interview, both men joked about their competition for being Frances’ "number one fan."

Lane said his association with Frances goes back to her WFBM-TV years, when he provided her with some of the trivia on upcoming films.  He would get an advance schedule and dash off a note to Frances, who not only used his information on the air, but also credited him for being her "Muncie correspondent."

"Once she was running a Marilyn Monroe film called ‘Don’t Bother to Knock,’ and it was one those rare movies that was shot in sequence.  She would always acknowledge me on the air for tidbits like that.   She didn’t have to do that.

"My wife totally understood my relationship with Frances," he laughed.

Still has Letters

Lane’s extensive collection of Farmer trivia – including an impressive selection of still photographs and old movie magazines – also has several letters from Frances.  Most are typewritten on "Frances Farmer Presents" stationery, and there is one hand-written note.

In one letter, dated July 5, 1960, she thanked him for his comments on one of her old films and added some of her own:

"I was amused with your comments of ‘Badlands of Dakota,’ because I also had doubts about my performance in it, and not having seen it for so many years, I was pleased to note that is was not half as inadequate as I suspected."

Known for modesty where her own talent was concerned, Frances was pleased when Lane offered his reviews of her performance in Purdue University’s "Look Homeward Angel."

"I value your thoughtful evaluation of the movie and theater world," she wrote on August 10, 1964, shortly before her dismissal from the station.  "I spoke briefly about it (the play) after my return to the TV program, but you know that one in this business runs the risk of sounding egotistic if too much emphasis is put on personal activities."

Lane said he only met and talked to Frances one time when she came to Muncie, and talked to her once on the phone.

"Actually my first ‘meeting’ with her was in an Elwood (Ind.) theater when I was 7 years old in the spring of 1938," he recalled.   "The trailers for coming attractions came on, showing ‘Ebb tide’ in technicolor.  Back in those days, technicolor was a rarity, and it showed Frances with Ray Milland. She was running on the beach in a dress that was all wet and kind of clinging to her, and Ray Milland came up and they started kissing.

"From then on I was very conscious of Frances and followed her career right up to this very moment."

Lovely Lady

Fisher said, "She was a beautiful, lovely lady at all times" on her TV show.

Once Frances interviewed her first husband, actor Leif Erickson, who was in town promoting his successful television series, "High Chaparral."

Fisher laughs at the recollection: "One of them made the remark that ‘I don’t know if our viewers know, but we were married at one time,’ and the other one said "That was a long time ago.’ Then they both snickered."

"Frances was always the epitome of good taste, always professional," Lane pointed out. "I interviewed Eddie Bracken two months ago and he recalled the time Frances interviewed him on her show.

"He was joshing with her and said, ‘Frances, there’s just nobody like you – you were one of the greatest of them all.   You were ahead of your time.’  She got so embarrassed, and he kept grabbing her hand.  He knew what she had been through."

Some guests were not so kind, Lane noted with disdain.   "Bing Crosby’s wife, Kathryn, sat as far as from her as she could get, as if Frances were going to reach out and bite her.  It was embarrassing. And I think it was Clint Walker who was talking to her when she made some reference to her Hollywood days.  He said, ‘Oh, were you an actress?’

"The last day I saw her on the air she was swacked.   She had been fighting with the station all through 1964.  She was introducing a Ginger Rogers film called ‘The Major and the Minor,’ and for the first and only time I heard something from Frances that just wasn’t true.

"Now, I’m a trivia buff, but never did I know her to say anything erroneous.  But she said, ‘I was considered for that part.’   I sat bolt upright – that was in 1942, and we know where she was in 1942 (the mental institution)!"

Kept the Kents

Lane considers "Come and Get It" her best film.   Fisher admits he hasn’t seen many of her films, " "but ‘Rhythm on the Range’ is delightful.  She sang in several of them and had a rather low, distinctive voice.  It was almost a trademark for her.

"Frances was a heavy smoker all her life and toward the end of her film career her voice was deepening, as it was when she was here in Indianapolis.  The film that’s the most realistic as far as her voice is concerned is ‘Son of fury,’ which promised to revitalize her career," Fisher acknowledged.

"I heard they showed the film at the institution; it was a very painful experience for her."

Fisher admits his Farmer collection contains many of the things Lane’s does, but "he can’t compete with my cigarette butts."

Frances smoked Kents, he explained, and when she did "Yes My Darling Daughter" with the Madison County Players at Anderson, fisher was part of the crew.

"She’d stay backstage in her dressing room until time for her performance, and every night she came out with a cigarette in her mouth, go to the stage, drop the cigarette and walk on stage.  She didn’t listen to the play or wait for a cue – she just knew when to come out," he said with admiration.  "Finally the cigarettes were beginning to pile up…"

Both men chuckled about Fisher’s keepsake, with Lane admitting he has a Frances Farmer button he’s awfully proud of.

Lane believes such collecting can get out of hand, and mentioned a man who called him one day to ask if Lane had anything personal of Frances’ that he could buy, particularly clothing.  "I figured he was a real weirdo," Lane commented.

He also theorized that such avid devotion and attention could make Frances a new cult heroine much like Hoosier James Dean.

No False Charm

Frances exuded a lot of charm both on and off-screen, according to Fisher who didn’t become a fan until he WFBM days.

"It wasn’t Pollyanna charm, either," he said. "In her autobiography, she said ‘I prefer – and still do – cold compassion to sympathy.’  She had some hard qualities, but it wasn’t to the point of being completely negative.

"There was no refined stability in her private moments.   She didn’t try to put on any sugar-coating for the public.  After all," Fisher smiled, "She had the famous Farmer temper!"

Asked how he felt when Frances died on cancer in 1970, Fisher looked thoughtful.

"Well, naturally I felt very, very sad," he said.   "But I also felt she had sort of tumbled from her throne here; she was no longer appearing in theater and no longer on television.  Frances opened a gift shop in Nashville, and that failed.  So much had gone awry in her life.

"I visit Frances’ grave at least once a year. I don’t decorate it, but there’s always some sort of decoration there, and it changes."

Like Lane and Fisher, someone else still cares.


This article appeared in The Indianapolis Star – January 25, 1983

Provided by Jack Randall Earles