Nationality: American. Born: Seattle, Washington, 19 September 1913 (some sources give 1914). Education: University of Washington, Seattle, majoring in journalism and then drama, entered 1931. Family: Married 1) the actor Leif Erickson, 1936 (divorced 1942); 2) Alfred Lobley, 1953 (divorced 1958); 3) Leland Mikesell, 1958. Career: 1935—personal contract with Shepard Traube, then with Paramount; 1936—feature film debut in Too Many Parents; 1937—on Lux Radio Theatre with Spencer Tracy in Men in White and with Errol Flynn in British Agent; 1937—stage appearance in At Mrs. Beams, Westchester Playhouse; obtained release from Paramount contract, in Group Theatre production of Clifford Odets' Golden Boy in New York and on tour, 1938; 1939—in Irwin Shaw's Quiet City on Broadway, and in Group Theatre production of Thunder Rock; early 1940s—returned to Hollywood; 1942—alcoholism forced her retirement; spent the next few years in and out of mental institutions; 1957—appeared on Ed Sullivan Show, followed by work in summer stock and on television; 1958—began 6-year run of Indianapolis TV show Frances Farmer Presents, nightly movie program; mid 1960s—actress-in-residence at Purdue University; 1972—autobiography published; 1981—film biography Frances, starring Jessica Lange. Died: In Indianapolis, Indiana, 1 August 1970.
Films as Actress:
Too Many Parents (McGowan); Border Flight (Lovering); Rhythm on the Range (Taurog); Come and Get It (Wyler and Hawks) (as Lotta Bostrom/Lotta's daughter)
Exclusive (Hall); The Toast of New York (Lee) (as Josie Mansfield); Ebb Tide (Hogan) (as Faith Wishart)
Ride a Crooked Mile (Green)
South of Pago-Pago (Green); Flowing Gold (Green)
World Premiere (Tetzlaff); Badlands of Dakota (Green) (as Calamity Jane); Among the Living (Heisler)
Son of Fury (Cromwell) (as Isobel)
The Party Crashers (Girard)
By FARMER: book—
Will There Really Be a Morning? An Autobiography, New York, 1972.
On FARMER: books—
Arnold, William, Shadowland, New York, 1978.
Elliot, Edith Farmer, Look Back in Love, Sequim, Washington, 1978.
On FARMER: articles—
Photoplay (New York), February 1937.
Focus on Film (London), Winter 1975–76.
Films in Review (New York), August-September 1979.
Films Illustrated (London), January 1982.
Films in Review (New York), May 1983.
Classic Images (Indiana, Pennsylvania), July 1983.
Johnston, R.D., "'Committed': Feminist Spectatorship and the Logic of the Supplement," in Journal of Film and Video (Atlanta), no. 4, 1993.
Lane, C., "Francis Farmer Presents," in Classic Images (Muscatine), January 1994.
Illuminati, A., "La doppia vita di Frances," in Cineforum (Bergamo), July/August 1995.
On FARMER: films—
Frances, directed by Graeme Clifford, 1982.
Will There Really Be a Morning?, for TV, 1982.
Committed, directed by Sheila McLaughlin and Lynne Tillman, 1984.
* * *
Some 50 years after her best work, Frances Farmer remains contemporary. A screen actress whose performances transcend her own time is rare; Farmer had that quality. No one seeing her on-screen will forget her deep voice and lovely eyes and no one learning of her life can dismiss her tragic story easily. Yet renewed interest in the actress's life has drawn attention from her remarkable talent.
Farmer had a beauty and grace that the camera loved and she quickly gained box-office popularity. Whether costumed in sarongs (Ebb Tide, South of Pago-Pago), period clothes (Come and Get It, The Toast of New York, Son of Fury), or covered in mud (Flowing Gold), she exuded intelligence and honesty. Farmer's talent, however, could not salvage inferior films that appeared designed to punish her for outspokenness and a preference for the stage. In World Premiere, for example, Farmer, a long black wig covering her blond hair, plays a loud egotistical actress. In one scene she is called upon to crawl on her knees down a train aisle. The result is unwatchable.
The climax of Frances Farmer's brief career was Come and Get It in which she portrayed two characters: Lotta, a husky-voiced saloon singer, and Lotta's daughter, a high-voiced delicate innocent. Though only 22 years old, Farmer is relaxed and confident, changing her voice pitch, the look in her eyes, and modifying her gestures for the two roles. While Lotta is sarcastic, knowing, and slow to reveal emotion or trust, her daughter is polite, with bright eyes that register each emotion without hesitation. The indestructible blood tie between the past and the present is represented by the song "Aura Lee" which both sing, but in their own individual styles.
Under Howard Hawks's direction and care, Farmer blossoms and gives her best performance. It was typical of the curious circumstances of Farmer's career that the one director who was attentive to the actress and her talent was replaced during production. Farmer's performance, however, will be rediscovered by each successive generation, for it is as true as the day it was recorded on film.
—Alexa L. Foreman