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FRANCES FARMER

By Kendahl Cruver

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1936 Frances Farmer R-95 Linen Premium PhotoFrances Farmer was born before her time. Her rebellious nature would have blended in had she been young during the sixties, but as a Hollywood actress in the thirties and forties, she got herself into troubles so deep that she never did overcome them.

Born September 19, 1913 in Seattle, Washington, she lived with her parents Ernest and Lillian, brother Wesley, sister Edith, and half-sister Rita.

As a high school junior, Farmer first came into the public eye when she won an essay contest with her controversial piece, "God Dies". After high school she enrolled in the University of Washington. Though she planned to study journalism, she quickly realized she was more interested in the drama department. As the star of several productions, her talent was recognized from the beginning.

Farmer made the papers again when she won the Voice of Action newspaper subscription contest. Her prize was a trip to Russia; the press assumed she had become a communist. During a brief stay in New York after her trip, a Paramount Pictures talent scout invited her to make a screen test. Though Farmer wanted to perform on the stage, she was willing to take any opportunity to make her name as an actress. She signed a seven-year contract.

Suddenly, the former college student was starring with Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the Range (1936). Soon after, she gave her best performance in a dual role for Come and Get It. With a total of four films under her belt by the end of the year, the press announced that Frances Farmer was the find of 1936. That year she also married actor Leif Erickson.

Despite her success in Hollywood, Farmer quickly came to despise acting in movies; she still wanted work on the stage. In 1937, she got her wish when she joined the Group Theater in New York. That year, she played appeared in Golden Boy. She also had a brief, ill-fated affair with the play's author Clifford Odets.

When Farmer was reluctantly summoned back to Hollywood, she continued to make movies, but refused to accept the townís social and professional conventions. She felt that being a movie actress degraded her and she had no desire to fit in. She was also becoming increasingly paranoid and short-tempered.

The studio did not hesitate to punish her rebellion. She went from starring in movies such as The Toast of New York and Ebb Tide (both 1937), to supporting Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power in Son of Fury (1942). She was also divorced from Erickson in 1942. Still, this was only the start of Farmerís troubles.

Later in 1942, life changed dramatically for Farmer when she was arrested for driving drunk and using her lights in a dim-out zone. She was sentenced to 180 days in prison, though she soon received probation. In 1943, she violated her probation and was arrested again. She did not give herself up without a fight and the tawdry photos of her struggle with the arresting officers have become a legend of the dark side of Hollywood.

Farmerís mother attributed her rebellion to mental illness and had her committed to a state hospital in Washington. When she was released a few years later, her mother was not satisfied with her rehabilitation and had her committed again in 1945.

For the next five years, Farmer lived a hellish existence. Resisting her imprisonment every step of the way, she endured rape, humiliation, shock therapy and hydrotherapy. Before her release, she also presumably underwent a trans-orbital lobotomy.

Released in 1950, Farmer returned to Seattle to take care of her aging parents. A year later, she married Alfred Lobley. They divorced in 1958 and she married Leland Mikesell the same year. Though they would remain married the rest of her life, Farmer did not live with her husband for long.

Unable to find acting work, Farmer took a series of menial jobs. She also began to drink heavily. There was a media explosion in 1957 when a reporter discovered her working at the counter of a hotel.

Now a rediscovered Hollywood oddity, Farmer was invited to appear on This is Your Life. On the show, she was markedly more subdued and less alert than she had been in her Hollywood years. She then moved to Indianapolis where she hosted her own local program, called Frances Farmer Presents, for six years.

In 1968, Farmer wrote "Will There Really Be a Morning?", her autobiography, with her friend Lois Kibbee. Though there has been some skepticism over whether the book was true or if Kibbee took a bit too much artistic license, the explicit stories of Farmerís life in the mental hospital shocked the public.

When Farmer died from cancer of the esophagus on August 1, 1970, she was remembered for her early Hollywood scandals and the horror story she had told in her autobiography. Her promising early movie roles had been forgotten.

In the years since, Farmer has become a cult figure. Two movies, the television biography, Will There Really Be a Morning, and the theatrical production, Frances, were released in 1982. Farmer has also been remembered in songs by Kurt Cobain and Stephen Cush. She has even been the subject of a rock opera.

Frances Farmer is sure to remain a curiosity for movie fans. Ironically, her acting will probably always come second to the drama of her real life.
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Kendahl Cruver is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She also writes about classic actresses for Suite101.com.