It’s a famous image – a woman resists the officer who is forcing her into the courtroom, one leg raised, her skirt slipped obscenely. She is in her early thirties, a maenad-like appearance, a wild, disheveled mane, a perplexed rebelliousness in her eyes. In this and other pictures, this woman could be seen in many newspapers back in January 1943; they illustrated the story of Frances Farmer, who experienced a short rise in early talkies and then a truly horrifying long decline into dark zones whose secrets are far away were illuminated.
Frances Farmer, born on September 19, 1913 in Seattle, had that magical aura that made the cameras shine at the age of twenty – she was, at the time, comparable to Garbo. Cecil B. DeMille admired her, and Howard Hawks declared that she had more talent than anyone he worked with. Hawks directed her 1936 film “Come and Get It,” a wild lumberjack story. The two spent casual weekends on his yacht, roaming the red light districts, where Frances found inspiration for her role – a saloon singer named Lotta.
Hawks got into an argument with the producer, William Wyler took over the direction, and Frances didn’t get along with him at all. Because of the two famous directors, “Come and Get It” is probably the only film with Frances Farmer that is remembered today. She got a seven-year contract with Paramount, as was usual back then; for the studios, young potential stars were an investment and they took time to shape their images. Only a few women, like Bette Davis or Olivia de Havilland, were able to laboriously free themselves from these tight contracts.
The “most unbearable and tragic of all Hollywood tragedies”
Farmer also complained about the blandness of her characters, argued with the directors, turned down roles, and refused the constant PR presence. In a left-wing newspaper competition The Voice of Action The young student had won a trip to Moscow, which gave her rebelliousness a left-wing edge – the studio kept it as secret as possible. Frances dreamed of a different, freer Hollywood; she was prone to depression and became addicted to amphetamines. In 1937 she starred opposite Cary Grant in The Toast of New York, a hard-hitting Wall Street story, but her role was uncomfortably softened here too. For the rest of her short career, there were cheap productions like “The Pearl Robbers of Pago-Pago” or “The Ultimatum for Drilling Tower 9”, both from 1940.
Of course, the story of Frances Farmer (including the corresponding pictures) can also be found in Kenneth Anger. The “most unbearable and tragic of all Hollywood tragedies,” he explained in his scandal chronicle “Hollywood Babylon,” which is certainly not short on unbearables: “She had been unhappy in Hollywood purgatory, where her talent was forced into stupid, superficial roles in stupid films . A merciless fate left them at the mercy of a hell of straitjackets, leather straps and sadistic-brutal lesbian guards. Come and get it.”
She walked topless on the Sunset Strip
This fate began on the night of October 19, 1942, when Frances Farmer was arrested for driving through Santa Monica with her headlights flashed – it was war, and the West Coast had to be blacked out because of the Japanese. Farmer didn’t have her driver’s license with her, the judge gave a quick and routine verdict: drunk driving, 180 days… The scandal abruptly put an end to her film career, and now came an endless chain of incarcerations and incarcerations, months and years in run-down places Institutions. She threw an inkwell at a judge. She is vulgar and nefarious, the doctors noted, she quotes poetry… Farmer was placed under the care of her mother, walked topless on the Sunset Strip, violated probation, was diagnosed as paranoid, schizophrenic, manic-depressive.
The grisly climax of this terror came on an autumn day in 1948, in the Western State Hospital, Washington, where Frances was interned for five years – and where one day a lobotomy was performed on her: at least this is what the film critic William Arnold suggests in his book published in 1978 about Frances Farmer “Shadowland”. A psycho-surgery, an operation in which an ice pick-like steel needle was pushed into the skull next to the eye in order to destroy certain nerve pathways and thereby “immobilize” the patient.
“One of the most glamorous and complex women of her generation”
The notorious Dr. Walter Freeman practiced the method in many institutions. It was hoped that this would help the institutions that were suffering from a lack of space and staff after the many traumas caused by the World War. Some patients did not survive the procedure, but many were reduced to an apathetic state and were discharged as “cured.”
In 1948, writes Arnold, Dr. Freeman also had Frances Farmer on the operating table. After her release, Frances made ends meet with small jobs, got her own TV show in 1958, and occasionally did theater. She died on August 1, 1970.
There is no official evidence or witnesses for Arnold’s account of the lobotomy. His book was widely criticized. “Shadowland” became the basis for the 1982 film “Frances”, with Jessica Lange in the title role – in this context, Arnold had to admit that his book contained many fictional moments. It is now being sold as a novel. However, the fascination that Frances creates in this book remained when I reread it. “One of the most glamorous and complex women of her generation became a prime guinea pig for arrogant and ruthless men determined to mold her into a more acceptable version of herself.”