15 November: Frances Farmer’s furies

Anne Shirley must have every eye of the studio audience and the crew upon her more intently than they’d be trained upon a Lux Radio Theater performance without the backstory hers carries. She’s standing in for one of the most spectacular crackups in Hollywood’s none-too-unspoiled or unsoiled history.

By now the original lead actress in Come and Get It has left Hollywood for the first time, partially in pursuit of stage work, and partially out of frustration that she can’t get roles that don’t call upon more than just her arresting looks. And Frances Farmer—whose turn in the original Come and Get It should have made her a bona fide star—can’t and won’t convince people that shunning glamour off set means anything but trouble.

A lost true love who’d deceived her to dump her; a subsequent and troubled, possibly studio-pressed marriage; relentless pressure from her studio and her overbearing parents; several brutal hospitalisations amidst a battle with the bottle and what came to be thought manic depression, and Farmer will finally land in Indianapolis after the 1940s.

The photograph Farmer most loved to autograph for Frances Farmer Presents fans, whom she felt liked her for herself and not to exploit her.

The photograph Farmer most loved to autograph for Frances Farmer Presents fans, whom she felt liked her for herself and not to exploit her.

There, she’ll find quiet local success hosting the television film presentation series Frances Farmer Presents, earning a reputation for friendliness and affectionate fan mail answering, until she suffers a near breakdown and returns to the bottle too heavily, causing a few memorable malaprops and the end of the show.

Finally, she will find a kind of peace in doing small local plays, opening a cosmetics business (which will fail only after her manager embezzles her money), and allowing children to touch her for perhaps the first time. One will break her to tears after climbing into her lap and telling her, “I love you so much because you’re so good.” The girl who’d once written for publication that a chaotic world might have eliminated God was now a too-much battered adult who could believe God was returning to her.

Farmer took additional solace sitting alone in an Indiana church while quietly surrendering the bottle at last, and in due course she takes instruction to be received into the Roman Catholic Church, in time enough to comfort her soul but not to save her life; she will succumb to esophageal cancer in 1970 at 56.

Call Frances Farmer the patron saint of every gifted dreamer who cracks in pursuit of a dream and beneath the wheel of lost or stolen love. Anne Shirley can’t possibly know all to come tonight. But what’s already known is torturous enough.



Lux Radio Theater: Come and Get it (CBS, 1937)


Anne Shirley, who stood in boldly for Frances Farmer on Lux Radio Theater.

Anne Shirley, who stood in boldly for Frances Farmer on Lux Radio Theater.

How would Farmer have performed tonight if she could have been able to do so? Would she find it the sort of challenge around which she could wrap, re-creating without visual encumbrance the role that should have made her a star?

We can never know. What we can know is Shirley stepping capably enough into the dual roles, playing opposite Edward Arnold reprising his film role, in the story of a ruthless logger (Arnold) finding his ambition costing him his romance with a saloon singer (Shirley), prompting him to marry his boss’s daughter, instead, which suits his ambition well enough.

Except that, two decades later, their son fights his reckless logging operations, prompting him to reassess his life—and face his attraction to the daughter (also Shirley) of the man who married, but has been widowed by, the saloon singer long ago left behind . . . an attraction shared by his son.

Shirley is good. But yes, indeed, it is to mourn that Farmer isn’t here. Trimmed down just so for radio, the art of the ear and the mind, this is the kind of acting challenge Farmer just might adore. Might.

Additional cast: Walter Brennan, Lew Ayres, Mary Nash, Maisie Christians. Host/producer: Cecil B. DeMille. Music: Louis Silvers. Adapted from the screenplay by Jane Murfin and Jules Furthin, based on the novel by Edna Ferber.


Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Jack Benny Program: Buck Benny Rides Again (comedy; NBC, 1936)
The Whistler: Apparition (crime drama; CBS, 1942)
The Abbott & Costello Show: Lou Hides from His Girl Friend (comedy; NBC, 1945)
The Green Hornet: The Katz With Nine Lives (crime drama; ABC, 1945)
Rogue’s Gallery: The House of Fear (crime drama; Mutual, 1945)
The Bob Hope Show: The Beethoven Sketch (comedy; NBC; AFRS rebroadcast, 1949)
Escape: Three-Skeleton Key (adventure; CBS, 1949)
Richard Diamond, Private Detective: The Mona Lisa Murder (crime drama; NBC, 1950)
The Adventures of Maisie: The Giant Thursday Island Pink Pearl (comedy; CBS, 1951)
The Halls of Ivy: An Interview With Don Quinn (comedy; NBC, 1951)
Broadway is My Beat: The Kenny Purdue Murder Case (crime drama; CBS, 1952)
The Marriage: Liz Fights a Traffic Ticket (comedy; NBC, 1953)
Our Miss Brooks: The Moving Van (comedy; CBS, 1953)
The Six Shooter: Escape from Smoke Falls (Western; NBC, 1953)

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