Sunday, September 19, 2010


If she was still alive, what horrors she could tell. Or could she? The rapes and cruelty she endured in a "hospital" that was supposed to treat her…would have truly haunted her in the years she had left if she hadn't been strapped down and repeatedly given shock therapy. Then she was allowed to get on with her life. Which was hardly a life at all. But it was no longer rebellious, no longer asking questions and forcing answers, or challenging the status quo. Almost not worth living at all…and she died when she was only 56.

Frances Farmer was born on September 19, 1913.

Her first iconoclastic act was winning $100 from Scholastic Magazine. She entered their writing contest and won for an essay called "God Dies." For once, she was encouraged in her brilliant thinking and her challenging ideas. A few years later, a student at the University of Washington, she won a contest run by The Voice of Action and was rewarded with a trip to Russia. The whispers about Frances grew louder; this beautiful drama student and pianist…was dabbling in Atheism and had enjoyed her visit to a Commie country.

The brilliant girl was signed to a film contract at the age of 22, and instantly found herself winning popular praise co-starring opposite Bing Crosby in "Rhythm on the Range," and critical acclaim for her exciting work in the Edna Ferber drama "Come and Get It." Like Bette Davis, Frances Farmer was not a fan of the "studio system" that owned its actresses and dictated what they did. It was a bit Communistic, wasn't it? The outspoken actress sounded ungrateful and restless in her yearnings to choose her roles and grow as an actress. She took stage roles when she could get away from Paramount, and it included appearing in "Golden Boy" by Clifford Odets. She had an affair with him, expecting marriage, but he walked out on her instead. It seemed that few shared Farmer's ideals, artistry or morality. When she became a big star, he even had the nerve to try and get her to star in his new 1941 play "Clash."

It was on October 19, 1942 that the increasingly alcoholic actress, at the end of a failed marriage, was caught driving with her headlights on in a "blackout" zone. Today, a Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton would parlay that into a contract with a perfume company or a million dollar movie deal. Farmer was jailed overnight for the minor offense, and pursued by the police when she failed to pay all of her fine. After a series of increasingly bitter battles with the law, she was literally hauled away to jail, crying "Have you ever had a broken heart?"

She ended up in a sanitarium, first given insulin shock therapy. Later, in the protective custody of her mother, she was sent to a more radical madhouse where she was given stronger electric shock therapy. Released, she tried to find peace with an ordinary, normal family but was carted back to her mother, who soon committed her to Western State Hospital, where gang-rape, torture and humiliation was practiced by her supposedly sane captors. Finally released, Frances Farmer had been scared and scarred into leading a numb, "normal" life out of show business. She took a dronish job as a bookkeeper and for seven years, lived quietly until she was rediscovered in 1957 by an enterprising writer who parlayed an article about her in "Modern Screen" into an appearance on "This is Your Life," and some minor TV work, including hosting a local show called "Frances Farmer Presents" through 1964. She even attempted a return to the stage in 1965, but the strain was too much for her, and she was arrested for drunken driving twice, losing her drivers license. After that, she returned to obscurity and died of cancer five years later.

In her ghost-written autobiography, there was no mention of a lobotomy performed on her. Her captors at Western State Hospital had records of hundreds of lobotomy patients but Farmer's name was not on the list and her father had refused consent for such a procedure. No nurse or doctor, even ones who could confirm some of the abuses she did suffer, recalled her being lobotomized. In suing Mel Brooks' film company for using incidences from his biography of Frances, author William Arnold declared that the screenwriter had to have read his book "Shadowland" because it was the only work that mentioned she'd had a lobotomy. And he admitted that he had "fictionalized" this, and several other things in the book to make it more dramatic.

Dramatic is the word for Steven Cush's angry, anthemic "Lobotomy Brings 'em Home" which appears on "Silvertown," from his group The Men They Couldn't Hang. The group name is much better than The Men Who Aren't Hung. Like Russell Crowe, who can look and act very American, the guys at first glance might seem like some angry, punkish variation on The Band to any Yank picking up the obscure album in a dollar bin (as this Yank did long ago). Their group name certainly has the connotation of the Old West, if you forget that the hangman was a figure quite popular in England before there was an Old West. Though Steven Cush, influenced by the movie "Frances" wrote about this American star, much of his material and that of his bandmates is very much on British themes, and the band back in the 80's was comprised of "a Welshman, 3 Scots and a Yorkie."

While the lobotomy of Frances Farmer is probably not the truth, there's much truth in this snarling, well-intentioned song, and about the dubious use of therapeutic butchery, which happened to any of any of a hundred of her fellow patients. The song is still a decent homage to Farmer and a vivid warning of what still happens when any powerful system (which is what Hollywood was and is) can dictate lives. And while lobotomy may no longer be popular, many modern drugs for the mentally ill and experiments on them are just as bad.

The movie "Frances" and the life of Frances Farmer influenced another, quite different figure in the music world. Born in Canada, and the foremost superstar in France for well over a decade, the former Mylene Gautier changed her last name to the American "Farmer," as a lasting tribute to this talented, and literally tortured star, born today, September 19th. And a belated happy birthday to Mylene Farmer, born September 12, 1961, whom this blog salutes as the most intelligent, compelling and beautiful woman making music in our generation.

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