Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Strange Fame of Frances Farmer, Part Two


(Part two of the Siren's thoughts on Frances Farmer, fact and fiction. Part one is here.)

Come and Get It (1936) is a tale of the Wisconsin logging industry. Frances Farmer begins the movie as Lotta Morgan, a melancholy singing floozy at a loggers' beer hall, and ends it as Lotta Bostrom, the floozy's namesake daughter. Before we say anything else about this movie, from its two (actually three) directors to its mangled message, let's start by saying Farmer is good. Not fire-and-music good, but good. In the first half, directed by Howard Hawks, she is close to wonderful.

As Lotta Morgan, Farmer is pursued by Barney Glasgow (Edward Arnold), a buccaneer type you'd pick as a future tycoon even if you hadn't seen "based on a novel by Edna Ferber" during the credits. The actress is at her best in the beer hall, warbling "Aura Lee" in a warm contralto, working the room and shrugging off the wolves. At first she's only mildly interested in Barney and his pal Swan (Walter Brennan, with a Swedish accent that must have influenced Jim Henson). When Barney moves to outsmart a shell-game being run by the beer hall's owners, he has Lotta stand nearby for good fortune, despite Farmer's warning that she's bad luck (how's that for hindsight irony?). When Barney wins big, at first Lotta connives with the hall owner to slip the logger a drug and fleece him of his gains. But Barney treats her like a lady, not a tart, and Farmer touchingly shows how the logger's kindness makes her reconsider the plot to swindle him. She discards the Mickey Finn she had prepared, and in a brawling, funny scene that's so Hawks it hurts, Farmer, Arnold and Brennan bust up the hall in a hail of flying metal beer trays. (The scene looks dangerous, and probably was.)

But Barney's ambitions outstrip his love for Lotta. He courts Lotta, but he marries a lumber boss's daughter. Lotta turns to Walter Brennan for comfort. Let me type that again, in case it didn't sink in. Lotta turns to Walter Brennan for comfort. If nothing else convinced the Siren of Farmer's abilities, that scene would have. Not many actresses could make you believe that a woman would rebound to a man who says "Yumpin' Yiminy"--but Farmer accomplishes it.

So the first Lotta disappears, and Farmer's performance never has the same magnetism, though she is still pretty good. The movie takes a jump in time, and Barney is now married with two grown children. He goes to visit Swan and Swan's daughter by the long-dead first Lotta. Barney spots this second Lotta, also played by Farmer, and is bowled over. In a futile attempt to turn back time, Barney spends a lot of money trying to buy young Lotta's affections. She, in turn, falls in love with Barney's son Richard (a high-billed but underused Joel McCrea).

One problem with the second half is that Farmer as Lotta must protest that she has no idea, no, really, absolutely no idea that Barney sees her as anything other than a surrogate daughter. The actress is thus faced with the choice of playing young Lotta as either the biggest ninny in the Great North Woods, or a heartless wench conning an infatuated old man. Her solution is to play Lotta as very gifted in self-deception. It almost works, but not quite. She does have some good scenes later on, including one where she pulls taffy with McCrea. As directed in Hawks' inimitable style, this activity is both a nostalgic bit of Americana and suggestive as all hell.

Unfortunately for Farmer, late in the filming Hawks ran afoul of producer Sam Goldwyn. As Todd McCarthy relates in his biography, Hawks put off having Goldwyn see the rushes as long as possible. The director used Goldwyn's bout of pneumonia as one excuse, claiming he didn't want the producer to exert himself unduly. Eventually Goldwyn figured out something was up, saw the footage and took to his bed with a relapse.

Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg points out that the producer's reaction was somewhat justified. Ferber wrote a screenplay that was close to her novel, employing her usual device of viewing history as it affects one rags-to-riches family. Howard Hawks merrily ignored Ferber, hired frequent collaborator Jules Furthman to help with rewrites, and proceeded to film a Hawks movie: Two buddies have adventures as they both fall in love with a husky-voiced, strong-but-shady lady. Plus, the book has an environmental message that Hawks tries to ignore. All that's left is the screen crawl at the beginning, with a vague reference to robber barons who "took from the land and never gave back," and a later remark by Joel McCrea's character, that if his father had replanted the forests his current job would be a lot easier. Ferber was angry that her major reason for writing the book was tossed overboard, but she should have paid more attention to the early logging sequence. Even William Wyler said it was the best part.

The logging scenes were filmed on location in Idaho by second-unit director Richard Rosson. Please believe the Siren when she tells you that even if you have not the slightest interest in Farmer or her story, this sequence alone is worth renting the DVD or setting your TCM reminder. Huge trees are sawed down, falling amidst other trees still standing. Then the camera pulls back to where the trees are being dismembered for shipping, and the scale of the destruction becomes apparent. Massive logs piled several stories high are hit with blasts and roll, in enormous waves, down to where they will be shipped. One man seems to jump clear barely in time, in a shot that remains terrifying even after 70 years. Everywhere the snowy landscape is dotted with stumps. The logs are sent down a river clogged with sawdust and twigs and topsoil. The images combine the conquering swagger of a Hawks film with a panoramic view of man's wanton destructiveness. The catch is that the splendor of the logging scenes overwhelms the rest. The remainder is pretty good, but to equal the impact you'd need Eisenstein, not an uneven dual-generation family saga.

In any event, before Goldwyn even got out of bed, he had a frank exchange of views with Hawks, and Hawks was gone. Goldwyn called in Wyler, who didn't want to do it, for reasons ranging from professional courtesy to lack of affinity for the material. But Goldwyn threatened to put Wyler on contract suspension and take over Wyler's Dodsworth, then in its final stages. Wyler agreed.

Farmer was miserable. McCarthy relates that from the beginning she had given herself to Hawks' tutelage (a pattern he was to repeat, most notably with Lauren Bacall). To get the part in the first place, she had gone with Hawks into the Los Angeles red-light district to look at streetwalkers and study their movements and personalities. She wore her costumes at home to learn how to move in them, and worked with the director to ensure that even her voice was pitched differently for the two characters. Now she was faced with "90-take-Willie," and she hated him. "Acting with Wyler is the nearest thing to slavery," she said. McCarthy quotes Wyler's response: "The nicest thing I can say about Frances Farmer is that she is unbearable."

Figuring out where Hawks leaves off and Wyler begins is no trouble at all. About a half-hour from the end, the movie suddenly becomes rather restrained, and before you know it, there's a garden party going on. There is a father-son fight at the party, but it occurs in a drawing room and consists of just two blows. The fight was Hawks's idea, but the Siren thinks he would never have resisted the temptation to have Edward Arnold and Joel McCrea throwing each other over the flower arrangements. Farmer's character breaks up the fight, in what McCarthy points out is a foreshadowing of Joanne Dru's similar function in Red River. But Farmer's intervention is ladylike, not that of a strong woman telling two stubborn men to knock it off. The Hawksian woman has become an Edwardian doll.

All in all, Come and Get It does make for sad viewing, as Farmer's greatest director was also her biggest lost chance. Joel McCrea tartly remarked that Hawks "brought her on and then left her high and dry. Well, Hawks didn't care about anybody except himself." Farmer "inspired Hawks in his most concerted effort yet to create a feminine screen persona from scratch, and the early Lotta certainly stands as the first fully realized prototype of the Hawksian woman," writes McCarthy. But Frances never worked with Hawks again.

(Background on the filming of Come and Get It is from Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy, and from A. Scott Berg's Goldwyn. There is a nice collection of stills from the movie at this Frances Farmer fan site. The picture above shows Farmer as the young Lotta.)

14 comments:

Flickhead said...

Excellent review, Siren. The last time I saw this film in its entirety was around 1983, when it had a brief theatrical reissue to cash in on Frances. I was eager going in, but the finished work is spotty at best. You're right: there's a visible difference separating the Hawks and Wyler material, and you can spot it immediately. I should go back to see the logging sequence, as it's faded from my memory. All I do remember is one unexpected scene that got a rise out of the audience I was with: Walter Brennan running, jumping and mounting Edward Arnold. At that point I wasn't sure about the male bonding in Hawks movies, and I still think there's a heap of latent homosexuality in his oeuvre awaiting discovery.

Campaspe said...

Thanks so much, Flickhead. I wish more people had seen this one. The contrast in directing styles alone makes it fascinating, but combined with Farmer and the logging sequences, it is well worth the time.

As for Hawks--all that male horseplay does tend to raise a few eyebrows. What I love about him, and what makes him very unusual in the annals of he-man directors, are the strong, individual women that are everywhere in his movies. But perhaps that was just another branch of his admiration for "masculine" qualities ...

John McElwee said...

Wonderful two-part Frances exploration, Siren! Really enjoy all your writing and admire your site layout as well.

Campaspe said...

Thanks so much, John! I love Greenbriar Picture Show and need to blogroll it for my next venture into my sidebar. I am glad you like the layout. I frequently think it is just too damn pink but my coding skills limit my choices thus far.

Hope you stop by again soon!

goatdog said...

I haven't seen this, so I can't comment, but I wanted to say that nothing says "1930s film" like Swedish dialect comedy. How is Brennan compared to El Brendel? Yumpin' yiminy indeed!

Campaspe said...

I have heard of El Brendel, but never seen/heard him, so I can't say. Brennan was ... well, he is never bad, exactly, just predictable. One review I read claimed he originated the phrase "yumpin yiminy" here but I doubt it. What is really amazing is that he won the 1st Best Supporting Actor award. That was when extras could vote, and as he was one of theirs, he got 3 Oscars before the Academy took the vote away from the extras.

Ferber's books describes Swan as "the strongest man in the Great North Woods." It was Hawks' idea to cast him but no one seemed to know exactly why.

Flickhead said...

John Carradine once quipped, "Walter Brennan can only play two characters: one with his teeth and one without!"

Haute Girl said...

great post!

jmk said...

Hi, I'm the author of "Shedding Light on Shadowland," which you link on this article. As you're probably already aware, "Come and Get It" and "Rhythm on the Range" are available on commercially released DVDs. There are out of print VHS releases of "Toast of New York", "Son of Fury" and "South of Pago Pago." My sources tell me that Fox will soon release "Son of Fury" on DVD, with the excellent A&E Bio of Farmer (on which I appear and which utilized my extensive archive for most of its source material) as a bonus. The truly obsessed cinephiles can contact me through my website if they're interested in seeing other Farmer films/tv appearances. I do have to respectfully disagree with the assessment of Frances on This is Your Life--I have both the edited 80s rebroadcast ("Classics") and an extremely rare original broadcast version made from Frances' own 16mm film given to her that evening by Ralph Edwards. She hated being there, Ralph Edwards was at his smarmiest (no mean feat), and I think she handled herself with amazing restraint. If you watch carefully, you can see how disturbed she was by Edwards' unbelievably tactless questions, but she was in no way "hollow eyed", and her responses show her quick wit and keen intelligence.

Campaspe said...

Hautegirl, thanks so much!

JMK, thanks very much for stopping by. Your site was invaluable and I hope everyone follows the link over there. Farmer doesn't deserve to be remembered as a victim of an operation she never had.

I am afraid that my use of "hollow-eyed" wasn't clear, though. I didn't mean to imply that she seemed out of it during the This Is Your Life broadcast, merely that she seemed worn out to me, all the more so by having to go over the worst parts of her life once more for the folks watching at home. I would pretty much agree that she handles herself well. There were a few times where she definitely gets an I-can't-believe-he-just-asked-that look in her eyes.

Retro Attic said...

This was interesting! I recently read something about her. Before that I didn't realize all the drama that surrounded her life.

msspurlock said...

In my view, this film still makes the "Top 20 Troubled Films" list. The list would consist of pieces that are jarringly noticeable in their schizoid personalities. For that reason, and just the fact that it's still enjoyable and important despite its internal history, it should be required viewing for every film student or studio boss.

Anagramsci said...

I'll take Wyler over Hawks any day of the week (I've always been more of a Borzage/Dieterle/Capra/Vidor/Goulding type than a Ford/Hawks person), but I do agree that this was never gonna bring out the best in WW... I've never been very keen on the Hawksian woman either... the women that I really like in Hawks films--i.e. Miriam Hopkins in Barbary Coast, Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Ann Sheridan in I Was a Male War Bride--don't really fit the mold, and he was often crushed down actresses that I always love elsewhere (i.e. Blondell and Dvorak in The Crowd Roars... Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings is the one that hurts the most)

I've never enjoyed Bacall very much, or Angie Dickinson... still, Lombard in 20th Cenmtury, Roz Russell in His Girl Friday and Farmer in the early scenes of Come and Get It ARE quite excellent, and I'm willing to give the director credit for collaborating on the creation of those indelible performances...

Margaret said...

Brilliant, Siren! I just now happened upon "come and get it"on TMC, and was so struck and puzzled by its weird vitality that I googled it and immediately found Siren's commentary. What a lucky find -- and your followers' comments are choice as well.

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