Mimsy Farmer: From Spencer’s Mountain to More
Cult icon Mimsy Farmer was a pretty hazel-eyed blonde with the fragile features of a Mia Farrow or Yvette Mimieux and the independent streak of a Tuesday Weld. After playing the innocent virgin in a few movies and on TV, she essayed restless youth roles in a string of AIP drive-in exploitation movies in the late Sixties. Farmer then relocated to Europe, where with a whole new look, she became an international sensation in 1969 due to her mesmerizing performance as a heroin addict in More. Thereafter she remained in Italy in a series of popular European giallos and horror films between some acclaimed dramas that never found their way to the U.S.
Mimsy Farmer was born Merle Farmer in Chicago. Her parents, Arch and Suzette Farmer, were reporters for the Chicago Herald Tribune. Though named after her father’s favorite brother, she always went by the nickname Mimsy, which came from her mother who Mimsy suspects took it from the poem “The Jabberwocky” used in Alice in Wonderland. When their daughter was about four years old, the Farmers moved to Hollywood when Mimsy’s father took a job writing news for NBC-TV’s Los Angeles affiliate. While attending Hollywood High, the lovely teenager was discovered by an agent and almost immediately landed roles on TV’s My Three Sons and The Donna Reed Show.
Mimsy came close to replacing Sandra Dee as Gidget in Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), but the producers opted for Deborah Walley. As consolation, they gave her a bit uncredited role. Her official film debut was in the heartwarming or mawkish (depending on your taste—there is no in-between) family drama Spencer’s Mountain (1963). It was based on the novel by Earl Hamner, Jr., who later created the popular seventies television drama, The Waltons, and set in scenic Wyoming with the majestic mountain peaks of the Grand Teton Range as background. In the movie, Mimsy played Claris the girl friend of Clayboy (James MacArthur), the eldest son of hard drinkin’ and hard livin’ Clay Spencer (Henry Fonda) and his long-suffering formidable wife Olivia (Maureen O’Hara). Clay dreams of building a house for his wife big enough for their huge brood but when Clayboy has an opportunity to become the first Spencer to go to college, Clay has an important decision to make.
For the time, Farmer’s teenage Claris is surprisingly very amorous and sexually-charged (the character grew up outside the small mountain community so she thinks she is more worldly in regards to love and marriage) compared to the typical Tammy’s and Gidget’s that bounced across the silver screen at the time.
Extolling her indifference to movie premieres and determined to become an actress and not a teen idol ala Sandra Dee or Annette Funicello, Farmer commented to the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t want to appeal to the teen-aged mentality. The ones that do are only stars, not actors—and they’re good for only a few years. Teen stars can’t handle the fame.” This most likely disturbed Warner Bros. that wanted to groom her to be the next big thing and began by choosing her to be a 1963 Hollywood Deb Star.
Unhappy with her performance in Spencer’s Mountain, Mimsy began studying with esteemed acting coach Jeff Corey. Despite keeping busy on television including guest appearances on The Outer Limits and Perry Mason, Farmer kept her job selling candy at a local movie theater. She finally left it when she returned to the big screen in the soapy Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965) directed by Harvey Hart from a screenplay by William Inge who had his name removed from the credits when Universal ordered a script re-write to make the film more of a vehicle for Ann-Margret. Aping James Dean, the brooding Michael Parks played a disillusioned sailor returning home after three years at sea. He finds his sultry ex-girlfriend (Ann-Margret) unhappily married to a wealthy older man, his job prospects bleak, and his younger sister (Farmer) has become the town tart. The film was not well-received though Farmer does well with her role.
For drive-in movie fans, 1967 was a banner year for Mimsy Farmer who had three films in release. Despite her ambition not to become an idol for the young, she became very popular with teenage audiences for a short period of time and began her ascension to cult movie actress. First up was the explosive youth exploitation classic Hot Rods to Hell from quickie producer Sam Katzman for MGM and directed by John Brahm whom Mimsy liked a lot. She credited him for teaching her the trick to crying on screen with a little help from glycerin drops in the eye. Originally made for television as 52 Miles to Terror, it was deemed to violent and released to drive-ins throughout the country instead with a more exploitative title. This was Farmer’s first real bad girl role after playing mostly ingénues. The worried actress remarked that she was cast by her looks alone and hoped she wasn’t going to now be typecast.
Hot Rods to Hell is great camp fun. After almost dying in a car crash, traumatized Dana Andrews as Tom moves his wife (Jeanne Crain) and children, teenaged Tina (Laurie Mock) and Jamie (Tim Stafford), from New England to the California desert to take over a motel and roadhouse. Unbeknownst to them, the place is a hangout for underage troublemaking hot rodders and hoodlums (albeit the most clean-cut looking set of thugs to ever hit the silver screen). Mimsy Farmer played a wild reckless thrill seeker named Gloria first seen standing in the back of what looks like a souped-up dune buggy holding on to the roll bar yelling, “Run him off the road Duke! Run him off the road!” as she eggs on her drag racing boyfriend (Paul Bertoya). Their wild antics elicits from Andrews’ Tom, “What kind of animals are those?” They’re the kind that is out for kicks—racing, having sex, drinking beer, and harassing the townsfolk. Farmer is effective first educing sympathy as the easy lay who wants to find a better life, but then lets her inner bitch get the better of her tormenting good girl Tina whom she sees as her rival for self-centered Duke, no prize he. Since this was an MGM production, the film ends with the family triumphing and the teenagers repenting for their misguided ways.
Actor Christopher Riordan was one of the teenage hoodlums in Hot Rods to Hell and he was not impressed by Mimsy or her two male co-stars. He remarked, “Poor Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain were sort of rolling in their early graves. A couple of the actors were taking themselves so dreadfully serious it was really stupid and they wasted a lot of time in their so called preparation and their attitude. Whereas I am from the old school and thought, ‘Why don’t you just act?’ They were professional but everybody was wishing that they would calm down and do the part as written hoping it would work out. Unfortunately it didn’t if you saw the movie.”
Mimsy Farmer and Laurie Mock were teamed again by producer Sam Katzman in her most notorious movie from this period, Riot on Sunset Strip. However, the roles were switched as Mock was cast as the out-for-kicks Liz-Ann friend of Farmer’s more conservative Andy who was described in the press book as “a real swinger, who took her first ‘trip’…all the way to Hell and back!” All the ingredients were present—hippies, LSD, protestors, free love, mod fashions, police brutality— to make Riot on Sunset Strip a camp classic of the alienated youth movie genre.
The movie opens with young people milling about on the Sunset Strip with deadly serious voiceover narration that describes the kids as, “Irresponsible, wild, beat, protest youths with nowhere to go, nothing to do, no goal in life.” Hanging out at a club called Pandora’s Box, underage high school kids Andy, Liz-Ann, and their boyfriends get involved in a brawl and are hauled off to jail for breaking curfew. Andy’s estranged police detective father (Aldo Ray), who hasn’t seen his daughter in four years, has been informed of her arrest. When Liz-Ann and the gang decide to return to the strip the following night, Andy declines but when she finds her mother in another alcoholic daze she changes her mind. There she hooks up again with the wild Liz-Ann and Schuyler Hayden as Herby, the bored son of a movie star. He gets a bunch of kids to break into an abandoned house on the Strip where drinking leads to marijuana then to LSD, which Herby spikes the unaware Andy’s coke with saying, “Grass is fast, but acid is like lightning, man.” Strung out, Andy begins to freak out and is then led upstairs to a bedroom by Herby where the poor thing gets gang raped. When the police raid the house, all the kids get out except Andy and Liz-Ann who fingers the guys who assaulted her friend. Andy’s father beats Herby to a pulp with cries of “police brutality” in his ears, but he is able to stave off the impending riot.
The movie’s standout scene is Farmer’s wild LSD freak out dance where she writhes around the floor in her mod mini-dress gazing in wonder at her hands and feet. She then begins dancing around shaking her wild mane of hair ala Ann-Margret (critic Clifford Terry described it as “a dry-land water ballet”). Whatever you label it, it has become a YouTube favorite much to Farmer’s bemusement.
The biker film Devil’s Angels (1967), AIP’s in-name only sequel to its mega hit The Wild Angels, was directed by Daniel Haller and featured Mimsy Farmer this time as the tormentee playing a bored small town girl who gets in over her head. The ad copy exclaimed, “Violence is their God…Lust the law they live by. They hunt in a pack…Like Rabid Dogs.” John Cassavetes starred as Cody the leader of an outlaw biker gang called The Skulls, whose members included Beverly Adams, Russ Bender, Marc Cavell, Salli Sachse (a former Beach Party regular), Nai Bonet, Buck Kartalian, and Kipp Whitman. The gang is on their way to find an idyllic life in the “Hole-in-the-Wall” when they stop in the town of Brookville to attend a local carnival. Farmer’s Marianne is the only girl in the Kissing Booth who will smooch any of the bikers. Roy (Whitman) is the lucky winner. Flirty Marianne then gets him to take her on a joyride and he heads straight to his gang who are partying along the shore of a lake. After smoking pot and many beers (this is definitely not your typical Frankie and Annette beach party), things get out of hand as Roy fiercely kisses Marianne and begins to pass her around to his friends. The terrified disheveled girl flees into the night and the sheriff and mayor think she has been raped, which she denies. Her debauchery leads to an all out war between the townspeople and the bikers. The Skulls emerge victorious and take over the town putting Marianne, the sheriff and Mayor on trial leading to more violence.
Unhappy with her husband and her career in Hollywood, Mimsy headed for Vancouver on advice from actor Peter Brown who told her about HollywoodHospital where they experimented with LSD and psychotherapy. After her own session, she began working there but quit when she realized the hospital never followed up with their patients after their “treatment.” Still in Vancouver, she received a life changing phone call from director Daniel Haller (one of her favorite directors) who wanted her for the female lead in his new movie The Wild Racers (1968), which was going to be shot on location throughout Europe. Mimsy played Katherine the girlfriend of race car driver Joe Joe Quillico (Fabian) who progresses from U.S. stockcar racing to traveling the European Grand Prix circuit. The more successful he becomes, the more his relationship with Katherine crumbles. This was the only film the actress did for AIP that was not a hit with the drive-in crowd. In an interview with the Oakland Tribune, Haller opined that it was a picture “too esoteric in its treatment to make as much money as it should have.”
Deciding to remain in Europe, Farmer sought out work there and landed the female lead in More (1969), first time director Barbet Schroeder’s cautionary tale of drug taking with an original song score by Pink Floyd. The actress was introduced to Schroeder by The Wild Racers’ cinematographer Nestor Almendros and associate producer Pierre Cottrell. Though not completely happy with the script or things her character had to do in it, Farmer accepted the role in part because she would get to work with her two friends again. The movie was filmed on a shoestring budget, but you would never guess that when watching the movie.
With a stylish short haircut, Farmer gives an entrancing performance as Estelle an offbeat American expatriate living in Paris who meets German college graduate Stefan (Klaus Grunberg who spoke no English and had to learn his line phonetically) who has been warned to stay away from her (“She has already destroyed two men—do you want to be the third?”). Ignoring the advice, Stefan spends a few days with the girl smoking pot and making love. He then follows her to the sunny island of Ibiza where they live an idyllic life nude sunbathing and taking LSD. However, things begin to go awry when they graduate to shooting up heroin and become entangled with the island’s leading drug dealer an ex-Nazi whose mistress turns out to be Estelle. Stefan’s love for the secretive American becomes obsessive and abusive the more his addiction for heroin increases, which leads to tragedy. Grunberg’s character is sometimes unlikable while Farmer makes her Estelle sympathetic despite her cavalier treatment of Stefan.
In 1969 to help promote the release of More, an honest, outspoken Farmer opined in the New York Times, “I think the hip people will put the film down…the idea that smoking marijuana leads to heroin is ridiculous. A lot of people will just be bored by the whole thing.” She also went on to say that she wasn’t thrilled with director Barbet Schroeder regarding the scene where Grunberg runs his hand up her dress and remarked that he “misrepresented the way he was going to shoot it.”
More was an international sensation and really clicked with young people of the time. It helped to kick off Mimsy Farmer’s European career, which lasted for over 20 years. Her films included Dario Argento’s suspenseful psychological thriller Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat (1981). Her last acting credit is the Italian TV-movie Safari (1991) for director Roger Vadim. Today, Mimsy concentrates on her art (displayed on her web site www.mimsyfarmer.com) and sculpture work, which can be seen in such movies as Blueberry (2004), Troy (2004), Marie Antoinette (2006), The Golden Compass (2007), and Clash of the Titans (2010).
Your first big movie role was in Spencer’s Mountain. What was it like to work on this?
When we made Spencer’s Mountain I was fifteen and a half. I was accompanied by my mother and a teacher, and spent most of my time with them (or riding horseback) when I wasn’t working. I didn’t have many scenes with Henry Fonda who seemed pretty miserable and spent most of his time at the local café, or Maureen O’Hara who was also fairly distant. James MacArthur, who was quite a bit older than me, was nice but the person I felt most comfortable with was Wally Cox who seemed to take me more seriously and taught me some lovely Elizabethan songs, which I still remember. Delmer Daves [the director] was more concerned about my weight than about my acting, unfortunately, and kept telling me, ‘watch your bottom honey.’
What do you recall most about your second film Bus Riley’s Back in Town with Michael Parks and Ann-Margret?
I just remember being impressed by being on the same set with Jocelyn Brando [who played her mother], as much as if she’d been Marlon [her brother].
Hot Rods to Hell was your first real big screen bad girl role. What attracted you to the part?
I needed to work and couldn’t wait for a better offer. I also thought, ‘If Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crane had accepted who the hell was I to be finicky?’
Your next three movies were for American International Pictures. Did you sign a contract with them?
No, I had no contract with AIP but I was supporting my ‘cowboy’ husband [he was from Brooklyn and failing to get work as a stuntman in Hollywood] and a bunch of animals. The better directors were not lining up in front of my door pleading for me to be in their movies. They didn’t even know I existed.
You have a great LSD freak-out scene in Riot on Sunset Strip. Do you remember anything special about it or the movie itself?
That ‘great LSD freak-out scene,’ which I took very seriously at the time, has since become for me a source of amusement tinged with embarrassment. Somewhere on the internet someone said, ‘that scene is so bad, that it’s hilarious.’ I agree. I was pretty naive back then and so earnest!
In Devil’s Angels you played a local girl who makes trouble for the Hell’s Angels led by John Cassavetes. How was it to work with him?
I really liked Daniel Haller [the director], a very nice man, and admired John Cassevetes, also a very nice guy. All Casseavetes and I talked about was how much he missed his wife. Actually, I mostly listened. Anyway, doing a movie with him, even though he wasn’t directing it, was a step in the right direction.
Your last AIP movie was Wild Racers with Fabian and your second film directed by Daniel Haller.
I’d left my ‘cowboy’ husband and was working in a hospital in Canada where they were using LSD as a tool for psycho-therapy. The experience was enlightening but disappointing. When Daniel Haller called me, I jumped at the chance to go to Europe and also to see my brother Philip, who was living in London at the time. It was the best move I’d made up to then and I loved traveling in France, Spain, and Holland.
After accepting the role in More did the nudity ever become a concern? A number of your ‘60s contemporaries would not take roles where they has to be naked.
No, not all. Nudity was an integral part of the movies in which I appeared naked. Being flat-chested and boyish helped a lot and, I hope, there was nothing vulgar or lewd about these scenes.
Do you consider More of your best or important movies? Back then you remarked that you thought the idea of marijuana leading to heroin addiction was not believable.
I don’t think it is my best movie, though the role was interesting and Nestor Almendros’ photography was gorgeous. It was, though, very important for my career, both in the positive and in the negative sense. Its success in France was huge and overnight I became a ‘star’ but, as is often the case, I became ‘type cast’ and most of the roles directors offered me subsequently were those of neurotic or outright mad young women. Well, I can’t complain.
It’s true that I said, and still believe, that smoking grass does not in itself lead to shooting heroin. I know many people who light up a joint from time to time who have never touched anything harder and never will, myself included (though now I prefer a good glass of wine).
How would you rate Barbet Schroeder as a director? In an interview you gave to the New York Times you were unhappy with some of his directorial choices.
Well, I think now, that I was silly to berate Barbet and his movie at the time but I still think that it’s naive and moralistic and some of the scenes were an embarrassment to do, all the ‘Zen’ and ‘Lotus’ shots and the ‘unexplored brain’ nonsense. What I didn’t say though was that his movie was pretty daring and unconventional for those years, in Europe anyway, and that he was a better than average director.
Did you find a big difference between working in Europe versus Hollywood?
In Europe, actors were not shuffled off to their trailers between shots and were invited to participate and collaborate with the director and other crew members. It was so different. Nobody was anxious about my ‘bottom’ (admittedly much diminished) and nobody was redesigning my eyebrows and curling my hair. I just had the feeling that nobody wanted me to act or look like anyone but myself—such a relief!
Were you surprised that More was such a hit especially in France?
Yes, More got its chance because it had been so successful at the Cannes film festival but was blasted by the critics in the U.S. Of me, Newsweek said, “She acts the range of emotions from A to B.” Bette Davis once said, ‘Old age ain’t for sissies.’ I say, neither is being an actor!
You seem to have a healthy attitude about bad reviews.
For me, the movies I’ve done aren’t only about how they turned out but also, who was involved in them. Also, on the whole, when you’ve decided to live and work in a foreign country, you are the foreigner, and if you’re an actor there are limits to which and how many roles you’re going to be offered and if you’re working to make a living you can’t be too choosey and you’re mostly grateful when you can work.
Look for my new book Pamela Tiffin: The Actress, the Icon, the Films in late 2014.