Glenda Farrell’s name is not a very well-known one these days. The average person has heard of Fay Wray, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and numerous other classic actresses, but not Glenda Farrell. Many classic film enthusiasts are familiar with her, but to the average person of today, her name does not ring a bell. For that reason, I have undertaken to write an article about her life and legacy. It’s a little long, but that’s because I feel that it needs to be, as few people know much about Glenda Farrell and not much has been written about her in the past (compared to more famous actresses, anyway). If you look at the bottom of this page, you will also find links to some interesting Glenda Farrell resources from around the web, including articles, audio recordings, photos, and video content.
If you like this article, you may also be interested in my companion piece, “Glenda Farrell: In Her Own Words”.
Glenda Farrell was born in Enid, Oklahoma on June 30, 1901 (as confirmed by both the 1910 and 1920 censuses, and later by the Social Security Administration when she was issued SSN 573-03-9877). However, her date of birth is almost always listed as June 30, 1904, because like many actresses of her time, she shaved a few years off of her real age. Her parents were Charles Farrell, a horse and dog trader of Irish and Cherokee descent, and Wilhemina Farrell, who was of Alsatian (French/German) descent. Wilhemina must have once had aspirations of acting, because she knew from the beginning that she wanted her daughter to be an actress. When Glenda was still very young, the Farrells moved to Wichita, Kansas, where she made her stage debut as Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and received a formal education at the Mount Carmel Catholic Academy. The family later moved to San Diego, California. There, she joined the Virginia Brissac Stock Company.
In 1920, Glenda was hired to do a dance routine at a San Diego Navy benefit ball. There, she met Thomas Richards, a young WWI hero and Distinguished Service Medal awardee. The two instantly fell in love. As Thomas Richards was poor and without a job (he was discharged from the Navy not long after they met), Wilhemina Farrell would drive him away whenever he came to the Farrell’s house. Nevertheless, Glenda often met him at a local candy shop. When Glenda took a train to Hollywood for a screen test, Richards secretly came with her, and they married during the trip. When the newlyweds returned, they moved in with Charles and Wilhemina Farrell, until they could make enough money to move. They soon left, and traveled from town to town, dancing in their vaudeville act. Despite their impoverished state, they were, in Glenda’s words, “shut into some vast dream world of our own that was all beauty and happiness.” 
Glenda soon became pregnant, which eventually made it impossible for her to continue dancing in their act. As a result, she worked during the day as a saleslady, and a night in an artificial flower factory. Still, there wasn’t enough money, so Thomas and Glenda moved back in with the Farrells. On October 7, 1921, their son Tommy was born. Sadly, the once-blissful marriage soon started to deteriorate. Partially because of pain from his war wounds and partially because of financial woes, Richards became depressed and turned to alcohol to drown his sorrows. He would sometimes become dangerous when drunk, and often would disappear, sometimes for entire months. Glenda tried to keep the marriage together, but as he got worse and worse, there was eventually no choice but to divorce him, which she did in 1929. In 1932, her son Tommy had his last name officially changed from Richards to Farrell.In 1928, a year before the divorce, the lead actress in the play The Spider dyed her hair black. She was fired by the irate manager, and fair-haired Glenda was brought in as a replacement. When the production went East, she left Tommy in her mother’s care and went with it. Not long after she arrived in New York, she was cast in Skidding, the play that eventually inspired the Andy Hardy movies. She soon performed in a number of other plays, and while not all were hits, her performances were always given good notices by critics. Due to her critically-praised performance in the play On the Spot, Warner Brothers hired her to play the girlfriend of Douglas Fairbaks, Jr’s character in Little Caesar. Afterwards, she returned to Broadway, again performing in On the Spot. Little did she know that she would soon gain much and lose much – all in one day. Her mother had told her, “Don’t give up the stage until your name is in lights. When your name gets on a marquee, my work will be done.” Years later, she recalled:
I was doing On the Spot for the Shuberts … A man associated with producer Arthur Hopkins came to me and offered me more money and my name in lights if I’d step over and do a lead in So This Is New York … The Shuberts wouldn’t let me go … But they bargained with me, ‘If what you want is your name in lights, we’ll do that for you.” Of course, I wired my mother the grand news immediately. The lights flashed my name, and the first night they did, I went into my dressing room and found a telegram … Mother had died early that evening from the effects of an operation she had undergone. At the very moment undoubtedly that the lights were twinkling through the New York dusk, and the name Glenda Farrell appeared for the first time on any marquee, mother passed on, her life’s work done. 
After appearing in several more plays, she performed in one entitled Life Begins. In 1932, Jack Warner offered her the same role in a film version of Life Begins, and she accepted. Her performance received highly favorable reviews, and led to many movie and stage offers. She was planning to return to Broadway, but Warner Brothers picked up the five-year option in her Life Begins contract. They quickly put her to work, often in as many as three movies at once.
Her hard work payed off. She quickly acquired much popularity, and before long had earned enough money to buy a Spanish style house for herself and Tommy in the San Fernando Valley, and a nearby house for her father.
Among Glenda’s early 1930s Warner Brothers movies were I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, in which she played the villainous wife of Paul Muni’s character; Mystery of the Wax Museum (remade in 1953, as House of Wax), in which she played a wisecracking newspaper reporter named Florence; and a number of movies in which she and Joan Blondell costarred, usually as a pair of gold-diggers. Glenda and Joan were friends off-screen as well, so much so that Joan wrote a tribute called “My Pal Glenda”. Here are some of the things she wrote in it; they provide much insight into Glenda’s personality:
No one would be able to enjoy a case of the blues with Glenda around. She would start to console you and before you realized it you’d be laughing and it wouldn’t be because Glenda had made an effort to amuse you. She just can’t help but be funny. . . .
Glenda and I do the same type of role which means that she must share her honors with me. With most girls such a state of affairs just wouldn’t work, they would want their honors all to themselves. Not so with Glenda. In fact, she goes to the other extreme to build me up in my comedy.
Glenda is, at all times, very natural. She isn’t one bit camera-conscious. Doesn’t know a good angle from a bad one and works just as hard with her back to the camera as facing it. Her movements are always quick, her speech spontaneous. When she goes into a scene she never follows the script to the sacrifice of her naturalness. She acts just as she would if the same situation arose in her every-day life. In other words, she suits the part to her personality instead of trying to suit her personality to the script. . . .
She is the fastest thinker I have ever known. She can have a dozen things on her mind at the same time and not get them bawled up. Her body keeps up with her mind. She moves swiftly and accurately and makes every move count. . . .
Glenda is forever doing thoughtful things for others and she seems instinctively to know just what to do and when to do it. . . . God bless Glenda! 
(You can read the entire article at this link.)
Glenda also had many romances throughout the 1930s – or so the fan magazines would have you believe. She later revealed that most of them were not all they were made out to be:
I’ve never been to those “glittering fabulous parties.” I’ve been to a few, and as a matter of fact, do you know what those parties were? This was in the thirties. We’d have to get dressed up—they’d give us an order—we’d have to go to the Trocadero or the Colony or whatever the big cafe was at the moment—usually they cooked up a romance with somebody on the lot, for publicity, someone you didn’t care about at all, but it made news, made the papers, it was publicizing both of you. You’d come home so tired, because you’d been up working at 5 or 5:30 in the morning. You’d have to come home and change and get into the evening clothes and go down there. and you couldn’t wait to get home. As soon as they took all the pictures, you’d be laughing gaily at the table—but you couldn’t wait to get home.
That’s really what it amounts to. People think the actors are having such a time. They never think of you as working. So many young girls think movies are so glamorous, and when they find out you have to get up at 5:30 every morning, and that when you go out it’s for publicity, more or less, they have a little different attitude about it.
Q: Do you remember who your studio romances were?
Farrell: I don’t remember them all. I never got around to scrapbooks—I’ve got thousands of pages stuck in envelopes that I never had the time to get into a scrapbook. My son once started one. Lots of them were people I didn’t remember existed. Somebody would come along, start a career—they would sign people up—if they didn’t make it, that just went the way of all jobs. I don’t remember their names. This was all part of the job. Several in one year? Oh, yes. It meant nothing on either side. We worked too hard. We didn’t have much time for romance. You can’t get up so early, go study your lines, and still…you know, you just fall into bed at night. 
However, she apparently did have at least two real romantic relationships. In 1931, she was engaged to Jack Durant, a vaudeville comedian, but never married him. A few years later, she fell in love with screenwriter Robert Riskin, but didn’t marry him either. She explained in an August, 1934 interview with Hollywood magazine that she didn’t want to rush into a marriage because she didn’t want to risk it falling apart due to the stresses of Hollywood life. Riskin eventually went on to marry Glenda’s Mystery of the Wax Museum co-star Fay Wray.
Despite the hardboiled characters Glenda often played, she was a “softie” in real life. She was generous to a fault, so much so that she reportedly owned three vacuum cleaners and several sets of encyclopedias because she couldn’t say no to salespeople. She once said, “Really, I’m not the least bit like the roles I play. In movies I’m usually cast as a wisecracking, golddigging dame, you know. But actually I never wisecrack … And as for golddigging, I’ve never been able to wangle a thing. Everything I’ve ever had, I’ve worked for and paid myself.” 
The story of how His Girl Friday came to be is well-known. Howard Hawks was adapting the famed stage play The Front Page, but changed the male reporter in the play, Hildy Johnson, into a woman, and added a formerly non-existent love story between the two main characters. What’s not as commonly known is that almost the exact same thing happened several years earlier. In 1936, Warner Brothers began to develop an adaptation of the “MacBride and Kennedy” stories by Frederick Nebel. In the stories, dimwitted police officer MacBride is constantly outwitted by wisecracking, hard-drinking newspaper reporter Kennedy. For the movie version, however, Kennedy is changed to a woman named Teresa “Torchy” Blane, and is now in love with the MacBride character, now named Steve McBride. Director Frank MacDonald immediately knew who he wanted for the role of Torchy Blane. If there was one thing that MacDonald believed in, it was speed. And there was no one who could talk faster than Glenda Farrell. And as if that wasn’t enough, she had already proved in Mystery of the Wax Museum and Hi, Nellie! that she could play hard-boiled reporters brilliantly. She was quickly casted in Smart Blonde, the first Torchy Blane movie, an adaptation of the Macbride and Kennedy story “No Hard Feelings” (adapted again in 1941, as A Shot in the Dark).
While Torchy Blane was not the first character that Glenda worked at developing, Torchy was special for her. She took on the role of as something of a challenge, and sought to differentiate Torchy from other screen sob sisters of the era. She explained:
They were caricatures of newspaperwomen as I knew them. So before I undertook to do the first Torchy, I determined to create a real human being – and not an exaggerated comedy type. I met those who visited Hollywood, and watched them work on visits to New York City. They were generally young, intelligent, refined and attractive. By making Torchy true to life, I tried to create a character practically unique in movies. 
Smart Blonde was a surprise hit, and took Glenda’s popularity to a new level. She was so beloved by moviegoers that, in her words, people “did nice things for Torchy the star sob-sister that they wouldn’t do for just an ordinary Hollywood star.”  Warner Brothers took notice, and starred her in several more Torchy Blane movies. When her and Barton MacLane’s Warner Brothers contracts expired, they were replaced with Lola Lane and Paul Kelly. Audiences didn’t like the casting change, so Warner Brothers managed to get Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane back, and made three more Farrell/MacLane Torchy Blane movies, including Torchy Gets Her Man, in which she famously made an almost 400-word speech in only 40 seconds; and Torchy Blane in Chinatown, an unofficial remake of Murder Will Out (1930). The last Farrell/MacLane Torchy Blane movie, Torchy Runs for Mayor, is very reminiscent of the real-life 1937 event in which Glenda was elected honorary Mayor of North Hollywood, beating Bing Crosby and Lewis Stone 3 to 1.
In the ninth Torchy Blane movie, Torchy Blane…Playing with Dynamite, Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane were replaced with Jane Wyman (who had previously played a bit part in Smart Blonde), and Alan Jenkins. Audiences again disliked the casting change, and since Warner Brothers couldn’t get their winning team of Farrell and MacLane back, Playing With Dynamite became the last Torchy Blane movie. A leftover Torchy Blane script was adapted into Private Detective, also starring Jane Wyman.
Among the many fans of the Torchy Blane movies was a young aspiring comic book writer named Jerry Siegel, who along with his friend Joe Shuster, was developing a soon to be legendary creation called Superman. He liked Glenda Farrell’s portrayal of Torchy Blane so much that he based the character Lois Lane on her. Due to the fact that he named Lois Lane after Lola Lane, who also portrayed Torchy, it is often mistakenly believed that it was Lola Lane’s portrayal that inspired him in the creation of the character. But this is not the case; Lola Lane inspired only the name. In 1988, Siegel wrote the following (emphasis mine):
Thank you for saying “Happy Birthday” to Superman [SHOW BUSINESS, March 14]. Joe Shuster and I, the co-creators of Superman appreciate it. My wife Joanne was Joe’s original art model for Superman’s girlfriend Lois Lane back in the 1930s. Our heroine was, of course, a working girl whose priority was grabbing scoops. What inspired me in the creation was Glenda Farrell, the movie star who portrayed Torchy Blane, a gutsy, beautiful headline-hunting reporter, in a series of exciting motion pictures. Because the name of the actress Lola Lane (who also played Torchy) appealed to me, I called my character Lois Lane. Strangely, the characterization of Lois is amazingly like the real-life personality of my lovely wife.
Los Angeles 
Joanne Siegel (Jerry Siegel’s wife and the very first art model for Lois Lane) also confirmed that Glenda Farrell was the inspiration for Lois Lane. When she was asked in an interview if Lois was based on Rosalind Russell’s portrayal of Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, she responded, “He got the inspiration for Lois Lane from a movie star before Rosalind Russell. Her name was Glenda Farrell and she played a girl reporter, very fast-talking, and she always got the story.” 
Another interesting fact is that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster later created a short-lived series of comic books about a hero called Funnyman, in which there is a Lois Lane-like character named June Farrell – named, of course, after Glenda Farrell.
In 1939, after almost a decade of working in film, Glenda started primarily acting on stage again, with only occasional movie roles. While she was in the play Separate Rooms, she got a sore throat that wound up changing her life. She later reminisced:
After a two year run, you get pretty tired, and I got a sore throat. The doctor came to see me, but I didn’t get any better. I guess I was just terribly tired. Then somebody said, “I know a wonderful man, the catch of New York, a great doctor—why don’t you just see him?”
The last thing I wanted was a catch in New York. I was tired. I just wanted to get well. This doctor came over to see me—and, p.s., I married him. 
The doctor’s name was Henry Ross, and he and Glenda Farrell were married on January 19, 1941. This was Glenda’s second and last marriage. The couple remained happily married until her death thirty years later.
Throughout the the 1940s, Glenda primarily worked on stage, but appeared in a few movies, most notably Johnny Eager and The Talk of the Town. In 1949, she made her television debut in “The Mirror and the Manicure”, an episode of The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre. In 1954, she appeared in Secret of the Incas, a movie directed by her cousin Jerry Hopper, which went on to become one of the largest influences on Raiders of the Lost Ark. On May 26, 1963, she was awarded an Emmy for her performance in the Ben Casey two-parter “A Cardinal Act of Mercy”. In 1964, she appeared in the Elvis Presley movie Kissin’ Cousins, as did her son Tommy, who later reminisced that Elvis treated her as if she was his mother. Not all was roses, however, as she broke her neck doing a scene where she flips Elvis off of a porch. She had to wear a neck brace for the duration of the filming, and only took it off for a few minutes at a time when she had to do a take. The same year, she appeared in “The Pure Truth”, the all-time highest-rated episode of Bonanza. She also appeared on other popular television shows throughout the 1960s, including The Fugitive, Rawhide, and Wagon Train.
In the late 1960s, Glenda decided to try retiring and spending more time at home, but grew hopelessly bored. On December 26, 1968, she returned to the stage in the play 40 Carats, and received rave reviews for her performance. Unfortunately, she became ill after only a few months, and was diagnosed with lung cancer. This diagnosis was cruelly ironic. You see, she never smoked – not even for movie scenes. Tommy Farrell explained:
She never smoked a day in her life. When she did a picture with Paul Muni, Hi Nellie, they had her smoking. But they built prop cigarettes with just a little tobacco on the end. You couldn’t inhale because they were full of cardboard in between. It would only burn for a little while. When they would do a short scene, they would have to cut and give her another cigarette because she wouldn’t take any smoke in her mouth. 
Glenda herself had once quipped that her character in Hi, Nellie! was one of her hardest roles, saying, “The character was always sitting at a typewriter with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, and I can’t type and I don’t smoke.” 
She temporarily moved to Florida, hoping that the change of weather would help her condition. Unfortunately, it did not, so she came back to New York, where she died in her Manhattan apartment on May 1, 1971. In 1977, Dr. Ross donated 38 acres of land to the Putnam County Land Trust in her honor. This piece of land is known as the Glenda Farrell – Henry Ross Preserve to this day.
Despite her death, Glenda Farrell’s legacy lives on. I wholeheartedly concur with the sentiments expressed by her friend Garson Kanin in a 1971 New York Times article:
This morning, under a still-soft mound of earth overlooking the stately Hudson at West Point, there rests the body of Glenda Farrell, American actress. She is the only member of her profession whose grave is situated in the cemetery of the United States Military Academy. The reason: she was the wife of Colonel Henry Ross, Class of ’26, and specifically chose the site during the last of her gallant days. Her grave is marked by the cross symbolizing her devout Catholicism. When, in time to come, her husband joins her there, the cross will be matched by a graven Star of David. There is something very Glenda about all this.
She was one of the few real Americans I have known. Most of us are welcome assimilates. Not Glenda. She began in Enid, Oklahoma; was educated in Kansas, and made her way to Broadway via California. Several plays later, she scored as a tough moll in “On the Spot”, in 1930, which led inevitably to Hollywood and the part of the tough moll in “Little Caesar.” There followed 121 films, a dozen plays, and an uncounted number of television shows.
There are players who created characters; some of the great ones, a single character. (Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Mae West.) More rare are those who, like Glenda, created a type.
She invented and developed that made-tough, uncompromising, knowing, wisecracking, undefeatable blonde. Whether she was the Girl Friend of the star, a cynical secretary, a salesgirl, a world-weary wife, a madam, homesteader, or schoolteacher — she was always, relentlessly The Type.
In my early Hollywood days, certain characters were often described (sometimes even in screenplays) as “a young Glenda Farrell,” or “an old Glenda Farrell,” or “a French Glenda Farrell.” . . .
We shall remember her: a look, a scene; a line, a stance; that strong presence, or her marvelously wry, understanding, sudden American smile.
She was widely imitated, and lived long enough to see her imitators imitated. Day and night, on myriad stages and screens (large and small) some passed-on vestige of Glenda Farrell’s art remains.
Colonel Ross (also Doctor Ross, also Hank) will forgive me if I suggest that, unlike old soldiers, old actresses do not fade away. Instead, they stay with us, in indelible memory and in those whom they have — one way or another — inspired. 
“Glenda Farrell: Diamond in the Rough” by Dan Van Neste.
The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies by Daniel Bubbeo.
Reminisces of Glenda Farrell (1959) in the Columbia Center for Oral History Collection.
Your Colossal Main Feature Plus Full Support Program by John Howard Reid.
Superman: The Complete History – The Life and Times of the Man of Steel by Les Daniels.
Girl Reporter: Gender, Journalism, and the Movies by Howard Good.
Assorted other sources.
Glenda Farrell Resources:
“Glenda Farrell: Diamond in the Rough”, a great and very informative article originally published in the May, 1998 issue of Classic Images magazine, and featuring an interview with Tommy Farrell. It’s a must-read for anyone interested about Glenda Farrell. (For some reason, the page is mis-titled as a nonexistent article called “Glenda Farrell: Film Music Genius” by R. E. Braff, but it’s really “Glenda Farrell: Diamond in the Rough” by Dan Van Neste.)
“My Pal Glenda”, a tribute article written by Joan Blondell.
An August 22, 1937 episode of The Chase And Sanborn Hour, featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and guest-starring Glenda Farrell, courtesy of the Old Time Radio Researchers Library.
An April 9, 1939 episode of The Silver Theater entitled “The Man from Medicine Bow”, featuring Glenda Farrell and Chester Morris.
Here is the page for The Adventures of Buzzy Bear and Peggy Penguin, narrated by Glenda Farrell, at Kiddie Records Weekly (a website that digitally archives vintage children’s records). The page has a nice-sized photo of the album cover and an MP3 file of the record. The tone of voice Glenda uses for this record is an interesting contrast to the one she used for her famous wisecracks. Here, she sounds very “sunny” (for lack of a better term).
Some rare Glenda Farrell photos at the New York Public Library’s website.
An article by Guy Flately, featuring some quotes from his 1969 interview of Glenda Farrell.
A link to a search of the Media History Digital Library configured to find mentions of Glenda Farrell (including articles about her, photographs of her, etc) in various vintage publications. On the left side of the page are a number of settings available for you narrow the results by the title of a publication (such as Photoplay or Hollywood), date (such as 1937 or 1940), language, collection, or format.
A link to a Google News Archive search configured to find vintage Newspaper articles mentioning Glenda Farrell. Some of these articles are on paid sites, but most are freely available to the public. Many include interesting information, sometimes even interviews.
Some links to the Archive.org pages of movies and television episodes featuring Glenda Farrell which are now in the public domain and available to watch or download for free from Archive.org. For some, I have links to two pages, as sometimes each page offers different formats and/or file sizes.
A Night for Crime (1943)
City Without Men (1943) (The largest file on either page is the best for that page. I can’t tell which page has the better quality overall, as both are poor, albeit slightly different, transfers.)
Heading for Heaven (1947)
Page 1 (I recommend the 3.4 GB MPG file on this page. It is DVD quality. This is also the best Archive.org page to go to to watch the movie online.)
Page 2 (I recommend the 768.1 MB file on this page if downloading the 3.4 GB file from the other page is not feasible.)
I Love Trouble (1948)
Page (I recommend the 768.3 MB Cinepack (AVI) file. Not only is it the best quality, but the most reliable. Some people have reported having trouble downloading or playing the other files on the page.)
“June Moon” (1949), an episode of Studio One.)
A Youtube search configured to find full movies and television episodes featuring Glenda Farrell:
1. ^ Van Neste, Dan. “Glenda Farrell: Diamond in the Rough”, Classic Images May 1998, Iss. 275
2. ^ Van Neste, Dan. “Glenda Farrell: Diamond in the Rough”, Classic Images May 1998, Iss. 275
3. ^ Van Neste, Dan. “Glenda Farrell: Diamond in the Rough”, Classic Images May 1998, Iss. 275
4. ^ Blondell, Joan. “My Pal Glenda.” Hollywood – Jan, 1952: pp. 41, 48
5. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 41-42, in the Columbia Center for Oral History Collection (hereafter CCOHC).
6. ^ Van Neste, Dan. “Glenda Farrell: Diamond in the Rough”, Classic Images May 1998, Iss. 275
7. ^ Bubbeo, Daniel. The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies, p. 79
8. ^ Good, Howard. Girl Reporter: Gender, Journalism, and the Movies, p. 6
9. ^ TIME, May 30, 1988, Letters to the Editor, pp. 6-7
10. ^ Daniels, Les. Superman: The Complete History – The Life and Times of the Man of Steel, p. 20
11. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), p. 19, in the CCOHC.
12. ^ Van Neste, Dan. “Glenda Farrell: Diamond in the Rough”, Classic Images May 1998, Iss. 275
13. ^ Bubbeo, Daniel. The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies, p. 78
14. ^ Kanin, Garson. “Glenda Farrell 1904-1971”, The New York Times – May 16, 1971, p. D14