Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Torchy Blane Series (Warners, 1937-1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched Smart Blonde, the first Torchy Blane movie from Warners in 1937 and the one that established the series. It was also the only one that was based on a story actually written by Torchy’s creator, mystery writer Frederick Nebel (adapted into a screenplay by Warners’ hands Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan), and it showed in a much more interesting plot than most of these films had, with a large assortment of potential suspects and genuine surprise in the finally-revealed identity of the murderer. It also benefited from being set in genuine Warners’ territory — in the worlds of entertainment and criminality; nightclub and racetrack owner Fitz Mularkey (Addison Richards) is determined to get out of the business and go into real estate to please his fiancée, Marcia Friel (Charlotte Winters). He wants to make sure he sells them to an honest owner instead of one of the New York gangsters itching to get their hands on them, so he sends for Boston entrepreneur Tiny Torgensen (Joseph Crehan) and agrees to sell to him even though Torgensen is offering him considerably less than the New York crooks are.

The deal becomes moot when Torgensen is killed at Union Station right as Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell) is interviewing him — talk about being on top of a story! — she boarded his train from Boston in mid-run, got to his cabin, started the interview there and was continuing it as he got off the train when he was ambushed and shot. From there much of the action shifts to the Million Club, centerpiece of Fitz’s entertainment mini-empire, where his sort-of former girlfriend Dolly Ireland (the always marvelous Wini Shaw — her credits listing in the American Film Institute Catalog index only covers four years, 1934 to 1937 , and it seems inexplicable that her great performance in the “Lullaby of Broadway” number from Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1935 didn’t make her a major star) holds forth as a singer and is shown singing most of a song called, “Why Do I Have to Sing a Torch Song?”

Smart Blonde is probably the darkest of the Blanes — there’s some genuine homicidal madness among the characters (Addison Richards is especially good as the sympathetic nightclub owner driven to rage and the edge of criminal insanity by the deaths of Torgensen and a number of his other friends), including the interesting figure of Chuck Cannon (Max Wagner), Fitz’s “enforcer” and a prime suspect since Fitz’s decision to bail out of the nightclub and racetrack businesses means he’ll be out of job. In the end [spoiler alert!] the killers turn out to be Marcia Friel and her “brother” Louis (David Carlyle, later known as Robert Paige), who turn out not to be brother and sister after all but rather a con-artist couple out for Fitz’s businesses and fortune. (One wonders if Frederick Nebel lifted this gimmick from The Hound of the Baskervilles.) Smart Blonde even looks darker — more proto-noir — than the later films in this series (Warren Lynch was the cinematographer and Frank McDonald, who did most of the Blanes, was the director), and the comedy relief is a lot more restrained than it became in subsequent films in the series. — 7/8/04


I ran us the first in the eight (out of the total nine) Torchy Blane movies I recently recorded to DVD off TCM, Smart Blonde, a snappy opener to the series and a movie I quite like if only because it’s one of the few screen appearances of Wini Shaw — here cast with her true first name, Winifred — and she even gets to sing a song, “Why Must I Sing a Torch Song?,” in which she’s quite good (nothing that would have kept Billie Holiday awake worrying about the competition, but a nice “torch” voice that did justice to this song just as it did to the magnificent “Lullaby of Broadway” in Gold Diggers of 1935), though alas it’s interrupted by dialogue and we really get to hear only the beginning and the ending of it. The plot deals with a mini-entertainment empire that’s been put together by good-bad gangster Fitz Mularkey (Addison Richards), which includes a racetrack, a boxing arena and the Million Club, basically your average movie nightclub that looks far larger and more elaborate than a real one, in which singer Dolly Ireland (Wini Shaw) holds forth and carried an unrequited crush for her boss.

Fitz has decided to cash out of his businesses so he can settle down as a legitimate real-estate developer and marry his fiancée, Marcia Friel (Charlotte Winters), and rather than sell to one of the four or five New York crooks interested enough in his businesses to pay a premium price for them, he calls in an old friend from Boston (where he grew up), Tim “Tiny” Torgenson (Joseph Crehan), and sells them to him — only Torgenson is killed in a taxicab as soon as he gets off the train, and ace reporter Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell, top-billed) just happens to be in the cab, witnesses the whole thing and immediately calls the story in. Her boyfriend, police inspector Steve McBride (Barton MacLane), naturally gets the call to investigate the case, and the two cycle through a series of suspects — including Mularkey’s roughneck bodyguard Chuck Cannon (Max Wagner), who’s thought to have killed Torgenson out of fear that Fitz’s withdrawal from the business would leave him unemployed — before they finally realize (in a plot twist original writer Frederick Nebel or screenwriters Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan might have borrowed from The Hound of the Baskervilles) that the real villains are Marcia Friel and her husband Lewis (David Carlyle, later known as Robert Paige and a mini-star at Universal in the 1940’s, best known as the romantic lead in the Abbott and Costello breakthrough film Buck Privates); Lewis had posed as Marcia’s brother and the two were well-known con artists whose modus operandi was to use the Mrs. as a sexual lure to attract horny middle-aged pigeons for swindling.

Fitz ends up wounded but alive, sadder but wiser, and in the arms of Dolly Ireland at long last when she visits him in the hospital — and Torchy and McBride, after a whole movie of having their meals interrupted by one emergency call or another, finally get to go out to dinner at the fadeout. What appeal there is to Smart Blonde (and most of the Torchys to follow) is mostly in Glenda Farrell’s performance — an outgrowth, William K. Everson argued in The Detective in Film, of her role in Mystery of the Wax Museum as the reporter (again!) who solves the mystery and neatly steals the movie from the nominal female lead, Fay Wray (when Mystery of the Wax Museum was remade in 1953 as House of Wax the reporter character was omitted, and the film suffered big-time) — that and Frank McDonald’s acceptably atmospheric direction and the relentlessly fast pace Warners was known for that manages to get this story on and off screen in 59 minutes. — 4/29/09


The film I picked was Fly Away Baby (oddly the American Film Institute Catalog spells the title as Flyaway Baby, without a space between the first two words, but that’s not how it appears on the opening title), an entry in the Torchy Blane series with Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane starring and Frank MacDonald turning in a sprightly job of direction. The exploitation gimmick on this one was the credit that the Don Ryan/Kenneth Gamet screenplay was “based on an idea by Dorothy Kilgallen” — who had actually won a race around the world, sponsored by her newspaper, to see who could get around the world fastest taking only commercial flights. (On screen the idea works out rather absurdly — one wonders how anyone can possibly win the race when the three contestants — Torchy, Lucien “Sonny” Croy [Gordon Oliver] and Hughie Sprague [Hugh O’Connell] — keep turning up on the same flights.)

This one is kicked off by the murder of jeweler Milton Devereux in which the three suspects are Croy, Devereux’ business partner Guy Allister (Joseph King) and recently paroled jewel thief Vanoni (the character appears briefly on screen but neither the on-screen credits nor the AFI Catalog list who plays him). The plot resolves into a complicated race around the world during which Blane is dead-set on pinning the murder on Croy — though the real guilty party turns out to be Allister, who kills Croy (his partner in an operation to fence stolen jewels through a crook in Frankfurt, whom Allister also kills) on the Zeppelin on the way to New York from Frankfurt and then, when cornered, tries to make his escape via parachute but pulls the rip cord too soon and ends up plunging to his death. It’s one of those movies where the plot matters less than the characters — Glenda Farrell in full cry is always a treat — though it does seem odd that a film in which key scenes take place in Germany make absolutely no reference to the Nazis and treat Germany as if it were a normal country with a normal government! — 6/17/03


Charles and I ran a movie, Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde, made at Warners in 1937 just after Fly Away Baby. This was a considerably duller movie than Fly Away, Baby, too, despite a quite promising opening: Torchy (Glenda Farrell) is on a train, sitting next to a mysterious woman, Theresa Gray (Natalie Moorhead). A porter comes by and gives them both telegrams, but he gives each one to the wrong woman, so Theresa receives the one from police detective Steve McBride (Barton MacLane) that he’ll marry her as soon as she gets back in town, while Torchy receives one meant for Theresa from her lover, “Harvey,” breaking off their affair. “Harvey” turns out to be actor Harvey Hammond, who becomes involved in a plot hatched by Torchy’s rival reporters who, fearing they’ll be shut out of police stories when Torchy marries McBride, decide to embarrass her by hiring Hammond to fake his own death so she’ll report his murder — and a competing newspaper owned by Theresa’s husband Mortimer Gray (Charles Wilson) will discredit her by reporting him as alive and well. Only somebody takes advantage of this elaborate plot to kill Harvey for real, and Torchy and McBride spend six surprisingly slow-paced reels trying to figure out who.

As the American Film Institute Catalog summarizes it, “The suspects in his death are Grace Brown, an actress in Hammond’s company; her boyfriend Hugo Brand; Mrs. Jenny Hammond, who was jealous of Hammond’s love for Grace; and Theresa Gray, Hammond’s discarded lover” — though the real killer scenarists Robertson White and David Diamond decided on was Mortimer Gray, Theresa’s husband, who was jealous of Hammond for seducing and abandoning Mrs. Gray. It’s a dénouement that strains credibility and hardly seems worth waiting for — and though Frank McDonald repeated as director this is hardly an effort in the same league as Fly Away Baby, which had a faster pace as well as a genuinely mysterious plot and a much more credible ending. (Incidentally the American Film Institute Catalog claims that the plot of Adventurous Blonde is similar to that of Back in Circulation, released by Warners just two months earlier — but aside from the fact that both stories deal with a reporter proving an adulterous wife innocent of murder I detected no particular similarities, and the pathos of Back in Circulation — both in the suspect’s character and in that of the reporter, who puts her job on the line since her editor is convinced the woman is guilty and wants her to write it that way — is totally absent here.) — 6/18/03


Charles and I didn’t get back until well past 9:30 and we only had time for a short movie: Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde (at least that’s what the title is in the credits and in the American Film Institute Catalog; TCM’s schedule listed it simply as Adventurous Blonde), third in the series (I had a few of them scattered on sporadic videotapes but I took advantage of TCM’s decision last June 30 — the anniversary of Glenda Farrell’s birthday — to tape them all in sequence). It came right after the dazzlingly inventive Fly Away Baby and suffered from the comparison; it deals with the attempt of reporters for rival papers to discredit both Torchy Blane and her cop fiancé, Lt. Steve McBride of the homicide division (Barton MacLane, about whose performances in these films William K. Everson wrote that his “main concession to his playing of the cop was that he shouted a shade less belligerently than when playing the hoodlum”) by bribing actor Harvey Hammond (Leland Hodgson) to pose as a corpse, so Torchy will report his murder and then get shamed out of the business when he turns up alive — only someone takes advantage of this situation to kill him for real (don’t you just hate it when that happens?).

Adventurous Blonde wasn’t much of an entry in the series — it missed the relative audacity of Fly Away Baby and the Warners’ backstage atmosphere of the first one, Smart Blonde (which benefited majorly from the presence of the great Wini Shaw in the cast), and the sight of Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane making out in the back of a taxi is hardly stimulating or particularly erotic (one wants to walk into the screen and tell her, “You could certainly do a lot better than him!”), but the film is fun even though the mystery isn’t all that mysterious and it doesn’t help the whodunit status of this story that Torchy gets the key clue even before any of the other principals are introduced (on a train coming back to New York City from the ending of Fly Away Baby she runs into a married woman who was having an affair with Hammond, which he had just broken off by telegram, and not at all surprisingly the killer turns out to be the rival publisher whose reporters organized the “fake” Hammond death, who was also the husband of Hammond’s paramour). This one was pretty routinely written (by Robertson White and David Diamond) and directed (by Frank McDonald), but Glenda Farrell in full cry is always fun to watch and she really “makes” this movie. — 7/4/04


The film I’d picked out was Blondes at Work, episode number four in the Torchy Blane series and, like the previous one we’d seen two nights earlier, Torchy Blane … the Adventurous Blonde, it was a pretty dull and unmysterious one, though definitely benefiting from Glenda Farrell’s star presence. The story deals with the sudden disappearance of Marvin Spencer (Kenneth Harlan), owner of the Bon Ton department store, who is later found dead in a hotel room. It turns out he and his rich friend, Maitland Greer (Donald Briggs), were fighting over the affections of former Bon Ton model Louisa Revelle (Rosella Towne), and Greer is accused and even convicted of Spencer’s murder, but in the end the real killer turns out to be Louisa, who stabbed Spencer to keep him from killing Greer and is therefore legally justified on grounds of self-defense.

The American Film Institute Catalog notes the plot similarities to two earlier Warners’ features, Front Page Woman (1935) and Back in Circulation (1937) — in which the enterprising female reporters were played by Bette Davis and Joan Blondell, respectively — though the only real point in common is having the woman reporter spend time in jail for contempt of court for having overheard the jury return a verdict and having “leaked” it to her paper so they published before the verdict was actually read in court.

What value there is in this movie is almost exclusively from the one-liners, the subtext (Thomas Jackson, at his most stubbornly self-righteous, plays a police captain who’s trying to stop Torchy’s cop fiancé, played by Barton MacLane, from giving murder solutions to her paper and thereby scooping her competitors — a prohibition Torchy evades by bribing her boyfriend’s partner to read his diaries) and delightful little bits of characterization like the screaming-queen stereotype in charge of Bon Ton’s fashion department (who would seem to have had his own motive for killing Spencer — “He kept leaving me to date women!”). Albert DeMond’s “original” screenplay suffers from a common fault in journeyman mystery writing — not enough suspects to keep the whodunit angle interesting — but it’s got some good lines, and Frank McDonald directs at the usual Warners breakneck pace and brings it in at 63 minutes so the slender story at least doesn’t outstay its welcome. — 7/6/04


Afterwards I ran Charles another movie, Torchy Blane in Panama. Apparently this wasn’t the next to last in the series — they interrupted the sequence with Glenda Farrell as Torchy and Barton MacLane as Steve McBride to try replacing the principals (Lola Lane played Torchy and Paul Kelly played McBride), then returned Farrell and MacLane to the series before the final film, Torchy Blane … Playing with Dynamite, with Jane Wyman (of all people! Imagine a future Academy Award winner in something like this!) as Torchy and Allen Jenkins as McBride. The experimental cast change didn’t work — frankly, Torchy Blane in Panama would have been a much more entertaining movie with Farrell and MacLane in the leading roles; whereas Farrell could play an assertive woman without losing her femininity Lane is just aggressive and edgy; and Kelly is so utterly lacking in charisma or sex appeal he makes MacLane look like Clark Gable by comparison and we wonder, even more than we do in the Farrell-MacLane Torchy Blanes, what on earth she sees in him.

It’s a pity, because in other respects the script for this one (by George Bricker, from a story by Noah’s Ark collaborator Anthony Coldewey) was one of the more creative entries in the series. It starts at a giant parade for a fictitious lodge organization called the Loyal Order of Leopards (one wonders if Coldewey and Bricker were influenced by the Laurel and Hardy masterpiece Sons of the Desert in using this device); dumb cop Gahagan (Tom Kennedy, the only actor to appear in all nine Blane films) is leading a contingent — which requires all its members to dress up in Tarzan-like leopard skins, showing off all too much of their decidedly un-Tarzan-like physiques — when he witnesses a bank robbery in progress. His contingent rushes in the bank en masse but too late to catch the robber or even get his car license number; frankly, I found myself feeling for the poor customers, who had to deal first with the trauma of watching the bank get robbed and a teller get killed and then had to deal with a contingent of 20 overweight Tarzan wanna-bes led by someone claiming to be a police officer responding to the call!

In any event, Torchy finds a clue at the scene — a Loyal Order of Leopards lodge pin from L.A. inscribed with the name of a lodge leader who’s been dead for three years; and, assuming that the robber has stolen this man’s identity and is planning on skipping out of town with the L.A. contingent, who are stopping off in Panama on the way home, McBride, Gahagan and rival reporter Bill Canby (Larry Williams) get on a boat to Panama and Torchy boards the boat in mid-ocean by parachuting down in a skydive from a small plane she’s rented for the circumstance. It doesn’t take long for Torchy to figure out that the bank robber is Stan Crafton (Anthony Averill), whom she romances to try to find out where the money is; he’s hidden it inside the stuffed leopard that serves as the L.A. contingent’s mascot and plans to sneak it off the ship in Panama and fence the money. As usual Torchy gets captured by the crooks and Steve has to rescue her.

The story is actually quite a clever one, director William Clemens (never one of the more important Warners’ contractees but someone who actually did pretty well with unpretentious “B” scripts like this) maintains a sprightly pace and actually inserts some interesting camera angles, and some of the supporting players are quite good (notably Averill, who plays the robber as a properly smarmy, oily personality but with some degree of actual charm that enables you to believe he could crash the Leopards and be accepted by the other members — the giveaway comes when Gahagan, actually managing to make a genuinely intelligent deduction for a change, figures out he’s not really a Leopard because he shakes hands normally and doesn’t give the secret lodge handshake), and all in all Torchy Blane in Panama manages to be entertaining despite the wrongness of the leads. — 7/13/04


Charles and I got a ride home and I ran him Torchy Gets Her Man, fifth [actually sixth] in the Torchy Blane series from Warners from 1937 to 1939 and a considerably better film than either the third, Torchy Blane … The Adventurous Blonde, or the fourth, Blondes at Work. This time the mystery was genuinely suspenseful; Albert DeMond’s script told the story of “Hundred Dollar Bill” Bailey (Willard Robertson), master counterfeiter who has been evading detection by the U.S. Secret Service for 15 years. His current plot is to use the $100 window at a racetrack (played by the Inglewood track in which Warners then had a financial interest) to pass his phony money. A Secret Service agent named Gilbert shows up at the New York police department and gets Lt. Steve McBride (series regular Barton MacLane) to cooperate with him and swears him to secrecy.

As part of the alleged cooperation MacBride’s stupid aide Gahagan (Tom Kennedy) is supposed to pass a letter to Brennan (silent-screen veteran Herbert Rawlinson) and wait for a reply — only the letters are lifted from him when he’s stopped on the street in two elaborately staged hoaxes that raise our suspicions well before anyone in the movie actually catches on. It turns out, natch, that “Gilbert” is Bailey — not a genuine Secret Service man turned crook the way Donald Meek’s character was in that RKO movie we saw recently, Behind the Headlines, but a crook mounting a major imposture as a Secret Service agent so he can stake out the racetrack, steal genuine $100 bills and substitute his counterfeits, so nothing will be noticed until the track’s officials actually deposit the money. It’s a good plot, charmingly tricked out with the usual assortment of comic gags (including my favorite — to track down the crooks Torchy and Gahagan rent a German shepherd dog, only they rent him from a German-owned pet shop and find he only responds to commands in German, so Torchy has to get a German-English phrase book to order the dog to do anything) and well constructed from a suspense standpoint as well, with a clever device to reveal Bailey’s masquerade to MacBride (he mentions Torchy’s fondness for steak dinners, something he couldn’t have known about if he hadn’t met her, so MacBride deduces — correctly — that he’s kidnapped her). — 7/7/04


Charles and I had time to hang out here and watch an hour-long “B” movie: Torchy Blane in Chinatown, made in 1939 by Warners as part of a series featuring Glenda Farrell (replaced in one film in mid-series by Lola Lane and in the very last film by Jane Wyman!) as hard-boiled woman reporter Torchy Blane and Barton MacLane as her police detective boyfriend, Lt. Steve McBride, whom she’s constantly beating to the solutions of various homicides. William K. Everson had a special affection for this film — he called it the best of its series — though he had little affection for Barton MacLane, of whom he said that his “main concession to his playing of the cop was that he shouted a shade less belligerently than when playing the hoodlum.” The “comic relief” of Tom Kennedy as an even dumber cop, Gahagan, got rather oppressive — especially Torchy’s constant poking him in the belly to dramatize his obesity — and the plot itself, a good one, had been given a far better workout in the 1933 film A Study in Scarlet and would receive another better one in its quasi-remake, The House of Fear (1945).

Frankly I thought the first Torchy Blane film, Smart Blonde, a much better movie than this one — at least it was set in a familiar Warners milieu (the entertainment industry) and cast the unforgettable Wini Shaw as a singer (and even gave her a number!), so it had other things going for it besides Farrell’s character (and in particular her rapid-fire speech; she was called the “fastest mouth in films” for her ability to spit out dialogue at fantastic rates of speed) and the mystery element. At least Torchy Blane in Chinatown had a quite good supporting cast, including Henry O’Neill as Senator Baldwin, Patric Knowles as Captain Condon and James Stephenson as Mr. Mansfield — Condon and Mansfield were part of an extortion plot against Baldwin, along with a third participant, Fitzhugh (Anderson Lawlor), who posed as vengeful Chinese tong members (and faked their own murders!) allegedly angry at Baldwin for stealing priceless jade burial tablets from China for his personal art collection.

William Beaudine directed, and though he would travel Chinatown’s generic narrow streets again and again and again in his Charlie Chan movies for Monogram, here at least he had a major-studio infrastructure behind him that goosed his usually placid direction to the velocity of a typically fast-paced Warners thriller even though the script by George Bricker, based on an “original” (definitely deserving quotes this time) story by Murray Leinster (actually a highly regarded science-fiction writer and a surprising name to turn up on the credits of a film like this!) and Will Jenkins, was workmanlike but hardly gave Beaudine much to work with. — 11/15/02


We did have time for at least a short movie — I picked the eighth Torchy Blane movie and the last to star Glenda Farrell, Torchy Runs for Mayor, a wildly imaginative movie in which Torchy Blane is out to expose New York’s all-powerful political boss, Dr. Dolan (John Miljan — his first name is never given but it seems clear he really is an M.D., since in the course of the film he “offs” one of his political opponents with an injection of what the script calls “toxic chloride”), who’s been able to install a stooge in the mayor’s office and is in the process of purging the police commission and thereby threatening the jobs of honest cops Captain MacTavish (Frank Shannon) and Torchy’s fiancé, Steve McBride (Barton MacLane).

Torchy strikes back by a number of tactics that probably seemed quite novel to a 1939 audience and are rather astonishing even today, like bugging the mayor’s office and breaking into Dolan’s house to steal the “little red book” that contains a complete ledger of all his payoffs. When her home paper, the Star, stops running her stories because Dolan is organizing an advertiser boycott of them, she places her latest scoop in a tiny paper called the South End Blotter, edited by Hogarth Ward (Irving Bacon), who proudly boasts he’s already been to jail six times for his political convictions and doesn’t mind risking a seventh time to print the story Torchy wrote from Dolan’s purloined book.

A group of citizens seeking to recall the corrupt mayor seizes on Ward as a replacement candidate, only before they can get him on the ballot he’s beaten by a Dolan henchman and then killed by Dolan himself with the “toxic chloride” injection. As a joke, McBride puts Torchy’s name on the recall petitions — and Torchy takes it seriously enough actually to pursue the office and, of course, win — only, in a rankly sexist ending unworthy of an otherwise quite game script by Earle Snell (based on an “idea” by one Irving Rubine), at the press conference held in conjunction with her swearing-in Torchy is given a baby to hold (since the theme of her campaign had been to make the city safe and clean for future generations), and this sends her maternal instinct into overdrive and she instantly announces her intention to resign, marry McBride and be the nice little housewife and mother he’s always wanted. (A pity, since a sequel showing the new Mrs. Torchy McBride trying to juggle wife- and motherdom with running the city would have been a quite entertaining film.)

What’s most interesting about Torchy Runs for Mayor is that the film seems like a mini-Capra movie, what with its corrupt politicians and their secret bosses, the plucky little newspaper that dares to print the truth and the ordinary citizen who finds him/herself in a position of political power — indeed, so many elements seem to prefigure Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington I couldn’t help but wonder if Warners was deliberately trying to get this one out before Capra’s far more prestigious effort (made for a less powerful company, Columbia, but with double the running time, more than double the budget and major stars — James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold and Claude Rains). Glenda Farrell is absolutely convincing until that cop-out ending — as in the earlier Blanes, she’s a dynamo of energy and quite credible as a liberated woman. The direction is by Ray McCarey, who may not have had the brilliance of his brother Leo but nonetheless turned in a stronger job than the hacks like Frank McDonald and William Beaudine who did most of the Blanes, and overall Torchy Runs for Mayor is an above-average series entry that is genuinely about something and keeps the comic relief (notably Tom Kennedy’s ultra-dumb cop Gahagan — ironically Kennedy was the only actor who made all nine of the Blane films!) within welcome limits. — 7/11/04


I ran Charles the final Torchy Blane movie, Torchy Blane … Playing with Dynamite (the ellipsis is actually part of the title as printed on the opening credit). Though Glenda Farrell wasn’t in it, this was nonetheless one of the better Blanes, powered by a strong crime-drama plot (story by Scott Littleton, script by Earle Snell and Charles Belden) and better-than-average direction (by Noel Smith, who did some of the best Warners “B”’s of the period and probably should have got a shot at “A”-films. Torchy was played by Jane Wyman, and as unlikely as it seems to find a future Academy Award winner in a film like this (just as it seemed unlikely in retrospect that future Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon should have played the ingenue in The Rocky Horror Picture Show!), she’s actually quite good, managing to spit out lines almost as fast as Glenda Farrell did in the role and make her character appealing without the unpleasant edginess that afflicted Lola Lane in her try at the role in Torchy Blane in Panama.

Had they actually cast a young, personable actor as Steve McBride, Torchy’s police detective fiancé, this film might have been a gem — as much as I hate his subsequent career, Wyman’s husband-to-be, the young Ronald Reagan, might have been quite good in the role — but instead Warners went the other way and put Allen Jenkins in the part (“not particularly helpful,” William K. Everson notes, “since he played more for comedy and the gap between him and the still-retained Tom Kennedy [as his doofus sidekick Gahagan] was too narrow”). Still, Torchy Blane … Playing with Dynamite is a good movie, albeit a very derivative one; the plot gimmick has Torchy getting herself sent to jail deliberately so she can contact Jackie McGuire (Sheila Bromley), girlfriend of the notorious bank robber “Denver Eddie” (Eddie Marr), wanted in several states across the country.

Jackie and Torchy stage a prison break (actually arranged in advance by McBride and his contacts in the jail administration) and flee to San Francisco, where Denver Eddie is supposed to meet them; and McBride and Gahagan also go to San Francisco, hoping to win the $50,000 reward by capturing the crook without help from the San Francisco police. From then on the film, despite a mere 59-minute running time, manages to crowd quite a few appealing plot elements into its story, including a bunch of S.F. police officers convinced that McBride and Gahagan are crooks; a wrestling promoter who gets Gahagan to go up against his former Navy wrestling opponent, “The Bone Crusher,” in a match; an associate of Denver Eddie’s who puts Torchy in danger by blowing her cover; and a neat climax in which all parties meet at the wrestling match and Gahagan, thrown out of the ring by his opponent, lands on top of Denver Eddie in the audience and thus gets the credit for his arrest. It was a clever story and a truly appealing film in a generally quite entertaining series. — 7/14/04