Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Torchy Blane, the Adventurous Blonde (Warners, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles downloaded his old résumé from my computer before we turned in and 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 plane, 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) and one I think Charles and I had seen before even though I don’t have a log entry for it on my “Movies” Zip disc. 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


This morning TCM was running a series of Warners “B”’s and I watched one I’d seen before, Adventurous Blonde, a 1937 entry in the Torchy Blane series that features a particularly insidious prank played on New York Express writer Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell in a role perfectly suited to her rambunctious acting style and rapid delivery of dialogue) by reporters on the rival paper, the Globe. The Globe reporters pay $500 to actor Harvey Hammond (Leland Hodgson), whose new play is about to open on Broadway, to pose as “dead” for a publicity stunt. The idea is that Blane and her boyfriend, homicide detective Steve McBride (Barton MacLane, anybody’s idea of a romantic leading man … in a nightmare), will discover the “body,” a former deputy coroner will pronounce him “dead,” Blane will phone in the story to her paper — and then the Globe will scoop the world with the news that Hammond is really alive.

Only — as anyone who’d seen more than three movies in his or her life might have guessed — while Hammond is lying on his living-room floor, a stocking (which he’s supposed to have been strangled with) around his neck, someone comes in, tightens the stocking and actually kills him. The films relied on the old gimmick of Torchy and McBride’s wedding plans constantly being interrupted by one case or another, though as William K. Everson wrote in The Detective in Film, “they were such an ill-matched couple that audiences were hardly holding their breath awaiting the union.” He added, “Barton MacLane’s main concession to his playing the cop was that he shouted a shade less belligerently than when playing the hoodlum.” (Probably MacLane’s best movie was The Maltese Falcon, in which he didn’t do much shouting — probably first-time director John Huston told him to calm it down — but still managed to express his cop character’s utter loathing for his nemesis, private eye Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart.)

The writers, Robertson White and David Diamond, cheated a bit by opening the film on a plane which Torchy is taking to New York; she’s sitting next to a mystery woman and the on-board steward (back when they were still men!) hands them both telegrams, and they realize he’s mixed them up so each got the other’s message — and the message Torchy reads was that the woman has been having an affair with a man named Harvey but he’s breaking it off. Of course, the man is Harvey Hammond and the woman is Theresa Gray (Natalie Moorhead), wife of Globe publisher Mortimer Gray (Charles Wilson). Hammond, it seems, is such an ardent pursuer of women other than the one he’s been married to for over 20 years (Virginia Brissac) that he’s dumped Theresa for the leading lady in his new play, Grace Brown (Anne Nagel), who’s in love with the play’s second lead, Hugo Brand (Anderson Lawlor) — as part of the fake “death” of Harvey Hammond, the wife posed as a disabled aunt and Hugo and Grace as the actor’s butler and the “aunt”’s nurse, respectively — he’s left a lot of women in his wake and a lot of disgruntled people of both genders with one of the most powerful motives there is to want him dead.

Both the Express and the Globe make offers to the women in the case to print their “confessions” to the crime, and Torchy actually gets a confession from Theresa Gray — but it’s actually a ruse to entrap her husband, publisher Mortimer Gray, who turns out to be the real killer since he was mad at Hammond for seducing his wife. The Torchy Blane series films are quite good in their lighthearted way — the American Film Institute Catalog notes the similarity in plot to the film Back in Circulation (which also used the gimmick of a reporter being entrapped to print a false story) but the two movies have little else but that gimmick in common — and though Warners made a mistake in doing two of them with actresses other than Glenda Farrell as Torchy (Lola Lane in Torchy Blane in Panama and a young and clearly uncomfortable Jane Wyman in Torchy Blane … Playing with Dynamite), the films are fun and exciting; this one was directed by Frank McDonald but it doesn’t really matter who made them because they’re all in the zippy Warners house style and their fast pace matches Farrell’s performances. — 10/26/11