Thursday, August 4, 2011

Torch Song

Torch Song, my friends, falls squarely in the film category of "it's so bad it's good." I think the best way I can describe this film is that it's oddly mesmerizing. I was inspired to revisit this movie after watching Michael Wilding's performance in Stage Fright, since besides the "oddly mesmerizing" factor he's the main reason I keep coming back to Torch Song.

Jenny Stewart (Joan Crawford) is a hard-as-nails, temperamental Broadway star who basically eats her underlings' souls for breakfast, spits them out, and then the fun starts all over again the next day (okay, so that's an extreme description, but you get my point). After walking out of a rehearsal in a fit of temper, Jenny goes home to run lines with her long-suffering secretary Anne (Maidie Norman), later succumbing to loneliness in a crying jag (see? the meanness is really just a cover). The next day we meet Jenny's boyfriend, Cliff Willard (Gig Young), who is a leech and a lush, but he's convenient to have around as an escort to parties, etc. She explains to Cliff that she's a domineering control freak because she loves her audience SO MUCH, and therefore she has to give them her best come hell or high water - no one is going to hold her back.

When Jenny finally shows up to rehearsal, she's shocked to discover that her long-time accompanist, Charlie (who she'd lovingly driven to drink and psychiatric counseling sessions), has quit and been replaced by Tye Graham (Michael Wilding), a distinguished and adorably gorgeous (okay, I will shut up now) blind pianist. To Jenny's never-ending shock Tye proves to be quite proficient at following her style and arrangements, though she rudely dismisses any of his suggestions (though she's not above trying out the aforementioned suggestions in secret - HA!).

What ensues is a battle of wills and a mutual fascination with each other that superficially, by today's film standards at any rate, seems highly unlikely - but somehow the brassy, rough-edged Crawford and the elegant, soft-spoken Wilding make the something that develops on-screen between their characters work. Unlike most of the people Jenny surrounds herself with, Tye refuses to be cowed by her demanding nature and most intriguing of all, she can't control him. What makes this relationship interesting for me, as a viewer, is that Tye's interest in Jenny seems on the surface wholly inexplicable. It is easy - and quite understandable - to write Jenny off as a controlling shrew based on her introduction. But as the film unfolds, Crawford gradually reveals the cracks in Jenny's armor.

Since her start as a young ingenue, Jenny has learned the hard way the truth of the old axiom that "it's lonely at the top." Having spent years relying on herself and her iron will to be successful, she became inured to the painful reality that people latched onto her not for who she was, but because of who she'd become - a wildly successful star. Lest you think Crawford playing a musical star is completely out of the realm of possibility, watch a very young Crawford opposite Clark Gable in 1933's Dancing Lady (Fred Astaire's film debut!). All of her vocals in Torch Song were dubbed, but Crawford to her credit could move competently around the dance floor when the situation required.

Jenny's own family are perhaps the worst user culprits - there's a tepid warmth to their relationship, but the bottom line is, they love taking advantage of Jenny's success to further their own plans. I absolutely ADORED Marjorie Rambeau as Jenny's mother. Brassy and insistent, she never comes out and asks for money, but she sure is persistent in her "suggestions." However, when push comes to shove, she really does care about her daughter's happiness, a fact I think both of them have been guilty of overlooking, blinded by the trappings of stardom.

There are a couple of other performances worth noting in Torch Song. Harry Morgan of Dragnet and M*A*S*H fame plays Jenny's long-suffering director Joe. And director Charles Walters, known for frothy musical confections like Easter Parade and Summer Stock makes a rare appearance in front of the camera as Jenny's harried dance partner Ralph Ellis.

There is a lot, and I mean A LOT, that one can laugh at when it comes to Torch Song. The very idea of Crawford in a glossy, MGM musical drama (not to mention the fact that Technicolor did Crawford no favors when it comes to her weird, red/brown hair color). Crawford in a big production number in blackface (yes, you read that right - it's shockingly horrid!). And from start to finish, Torch Song is packed with EPIC levels of melodrama and romantic cliches.

Yet for all that, there's a part of this story that the die-hard romantic in me cannot help but respond to - and that is the unflagging love and devotion Tye has carried in his heart for Jenny ever since seeing her breakout performance, long before she struck the big time and he went to war and lost his sight. Tye carries an idealized image of Jenny in his mind's eye - an image that we, as the audience, only barely see hinted at in Crawford's performance until she starts to thaw. But as Jenny starts to fall for Tye, and realizes the reason he keeps pushing back is because he's loved her for years, that perfect image Tye holds of her reminds her of who she used to be and of everything she's sacrificed for fame. It gives her something to aspire to, because she wants to be her best self him - accepting his love gives her something real to hold onto in the hollowness of her showbiz centered life.

Torch Song is a bizarre mix of melodrama and romance, and if you can suspend your disbelief and tolerate Crawford's signature brand of scenery-chewing, you might be surprised to find it oddly watchable. :)


The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

I'm really not a big fan of Crawford but I see that this will be hearing August 22 as part of TCM's Summer Under the Stars so I will give it a shot because it does sound really interesting.

Heidenkind said...

Oh my gosh. This sounds like a train wreck. And an adorably gorgeous blind piano player? Is this like an olde timey version of Auggie from Covert Affairs? ;)

Unknown said...

@Bookworm1858 - I'm not a big Crawford fan either - I'm more fascinated by her in this movie than a "fan" of her performance, if that makes sense. ;) Hope you get to check it out on TCM later this month - it's an interesting little relic of its time (I've read that it was one of Crawford's favorite films).

@heidenkind - I am laughing so hard right now!!! ;) This movie IS A TOTAL TRAIN WRECK, yet I wrote a whole post about it. Sometimes I scare myself. :P