Torch Song (1954)

Otis Guernsey, Jr. in the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “Joan Crawford has another of her star-sized roles…she is vivid and irritable, volcanic and feminine…Here is Joan Crawford all over the screen, in command, in love and in color, a real movie star in what amounts to a carefully produced one-woman show.

Torch Song was regarded as a return for Joan Crawford, who, when the picture was released, was fresh off an Academy Award nod for her performance in Sudden Fear, the previous year.

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According to MGM records the film made $1,135,000 in the US and Canada and $533,000 elsewhere, resulting in a loss of $260,000. The film is now regarded as a campy classic, and a possible influence on Faye Dunaway‘s portrayal of Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

“And spoil that line?”

Sadly out of print, this camp classic is a textbook example of the very worst of 1950’s cinema. There’s the incredibly saturated Technicolor; the absurd art direction (Joan’s oh-so-modern, electronic bedroom, for instance); the sublimely exaggerated wardrobe; and, above all, late-mid-period Joan Crawford, acting, acting, ACTING. By this time, Crawford was already a Hollywood legend; she’d made her debut in 1924, was a top box office draw throughout the 1930’s, was considered a has been by the 1940’s, and then made a phoenix-like comeback with her Oscar-winning turn in “Mildred Pierce.” Since then, her screen persona had hardened into that of the glamorous, ballsy dame–increasingly mannish and emasculating.

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Where the young Crawford had once been romanced by the likes of Clark Gable, Robert Taylor and Spencer Tracy, this atomic-era Crawford chewed up and spat out her increasingly colorless male foils. In “Torch Song,” her unfortunate co-star is the veddy British Michael Wilding (then Mr. Elizabeth Taylor), who plays a blind pianist. (No, really.) Crawford is Jenny Stewart, a huge musical comedy star, who “has the mouth of angel, but the words that come out are pure tramp!” Needless to say, Ms. Stewart makes Helen Lawson look like Mother Teresa. Flashing her huge eyes, shoving cigarettes between her blood-red lips, sashaying about in various glamorous creations, Crawford is the undisputed star of the show. Wilding doesn’t stand a chance (poor Gig Young fares even worse–his dissipated, parasitic character is written out halfway through).

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Crawford and Wilding “meet nasty”–that is to say, she berates him with such gems as “Why don’t you get yourself a seeing eye girl!” I won’t ruin the ending for you, but suffice to say, it’s pure Hollywood soap. Joan even has a poor-folks, plain-speakin’ Ma, played by Marjorie Rambeau! Along the way, Joan does several song-and-dance routines designed to show that the 45-year-old star still had a formidable figure. The two most famous are, of course, the notorious “Two Faced Woman,” performed, inexplicably, outrageously, appallingly, hysterically, in blackface; and the rehearsal hall scene where Jenny Stewart practically castrates a chorus boy who trips over her leg. “He’s paid a very handsome salary to dance AROUND that leg!” she growls. “Torch Song” really exists as an offering on the shrine of Joan Crawford–a big, fat, juicy Technicolor love letter to her glamour and legend. As such, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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“Cuz I’m FIFTY……and I can KICK!”

It’s hard to believe that, except for a couple of very brief sequences in earlier films, audiences had to wait until 1953 to see Miss Crawford in Technicolor. She gave them enough here to last a lifetime! With inferno red hair, scarlet lips and an assortment of garish costume pieces, she served up a retina-scorching musical that is as fascinating as it is preposterous. Crawford plays the most hard-nosed, ball-busting theatre diva imaginable. (Things veer into science-fiction rather early when it’s shown that Crawford has a loyal following of devoted TEEN fans.) During rehearsals for her latest revue, she berates everyone in sight as she strives to have everything her way.

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She trips her dance partner with her ever-extended right leg, rewrites the dialogue, redesigns the costumes (hilariously swooping the design board in the air to see how the swatch of chiffon will behave once it’s attached to her!) and just generally steamrolls over everyone. She meets her match, however, when meek pianist Wilding shows up and softly, but firmly challenges her taste when it comes to her interpretations of the show’s songs. To top it off, he’s blind, though this detail only slightly curbs Miss Crawford’s vicious tongue. Eventually, the two begin to work together, tenuously, but Wilding’s effect on her starts to become a romantic one.

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Despite her slight softening, he remains strangely reticent. Crawford, used to getting what she wants, strives to make him her own. In the midst of all this romantic tension are several musical numbers (with a throaty India Adams providing the highly melodramatic vocals) which range from pitiful to screamingly ridiculous. One has Crawford emerging hilariously from behind a wall and rolling in circles across the stage where she finally disappears behind another wall. In the most famous scene, she descends a cheap-looking staircase dressed in a scary turquoise chiffon and beaded gown with a slit up to her loin while wearing black-face!!! Exceedingly uncoordinated female dancers stiffly turn about as Crawford wanders through the male chorus (with all of them in black-face as well!) Afterwards, in a fit of fury, she rips off her black wig and the viewer is faced with her chocolate skin, crimson lips, ice blue eyes and a tangled mess of tangerine orange hair sprouting heavenward! The film is bent on displaying the most putrescent colors imaginable.

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Her bedroom walls are a nauseating sea foam green and she wears a hysterical electric lemon yellow robe that is about 10 sizes too big. (In a symbolic touch, she shuts out the world from her bedroom with THREE layers of draperies at the window.) Oddly, though Joan isn’t the blind one, her home is virtually devoid of any pictures or artwork. Only one small painting can be seen in the place. The film is chock full of deliciously rotten dialogue and snippy comments and is a must see for any fan of the star. It’s also brimming over with unintentional humor as Joan overdoes every line, look and gesture. Clocking in with some intentional humor is the splendorous Rambeau as Crawford’s money-grubbing mother. Her reaction (both verbal and non-verbal) to Crawford’s announcement that she’s fallen for a blind man is one of the all-time uproarious bits of acting and dialogue. For her trouble, she was granted an Oscar nomination, which couldn’t have thrilled Crawford, who was busily gnawing on all of the scenery in an attempt to gain another one herself! As for Wilding, he plays blindness as if the loss of one’s sight equals the complete and utter loss of one’s facial expression. Still, it’s nice to see his underacting hold up against Crawford’s fire-breathing. Norman appears as Crawford’s trusted assistant and indentured servant.

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She would turn up years later as Crawford’s maid in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” receiving even worse treatment from Bette Davis. Check out Joan’s cocktail party at which no other female is present! The one lady that rivals her for Wilding’s affections is dealt with out of frame, but one can imagine the showdown that was had. The persona Joan presented here (and in “Queen Bee”) would come back to haunt her. It was apparently what the producers of “Mommie Dearest” used as a launching pad when concocting that film and it was the subject of one of Carol Burnett’s most cutting parodies during her long-running variety series. Crawford, who adored Burnett, was usually open to a joke on herself, but in this instance was quite hurt. Crawford followed this gem with the even more lurid, garish and bizarre “Johnny Guitar”. Incidentally, the music used in Joan’s first dance rehearsal number is “Minstrel Man” (!), which ties in bizarrely with the fact that she’s later seen in blackface (or as Debbie Reynolds put it in “That’s Entertainment III”, “tropical makeup”!)

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