Monday, 3 January 2011

Pre-Code Hollywood: Torch Singer (1933)

It's an odd sort of film, this.

For one thing, reviews on the internet call it a soapy comedy, even though there are only a few jokes and the story is about a woman left alone and pregnant by a wealthy blueblood; a woman who can't get a job, who gets evicted from her apartment and then gives up her baby for adoption, before finally becoming what one character describes as 'the most notorious torch singer in town'. Will Hay it ain't.

For another, the story the film is based on is called 'Mike', the name of the blueblood father - a character who doesn't appear until the final quarter of the movie and even when he does he says and does almost nothing.

For a third, there seems to be a chunk of the movie missing, even though, in fact, there isn't. Finally, a one year old baby gets star billing for reasons which utterly elude me. Like I said, it's an odd sort of film all round.

But a great little movie, nonethless.

It has the wonderful Claudette Colbert in it for a start. Made only a year before scooping the Best Actress Oscar for her comic role in It Happened One Night and a couple before her nomination for the same award for Private Worlds, this film shows Colbert at her magnificent best, equally adeptly dealing with the dramatic and the comic elements in the story. Really, if you've never seen a Claudette Colbert movie, you should watch this one just to stare at cinema's most expressive eyes - she can do more with one frown than most actresses in the early 30s could do with their entire body - and one of the movie's great sexy voices. Probably the best scene in the film features Colbert in the role of Aunt Jenny, a radio presenter for small children (a position she combines with that of the most notorious torch singer in town) saying 'naughty boys have often tried to tease your Aunt Jenny - sometimes they've teased her until she had to give in', a line which would send shivers down the spine of all but a corpse.

The rest of the cast are basically functional at best. Errant rich kid Mike is played perfectly adequately if two dimensionally by David Manners (and to be fair there's not a lot of meat on the bones of the character). I can't help thinking, however, that in the hands of a Jimmy Stewart something more could have been made of his obvious selfishness and occasional harshness than Manners manages ('Please stop acting' he tells her when he comes back and then blames her for becoming hard and cold. 'Like glass', she counters, 'and only diamonds can cut glass so come back with some').

The rest of the cast are much of a muchness, though it's worth highlighting the absolutely gorgeous Mildred Washington, in the role of Colbert's black maid.

To return to the odd nature of the movie, it does have some comedic sections. There are sundry excellent one liners throughout and this exchange between lily white Colbert and a five year old black girl Sally, the same age and with the same name as Colbert's lost daughter is beautfully done:

Colbert: "I used to have a little girl named Sally'
Little Girl: "Was she black like me, Aunt Sally?'
Colbert: "Darling, it was so long ago I can't remember.'

The fact that the writers are willing to make even a small amount of humour from the plight of an unmarried mother does highlight the fact that, as a film from 1933, this is a pre-code movie (the print I watched is from the highly recommended Universal Pre Code Hollywood box set).

The film opens with Colbert and another unwed mother giving birth in a charity hospital run by nuns, but there's no suggestion from anyone that their state is in any way a sin or a subject of opprobium. Instead, the nuns are sympathetically drawn, her fellow unwed mother Dora supports her while she is able, a doctor wonders aloud where the fathers are when they're needed and when Colbert gives away her daughter, no-one blames her for doing what she must. Instead, all the main barbs are aimed at the wealthy - Colbert's rich, trendy pals run her down the second she asks them to leave her flat because she's tired and upset; Mike's rich, patrician aunt refuses to help Colbert with some money to prevent her nephew's only son being placed in the adoption system; and the wife of a wealthy (and admittedly sympathetic) businessman never misses a chance to insult her, all but accusing her of being a whore, now that she's - horror of horrors - a torch singer.

Which brings up the issue of the missing section of the movie. There is no missing section obviously - it's a standard 70 minutes long and always was - but there's a massive and unexplained jump between Colbert's first attempted audition without her daughter, in which a male promoter tells her that "a woman must suffer a lot to sing a little" (she replies that she'll be back in year but 'in the meantime watch me suffer') and the very next scene in which she's a successful torch singer and signs up with the same promoter, presumably having suffered plenty in the fade out in between. It's a clumsy bit of 'tell not show' which jars in a movie otherwise very neatly directed (for instance, there's a lovely brief scene just after she signs up to be a big star in which all you see are Colbert's feet walking in new shoes, with plasters on both her heels, suffering for her new found prominence).

Perhaps the oddest thing in the movie though is the fact that the name Baby Le Roy appears on the card announcing prominent cast members at the beginning of the movie. I assumed that was the name of one of the flapper types who befriend Colbert after she makes it big - but it turns out to be the name of the one year old kid used as Colbert's daughter. Baby - real name Ronald - obviously became something of a minor child star, appearing in a couple of WC Fields movies and alongside Maurice Chavalier in 'A Bedtime Story', but enough to make the titles aged 9 months?

Like I said, odd.

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