Thursday, February 7, 2008

TORCH SONG (MGM 1953) Warner Home Video

After a ten year absence from MGM, L.B. Mayer felt that Joan Crawford’s resurrection at Warner Brothers warranted her brief return to his studio. Indeed, the decade that followed Crawford’s departure from MGM’s backlot had seen her career rise to heights that not even Mayer could have predicted – capped off by her one and only Oscar win for Mildred Pierce (1945). But Mayer needn’t have bothered convincing Jack Warner for a loan out. The film vehicle he supplied, Charles Walters’ Torch Song (1953) was as misguided and unimpressive as any that the star ever appeared in at MGM or elsewhere.

In fact, in many ways, this melodramatic musical menagerie went all the way back to Crawford’s Dancing Lady (1933); its screenplay by John Michael Hayes and Jan Lustig so syrupy and shallow that even the most die hard of fan must have been embarrassed for Crawford as she valiantly trudged through the mire and mess of it all.

The story – semi-autobiographical – concerns Jenny Stewart (Crawford), an unrelenting perfectionist whose ruthless ambition and need to be loved outweigh all other commitments in life. Jenny’s nature is both exacting and straining on her fellow musical comedy stars. There are few amongst the troop who regards her as their friend. Only pianist Tye Graham (Michael Wilding) seems unaffected by the fear Jenny is capable of instilling on set. He can afford the luxury – having lost his eye sight many years before and therefore not privy to Jenny’s wildly leering grimaces, her angry eyes bulging from their sockets when a tantrum ensues.

To soften Jenny up, the Hayes/Lustig screenplay provides the grand diva with an Achilles heel – an insecurity and need to be loved – the traditional lost little girl syndrome trapped within the outwardly flailing façade of an actress hell-bent on remaining a star. Jenny rebounds from one fleeting and superficial romantic entanglement to the next – her latest involving parasitic Broadway straggler, Cliff Willard (Gig Young).

Meanwhile, in rehearsal on her new show, Jenny frequently clashes with Tye about the arrangements for her songs. But beneath her outward contempt for Tye is a growing affection that Jenny finds impossible to set aside. Why, but why is Tye so patient with her?

The answer is most cliché, deriving from a discovery made by Jenny within the yellowing pages of a scrapbook. While visiting her mother (Marjorie Rambeau), Jenny learns that Tye idolized her as a drama critic before losing his sight during WWII; that he has always loved and adored her and has never had any great ambitions other than to be at her side. Her resistance to Tye dismantled, Jenny returns to him with open arms, just in time for the prerequisite happy ending that all MGM musicals eventually succumb to.

Given that Torch Song was Crawford’s ‘comeback’ movie for the studio, its remarkable how little expense the studio lavished on this production. The sets and costumes are all obviously borrowed from other MGM product of this vintage. The script is a hodge-podge of stolen moments from every film Crawford ever made. Even one of Crawford’s big songs, ‘Two-Faced Woman’ is a toss away from Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953) with the original India Adams vocal used by Crawford in an obvious lyp-sync.

At this point in her career Crawford’s physical appearance had begun to grow increasingly severe – her over-exaggerated lips and eyebrows adopting a warrior-like make-up. The ‘Two-Faced Woman’ number - staged in blackface with Crawford in blazing Technicolor, - is fairly frightening. Crawford cavorts like a willowy gargoyle amidst a sea of Latin lotharios; her limbs almost spider-like and threatening. At the end, she tears off her heavy black wig to reveal startling shocks of orangey-auburn hair tussled beneath.

In the final analysis, Torch Song is a film of little redemption. It tanked at the box office on its initial run and there is some curiosity in Warner Home Video releasing it now (along with Trog (another Crawford clunker), when so much of the great lady’s formidable catalogue of masterworks (including Possessed 1931, Letty Linton 1932, Chained 1933, Forsaking All Others 1934, No More Ladies 1935, I Live My Life 1935, The Gorgeous Hussy 1936, Love on the Run 1936, The Last Mrs. Cheney 1937, The Bride Wore Red 1937, Mannequin 1938, The Shining Hour 1938, Ice Follies of 1939, Susan and God 1940 and, When Ladies Meet 1941) remains unseen and absent from DVD.

Warner Home Video’s transfer quality on Torch Song is below par. Though, at times, the anamorphic widescreen Technicolor can exhibit a level of saturation that is probably close to what the original print looked like, on the whole, the color palette is palid. Flesh tones are always too pink or too orange. Contrast levels are lower than expected. Age related artifacts are present but do not distract. The audio is mono but adequate for this presentation. Extras include Warner’s prerequisite offering of vintage short subjects and a theatrical trailer. This disc is sold only as part of Joan Crawford: Vol. 2.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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