TORCH SONG (MGM 1953) Warner Archive
After nearly a ten-year absence from MGM, the resuscitation of Joan Crawford’s career at Warner Brothers was met with all the fanfare of a one-time great star, invited back to Metro for a brief comeback. Alas, the picture was Torch Song (1953), directed by the openly gay, Charles Walters to whom Crawford appeared, in her dressing room, stark naked, informing Walters, “This is what you’re going to get!” Indeed, in the interim, Crawford had kept tight reigns on her ‘body beautiful’ image. In fine form, she was all set to go back to work in a musical – a genre for which, despite her participation in the past, Crawford had not publicly entertained since 1933’s Dancing Lady. The project was instituted by Dore Schary – the VP who had suddenly replaced L.B. Mayer after Mayer’s firing in 1950. Schary could write a screenplay and Schary could give a speech. But he could not even hold the wick of the candle to Mayer’s formidable mastery as manager and star-maker. Worse, Schary harbored a general contempt for MGM’s top-heavy star system. And thus, he continued to badly bungle the future of the studio – gambling readily on his verve for ‘message pictures’ while attempting to de-glamorize MGM’s public image by producing grittier entertainments. Torch Song is undeniably meant to be a glamour vehicle for Crawford. Tragically, in virtually all departments, it veers more into the hand-me-down quality of a cheaply made, and even less engaging C-grade musical programmer, for which Crawford gave it her all, but made one of her most egregious errors in artistic judgment: appearing in black-face, long after the fad had worn thin in Hollywood, and lip-synced to a recording of India Adams’ Two-Faced Woman, planned for Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953).
The decade that had followed Crawford’s departure from MGM had seen her career skyrocket to heights unimaginable even at her zenith at MGM, and, at least to L.B. Mayer, who must have been chagrined when Crawford took home her one and only Oscar for Mildred Pierce (1945). Had Mayer remained in harness, the likelihood of Crawford coming back to make Torch Song at MGM would probably have been nil. And Schary, bolstered by Crawford’s success at WB, ought to have first stopped to consider why she would want to make a ‘comeback’ at her one-time alma mater. In point of fact, Crawford had become rather desperate. After 1950, she increasingly found Warner’s interest in her movie career falling by the waste side. Lampooning her screen image in a cameo for 1949’s It’s A Great Feeling – Crawford marked her last great film role for the studio in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), an affecting compendium of just about every cliché ever indulged in a Crawford picture. That same year, Jack Warner willingly loaned Crawford out to Columbia for Harriet Craig – another sizable hit. But that box office did not carry over into the last two pictures Crawford owed Jack: 1951’s Goodbye, My Fancy, for which she was afforded a top-flight Broadway play she made the least of, and 1952’s B-noir thriller, This Woman Is Dangerous. Crawford did rebound after the cancellation of her Warner contract, as a freelancer, in the B-budgeted thriller, Sudden Fear (1952), a huge hit that suddenly made her star-power bankable again.
So, Schary had at least that to go on. But Torch Song was a misfire almost from the moment the ink had dried on Crawford’s one-picture deal with Metro. Misguided, maudlin in the extreme, and, thoroughly unimpressive as anything but pure camp, the picture sank like a stone at the box office. Worse, it did much to tarnish Crawford’s screen image. Considered the ‘serious actress’ before Torch Song, Crawford’s reputation in the industry took a hit as in ‘how desperate for a pay check were you, honey?’ after it. Only in some ways, did this musical menagerie vaguely resemble Crawford’s heyday in Dancing Lady; its screenplay by John Michael Hayes and Jan Lustig, so syrupy and yet shallow, even the most die-hard of Crawford’s fans were left head-scratching as their idol 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 outweighs all other commitments in her life. Jenny’s nature is both exacting and straining on her fellow musical-comedy co-stars. There are few among this troop who regard 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 eyesight many years before and therefore not privy to Jenny’s wild and leering grimaces, her angry, wounded eyes bulging from their sockets when a tantrum ensues.
To soften Jenny up, the Hayes/Lustig screenplay provided the grand diva with an Achilles’ heel – an insecurity in her 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 Jenny finds impossible to set aside. Why, but why, is Tye so patient with, and good to 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 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, is gratifying to Jenny’s ego. Her resistance to Tye dismantled, Jenny returns to him with open arms, just in time for the prerequisite happy ending all MGM musicals eventually succumb to in spades.
Given that Torch Song was Crawford’s trumpeted ‘comeback’ for the studio, it is 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 hodgepodge of stolen moments from every film Crawford ever made. Even one of Crawford’s supposed pièce de résistance, ‘Two-Faced Woman’ is a clumsy outtake from Vincente Minnelli’s better-built musical mélange about the temperament of theater folk. By now, Crawford’s physical appearance had become rather 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 terrifying; Crawford, cavorting like a willowy gargoyle amidst a sea of anemic Latin Lotharios; her limbs, extended, spider-like and threatening. At the end, she bitterly tears off her heavy black wig to reveal startling shocks of orange hair tussled beneath. In the final analysis, Torch Song is a film of little redemptive qualities. It’s just awful. That it tanked at the box office was really no great surprise. That Crawford was almost immediately shown the door by Schary and MGM once more, and ever again to return to it, was even more telling about what lay in store for her future career prospects.
Warner Archive’s transfer on Torch Song is below par. Though, at times, the 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 pallid. Flesh tones are always too pink or too orange. Contrast levels are weak. Age-related artifacts are present but do not distract. The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and adequate for this presentation. Extras include Warner’s prerequisite offering of vintage short subjects and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: not a Crawford classic, nor even a second-tier attempt that can be considered with anything more than a modicum of contempt for Schary’s shortsightedness where one of its once reigning drama queens was concerned. Mr. Schary, Miss Crawford…how could you?!?
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)