TORCH SONG: Joan Crawford in Blackface—And That’s Not All!
Early on in Torch Song, the 1953 MGM “musical” starring Joan Crawford as an uber-diva, she’s kvetching to her producer (James Todd):
Crawford: “The script needs jokes, the music needs cutting and the staging—aaugh, it stinks!”
Todd: “You don’t think it’s going to be a flop?”
Crawford: “No show Jenny Stewart’s in is going to be a flop—if I have to pull every trick in the book to make it hang together!”
Torch Song, on the other hand, doesn’t hang together. And everyone involved with it should have hanged separately.
But let’s start with what’s good about it. (Don’t worry—it’ll only take a paragraph!) Before filming began, Crawford reportedly sashayed into director Charles Walters’ office wearing only a robe, opened it up as one might a Christmas gift, and declared, “I just want you to see what you’re getting!” Walters, who was gay, was not impresssed. But I gotta tell you, I’m a straight woman and when I saw her body in this movie, I was mesmerized. The 47-year-old Joan shows off a teeny-tiny waist and fabulous legs so trim and firm you could bounce quarters off them. If I were built like that, I’d be flashing busloads of strangers on Fifth Avenue.
When we first meet Crawford as Jenny Stewart, she’s swanning around the rehearsal hall, badgering and bullying everyone in sight. The music’s all wrong. The director’s an idiot. And her dance partner (played by director Walters, a former Broadway hoofer) is clumsily crashing into her carefully framed arc. Yes, yes, we get it: If only she had a pair of rollerskates, she could be an actual Bitch on Wheels.
After her browbeaten pianist hightails it out of town, Tye Graham (Michael Wilding), a sensitive war veteran who was blinded in battle, steps in to take his place—and immediately challenges the star about slowing down the tempo of the number they’re working on. Wilding does his best to mix it up with Crawford, but he never really stands a chance. By the early 1950s, she had morphed from being tough to being downright hard. (Were there ever two badder hombres than Joan and Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar?) Watching her spar with Wilding is like watching a bulldozer plow through a mountain of meringue. Still, we know he’s going to tame and soften her—because we’re beaten about the head with that notion pretty much from “Hello.”
“Did you ever hear of a defense mechanism?” the pipe-smoking pianist asks. “You’re scared. Women need admiration. More than food or drink, women need admiration.”
The entire plot is so telegraphed I’m not sure if it was directed by Charles Walters or Western Union.
The one actor Crawford does have chemistry with is her old friend Marjorie Rambeau, who snagged an Oscar nomination playing her earthy mother. “They don’t make beer like they did when your father was drinkin’ it. You could taste the hops!” she recalls a bit mistily after flouncing on the sofa for a snack. “And the pretzels don’t have enough salt on ‘em to make a cat thirsty!” When she leaves, you’ll find yourself plaintively calling after her, “Come back! Please, please for the love of God come back!”
Oh and poor Gig Young is floundering around in this stew as well, playing Jenny’s agent and occasional paramour—and as usual, he doesn’t get the girl and he does get drunk, early and often. But about midway through the film, he vanishes, perhaps to join some sort of Supporting Actors’ Witness Protection Program. Or maybe he’s hiding under here:
In a rare misfire, costume designer Helen Rose seems to have gone on a quest to buy up every hideous piece of cloth west of the Pecos. The sheer volume of the fabric is matched only by the glaring intensity of the colors. (I know this was the Atomic Age, but must the clothes look radioactive?) The blouses are big, stiff taffeta numbers, and the giant, swooping skirts are the type that stand on their own even with no one in them. (And if they had any shame, they would run away.) The only relief is provided by a lovely, simple pair of white cotton pajamas that seem to have wandered in from another movie. Not to be outdone for sheer godawfulness, Joan’s coiffure looks like some sort of plastered-in-place tribute to Winged Victory—over even a monsoon.
With hair and costumes this dreadful, it’s no wonder that when Joan throws a cocktail party midway through the movie, she doesn’t invite a single female guest. Who needs the (potentially well-dressed) competition?
But hey, this is an MGM musical right? So how about the music? Well, while no one would accuse Louis B. Mayer of being a progressive, he was always far ahead of the curve when it came to recycling songs. And almost every tune in this film began its life somewhere else.
The opening number, where Crawford chews out Walters, is “You’re All the World to Me,” which Fred Astaire famously danced on the ceiling to in Royal Wedding. At least they had the good grace to come up with a new arrangement for that one, which is more than they did elsewhere. India Adams, who dubs the vocals for Crawford, had done the same for Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon. And when “Two-Faced Woman” failed to make the cut in that film, they just brought the whole song over—lock, stock and embarrassment. For some reason that only the saints or perhaps Satan can understand, Crawford and the entire chorus do this number in blackface (The clip below refers to it, inexplicably, as “tropical makeup.” Oof.):
Was it done to distract (horrify?) the audience away from Crawford’s leaden footwork? Because when the one-time Charleston champion does a two-step, you can practically hear her counting to two. Her wildly joyless dancing conveys all the warmth and grace of your high school gym teacher. And when she mouths the truly awful lyrics, she heaves like she’s purging an alien from her body. Though you can hardly blame her for that.
If you miss the final scene because you’re too busy picking up what’s left of your jaw after it crashes to the floor, rest assured that Crawford and Wilding do finally succumb to their total lack of chemistry and wind up embracing in a lumpen heap on the floor of his apartment.
If you need a palate cleanser after all that, and God knows I do, take a look at these fabulous behind-the-scenes pix of Joan limbering up and stretching under the watchful eye of her poodle. If they’d had any sense (or taste!), they would have scrubbed Torch Song entirely and just shot an amazing exercise video with these two:
- Posted in: Movies You Hate to Love
- Tagged: charles walters, cyd charisse, fred astaire, gig young, helen rose, india adams, joan crawford, marjorie rambeau, michael wilding, the band wagon, torch song
This is more quotable than an entire 12-volume set of “Quotable Sayings.” *genuflects in your general direction*
Thank you so much, Laurie! I’m so happy you liked it! It makes having watched the movie worthwhile…
I want a Joan & Poodle exercise video too! Where can I get a copy? 😉
Yowza, what a stinker! That blackface song and dance number was… oh my word, I don’t know what. :-s And the clothes! Eeek! You were not kidding about radioactive colors.
Thanks for sharing this slice of cheese!
Was this a horror movie? Oh wait, that’s just a photo of Joan Crawford in blackface! Good lord! I loved your review, but I think I’ll have to pass on watching this…it just seems a little bit too far beyond the dramatic fringe. Plus, every time I see Joan Crawford in a Technicolor movie, I can’t help but think of her in ‘Trog’!
Joan Crawford was the original inspiration for Big Bird?? I wish I’d known that sooner, she’s clearly not quite the style icon I thought. This looks truly terrible on so many levels, might have to give it a watch if only to see a bad Crawford performance. Not sure about the blackface though.
There’s so much to, um, “love” even if you don’t watch the closing number! And so help me, I have more chemistry with my Boston fern than Joan had with Michael.
This looks like a truly awful movie which means I must see it. I adore Joan Crawford, despite that giant orange/yellow travesty pictured above.
You have a great blog – I love your writing style.
Thank you so much!! I just started the blog in April and am still finding my footing, and your kind words really mean a lot to me.
I adore Joan too — it was painful at the same time it was hilarious to watch this. (Can something be painfully hilarious? Or hilariously painful?)
I got such a good laugh out of this post. Thanks for that!
Thank you for letting me know that!
Also, now you don’t have to watch the film and then try to drink it off your mind!
In this film, Joan was camp before camp. (She’d have made a great TV “Batman” villainness — not Catwoman, mind you; Julie Newmar deservedly owns that role — but someone who didn’t come out of the Bob Kane/Bill Finger comic-book canon.)
Love your writing. So funny. And I agree with most of what you say. Joan’s dancing in Two Faced Woman was woeful,and the black face so unnecessary. A dire production number that Charles Walters should have been ashamed of.
Loved Marjorie Rambeau. What a scene stealer.
Have you heard Joan trying to sell the idea that she could do her own singing? (on the dvd extras). She really tried but her voice simply wasn’t good enough.
Thank you so much for your kind words!! I had not heard that Joan wanted her own voice used, but it sounds like she was saved from herself!! And I say this as someone who absolutely loves Joan…
TORCH SONG sounds, um, amazing. Thanks for another great post.
I thought that blackface picture was a Carol Burnett skit. Interesting that Michael Wilding was married to 19 year old Elizabeth Taylor around this time. I love Joan Crawford movies.
This review was the light of my day….thanks!
You’re more than welcome, David!! Thank you for your kind words!! ❤
Hello! I just stumbled across your review after watching a BBC4 documentary on the hidden voices of Hollywood (ghost singers that allowed the stars to mime) I had a good laugh after reading your review of this Joan Crawford film. Quality! Thanks so much for this review, I know I’m so late on this!
Never too late to drop by Sister Celluloid! Happy to have you, and thank you for your kind words!! ❤
Right on Sister! I am watching it right now on TCM and just got to see Joan in blackface. I was stunned. That was so horrible I was disgusted and incredulous at the same time. Why blackface??? It’s just incomprehensible.
Your witty commentary made me smile. Thank you.
I love Crawford in Grand Hotel. She was sensitive and real and tender. It’s too bad Crawford became so hard and plastic. Everybody gets old…looks fade, hair gets gray and gravity sets in. Crawford hung onto her dreams of youth too long and in the process, she refused to let her inner beauty shine. That’s what’s missing from Torch Song.
Thank you for your kind words, Kate! And I agree entirely about Joan; her early work was so sensitive, but then she became frozen and mannequin-like. I think there was a lot of fear in her, including fear of aging…
I loved this women in this movie .. when I first discoved it I was mesmerized.. I watch the opening two to three times a night for a couple of weeks ..this was so entertaining …the costumes ” you wont forget me was wonderful …..thank you lucelle ….a kisse
Hilarious. Just discovered your great site.
Thank you so much, Rand! I just went to your site and you work is beautiful!!
I thought the all-white cast doing a blackface number in the movie The Dolly Sisters (singing Darktown Strutters Ball) was the most racially offensive scene ever. Until now. GREAT review and writing.
Thank you so much for your kind words, John! And yes, this one was jaw-dropping…
You are so dang funny! Dying here – thanks! Caught the last part on TCM recently and definitely jaw dropping!
Thank you so much, Jean!! And yes, this is the ultimate “What were they thinking?” movie…
Hello, Sister: Thanks for a very funny review of this train wreck of a film. There are certain Crawford vehicles one watches simply because Miss Crawford is gracing us with her presence and this is one of them. BTW, one of the reasons Miss Crawford’s body was so good is because she’d just had everything refurbished. She reportedly told the costume designer that “everything is new but my ass.” She could have added those gorgeous gams as well–for which she deserved all the credit. You can catch my Queen of the Lot blog at: maxmcmanus.com.
This movie is still doing the rounds and I was just absolutely flabbergasted by the blackface scene. Found your review when I was trying to find the answer to “why would anyone do this?” Apparently you don’t know either but at least you made me laugh. A lot. For all the right reasons , unlike this film.
I think the “why” will remain a mystery for the ages, but thank you for your kind words!! 🙂