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:
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: