How to Not Get Married in an Entire Series
In the Warner Bros. series The Adventures of Torchy Blane, the heroine is a fast-talking, fearless, ambitious, often unethical ace reporter for the New York Star. Her boyfriend is detective Steven McBride, a big gorilla who is usually one or two steps behind in solving whatever murder Torchy is pursuing. The franchise is based on a very popular detective pulp series of the 1920s and '30s by Frederick Nebel called Kennedy of the Free Press, in which the ace reporter is male, a massive drunk, and not in love with Steve McBride.
There are nine Torchy Blane pictures in all, seven of them starring Warner character slugger, Glenda Farrell, with an odd, mid-series switch to Lola Lane, then back to Farrell, then finishing up with a blonde, bangs-free Jane Wyman in the final installment. Like many hour-ish long Warner Bros. fare of the time, the pictures are minimally produced, comfortably formulaic, and zippy in the dialog department.
The ingredients of this particular formula are:
The mysteries themselves aren't much, but I don't think suspense was a particularly high production priority for these dialog-driven character showcases. So attractive was Glenda Farrell's newspaperhound, that Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was inspired to model Lois Lane on her Torchy Blane. You can see bits of Farrell in the Lois of the early comics, the few times Lois gets to say anything in the excellent 1940s Fleischer cartoons, and in Margot Kidder's Lois of the first (and my favorite) Superman (1978).
Some of these movies are better than others and most are fun and engaging with only one real clunker in the set (I'm talking to you, Torchy Blane in Panama). For my money, you can't go wrong with the first four and the last two.
Smart Blonde (1937)
As a series opener, you can't beat Smart Blonde for establishing its heroine as a driven, get-the-story-at-all-costs newshound. The first moments show Torchy in the back of a cab in hot pursuit alongside a speeding train telling the driver to pull over to the next crossing so she can jump out and swing onto the caboose with nothing but a business suit and carnation as luggage. Stopping only to straighten her skirt, she pauses to ask the conductor where to find Mr. Torgensen's compartment (she has no ticket, incidentally, just a whole lot of moxie) and plants herself across from this Mr. Torgensen, millionaire sports promoter, and charmingly interviews him about some upcoming deal. At their destination, Mr. Torgensen offers to drop Torchy at her newspaper and is promptly shot and killed right in front of her. Unfazed, Torchy runs into a phone booth (remember those?) and proceeds to dictate the whole story. And not a hair out of place.
Now THAT'S a REPORTER.
In this episode, Steve proposes to Torchy, but don't hold your breath.
Fly Away Baby (1937)
In this second installment, newly-engaged Torchy embarks on a race around the world with two other reporters, exposes a smuggling operation, and solves a murder. It's a patchwork of implausibilities that is mostly fun to watch, with a dose of creepiness in the last half hour when everyone shows up on the Hindenburg, which exploded a month before the picture was released.
The Adventurous Blonde (1937)
In The Adventurous Blonde, all the city reporters are jealous of Torchy constantly scooping them, so they concoct a story about a famous actor being murdered to send her on a wild goose chase. Naturally, the actor is a two-timing womanizer who turns up dead for real and Torchy winds up solving the murder, getting the story, and managing to not marry Lieutenant McBride.
Blondes at Work (1938)
This time the police department is annoyed that Torchy uses her connection to McBride to get hot stories. Nothing comes of it, of course, but Torchy shows a certain callousness in this one that's a little unpleasant. Still, Blondes at Work is probably my favorite because there are lots of girls in it (and not just blondes) talking to each other, to the cops, to Torchy, saying things girls are likely to say.
Torchy does some really questionable stuff in this one.
Torchy Blane in Panama (1938)
Just as the series hit its stride, Warner Bros. went ahead and changed up both stars with Lola Lane as Torchy and Paul Kelly as McBride. The result is a tepid treatment of the trusty formula, with very little chemistry between the new stars. This time the gang goes to Panama to investigate a New York bank robbery that involves a member of the Leopard Lodge. It's not important what happens, really, but Torchy does jump out of a plane to catch up with the ship carrying all the cops who are trying to give her the slip.
It's a game effort, but this combination of talent fails to hold up the shortcomings of the story.
Torchy Gets Her Man (1938)
So this is NOT the movie where Torchy and McBride finally get married, but is instead about how Torchy exposes a con artist counterfeiter pretending to be a secret service agent who Steve thinks is on the level.
The pacing on this one is pretty slow, but there are some nice moments between Torchy and Gahagan and a German-speaking German Shepherd.
Torchy Blane in Chinatown (1939)
There's very little actual Chinatown in Torchy Blane in Chinatown, and even less of the zing of previous installments. Based on the horrible Chinese pidgin Torchy used with a laundryman in Blondes at Work, this is probably just as well.
Some jade tablets are taken from a Chinese burial site and suddenly a bunch of folks are extorted and threatened with murder. Torchy figures it all out eventually, but is especially bumbling and callous in the process.
Torchy Runs for Mayor (1939)
Torchy exposes rampant city corruption after Boss Dolan takes over but is blocked from printing anything about it because, well, there's corruption. Also the Boss threatens the paper with a massive exodus of advertisers. When the candidate Torchy manipulates into running on a reform platform is murdered, McBride writes her in as the recall candidate for a joke.
But Torchy loves the idea and runs for mayor, promising to "make the city safe for your babies." Steve, in the meantime, foils the Boss's plot to murder Torchy, and Torchy wins the election. At her victory press conference, however, she is given a baby to hold and decides she wants to get married instead and quits.
Torchy Blane...Playing with Dynamite (1939)
In this last installment, Torchy is played ably by Jane Wyman and Lt. Bride is taken over by the wonderful Allen Jenkins, who many of us of a certain age will recognize as the voice of Officer Dibble in Top Cat. While this pairing has much better chemistry than the last series switcheroo, the age difference between the two actors is a little too wide for serious sparks. And as spunky and fast-talking as Wyman's Torchy is, she comes across more Nancy Drew than Nellie Bly.
But I like Nancy Drew.
The dynamite in question is Torchy's getting herself thrown in jail so she can get close to gangster's girl, Jackie McGuire (Sheila Bromley), which she does. But not for long. They break out and run off to San Francisco to meet Jackie's crooked guy, with McBride and Gahagan on the trail. There's a prison fight, a wrestling match, a kidnapping, a guy named Bugsy, and a daring escape involving a speeding car.
Which is where we came in on Torchy Blane. And if you're going to end a series, you may as well go out on a good one.
This post is part of Sleuthathon, The Great Classic Detective Blogathon, hosted by the excellent Movies Silently; please check out the other reviews about great film detectives, mysteries, and talented amateurs.