When they talk about camp, and they do, one of the great, garish spectacles of them all is the glitzy, eye-popping semi-musical Torch Song (1953), which heralded the splashy return of Miss Joan Crawford to MGM Studios after a decade away. Initially meant to be part of The Story of Three Loves (1953) with Lana Turner in the lead, it was instead developed into a stand-alone vehicle for Crawford. The deeply-saturated Technicolor extravaganza was promoted as her first time ever being seen as such, though there had been two brief forays into color during parts of Hollywood Revue of 1929 and Ice Follies of 1939, seen below.
Crawford's long, career-building relationship with MGM came to a halt in 1943 and she proceeded to a fertile period at Warner Brothers (including a Best Actress Oscar for Mildred Pierce, 1945.) Roles in Possessed (1947) and Sudden Fear (1952) led to subsequent nominations (losing to Loretta Young in The Farmer's Daughter and Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba), but she signed on for a two-picture deal at her old studio, this one being the first. (The second was never to be.)
In preparation for her first real musical in ages, Crawford had a face lift and, reportedly, breast augmentation, though she had already long been following a regimen of sensible eating and body-firming exercises. She also, with bravura on the outside and considerable trepidation inside, began working on her vocals for the small array of songs she'd be performing in the movie. In the end, her own voice was not used, though she can vaguely be heard singing along to a recording near the end of the picture.
Crawford's arrival at MGM was cause for much hoopla. There was a banner flying, all the current resident stars came calling with well-wishes (and publicity opportunities) and her dressing room was filled to overflowing with floral arrangements. Calling many, if not all, of the shots on this one (a power she wasn't given when then-departed Louis B. Mayer had been the boss there!), she selected Charles Walters, a noted choreographer-turned-director, to helm the film.
In fact, as the movie gets underway, it is Walters himself who is seen hoofing away with Crawford in rehearsals for a number from her soon-to-open revue. Haughty Crawford is swirling, wafting and posing around in a variety of configurations, not the least of which is a hilarious extension which appears to be the character's trademark stance.
When Walters trips over her near-horizontal gam, the dance director tries to explain to a highly perturbed Crawford that perhaps she could rein in her sprawling leg just a tad to let Walters by. She memorably retorts, “...and spoil that line!” She exclaims that he is paid to get around that leg and that, if he can't, they can “get another boy” (referring to forty-two year-old Walters!)
With this, she storms over to the coat rack and switches out her see-through chiffon rehearsal skirt for a fabulous full one with a fun gold chain closure. The stunned chorus members, exasperated stage manager (Henry Morgan) and befuddled pianist can only react in amazement as she calls an end to her rehearsal and struts off to her dressing room.
Having changed clothes, she heads out the stage door to a surreal sight. There, awaiting her like disciples, is a group of fawning TEENAGERS, clamoring for her autograph and making it clear to the viewer that they are there every day waiting for a glimpse of her. Now I'm a huge Crawford fan and readily admit it, but the mere idea that these pups would be scratching at the door to see her at this stage is almost science-fiction like in its audacity!
On the limo ride from the theatre (in which our gal sports a magnificent set of earrings and coordinating necklace), Crawford lets the producer of the show have it, announcing that she won't be returning to the stage again until the people around her know their stuff. Here and throughout the movie, she is given blisteringly funny, common, antagonistic dialogue, in this case telling the poor guy that the only art he's familiar with is the fruit in slot machines!
Now back at home in her spacious, yet Spartanly-appointed, apartment, she meets up with her personal assistant Maidie Norman. Norman is not only efficient and effective, but approaches her work happily, which is quite a feat since her employer isn't exactly used to offering up niceties.
Crawford changes into a perfectly prep-osterous robe that looks like Kate Smith (or even Orson Welles!) would be lost in it. The sleeves fall well past her fingertips and the hem drags the ground to the point of being a trip hazard (and she is wearing high heel slippers even in this shot!) Metaphorically shutting out the world, she has three – count 'em – three sets of drapes in her bedroom window.
She curls up in bed to go over her lines with Norman for the pending production and here we get the first, genuine, out and out scream of laughter. She is very artificially going through the (dreadfully banal) lines when she gets to one about being alone and at that second, the camera closes in on Norman. Her eyes have been at half-mast so far, but in order to register acknowledgement of the irony of Crawford's own loneliness, her orbs suddenly, hilariously pop way open! After having read about four lines and then calling it quits, Crawford tosses a pencil at Norman who says she'll “type up the changes” (??) for her. She next cries herself to sleep as she recognizes how alone she truly is.
The next day, Crawford is a deliberate no-show at the theatre and is instead going over her costumes on the floor of her living room. Her boozy boy-toy Gig Young shows up, nursing a hangover, but that doesn't prevent him from getting knocked around by more of Crawford's venomous verbiage (as she waves one of her sketches around in the air to see how the 4” x 4” swatch of chiffon looks in motion!)
She finally deigns to return to the stage and Young tags along. Outside the back entrance is now a gargantuan cut-out of the star, poised in that now-mandatory pose of one leg extended out. She hoists up her skirt to mid-thigh, asking Young how the poster compares to the real thing.
Walters is back for another go 'round of the number he'd previously been tripping up on. This time he finally gets it and is treated with surprising friendliness by our demanding superstar. Interestingly, the music for this bit is a lyric-free rendition of “I Want to Be a Minstrel Man,” which serves as a sort of storm warning for what is for many the climax of the picture a little while later... (This same melody had also been reworked with a new title and different lyrics for Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, 1951.)
Things are hardly tranquil, however, as she turns to the new rehearsal pianist Michael Wilding and is confronted with the fact that he is quite blind! She's instantly exasperated by this, but becomes even more livid when he has the temerity to suggest that she isn't singing her song “the right way!” (Her singing, by the way, is dubbed by a highly throaty and resonant India Adams, which clashes more than a bit with the voice we'd expect from Joan.)
He keeps needling her, apparently unafraid of the Medusa-like performer, perhaps because he cannot see her. Crawford nearly always had a face-slapping scene in her pictures, but that would hardly do with a male counterpart who was playing blind, so she makes due as the tensions rise to a crescendo by explosively swatting a water glass off the piano and across the floor.
Wilding is canned, but soon after he and Crawford meet during lunch and share an exchange. He makes no pretenses whatsoever when it comes to psychoanalizing her, though she protests heartily. He explains that her tough outer core is there to disguise inner fear. (Wow... deep!) She is furious with him, but he's also piqued her curiosity...
Facing another dull night of glittery partying with Young, she decides instead to ditch her wishy-washy playboy, telling him she's going home early. However, she really heads to Wilding's apartment in anticipation of another tete-a-tete. She is stunned upon arrival to not only hear loud music emanating from one of his rooms, but also to see that it is a beautifully-appointed, obviously pricey pad. (In an ironic twist, blind Wilding's home contains far more objects d'art and so on than Crawford's barren one.)
After another tongue-lashing session, she all but dares him to report to rehearsal the next morning, claiming to have waged a bet on the subject, in fact. After she hurtles out the door, we meet one of Wilding's quintet members, Dorothy Patrick, who professes her adoration for Wilding along with her mystification that he is carrying a torch for the Gorgon-like Crawford. He says he can never see Patrick the way he “sees” Crawford.
He does show up at the theatre and things look good for a moment as she catches him playing one of her earliest hits on the piano. Unfortunately, it's only a few moments before he's giving her another jab and she's back to her ball-busting ways.
Crawford is beside herself over this enigmatic man who seems to do things to her she can't understand. Restless and agitated, she paces the floor until finally deciding to do a little experimenting with her own senses.
She goes to the clock with her eyes closed, deliberately messing it up and then (incorrectly) attempting to guess the time with her fingertips. Then she tries to light a cigarette without benefit of vision (burning her fingers, natch!) Finally, she makes a phone call with her eyes closed and gets a non-working number! (Crawford was very proud of herself when it came to sequences like this, though this one comes off as very forced. She claimed to have a number of blind fans who came to her movies and so she worked tirelessly on her elocution as a way of assuring that they would hear and understand her.)
Now, almost an hour in, we get the pleasure of meeting Crawford's mother Marjorie Rambeau! She's an unabashed leech who drains every spare nickel she can out of her successful daughter, all the while acting as if she wouldn't dare impose. Her hooty performance is a decided highlight of the film. Here, she squeezes piano lesson money out of a bored Crawford for Joan's little sister Nancy Gates.
Crawford rehearses another number in which she materializes from behind the stage wall, sings heartily and passion-ately, then twirls off behind the opposite wall. Afterwards, she darts out on stage to see if Wilding approved of her work, but is given only faint praise. As he takes off with the snuggling Patrick, Crawford spitefully declares that any future visitors be kept out of rehearsals!
She calls for a party at her apartment, practically demanding the attendance of Wilding from one of her lackeys. The party has the kind of odds I appreciate: Joan is the sole female in a sea of suit-clad men! Despite this swarm of testosterone about her, she is seething that Wilding didn't show. In a huff, she orders everyone out immediately!
Incidentally, the pianist at her party was played by real-life nightclub entertainer Rudy Render, but – just as Crawford's was – his voice is inexplicably dubbed! The voice coming from his lips is that of Bill Lee, who later provided vocals for John Kerr in South Pacific (1958) and Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music (1965) among many others! Though Render later claimed that the star scarcely looked at him during filming, she did arrange for him to work in 1959's The Best of Everything (in a role that was subsequently deleted.)
Here comes the big event: final dress for a hypno-tically-bad production number in which, once again, Joan's leg takes center stage and she, along with all the chorus boys and girls are in (as Debbie Reynolds was scripted to term it in That's Entertainment III, 1994) “tropical makeup!” For all intents and purposes, it's blackface... (The recorded vocal - "Two Faced Woman" - had been created for The Band Wagon, 1953, for use in a number of Cyd Charisse's that was cut.)
Yes, they're all done up in a sort of island nightclub regalia with striped belts on the men and turbans on the gals, but such would not require makeup as dark as what Joan has slathered on by William Tuttle.
Few things are as surreal to behold as our Joan painted brown with sparkles attached to her legendary eyebrows, a hair helmet of a black wig and a garish slash of red lipstick. It gets worse from there, though.
When she discovers that Wilding has wandered out of the auditorium without a word and has declined to join the company on its tryout in Philadelphia, she looks after him with a fretful expression and then yanks off her hideous (Liz Taylor?) wig! The viewer is faced with her chocolate skin, crimson lips, ice blue eyes and a tangled mess of tangerine orange hair sprouting heavenward! And you ask why no one chose to film this in black & white?!
Still not able to let go of her obsession with the seemingly-reticent Wilding, she calls him over to her home for a sit-down chat. After a few gnarled exchanges, they are still at an emotional impasse with his continuing to dig at her about her psychological attributes.
Back at mom's, Crawford has to confess to Rambeau that she has fallen for this mysterious, piano playing Romeo with whom she cannot stop quarrelling, but when she tells her that he's blind... Well, Rambeau's response is one of the fall-down-on-the-floor-laughing moments of all time!
After discussing the situation, Crawford puts on an old record of her younger self singing “Tenderly.” (This is the sole moment of the movie when Crawford's true singing voice is heard somewhat as she joins in to sing along with the record.) She begins to recognize how much she's changed since those earliest years.
Rambeau then digs out one of her old scrapbooks detailing the life and career of her daughter and they come to realize Wilding's deal. You see, Wilding had attended and professionally reviewed a show of Crawford's when she was younger and unspoiled, prior to his losing his sight in WWII. His glowing review of her performance is right there in Rambeau's scrapbook! He's still smitten with that long-lost girl, yet can't deny a fascination with her harder contemporary counterpart.
Actually, in his heart and mind, he “sees” Crawford the way she was then like that and continues to reject the young, blonde Patrick because he has no clue what she actually looks like! (Somehow I don't think Stevie Wonder ever pondered such things as he was seeding the planet with his nine children!)
Crawford bolts over to Wilding's apartment where he is playing “Tenderly” on the piano... for Patrick! Patrick steps out into the hallway and we aren't permitted to see or hear what happens when she and Crawford touch base, but it can't have been too pretty because within seconds, Patrick is headed out the door!
Now Wilding is upset and begins throwing things around in fury as Crawford looks on in wonder. These two are like oil and water, never seeming to be able to exist in the same space without some degree of tension, but you never know...
Torch Song was sold with the promise of finally getting to see Joan Crawford in a full-length feature in color and it certainly delivered on that score. This daybill poster does rather cruelly place a giant close-up of her younger face (from about the late-1930s) next to the one from 1953, however!
The French poster was slightly more honest in which Joan would be seen, featuring a gargantuan portrait of her, though the artwork easily erases some of the forty-eight years that the star had lived by this point.
An Italian poster goes even further with that theme (and makes no mistake about who exactly the star of this motion picture is! There is no sight of anyone else in the artwork.)
Of course, the Spanish DVD cover is a laugh riot, exposing one of the film's chief moments of uproariousness right up front rather than trying to pass the film off as a benign musical.
The film was modestly successful (and pretty well-reviewed by critics), but not enough to justify some of the expenditures on it, thus that second film of this two-picture MGM deal didn't materialize. It's not like it didn't receive publicity, either! Not only were parades of stars photographed on set with La Crawford, but there was even a fashion tie-in with dresses in “Torch Red” popping up in stores. (At no point in the film does Crawford wear red... the closest she ever comes is a skirt with some burnt orange around the bottom of it!)
Among the stars who paid a call was a quite-pregnant Esther Williams, who recounted in her (question-able) auto-biography several pages about Joan and her autocratic/vulnerable behavior. According to Williams, she, as a joke in light of the cartloads of flowers and gifts Crawford had already received, presented the star with a nearly empty bottle of vodka wrapped in tissue paper with a fading flower attached. Joan allegedly didn't see the humor and sent her packing with her “tacky” gift!
Ricardo Montalban (check those hairy forearms!) presumably got on better with her.
Pier Angeli, was apparently put to work ensuring that our star had nary a hair out of place during filming!
One of Crawford's favorites, (a rather dowdy-looking) Ann Blyth of Mildred Pierce drops in.
One visitor who definitely did not impress Miss Crawford, despite photographic evidence to the contrary, was a certain Mrs. Michael Wilding – aka Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor had married her second husband Wilding in 1952 and, while a star since girlhood, was not quite the mega-watt international idol she would later become. The twenty-one year-old made the fatal error of addressing Ms. Crawford as “Joan” upon arrival and things went south from there. Reportedly, before long, Crawford took a page from her character's book and started to bar visitors from the set after the initial crush.
Director Walters had a firm grip on the musical genre as a rule, having done a variety of successful ones from Good News (1947) to Easter Parade (1948) to Lili (1953) along with some of Esther Williams' colorful, water-logged romps. Lili even garnered him an Oscar nomination, though Fred Zinneman understandably won for From Here to Eternity. Gay, with a longtime partner, he had to endure a pretty solid crush coming from Crawford, who wanted to make him her own! Later films included The Tender Trap (1955), High Society (1956), Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960) and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964.) After retiring in the mid-'70s, he died in 1982 at age seventy from lung cancer.
For Crawford, Torch Song seemed to mark a turning point (pass a torch?) from the prestigious fare she'd been enjoying to slightly more lurid material. Her next few films (Johnny Guitar, 1955, Female on the Beach and Queen Bee, both 1956) are each camp masterpieces themselves as well. Still, no matter the material at hand, she clung to her leading lady status and performed with searing commitment right up until the end when she shared the screen with an unearthed Cro-Magnon man in Trog (1970.)
As late as 1967's Berserk, she was still showing off her legs whenever possible. (In fact, she was still parting the slit of her skirt to flash her gams in 1971 at an event!) You can read a little more about her later films here.
Wilding had some interesting recollections of Torch Song in his autobiography. He claimed that he was never so much as introduced to Crawford prior to being thrust before the camera in a passionate kissing scene with her. (No such scene exists in the movie.) Then he claims he was told that his head was blocking her face in their “love scenes” and that he never got more than a pleasant “good morning” or “good evening” from his leading lady.
He was always a rather unambitious actor and despite success in his native England, he floundered in Hollywood, where he relocated after his marriage. He does a decent enough job here, but wound up in increasingly preposterous roles during his stint in Tinseltown from The Egyptian (1954) to The Glass Slipper (1955), in which he was a forty-three year-old, dancing Prince Charming!
Before long, his marriage to Taylor disintegrated and he returned to the U.K. He was discovered to have epilepsy, which had long been affecting his acting work, so he gave it up completely by the early-1970s. In fact, it was an epileptic seizure that caused his fatal fall in 1979 when he was sixty-six. He'd spent the last dozen years of his life with fourth wife Margaret Leighton, with whom he appeared to have finally found happiness.
Young was playing a part that sadly foreshadowed his own descent into alcoholism and disenchantment. He was coming off an Oscar nomination for 1951's Come Fill the Cup (lost to Karl Malden in A Streetcar Named Desire), in which he'd portrayed an alcoholic. He was nominated again for 1958's Teacher's Pet (losing to Burl Ives in The Big Country), but finally won for 1969's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, yet another role in which he played (and likely was) drunk. Long depressed and despondent over his pendulum-like career, he killed himself and his bride of three weeks in 1978 when he was sixty-four.
He and Crawford started off on the right foot, sharing drinks after hours, but when he declined an invitation to her bedroom, things turned a bit chillier between them. He claimed to have had his scenes chopped to ribbons, though in truth there isn't really room for much more of his peripheral character in the story concerning the diva and her accompanist.
Rambeau had been in showbiz from her preteen years on and began appearing in silents in 1917 when she was eighteen years old. She proceeded to Broadway where she won leading roles all through the 1920s. She had worked with Crawford in the '30s (in the abandoned Great Day, 1930, as well as Laughing Sinners and This Modern Age, both 1931, though her scenes in the latter film were cut.)
She'd been Oscar nominated as Ginger Rogers' floozy mother in The Primrose Path (1940), but the statuette went to Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath. Her brief, but hilarious and skillfully-played, scenes in Torch Song earned her another Oscar nomination, but this time Donna Reed took it home for From Here to Eternity. Another of this film's stars who grappled with an alcohol problem, she died in 1970 at age eighty (and is rumored to have had the Reuben sandwich invented for her!)
Harry Morgan (at the time “Henry Morgan”), as the stage manager, was a ten-year veteran of films by this point and stayed busy always thanks to his everyman sort of looks and manner (though his speaking voice was always highly distinctive.) He went on to greatest fame as Jack Webb's partner on the late-'60s rendition of Dragnet and especially for his role as Colonel Potter on M*A*S*H from 1974-1983. M*A*S*H provided the actor with nine straight years of Emmy nominations, one of which he won in 1980. Morgan passed away from pneumonia in 2011 at age ninety-six.
Patrick was a Canadian who began her career as a model (with the John Robert Powers Agency, no less.) After a short-lived marriage to hockey star Lynn Patrick (a union which produced a son), the single mother proceeded to Hollywood and a series of film roles including Til the Clouds Roll By (1946.) She retired in the mid-'50s, after marrying a second time and having another son, though by the time of her death in 1987, she'd married a third time. A heart attack claimed her at age sixty-five.
Norman fascinates me because she played Crawford's assistant here and then played her housemaid in 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Then Crawford was replaced in the follow-up film Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964) by Olivia de Havilland. So in Airport '77, Norman played lifelong assistant to de Havilland in a role that was first offered to Crawford! My, it would have been fun if Crawford (who was close to her death by then) could have done the role... Despite the general lack of opportunities open to her in the 1950s, Norman worked pretty regularly and popped up in many fun films including Written on the Wind and The Opposite Sex (both 1956.) She kept on working, mostly on TV, until 1988, passing away a decade later at age eighty-five of lung cancer.
Gates' role of Crawford's baby sister is a small one, though Gates had been working in movies since 1942 as a teenager. The year after this, she would appear in Suddenly alongside Frank Sinatra and worked steadily thereafter, but never really had that breakthrough role that makes someone a “name.” Having married in 1948, she had four children and eventually cut back on her acting work in order to raise a family. Unlike practically everyone else in this movie, Gates is still with us today at age eighty-eight, though she hasn't acted since 1969. TCM, interview this woman, STAT!
When Carol Burnett, on her long-running variety show, had done a parody of Mildred Pierce called “Mildred Fierce,” Joan was laughing the hardest. However, when Burnett returned to the well for “Torchy Song,” something about it hurt Crawford's feelings deeply. Perhaps it is because in the first parody, her character (and she, by proxy) was mostly sympathetic, but in the second one, it was a direct send-up of her hard, take-no-prisoners persona and the character was a monster, making it seem more of a personal attack (or, at least, affront.) Burnett worshipped all of the old stars, so it certainly wasn't intentional on her part. This one just hit a little closer to the bone than intended (or Crawford had a little trouble poking fun at herself.)
If you have never treated yourself to Torch Song, make the commitment to spending 90 minutes with the scorching color, the burningly sarcastic dialogue and the unmitigated firepower of a star using every iota of power and control to deliver the movie and the performance she is after. I wrestled with what to title this post. An old imdb.com review of mine was titled, “Cuz I'm 50... and I can KICK!” after one of Molly Shannon's SNL creations. I also thought about “She's got legs. She knows how to use them...” from the ZZ Top hit, but I most often try to keep the movie's title in there, so I went with the one I did. It still sorta fits the situation! Anyway, I leave you with one more shot of Crawford's legs and that amazing (on level's so bad they're good) makeup & costume job that was done on her...