Friday, July 31, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Torch Singer (1933)

Claudette Colbert is splendid playing the title role in TORCH SINGER, a fascinating title from the pre-Code era.

We first meet Colbert as Sally Trent, an unwed mother about to give birth in a charity ward. Sally struggles to provide for her baby girl, but after a period of time Sally runs out of both money and hope. Sally is despondent when she decides she must give her daughter up for adoption in order to ensure the baby's survival.

Over the next few years Sally gradually morphs into glamorous Mimi Benton, a notorious nightclub torch singer whose signature song is "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love." Thanks to a fluke, Mimi also becomes "Aunt Jenny," star of a popular radio show for children, and she uses her radio stardom to attempt locating her daughter.

Colbert is marvelous in this film, going from bleary-eyed, loving young mother to hard-edged, glamorous chanteuse. She takes her character through quite a journey in just 72 minutes, putting up emotional defenses while drinking and partying to bury her pain. It's the kind of performance some might find Oscar worthy; it's a shame she wasn't nominated. (Colbert's Oscar would come for her performance in a film released the very next year...IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.) The resolution of the film was a bit odd and left me with a couple of major questions, but otherwise I found this to be a highly entertaining film.

Ricardo Cortez, who often plays the villain in films of this era -- notably 1933's MIDNIGHT MARY -- here plays Colbert's kind mentor and friend who helps develop her career and supports her as she searches for her baby.

I particularly enjoyed Mildred Washington as Mimi's energetic, caring maid and friend, Carrie. It was a refreshingly unstereotypical role for a black actress of the era. I sought to learn more about Washington at IMDb and was very much saddened to learn that she died early in 1933, before TORCH SINGER was released. She had an appendicitis attack during the Long Beach earthquake and died during surgery. Ms. Washington's biography indicates she was a well-educated woman, a high school valedictorian who spent time studying at UCLA and Columbia. She created a memorable character in TORCH SINGER.

The supporting cast also includes Lyda Roberti, David Manners, Charley Grapewin, Sam Godfrey, Florence Roberts, Helen Jerome Eddy, Toby Wing, and Cora Sue Collins.

TORCH SINGER was directed by Alexander Hall and George Somnes.

Colbert's stunning gowns are by Travis Banton; the movie would be worth watching even if the only interesting thing were Colbert's wardrobe changes!

TORCH SINGER is part of the 6-film Pre-Code Hollywood Collection. You can read details about the set in this post and also in a review by the DVD Savant, Glenn Erickson. (Update: This film is now also available as a single-title DVD release in the Universal Vault Series.)

TORCH SINGER is "must" viewing for fans of Claudette Colbert and the pre-Code era.

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