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  Torch Song Angry Artiste
Year: 1953
Director: Charles Walters
Stars: Joan Crawford, Michael Wilding, Gig Young, Majorie Rambeau, Harry Morgan, Dorothy Patrick, James Todd, Eugene Loring, Paul Guilfoyle, Benny Rubin, Peter Chong, Maidie Norman, Nancy Gates, Chris Warfield, Rudy Render
Genre: Musical, Drama, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 1 vote)
Review: Jenny Stewart (Joan Crawford) is the reigning Queen of Broadway, but well aware she's only as big as her last hit, so is sternly putting her cast and crew through their paces. While rehearsing one dance number, she throws her partner over one shapely leg and slams him to the boards, then accuses him of not being up to the job; she's a perfectionist, there's no doubt about it, and she's not going to consider anything but the very best. However, a rehearsal meant to take two weeks has already lasted over twice that amount of time, and people are beginning to lose patience with Jenny's temperamental behaviour, they are well aware she's the star, but someone needs to tame her if they are ever to get through this. How about a blind pianist?

A blind pianist, Tye Graham (Michael Wilding), who remembers what Jenny looked like in her younger days and can't see her ageing, naturally, though there was very little natural about Joan Crawford by 1953 when she made Torch Song. Not even the horror movies she would make later on have quite the same reputation as this one, the consensus is that it's an unintentional laff riot, a welter of bad taste spewing from the screen and all in service to the by now shaky stardom of Joan. It was her return to MGM after some time away, and initially she was welcomed with open arms (her previous effort Sudden Fear had been a surprise blockbuster), which begged the question, why put her in such a second hand production?

It was as if the studio were keen to capitalise on a comeback queen, but not willing to chance too much cash on her to consolidate that renewed success, an unfair way to treat the actress who had done so well for them in the thirties and forties. But Crawford was no ordinary star, and even today commands a sizeable cult of fans who appreciated her refusal to back down and her loyalty to those who followed her, even if she did behave offscreen in a manner that was borderline insane. Or perhaps precisely because of that, as who among them didn't relish a good gossip session discussing the bad behaviour of Joan, not least since Jenny Stewart (a good Scottish name, which explains her shock of ginger hair) appeared very Crawford-esque.

To call her bad tempered is something of an understatement, as she chews up everyone in her path like some deranged showbiz lawnmower, spitting out insults and demands to make sure we are certain she is in charge. But ah, she returns home to her all mod cons apartment every night alone, suggesting, as the perceptive but diffident Tye does, that she really needs a good, er, a good man to see her right and humanise her. Could this man who never needs to see the near-clownish appearance of Crawford as she staved off the effects of age be just the chap for her? Wilding, at the time married to Elizabeth Taylor, was well versed in allowing himself to be overshadowed by leading ladies, though given Jenny's anger management issues you may be sympathetic to Tye's seeing eye dog who takes every opportunity to growl at her.

But we're ignoring the elephant in the room, which is probably the least advisable musical number ever recorded by Hollywood, at least until the climax of Staying Alive. It's about the only one in Torch Song (you can tell they were skimping), but what a behemoth it is: the camera takes in the stage with some suspiciously brown-looking dancers preparing themselves, goes for a slow zoom on a pair of doors to reveal Joan Crawford in blue spangly dress, black mink stole, and blackface makeup, belting out a number apparently boasting of her mixed race parentage. Now, this is either horrendously insulting or absolutely hilarious, depending on your view of insensitivities of the past, and it's the ones who laugh who make up the movie's cult. Crawford, by then no dancer, was no singer either, hence mimed to a track originally intended for Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon, and it's quite incredible the way this aberration is presented. But then, the whole movie is a twisted tribute to diva attitudes like Joan's with its overripe dialogue - and overripe star. Music by Adolph Deutsch.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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