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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Crawford Back Home To Metro

Torch Song (1953) A Would-Be Comeback for JC

Was there ever so wide a gulf as that between Joan Crawford of Dancing Lady and the "Mannish Gorgon" (to quote current assessment) that emerged with Torch Song twenty years later? Did "Jenny Stewart" represent a public's conception of what Crawford herself had become by 1953? The character is brittle, bossy, and unappealing to a fault. She's nice to no one save tolerably so to a maid/secretary/cook at home, a chilly place where windows have three-layer blackouts so the Broadway musical star can sleep through days. Were there stage legends along Jenny Stewart line filling theatres and inspiring wait at stage doors so late as the early fifties? Torch Song would have us think so, provided the enactor is Joan Crawford. But I wonder what might have happened if Crawford herself tried a musical comedy on Broadway in 1953, or thereabouts. Could such a show have got backing, let alone an audience?

Jenny Stewart is imperious, but never so to fans. For them, she switches to warmth and first-name basis (as did Crawford, but she'd extend courtesy to working-class crew members as well). These are kids, and the lot of them couldn't afford a ticket, says her manager, to which Jenny rejoins that someday they will, and by the thousands. She sees stardom in long-range terms, as certainly did Crawford. Dialogue in this scene is true enough to make me believe Crawford took a hand. The taxi speech Jenny gives about permanence of audiences and the theatre is pure Crawford credo. The actress had been counted out too many times to imagine such a state could be permanent. We hear talk of "Comeback Kids," and Crawford was that, plus Comeback Middle-Ager, Comeback Methuselah, a lifetime's bag of come-backing. Torch Song was itself fruit of such revival, being tail on shooting star that was previous year's Sudden Fear, a hit that Crawford had good sense to know would be a hit (and so she produced it).

MGM laid red carpet when Crawford "came home," absent star dressing rooms combined to a single suite for Leo's once-leading light. Crawford had been gone from there ten years, but kept the association, for this was where her image had been defined. Proof that work was her life is fact JC slept on the lot for whole of Torch Song shoot. Did other personnel think her nuts? News in itself was mere fact she was back, behind-scenes gossip oozing off the set and making for better copy than a finished film ever could (Crawford always a reliable team player, so columnists were across the board kind). Torch Song, customized in all ways for her, was more Warners than Metro Crawford. She commits all wrongs short of killing, even abuses a blind man, for which she compensates, but barely, by going sappy for him at a windup (no spoiler, as that's foregone from a first reel). We're shocked when ads and the trailer call Torch Song "Her First Technicolor Triumph," surely not ... and yet it was, excepting color tag for Ice Follies Of 1939, which fewer recalled by 1953. Color on Crawford is almost overpowering, as in scarlet lip rouge and hair the hue of something other than real life (she wanted to flatter Technicolor). Jenny Stewart goes to bed, alone, in full make-up, a given in movies, and maybe less startling had they done this black-white. As it is, Crawford crying into (and surely smearing) her pillow goes the distance from camp to 60's grotesquerie that would one day be Blanche Hudson.

The trailer calls Crawford "a charming temptress," and "never more feminine," which suggests few (anyone?) in sales watched Torch Song. "Eternal Female" JC represents "The Romantic Impulse Any Man Will Follow" says narration, but did men, any men, go see Torch Song of their own volition? I picture lady matinees and what was left of the scrapbook keepers, but Crawford was round sexy bend toward scary by now, which begs question, When had she last been attractive? Daisy Kenyon? The Damned Don't Cry? Lots of men, especially today, would say never. The Christina book had much to do with trashing Crawford for keeps, but there was also changed times and mannish mien to render her off-putting for modern males. I've known many who'd not watch Crawford on a bet, a number not likely to do anything but increase. I wonder if JC is even the gay icon she was --- like once-cult figures since discarded, it may-be that she's landed on nostalgia's scrapheap with W.C. Fields, Mae West, and others we thought would be relevant forever. Torch Song cost a million to make, earned less than needed to break even ($1.7 million in worldwide rentals), and so lost $230K. It's available on DVD, streams HD here and there, plays that way as well on TCM from time to time.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"The audience for motion pictures is between 11 and 30, primarily between 14 and 24 and female." wrote Terry Ramsaye in 1925 in A MILLION AND ONE NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES. Yes, and according to THE CINEMA YEAR BY YEAR 1894--2002, over 65% of the public went to the movies on a regular basis. Of course, during the silent period women played a huge role in production which decreased once sound came in dramatically as did attendance at the movies. David Mamet, in his book, TRUE AND FALSE,writes: "Polite western society has long confounded scholarship with art. Scholarship is a reasoned endeavor; and the goal of scholarship, at least as it applies to the art of the actor, is to transform the scholar from a member of the audience into a being superior to it. 'It is all very well,' the theatrical scholars might say, 'to laugh, to cry, to gasp—it’s fine for the mob. But I will do something higher, and will participate only as a sort of cultural referee.'

"That’s fine for a scholar, but for a working member of the theatre to reason thusly is to wish one’s life away. Here is the taint of scholarship in the theatre: a preoccupation with effect. That is the misjudgment of the Method: the notion that one can determine the effect one wants to have upon an audience, and then study and supply said effect.

"Preoccupation with effect is preoccupation with the self, and not only is it joyless, it’s a waste of time. Can we imagine the Cockney street buskers studying what effect they wish to have on the audience at which portion of their turn? Can we imagine the African drummer doing so, the Gypsy guitarist, the klezmer? Art is an expression of joy and awe. It is not an attempt to share one’s virtues and accomplishments with the audience, but an act of selfless spirit. Our effect is not for us to know. It is not in our control. Only our intention is under our control. As we strive to make our intentions pure, devoid of the desire to manipulate, and clear, directed to a concrete, easily stated end, our performances become pure and clear.

"Eleven o’clock always comes. In the meantime, may you know the happiness of working to serve your own good opinion. Invent nothing, deny nothing, speak up, stand up, stay out of school."

Audiences accepted Crawford for the same reason audiences were thrilled by Sarah Bernhardt on stage no matter how old she was when last she played Juliet. Both not only were stars they were legends.

Mark Breslin, founder of Toronto's YUK YUKS, worked as a writer on the JOAN RIVERS SHOW. When it went off the air he was asked what he wanted to do. Mark said he wanted to write for movies. He was told, "Movies are being made for boys. Write for television." Today's movies are being made for 13 year old Asian boys. Today, according to THE CINEMA YEAR BY YEAR 1894--2002, only 15% of the public regularly goes to the movies. The audience was there for Crawford second and the film first. When the two reasons became one she had a hit. As for the critical press they had and have no effect on either film makers nor film audiences. How many films have been huge hits despite the critics? One helluva lot. How many great films were damned by critics on first release? One helluva lot. In the performing arts the performer is the product. It is their job to extend their shelf life as long as they can. Crawford, Bette Davis, Lillian Gish and a few others among the women knew this. They stayed stars and became LEGENDS. That what show-business is all about. Now you have me wanting to see TORCH SONG.

The movies lost their audience when they started making movies for boys. Frankly, I don't know how they will ever get that audience back unless the industry once again gives women the role taken from them when sound came in.

6:27 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Once had a stunning 16mm Technicolor print of TORCH SONG, and I couldn't make it to THE END.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Audiences in '52 may not have remembered the color tag in "Ice Follies..." (I was unaware of it myself, never having been able to get all the way through it), but surely some recalled Joan's Technicolor cameo just 3 years prior in "It's A Great Feeling" (WB, '49.)

Another thing in the print ads that struck me as disingenuous was the soundtrack album blurb, which should more accurately have read, Hear (India Adams Sing) The Music In The MGM Records Album!"

Preview cards at the time reputedly begged the question, "Why cast a singing/dancing role with an actress who can do neither?"

Still, I have nothing but admiration for Crawford. Her native intelligence must have been matched only by her determination and grit -- how many other dirt poor, ignorant, twang-talking girls from Texas could have risen to the self-educated (albeit piss elegant) status she attained, to say nothing of reinventing herself countless times over the course of a career that stretched from silent movies to color television shows?

2:37 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Other than "Queen Bee," which a friend suggested I watch as a goof, I've never had a desire to sit through any movie with Crawford in a starring role. I don't get the appeal at all.

She was quite pretty in the '20s and early '30s. But, like her nemesis Bette Davis, she started hardening by 1940 -- booze, smokes, ego and anger the cause, perhaps?

If you have a chance you should listen to the Gilbert Gottfried's podcast where he interviews Bruce Dern. He recounts his first day on the set of "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte" when Crawford was still in the cast. (The story starts at the 14:20 mark.) In a word -- wow:

11:04 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I can watch and enjoy some Joanie features, but she's never been near the top of my favorites' list.

The same for Bette.

11:11 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

Changing tastes discard old movies stars - but the technology (Internet) really did them in. Ironically, that's what binds us all together, today, but its specialised and you have to search. It wasn't better , back then, when movies showed up on TV every night in bad prints and cut, to boot. But, contemporary audiences knew who Crawford and the others were. Now, books are dying. Its just change.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Non-English readers, and even then it's a Scottish expression, will maybe enjoy applying to her this description:

'She has a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp'

She was at least ten years too old for the part, however you slice her range of possible birth dates.

However, I slightly fancy seeing the picture and would buy a Blu-ray.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Am surprised nobody has mentioned the brown-face musical number.

Karina Longworth's excellent podcast YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS is currently in the midst of a multi-part Joan Crawford series. More fun than actually sitting through some of the films. Here's the first episode:

2:38 PM  
Blogger Phill Bowle said...



6:18 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Just now took a closer look at "Joan Reads the Comics." Even allowing for the prevalence of soap and adventure strips, that is not the expression of somebody over eight years old enjoying the funnies.

These were the days of thick Sunday comic sections, and bigger broadsheet pages. The cover of the section offers old reliables Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie; in March of '53 "The Heart of Juliet Jones" debuted.

Like to imagine Joan reading "Juliet Jones" and envisioning herself as the virginal young spinster, whose teacher fiance is being seduced by Juliet's high school senior sister. No bedrooms of course, but necking in a classroom. Pretty hot for a comic strip; in short order jailbait Eve graduated and became an endlessly sweet and decent young lady. And a bit after that Juliet herself loosened her tight old-maid hairstyle to look less severe and more girlish.

5:00 AM  

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