Torchy Blane was the feature character in nine B movies released from 1937-39 starring Glenda Farrell in seven of the films, with the two other installments featuring Lola Lane and Jane Wyman. The character was also part of the inspiration for Jerry Siegel’s Lois Lane. All nine films have been released as a single set by Warner Archives.
Torchy was an intrepid female reporter solving crimes. I reviewed her first movie and I think the opening of her first movie, Smart Blonde really set the tone for the series. In it, she has a cab drive up to a moving train and jumps out of the cab and onto the moving train.
From the beginning, she established herself as a daring, clever no-nonsense reporter who manages to stay a step (or several steps) ahead of her boyfriend/fiancé Lieutenant Steve McBride (played by Barton MacClane in the seven movies starring Farrell) and his sidekick Gehagen (played in all nine films by Tom Kennedy.)
The idea of a female reporter being the girlfriend of a police detective was hardly original to this film series, but there was more done with it in Torchy Blane. As Torchy racked up a scoop in the first film, other reporters got jealous, with their bosses complaining to the police brass, who responded to their headaches by trying to frustrate her access to McBride. In another film, her fellow journalists decided to humiliate her by staging a hoax murder and getting her to believe it so that she would be embarrassed by having been duped. It’s rare for a movie from the 1930s to really explore the consequences of its premise and that’s one thing that sets the Torchy Blane film apart.
The films are a great mix of comedy, adventure, and mystery. Torchy’s intrepid adventures take her around the world, on a cruise trip, and even running for Mayor. Farrel and Maclane were usually more bit players and lacked the glamour of the A-list stars but that helps to make Torchy and Steve feel very realistic. Farrell is a delight to watch in each film as she’s always entertaining whether she’s playing an impish trick to get past the latest attempt by the attempt by the police to stop her from getting the inside dope, trying a daring stunt to thwart the bad guys, or delightfully worming another steak dinner out of Steve, she’s just fun to watch. Maclane was probably the weakest link in the series to start with but the character got better and by the end he was a step or two behind Torchy and would arrive in the end to help Torchy out. Gehagen is a lovable poetry-reciting goof whose rank on the police force appears to be Gehagen. The character is often Torchy’s unwitting dupe in whatever scheme she’s pulling to get her story.
The films have a great comic element but it’s rarely over-the-top or too absurd as many screwball comedies of the era. These are good, solid B films.
But it’s important to remember that they are still 58-63 minute, low-budget “B” films. So to enjoy them, you have to be willing to accept a few quirks such as policemen from the same department wearing uniforms that don’t match and the coroner being used as an escort for a witness to save budget on scenes. To embrace Torchy Blane, you have to accept Fly Away, Baby as a story of Torchy’s world tour even though that grand tour is told with stock footage and so-so soundstages. There are a few politically incorrect moments (although it’s very mild for the time) and anyone expecting a twenty-first century feminist will doubtless be disappointed in Torchy.
Yet, for my money, the Glenda Farrell films are wonderful, with the first four being my favorite followed closely by Torchy Runs for Mayor where Torchy fights her toughest battle against a corrupt political machine where she’s constantly abandoned and finds cowardice and calculation at every turn, until it’s clear that she’s the only one with the guts to stop them.
The Lola Lane film, Torchy Blane in Panama, is good as well. Lane had been part of the singing Lane sisters and would get a reputation for playing tough girls on screen and her performance of Torchy really showed that sort of toughness. I thought Paul Kelly was a disappointment as the replacement Steve McBride.
Jane Wyman in Torchy Blane…Playing with Dynamite was a bit more problematic. Wyman would become a great Oscar-winning and Golden Globe winning actress, but she wasn’t that actress in 1939. She was only twenty-two when she made her sole appearance as Torchy (after appearing in a minor role in the first film) and she practically did a Glenda Farrell impression, wearing a blond wig for the role. The film’s plot really stretched believability even by B-movie standards with Torchy endangering lives by causing a near panic with a series of false alarms to get herself thrown in prison so she could reach a missing criminal. The film is rescued in the second half by some solid action and Gehagen’s comedy wrestling. It’s not a horrible film, and it’s enjoyable in its own right, but it’s far from the best in the series.
Overall, the Torchy Blane Movie Collection is a must-see for fans of Detective B-movies. It’s a thoroughly entertaining nine hours that’s easily the equal of many better known series.
Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0
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