In the 1930s, a lot of detective movie series were made, particularly as “B” features. The Torchy Blane series was notable for featuring a female lead.
The first film in the series is Smart Blonde which was released in 1937 and introduced Torchy (played by Glenda Farrell) and her hotheaded boyfriend Police Lieutenant Steve McBride (Barton Maclane). It centers around the owner of a night club and several sports establishments wanting to sell out and live an honest life with his fiancee. He’s run his businesses honestly and called in a friend who’ll keep them honest to buy his businesses. However, when the would-be buyer is killed, Torchy sets out to solve the case.
The beginning of the film is one of the best character introductions you’ll see in a “B” movie. It used the era’s trope of newspaper headlines to reveal Torchy Blane wrote big stories, hard news stories, front page stories, and then immediately we have Torchy speeding up in the back a cab which drives up near a moving train which she then jumps on to. Really, with her saying very little, the film establishes Torchy as this intrepid, no-nonsense reporter.
She’s a fascinating character and Glenda Farrell plays her beautifully with a mix of charm and pure grit, determination, and energy. The film moves at a very fast clip. Smart Blonde clocks in at fifty-nine minutes, so it’s got a short time to unravel its mystery, but it does with snappy dialogue and a plot that doesn’t slow down much at all.
The story isn’t a screwball comedy, as so many early detective features were, but it is played for comedy and perhaps at times a bit overplayed. Steve McBride is a comic relief cop in the mold of Captain Street form the Mister Wong movies and he has an even more comical cop as his chauffeur and sidekick. Some of the comedy is weak and there are unintentionally funny aspects of the film such as the costuming department had policemen in one scene wearing an entirely style of uniform from policemen in another. And of course, there’s a little bit of underworld sentimentality mixed in.
Still, it’s a fascinating bit of B-movie making that’s a cut above most B-films, particularly in this era. It gives Farrell and Maclane the opportunity to play the leads and the result is a fun and pleasing hour of entertainment that should dispel the idea that a “B” movie automatically means a “bad” movie.
Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0