The Torchy Blane Film Series

Smart Blonde (1937) – 6.0

In the 1930's and 1940's there were a bunch of B movie crime detection series that I quite enjoy. They are B films for a reason and if part of a series they generally get pretty predictable very quickly. But I like the 60 minute running time, I like the plethora of character actors who show up (pretty much every one is a character actor in the A film world), I like being able to turn my brain off and coast, I like the black and white low budget look and every now and then you come across a surprisingly good one. Most of the major studios had a B film production unit where they were given small budgets that forced them to be imaginative money wise, crack out a script quickly and stay on schedule. If a director could not, he wasn't around for long. These B films were also testing grounds for many of the very fine directors who later graduated to A films.

An informative pair of books that explore these crime film series are Mystery Movie Series of the 1930's Hollywood and Mystery Movie Series of the 1940's - both written by Ron Backer. He covers most of the series from those periods that I know about and many that I didn't giving information on the background, the actors and the individual films.

This film is the first in the Torchy Blane series that spanned nine films from 1937 - 1939. Most of them star Glenda Farrell who had played a hard boiled dame in a bunch of Warner Brothers films. Here she plays a tough nut newspaper reporter who smells a crime a mile away and digs her teeth in until she has helped solve it. Her working crime partner is the fast talking cop Steve McBride usually played by Barton MacLane who had a career of playing cops or thugs. Here Torchy and McBride are also romantically entwined like a pair of roses with lots of thorns. They spend much of the film insulting each other - what went for love back in those days.

Someone gets murdered in the first minute of the film with suspects to the left of you, suspects to the right. Fast moving, enjoyable and a good introduction to the series. Let's see how the rest go. The series is available as a dvd package. Also, look for a very young Jane Wyman as the ditzy hatcheck girl. She later married Reagan of course and then he dumped her to marry another actress.

Fly Away Baby (1937) – 6/10

The second in the Torchy Blane film series. These things were knocked out pretty quickly - 3 in 1937, 3 in 1938 and 3 in 1939.

Torchy has gone for a marriage permit when murder strikes again and the wedding between her and policeman Steve McBride has to be postponed. These two are played again by Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane. The other recurring character through all nine films is McBride's dimwitted assistant who is there for supposed comic relief - he is played by Tom Kennedy who started in silent comedies and is credited by IMDB for 386 appearances until he died in 1965. You would know him if you saw him.

This mystery takes us around the world as Torchy joins an around the world competition between her, another reporter and a suspect. But since all three travel together it is hard to understand how one will actually win. That doesn't much matter of course - it is some 24 days for them to do so. Think about that. Here is the itinerary to do so. A bunch of locations that were to take on great importance within a few short years.

New York City - California - Honolulu - Midway - Wake Island - Guam - Manila - Hong Kong - Hanoi - Calcutta - Karachi - Bagdad - Alexandria - Athens - Rome - Frankfurt - NYC. What a great trip that would have been back in 1937. The final leg and the finale play out on a Zeppelin.

The Adventurous Blonde (1937) – 7/10

The third film in the Torchy Blane series.

This one moves at the speed of a spitfire for its 60 minutes running time and was as convoluted as a twisted sister. It was kind of fun keeping up with it. Torchy is on a train to NYC to marry her man, but a group of newspaper reporters get together to pull a hoax on her and McBride. Fake a murder and get Torchy to report it thus embarrassing her and postponing the wedding. It works except that the fellow faking his death really does get murdered. From that point on it bounces back and forth between a screwball comedy and a who done it. As ridiculous as the plot of this film is you give it a pass because - well why not. It is a B film. You can't be too picky. Again Torchy is played by Glenda Farrell and McBride by Barton MacLane. They are growing on me.

Blondes at Work (1938) – 6/10

This is the fourth in the Torchy Blane series and again starring Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane as Torchy and Lt. MacBride her paramour and rival and partner in crime solving. This one is quite weak on the mystery side and in particular with an ending that just sort of peters out anti-climatically - but it gets points for the chemistry between the two main characters and some decent humor.

MacBride gets dressed down by his captain for allowing Torchy to get scoops from him and for beating him to the killer time after time. So when a Department store magnate is found murdered, the two of them race to find the killer first. You don't need a crystal ball to figure out who does. Which is sort of an interesting thing about these Torchy films and the performance of Glenda Farrell. She is easily the smartest cookie in the movie leaving all the men in her wake. But she isn't at all cutsie or using her sex to get the story - it is just that she has the smarts and is a step ahead of all of them while wisecracking all the way.

These were made 80 years ago. How many female film characters since then have had a series of nine films in which they were portrayed like this. It was in a weird way - though probably not intentional - a feminist statement. All these years later there is nothing in these films that feels out of step with women today.

The first four films were directed by Frank McDonald who had a very lengthy career as a director with well over 100 credits - mainly TV towards the end of his career but many films as well but other than a couple Bulldog Drummond films I have heard of none of his other films. He clearly had to mine in the B films all his life which seems a shame because these movies are decent for the budgets he had. Though Evelyn Keyes once said, "I've never seen anyone as terrified of directing as Frank McDonald" - which might explain a lot.

Torchy Blane in Panama (1938) – 5/10

This is the fifth film in the Torchy Blane series.

After the previous Torchy film Glenda Farrell left Warner Brothers to work with other studios but are soon back in the fold after the poor showing of this film. Their substitutes are Lola Lane (have to love that name as did the creators of Superman) and Paul Kennedy and they have the chemistry of two strangers in the dark with razors. Lola is ok but Kelly just irritates. The film is actually dominated by the dimwitted humor of regular Tom Kennedy as the none too bright assistant cop.

A bank is robbed, a teller killed and Torchy and McBride suspect he is on a liner to Panama. They follow. We know pretty soon who the bad guy is. It made me want to take a cruise. Just solo. No internet. Books and movies. And food. Lots of food.

Torchy Gets Her Man (1938) – 6/10

Things are back to normal in this 6th film in the Torchy Blane series. Both Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane are back in their roles after a one film hiatus for reasons unknown. It is a solid entry into the series as they combine Torchy up with Lassie or at least a-wanna-be Lassie. Torchy and Lt. McBride have been playing footsies for five films now and I thought perhaps the man Torchy gets was McBride to the alter finally but it was not to be.

Instead it is a master counterfeiter who prefers using his brains to violence and has come up with a brilliant plan to make suckers of the police and make a bundle at the same time. Only Torchy and a dog stand in his way.

Tom Kennedy as Gahagen is back as the comic relief and though it is quite awful you begin to realize that it is supposed to be awful - that is the funny part. Maybe anyways. Another character who has appeared in all six films thus far and is in the next two is character actor George Guhl who plays the forgetful desk Sargent and adds a little comic relief as well in his 1-3 minute appearances. Poor guy rarely gets a screen credit as is the case in many of the 146 credits he has on IMDB. He didn't even start working in films till 1933 when he 58 years old and he passed away at 67 but still managed 146 acting credits. Before that he had been part of a vaudeville team with his brother. A hard working man.

Torchy Blane in Chinatown (1939) – 5/10

Lt. McBride (played by Barton MacLane) "I've got an idea". Torchy (Glenda Farrell) "Give it to me and I will sew a button on it". Glenda Farrell is great at these types of tough fast talking dames who can hit you with a pointed barb as well as a clenched fist. She shared this space at Warner Brothers with Joan Blondell with Blondell often getting the better films. There are a few films in which they play friends and gold-diggers together and they were actually very good friends off stage. Farrell was an attractive woman but not soft and silky and demure so she got pigeon-holed into these sorts of roles in the B Unit with occasional forays into first run films such as a few of the Busby Berkeley musicals. Even in the B films she is rarely a headliner with the Torchy Blane films being the exception.

This is the seventh film in the series and it seems to be sinking into mediocrity. The mystery is ok but I have seen so many B films I saw it from a mile away - the main issue being that Torchy isn't in it much as it really focuses on McBride. Even her solving the case is kind of a throw away. Don't expect to see a lot of Chinatown here but there are a few Chinese shown in typical fashion for the time. A grave digger comes back with some jade artifacts and he receives a message in Chinese threatening him with death at midnight.

McBride is even less competent than usual in this as he keeps telling people that they will be protected by the police so don't worry. Needless to say they all get killed. Torchy shows up from time to time and gets brushed off but still figures it out in the end.

One thing about the series to be thankful for is that Torchy was the model for Lois Lane. The creators of the comic strip were big fans of the series and named her partly on the actress who played Torchy in one film - Lola Lane.

Torchy Runs for Mayor (1939) – 6/10

This is the eighth in this series with one more to go but this was the final one for Glenda Farrell who appeared in seven of the nine. Jane Wyman takes over her role in the next film. Once before Farrell had left Warner Brothers and Lola Lane stepped in for Torchy Blane in Panama, but she had come back for three more Torchy films. But she had had enough and after this film left Warner's for good.

That is a small shame because this is one of the best in the series as Torchy really becomes a journalist by exposing the corrupt connections between the Mayor, the Police Department and the mob. She does this by illegal means - wiring the Mayor's office and breaking and entering and stealing the red book. But illegal acts like that don't seem to bother the police too much; especially her cop boyfriend (Barton MacLane) and comic relief man Tom Kennedy who ends the film with another bad poem. Also on hand is the desk sergeant George Guhl who is in every film and Frank Shannon as the Captain who appears in seven of the films. Eventually things come to such a pass that Torchy runs for Mayor herself.

Glenda Farrell was primarily an actress in B films though from time to time she had roles in top films such as I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Lady for a Day, Gold Diggers of 1935 and Gold Diggers of 1937 - but not many. But in those days B films did not really have the same negative status that they do now. The major studios had separate units that produced the lower budget films that would generally be the second part of the double feature which were the norm back then. So when people went to the movies they usually saw both films and so Farrell was a very well known actress with her own fan club, public appearances and the Warner's PR machine behind her. In truth she wasn't good enough looking to be a leading lady except in B films and Torchy Blane was probably the summit of her career. It was a great role and an unusual one for those days. After leaving Warner's she went freelance and also married a wealthy lawyer that allowed her to work when she wanted to. She did a lot of theater and radio and the occasional film and then later television. Her last role was in 1970 and she passed away the following year.

Torchy Blane . . . Playing with Dynamite (1939) – 5.0

I am a completest if I can afford to be and so I wanted to see this last film in the Torchy Blane series. They were just B films but I will kind of miss them. There were not a lot of films made back then - and not many series - in which a female had the top role and was the smartest card in the deck. Torchy was an independent minded tough reporter who got her story and usually got the man as well. She has a boyfriend throughout the series who is a cop but they never marry and she is always a step ahead of him. Often two steps.

There were nine films in total in the series stretching from 1937 to 1939. Glenda Farrell played Torchy in seven of them as did Barton MacLane as the boyfriend. Tom Kennedy who was both the comic relief and the police assistant was in all nine of them. Farrell had tired of the series twice - for the fifth film she left Warner Brothers but came back but after the eighth film she left for good. Her place is taken by Jane Wyman before she married Ronald Reagan - she did the following year. Wyman went on to a fine career being nominated a few times for Best Actress and winning it one time. But she is all wrong for Torchy Blane.

First they dye her hair blonde because Torchy was almost always a blonde but with her deep brown eyes it just looks strange. And after Farrell's tough fast talking acerbic wit, Wyman comes across as a cute kewpie doll. They also replace MacLane with Allen Jenkins who was a stalwart character actor at Warner's but is generally comic relief. The story though is fine - better in fact than the last couple in the series and the filmmakers spread the playing time more evenly across the three main characters. In this case that is a good thing.

Denver Eddy (Eddie Mar) is on a bank robbing spree across the country but Torchy finds out that his moll (Sheila Bromley) is in prison. So in inveterate reporter fashion she gets herself sent to prison, befriends the girlfriend and helps her escape along with her. The two of them go to San Francisco followed by the two cops and wait for Denver Eddy to show up. And somehow Tom Kennedy's character gets stuck inside a professional wrestling match that is reasonably funny. I would have to guess that the box office was not great and so the series closed down and Wyman was probably quite thankful it was.