Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Torch Song (1953) ~ Crawford's Return to Dancing

Part of 10 for 2015
From the first number, Torch Song gets off on the wrong foot. While Joan Crawford's legs are exquisite, they dance to a song, "You're All the World to Me," already covered by Fred Astaire's feet two years earlier in Royal Wedding (1951). It's not likely audiences would have forgotten the number either--he dances on the walls and ceiling.

The opening shot of Crawford's gams attempts to establish her great musical comeback. The dance that follows is lackluster.

Crawford begins by slowly extending her arm above her head in what appears to be a dramatic start to an exhilarating number. The dance does not pick up much speed from there. For every step she takes, Astaire took two in his version.* She accurately executes the moves Charles Walters choreographed for her, but she is no longer the lively flapper of the '20s. 

 In the 1920s and '30s, Crawford reigned at MGM. Here she dances with newcomer Astaire in Dancing Lady (1933)--Astaire's first dance partner in a film.

By 1953, Crawford could not move as quickly on the floor and her singing did not have the deep, throaty quality popular to the era. What she lacks in agility and voice (dubbed by India Adams--the same voice behind Cyd Charisse's singing in The Band Wagon), she makes up with dramatic talent sharpened in the twenty years since she last danced on screen. The problem is that it's out of place in a musical. 


Crawford's interpretation of aging Broadway star Jenny Stewart is absent of the vulnerability and lightness which might be found if any other actress played the part. (Imagine Doris Day, Judy Garland, or Debbie Reynolds. Even in their angriest moments, there is heart.)  Given the genre, Crawford does not physically slap anyone, but her biting remarks will do. 

And spoil that line? Tell Mr. Ellis he's paid to get around that leg. And smile! Or we get another boy.

 I've rocked it a few times, buster!

The intense delivery of dialogue blurs the line between actor and character. Since Crawford was an aging star at the time--focused on her career and fans like the character she portrays, one wonders how much of Jenny was a reflection of Crawford herself.


Then there is the final number, "Two-Faced Woman"--in blackface. If ever there was an example of an exotic, sexualized image of an African American woman, this is it. Crawford struts from man to man while they brush their hands against or near her body. The lyrics suggest a promiscuous woman: 

Givin' you a warnin'
I'll leave you in the mornin'
Got another lover under cover
No one seems to know for sure why the number is done in blackface or chosen as the grand finale. In their biography on Joan Crawford, Lawerence J. Quirk and William Schoell hypothesize Crawford was trying to evoke the tropics with tan makeup as opposed to blackface.  However, the illustrations in the background clearly depict stereotypical African American images of the day. 

One can only speculate as to why the routine was performed in such a manner. Did Crawford want to disassociate herself from the suggestive lyrics? Did the powers to be feel it was necessary to balance the earlier positive images of blackness? 

Maidie Norman portrays Crawford's smart, efficient secretary. Norman was known for fighting black stereotypes, and this movie is no exception. Although her appearance is brief, her working girl is reminiscent of Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell.

  Rudy Render sings "Follow Me" at Crawford's party. What a voice! 
Later, Render would help compose songs for It Started With a Kiss (1959).

 *  *  *
From start to finish, Torch Song was an interesting ride. I am still troubled by the pointless staging of "Two-Faced Woman" and would love to dig into MGM's archives to try to unearth any memos that might reveal the purpose behind it.

Ciao until next time!

*The two versions of "You're All the World to Me" for comparison:

From Royal Wedding (1951) 

From Torch Song (1953) with Charles Walters


Oliver, Myrna. "Maidie Norman; Actress Fought Stereotypes." Los Angeles Times 8 May 1998: Obituaries. Web. 5 Jan 2016.

Quirk, Lawrence J. and William Schoell. Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2013. GoogleBooks. Web. 5 Jan 2016.

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