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 wasitself 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 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.