By Ed Garea
Smart Blonde (WB, 1937) – Director: Frank McDonald. Writers: Kenneth Gamet, Don Ryan (s/p), Frederick Nebel (story “No Hard Feelings”). Stars: Glenda Farrell, Barton MacLane, Wini Shaw, Addison Richards, Robert Paige, Craig Reynolds, Charlotte Wynters, Jane Wyman, Joseph Crehan, Tom Kennedy, John Sheehan, Max Wagner, & George Lloyd. B&W, 59 minutes.
In 1937, Warner Bros. released a low-budget B-movie Smart Blonde, starring Glenda Farrell as reporter Torchy Blane and Barton MacLane as her boyfriend, Lt. Steve McBride. The film, notable in that it featured a female lead (most unusual for Warner Bros.), immediately caught on with moviegoers and proved so successful that it spawned eight sequels as audiences couldn’t get enough of the adventures of Torchy and Steve.
The genesis of the series was in 1936, when the studio bought the rights to Frederick Nebel’s popular “McBride and Kennedy” crime stories for Black Mask magazine. Between 1928 and 1937 Nebel wrote 37 novellas featuring the exploits of Richmond City police captain Steve McBride and his alcoholic reporter buddy Kennedy of The Free Press. The studio’s first task was to jettison Kennedy, as his drinking would have drawn the ire of the Production Code. Instead, the studio created a female reporter, following in the wake of MGM’s immensely popular Thin Man, with the idea that she would be a love interest for McBride and bring in more women to what essentially looked like another hard-boiled detective flick.
Glenda Farrell was cast as Torchy, most likely because she just finished Gold Diggers of 1937 and the studio liked to keep their actors busy. Farrell was an Oklahoma native whose theater career began at age 7 when she played Little Eva in a local production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When her family relocated to San Diego, Farrell continued her stage career, also working in vaudeville. In 1925, she debuted on the Los Angeles stage. Moving to New York in 1929, she replaced Erin O’Brien Moore as Marion Hardy in Aurania Rouverol’s hit play Skidding, which became the genesis for MGM’s Hardy Family series. She also appeared in Love, Honor, and Betray with George Brent, Alice Brady and Clark Gable.
Looking for talent with the transition to sound, Farrell was signed to a long-term contract for First National in 1930. She was immediately cast as Olga, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s love interest in Little Caesar. Publicity releases stated that Farrell could speak nearly 400 words a minute. Used as a supporting actress during her first years, Farrell achieved something of a breakthrough when she played the smart, brassy, sexy, wise-cracking reporter Florence Dempsey in 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. The role was like a dress rehearsal for Torchy Blane.
Taking advantage Farrell’s success in Mystery of the Wax Museum, Warners began casting her more and more in comedies, teaming her with their other beautiful wisecracking blonde Joan Blondell in a series of comedies where the two are on the hunt for rich husbands.
For the role of Steve McBride, the studio cast Barton MacLane. MacLane might have seemed like an odd choice as he had played mainly heavies in his Warner Bros. career. But he had also played policemen in two of the studios “Perry Mason” entries and it was thought that his no-nonsense persona would make a nice contrast to Farrell’s irreverent, wise-cracking Torchy. The studio’s hunch paid off in spades for the chemistry between the stars was first-rate and totally believable.
The movie’s plot is fairly straightforward. Nightclub owner Fitz Mularkay (Richards) sells his business enterprises, including his popular nightclub, The Million Club, to his close friend from Boston, George “Tiny” Torgensen (Crehan). The reason for the sale is that Mularkay’s fiancee Marcia Friel (Wynters) disapproves of them.
As Torgensen is getting into a cab with Torchy, who has just finished interviewing him, he’s shot and killed. Police Lieutenant Steve McBride, Torchy's boyfriend and the man in charge of the case, takes Torchy with him to The Million Club. Steve leaves Torchy with Dixie (Wyman), the hat check girl, while he talks privately to Fitz in the office. Mularkey tells Steve that Torgensen was one of his closest friends, and because of that he wants to catch the murderer before the police can. McBride advises him to do otherwise. Meanwhile, Torchy strikes up a conversation with Dixie and learns that singer Dolly Ireland (Shaw) was in love with Fitz and that Fitz's right-hand man, Chuck Cannon (Wagner), was angry about losing his job.
Comparing notes after their visit, Steve suspects the other bidders that were beaten out by Torgensen. Torchy, however, suspects Chuck and persuades Steve to look for him. While they are searching at Chuck's apartment, Fitz shows up, demanding to know what the police have on his man. Torchy tells Steve she learned that Chuck and Dolly were seen together at Union Station just before Torgensen was killed.
While Steve continues his investigation, Torchy lunches with Fitz's fiancée Marcia. Marcia begs Torchy to convince Fitz to sell his business to anyone who wants to buy it. When Chuck is later found murdered, Steve immediately suspects Fitz. As Chuck’s body is removed, Torchy discovers a slip of paper unnoticed by the police. She notices writing on the paper and hides it in her purse before she leaves. Meanwhile, Steve decides that Fitz is covering for someone else. He immediately Dolly, who he learns has just left town by train. He has the train stopped and Dolly arrested and sent back to the station, where he questions her in Torchy’s presence.
When the ballistics report states that Chuck's gun did not kill Torgensen, Marcia tells Steve that Chuck had threatened her and that she’s afraid that Fitz killed him to protect her. Torchy’s suspicions are raised when she receives conflicting stories from Marcia and her brother Lewis (Paige) about their parents.
Torchy has her paper investigate the name “Corson” that she found on the paper she took from Chuck’s room. With the information from the paper’s investigation, Torchy deduces that Marcia’s real name is Corson and that she and Lewis are grifters who have been trying to take Fitz for his money. She also figures out that Lewis killed Torgensen before he could recognize Marcia, whom he knew in Boston, as an imposter. When Lewis pulls a gun on Steve, Torchy and Fitz, Fitz shoots and kills Lewis, who shoots Fitz in the shoulder. At the hospital afterward, Steve and Torchy explain the details of the case to Fitz when Dolly enters. Fitz concludes that Dolly is his real love and tells his visitors he not only has decided to stay in business, but also proposes to Dolly. Inspired, Steve proposes to Torchy.
Director McDonald, a former dialogue director at the helm of his first film, does an excellent job with his material. From the beginning of the film, things happen quickly as McDonald dives right into the plot, not even pausing to introduce the characters and leaving the audience to piece together everything that is happening. In fact, things happen so quickly that it causes confusion. When I first saw the film, I had a bit of a tough time distinguishing between Fitz and Chuck.
The movie finally slows down a little more than halfway through, giving the audience a chance to catch up. Although it lacked in the number of suspects at the end (each earlier suspect conveniently gets knocked off or cleared), the final deduction rings true to the preceding goings-on, especially when Torchy gives a final explanation.
The opening of the film is one of the best for a B-movie. After establishing Torchy’s credentials with a series of newspaper headlines announcing the sale of Fitz Mularkey’s sporting empire to Torgensen, each featuring Torchy’s byline, the film immediately cuts to a shot of a cab speeding alongside a passenger train slowing down before arriving at the station. Inside the cab we see Torchy in the back seat telling the driver to stop as close to the train as possible. We see her exit the cab at a full gallop and jump on the end of the train. She smooths her appearance and enters the club car, asking the whereabouts of Mr. Torgensen, with whom she gets an exclusive interview.
When the train arrives at Union Station, Torgensen hails a cab and asks Torchy if he can drop her anywhere. As Torgensen enters the cab he’s shot and killed. Torchy runs to the phone to call in the story to her paper, The Morning Herald. We’re only a few minutes into the film and the slam bang opening assures that we’re going to stick around for the rest of the ride.
What distinguishes the Torchy Blane series from others, such as The Thin Man, Perry Mason, Philo Vance, or even the Nancy Drew series was the fact that Torchy and Steve were working-class types more at home in a diner than carousing at a nightclub. They got where they are through hard work, not inherited wealth, as with other movie detectives. That they come off so convincingly was due to the energy and enthusiasm with which Farrell and MacLane played their characters.
Dressing in professional suits (check out her outfit at the beginning), Farrell modeled Torchy after real life reporters she knew. Questioned about the character in a 1969 interview with The New York Times, Farrell stated that she was determined to create a real human being and not an exaggerated comedy type: “I met those newswomen who visited Hollywood. They were generally young, intelligent, refined and attractive. By making Torchy true to life, I tried to make a character practically unique in movies.” (Quoted in the book The Women of Warner Brothers.)
MacLane, who modeled Steve McBride after real detectives he knew, is not mere comic relief. To the credit of the writers and studio, McBride is presented as a credible investigator, one that leaves no stone unturned, moving slowly towards the solution of the mystery. However, he’s not only working against the perpetrator, but also against his own girlfriend, who often hides evidence from him to use on her own. For instance, when she finds the slip of paper when Chuck’s body is removed, she keeps it for herself rather than turning it over to Steve.
Viewers quickly get an idea of the relationship between Steve and Torchy. She calls him “Skipper,” and he calls her “Kid.” One moment they’re sweet as pie to each other, and the next they’re arguing, almost like a married couple. A constant feature of the series is that at the beginning of each film, Torchy wants Steve to take her out to dinner, but a case is always breaking and there’s no time. At the end of the picture Steve’s always promising to take Torchy out for a steak dinner and proposing marriage. As previously mentioned, the chemistry between the stars makes their relationship all the more believable.
The other major character in the series is that of the childlike, poetry writing Gahagan (Kennedy), who works as McBride’s assistant and fills the comic relief role. Though McBride often treats him with a combination of slight indifference and condescension, Torchy thinks otherwise, often relying on his help in sticky situations. Besides his enjoyment from assisting her, Gahagan is presented as a big kid who loves it when Torchy relies on him and gets a thrill when McBride allows him to turn on the siren.
Besides Gahagan, the other character in the movie who stands out is that of Dixie, the hat check girl, played quite ably by the young Jane Wyman (her first credited role in a feature film). In an ironic note, Wyman would later play the role of Torchy after Farrell quit the series in 1939’s Torchy Blane … Playing With Dynamite.
Though Smart Blonde was a hit with the public, Frank Nugent of The New York Times was not so enchanted, noting that the film: “tends to support George Bernard Shaw's recent contemptuous description of the movies as a medium devoted to the depiction of people walking upstairs and downstairs, entering and leaving rooms, standing inside and outside doorways and doing practically nothing all the while.”
“In 'Smart Blonde,' in which Glenda Farrell imitates a reporter and Barton MacLane libels the homicide squad, we have a murder mystery solved by an endless succession of door-openings and shuttings, taxi-hailings, jumping in and out of automobiles, and riding up and down in elevators. Mr. Shaw's pet antipathies are present, too, as well as one shot of Miss Farrell swinging aboard a moving train.”
“For all this activity, the film is a static and listless little piece which never made us at all curious about the killer of Tiny Torgensen, night club operator, and Chuck Cannon, who had been Suspect No. 1 until he also died of lead poisoning. I seem to remember having seen the story in pictures before; strange that the same mistake should have been made again.”
Torchy Blane would not only have a lasting impact on American pop culture, but would also be the role for which Glenda Farrell would be best remembered. Farrell, having married Dr. Henry Ross in January 1941, made fewer films in the Forties than she had in the Thirties, largely electing to concentrate on her stage career, appearing on Broadway in a number of notable productions. In the Fifties she returned to the movies, appearing in Secret of the Incas (1954), Susan Slept Here (1954), and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955). In addition she frequently guest-starred on such television shows as Armstrong Circle Theatre, Goodyear Playhouse, Studio One, and Wagon Train. In the Sixties and in 1970, she concentrated on television, appearing in only three films: Kissin' Cousins (1964) with Elvis Presley, The Disorderly Orderly (1964) with Jerry Lewis, and Tiger by the Tail (1970), her final appearance on screen. Ironically, Farrell, a non-smoker, died of lung cancer at age 61 in 1971.
For some reason, the studio replaced Farrell and MacLane with Lola Lane and Paul Kelly in Torchy Blane in Panama (1938), but public reaction convinced the studio to continue the series with the original stars, who were on board for the next three films in the series. But in 1939, Farrell’s contract with Warner Bros. expired and she left the series. With Farrell gone, MacLane also opted to leave. They were replaced with Jane Wyman and Allen Jenkins in the final film, Torchy Blane … Playing With Dynamite. The box office returns convinced the studio to finally pull the plug on the series.
Torchy Blane may have left the silver screen, but her influence on popular culture continued. 1938 saw the debut of one of the icons of popular culture – Superman. In a letter to Time magazine in 1988, Jerry Siegel, Superman’s co-creator, stated that he and partner Joe Shuster based reporter Lois Lane (who made her Action Comics debut in June 1938) on Torchy as Farrell played her, with the character's name a variation of Torchy Blane in Panama star Lola Lane. Lois's appearance was taken from model Joanne Carter, who later married Jerry Siegel.
The studio would recycle Smart Blonde in 1941 as A Shot in the Dark, starring Regis Toomey in the Steve McBride role (named William Ryder) and William Lundigan as reporter Peter Kennedy (switching back to the original Kennedy as conceived by Nebel, but without the alcoholism).
Torchy (to the policeman guarding the door of a crime scene): “You don’t understand – I’m Torchy Blane of The Morning Herald!
Policeman: “I don’t care if you’re flaming youth.”
Steve (trying to prevent Torchy from following him into the building where Chuck lives): "This rat hole is no place for a woman."
Torchy: "But I'm a newspaperman!"
Torchy: "But I'm a newspaperman!"