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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

TORCH SINGER (1933)

Poor Claudette Colbert has to navigate a dramatic U-turn in every reel of this ‘Women’s Weepie.’ First, she’s ‘expecting’ but unmarried; then, a single mom in a tenement with the similarly fixed Lyda Roberti. Blink and she’s back on her own, begging for help from the rich relatives of putative Pop David Manners. Nothing doing. So, she gives up the girl and sinks to singing the blues in lowdown joints. Spotted by club promoter Ricardo Cortez, she gets a quick costume change and hits the heights, a featured singer with a band & three swanky pianos. That’s when she backs herself into a radio gig, playing sob-sister to the kiddie set. And that’s just the half of it, dearie, blues! It’s fun to watch Colbert molt thru five looks and a passel of slinky Travis Banton outfits, even though she looks her very best when they just leave her alone. (Check out the makeup-free entrance; lighting courtesy of lenser Karl Struss, bone-structure courtesy of Mom & Dad.) Colbert sang in a few pics (THE SMILING LIEUTENANT/’32; ZAZA/’37) and easily pulls off her solos. The tremolo isn’t to modern tastes, but her phrasing & pitch are spot on. But that plot! It’s so over-cooked even levelheaded Colbert starts overacting . . . probably in self-defense.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: The slightly bathetic last act shows Colbert using her radio show to look for her lost girl. One lead turns up an adorable little black child. Nope, not Colbert’s. But instead of the cringe-worthy gag you’re expecting, their little scene is played out with natural ease & simple affection on both sides. Perhaps this helped Colbert get cast in John Stahl’s adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s IMITATION OF LIFE/’34. A real groundbreaker, it came out the same year Colbert made CLEOPATRA for DeMille & IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT for Capra. IMITATION took on single moms, business & race relations in a manner that makes TORCH SINGER look hopelessly contrived; and it was far more progressive for its day than Douglas Sirk’s remake of IMITATION with Lana Turner in ‘59.

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