One would have thought that Joan Crawford’s return to MGM for a two-picture deal would have brought with it the glamor that studio embodied when Crawford lived out her contracts with the powerhouse at the start of her career. Instead we got that strange aging, yet ageless Joan that would haunt the sad flicks that marked the end of her career. Both Torch Song and Johnny Guitar that followed it at MGM would flop, and it is easy to see why. Crawford had “minor” surgery prior to Torch Song to improve the look of her face and breasts –the rear end remained all her’s, she bragged. Although, Crawford would retain some image of youthfulness for far too late into her life, she certainly lost the beauty. I have found it hard to put a finger on just what is wrong with her look in these later years –her figure was great, her face free of lines– but the sexyness was long gone, and she looked more of a brute than anything else.
A brute is essentially what she plays in Torch Song as Jenny Stewart, an older stage musical star who finds her personal life far too lonely. The story has tones of rival Bette Davis’ All About Eve except without the meddling Eve character. Instead, Jenny finds herself fighting and falling for a blind pianist hired to help her rehearse. Michael Wilding‘s Tye intrigues and infuriates Jenny by being rather uninterested in her.
Crawford’s look and performance might be what kill this picture the most. She sings and dances and while the movements are good, the singing was allegedly dubbed by India Adams, although Crawford boasted she did her own vocalizing. The voice does sound unnatural on Crawford, despite her adroit lip synching. The star also sports in this her fist color film an ugly strawberry blonde page-boy hair cut that also reduces her sex appeal. Frankly, it is hard to grasp through her nearly emotionless performance that a romantic plot is under development in Torch Song. Thankfully the love making is limited to a single kiss at the film’s close.
Also digging a grave for Torch Song is a totally unnecessary number performed with the entire cast in blackface. I thought this practice was long gone by the 1950s, but I was mistaken. Nevermind that Crawford looked absurd in the makeup and bejeweled eyebrows; she makes the whole look worse by tearing off the black wig in anger and exposing the red hair against the black makeup. Pure terror for those watching.
I understand Torch Song holds a special place in the hearts of Crawford fans for its pure camp nature. How tragic that such a huge star in the golden age of cinema would go on to rule the kitsch film arena (see Strait-Jacket and Berserk). This is, however, a so-bad-it’s-good sort of movie, so it is sure to attract many viewers. Ironically, the film did garner an Oscar nomination for supporting actress in the mother character played by Marjorie Rambeau, a part that was rather thin.
Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine