Monday, June 30, 2014

Torchy Turns 110: The 110th Birthday of Glenda Farrell

Glenda Farrell as Torchy Blane and Barton
MacLane as Steve McBride

It was 110 years ago today that Glenda Farrell was born in Enid, Oklahoma. Miss Farrell would have a career that would span over 35 years, from her film debut in Lucky Boy in 1928 to her last appearance on screen in Tiger by the Tail in 1970. Along with Joan Blondell (with whom she appeared in several movies) she was the epitome of the wisecracking blonde of Thirties and Forties cinema. While Glenda Farrell had a long career in which she played many different roles, she may be best known as "girl reporter" Torchy Blane from the series of films she made in the late Thirties.

Glenda Farrell had a successful career well before she ever played Torchy Blane. It was in 1930 that she became the first actor signed to a long term contract with First National Pictures. What is more, she was almost immediately cast in the role of the female lead in Little Caesar (1931). Over the next few years she would appear in such films as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Grand Slam (1933), Lady for a Day (1933), Travelling Saleslady (1935), Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935), and Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936). Notable among her early films is Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), in which Miss Farrell played a character who could very nearly be considered a prototype for Torchy Blane. In the film Glenda Farrell played  Florence Dempsey, an intelligent, wisecracking reporter who becomes involved in the mysterious events surrounding a wax museum. Florence was bright, resourceful, fearless, and quick with words. In other words, she was almost exactly like Torchy.

Given the strength of Glenda Farrell's performance as Florence in Mystery of the Wax Muesum, it should be little wonder that she would be cast in the role of  Torchy Blane in the film Smart Blonde (1937). Curiously, "girl reporter"Torchy Blane was based on a male character from a series of mystery stories by  Frederick Nebel. Kennedy was a crime reporter for the Free Press who often found himself at odds with  Captain Steve MacBride of the Richmond City Police Department. Kennedy of the Free Press first appeared in the story "Raw Law" in the September 1928 issue of Black Mask. Kennedy appeared in over 38 stories until his final appearance in "Deep Red" in the August 1936 issue of Black Mask. Like many reporters portrayed in fiction during the era. Kennedy was a bit of a drunk. He was also a bit of wiseacre.

Frederick Nebel sold the rights to his "Kennedy of the Free Press" stories to Warner Bros., who changed the character of intrepid, wisecracking, drunken male reporter Kennedy of the Free Press to that of intrepid, wisecracking, fast talking female reporter Torchy Blane of the Daily Star. The character of Steve McBride more or less remained the same. He was still gruff, loud mouthed, and not particularly perceptive. That having been said, McBride's relationship with Torchy in the films would be very different from his relationship with Kennedy in the short stories. While McBride hardly approved of Torchy's investigations into crimes, the two of them did have a romantic relationship, something Kennedy and McBride never had in the short stories!

Torchy Blane first appeared in the film Smart Blonde in 1937. The film proved so successful that there would be eight more Torchy Blane films: Fly-Away Baby (1937), The Adventurous Blonde (1937), Blondes at Work (1938), Torchy Blane in Panama (1938), Torchy Gets Her Man (1938), Torchy Blane in Chinatown (1939), Torchy Runs for Mayor (1939), and Torchy Blane...Playing with Dynamite (1939). Glenda Farrell played Torchy in all but two of the films. Lola Lane played Torchy in Torchy Blane in Panama, while Jane Wyman took over the role for the final film, Torchy Blane...Playing with Dynamite. Regardless, it would be Glenda Farrell who would be remembered as Torchy Blane.

Torchy Blane would have a lasting impact on American pop culture. Jerry Siegel, co-creator and the original writer for the "Superman" comic book feature, said that Glenda Farrell's portrayal of Torchy Blane was the inspiration for Lois Lane. What is more, Lois's name was taken from that of actress Lola Lane, who played Torchy Blane in Torchy Blane in Panama. As to Lois's appearance, that was taken from artist Joe Schuster's model, Joanne Carter (who later become Jerry Siegel's wife). It also seems likely that Torchy Blane provided much of the inspiration for newspaper comic strip character Brenda Starr, who was also a strong, independent woman . It seems quite possible that the majority of female reporters in crime and adventure films, TV shows, and comic strips could well have been influenced by Torchy Blane since her first appearance in Smart Blonde.

The last Torchy Blane film was made in 1939 and Glenda Farrell's contract with Warner Bros. expired. Miss Farrell made fewer films in the Forties than she had in the Thirties, largely electing to concentrate on her stage career. She appeared on Broadway in such productions as Separate Rooms, The Life of Reilly, The Overtons, and Mrs. Gibbons' Boys.  The Fifties saw a resurgence in her film career, with such movies as Secret of the Incas (1954), Susan Slept Here (1954), and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955). She appeared frequently on television, guest starring on such shows as Armstrong Circle Theatre, Goodyear Playhouse, Studio One, and Wagon Train. The Sixties would see her career shift primarily to television, appearing on such shows as The Defenders, Route 66, Ben Casey, The United States Steel Hour, Rawhide, The Fugitive, and Bonanza. She appeared in the films Kissin' Cousins (1964) with Elvis Presley, The Disorderly Orderly (1964) with Jerry Lewis, and, her final appearance on screen, Tiger by the Tail (1970). Sadly, Glenda Farrell died of lung cancer at age 61 in 1971.

Glenda Farrell had a rich and varied career than spanned film, television, and the stage. While she played many memorable roles, however, it seems likely that she is best remembered as reporter Torchy Blane. Indeed, there is perhaps every reason she should be. Glenda Farrell was ideal for the part. As portrayed by Miss Farrell, Torchy was intelligent, independent, feisty, wisecracking, and sexy. What is more, in an era when most women on screen and in real life were either housewives or worked in such traditionally "female" occupations as teachers, nurses, or secretaries, Torchy worked in what was a traditionally "male" profession, that of a reporter. Not only was Torchy Blane very competent at her job, she was actually better at it than most male reporters. Indeed, one has to wonder that Steve McBride and the local police could ever solve a case without her! Torchy Blane was every bit the equal of any man and as such provided a role model for young women at a time when there were few to choose from. Not only should it be little wonder that Glenda Farrell is best remembered as Torchy Blane, but it should be little wonder that the character would prove as influential as she has.

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