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Torch Song

Torch Song(1953)

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teaser Torch Song (1953)

"Tough Baby -- a wonderful love story with the star of Sudden Fear [1952] and for the FIRST TIME you'll see her in TECHNICOLOR"
Tagline for Torch Song.

"Crawford's back and Metro's got her" should have been the tagline for this semi-musical, which marked the star's return after ten years to the studio where she had started her career. But that was ancient history in 1953 Hollywood, a city with little sense of its own rich past. In fact, the original tagline for Torch Song isn't even accurate, as Crawford had appeared in Technicolor in portions of the studio's earlier Hollywood Review of 1929 and The Ice Follies of 1939. But whatever the ads said, Crawford's return to MGM, a few years after her former boss and sometime nemesis Louis B. Mayer had fallen from power, was news indeed.

The vehicle for her return was an adaptation of I.A.R. Wylie's 1949 Saturday Evening Post story "Why Should I Cry?" about a temperamental but lonely Broadway star who finds true love in the arms of a blind pianist. The story had originally been planned as part of the 1953 omnibus film The Story of Three Loves, with Lana Turner and Ann Sheridan touted to star at different times. Instead, possibly in response to the box-office success of the Broadway-set All About Eve (1950), it became a separate feature, and MGM executive Benny Thau, remembering that Crawford had started out as a dancer, thought it would be the perfect vehicle to bring the studio's one-time star home.

Crawford was thrilled and more than a little frightened to be dancing on-screen again, but the thought of a two-picture deal and the chance to sing on camera for the first time in decades had her riding high. She would brag to one reporter, "You may not know this, but many years ago in this same studio, I made some recordings. They were never released because my boss, L.B. Mayer, thought I was a threat to Jeanette MacDonald. Well, dear Jeanette is gone now, and so is Mister Mayer, and audiences will finally get to hear me sing, and I don't mind saying I am very happy about that." In this she would be disappointed. In an effort to keep costs down, executives decided to use unused tracks recorded for other films, building the score around a big production number based on the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz song "Two-Faced Woman," which had been cut from the same year's The Band Wagon (1953). As a result, Crawford's singing was supplied by India Adams, who had dubbed Cyd Charisse in the earlier film. The only singing Crawford did on her own was a scene where she plays a recording of "Tenderly" and sings along with it for a few bars.

In preparation for her role in Torch Song, Crawford got a face-lift and had some work done on her breasts. She even wore a torpedo bra for the role and had her hair died bright red, to take advantage of the Technicolor photography. Unfortunately, this hardening of her look, coupled with the script's "tough broad" dialogue, has made the film a particular favorite among comics and drag queens, who credit it as the source of Crawford's latter-day image as a "mannish gorgon."

Crawford's return to MGM was a source of mixed emotions for the star. Because Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Kathryn Grayson weren't working at the time, their dressing rooms were combined into a grandiose suite for Crawford, who was notorious for living at the studio while making a film. The day she arrived, a large banner reading "WELCOME BACK, JOAN" hung over the studio's front gate, and a red carpet had been laid from her parking space to the dressing room door. On the first day of shooting, Crawford presented the crew, many of them old friends, with gifts, a ceremony she usually reserved for the last day. But this was very much a new MGM to Crawford. When she toured the lot and met the current crop of young stars -- including Debbie Reynolds, Bobby Van and Anne Francis, she quipped "Lovely children, but where are the stars." She was particularly dismissive of leading man Michael Wilding's wife, Elizabeth Taylor, referring to her as "Princess Brat." When the younger, more publicity worthy actress insisted on visiting her husband during shooting, Crawford finally left orders that she be barred from the set.

Between husbands at the time, Crawford appears to have had designs on some of her co-workers. She had insisted that former choreographer Charles Walters be assigned to direct, and, to ease her qualms about dancing on screen again, he had offered to play her dancing partner in the film's first scene. Before shooting even began, she demanded meetings with him to discuss the role. To one of these, she brought her jewelry, so he could help her decide which pieces to wear on screen. After they were done, she told him, "I think you should see what you have to work with," Crawford opened her coat to reveal her naked body. Whatever work she may have had done on her breasts was lost on her gay director, who managed to stammer out "That's very nice, Joan," before excusing himself.

With Walters out of reach, Crawford then turned her attention to Gig Young, who was finishing out his MGM contract with the role of a wealthy playboy whose love isn't good enough for Crawford's character. During the early days of the shoot, he was a frequent guest in her dressing room for end-of-day cocktails. When they met by chance in Palm Springs, she left her party to spend time with him, but when he refused to return to her cottage, the invitations stopped abruptly. When Young finally saw Torch Song, he discovered that most of his scenes had been cut.

By contrast, Crawford had no interest at all in Michael Wilding. In fact, she rarely spoke to him on the set, simply sending him notes through the director to warn him not to block her face during their love scenes. An assistant eventually explained to Wilding that Crawford never spoke to her leading men, attributing it to her three failed marriages to actors. Wilding also was frustrated that Walters could give him no advice on how to play a blind man, just telling him to "play it by ear." The actor finally decided to focus his eyes on a spot halfway between himself and the camera. Years later, he ran into a nurse who complimented him on his performance, saying she could tell how carefully he had studied the blind.

Crawford's second contracted film with MGM would never materialize, partly because Torch Song had far from spectacular results at the box office. She would not work on the studio lot again until 1967, when she played a guest-star role on the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Although she had some fine moments in Torch Song -- particularly her scenes with Marjorie Rambeau, who won an Oscar® nomination for playing Crawford's mother, the film fared poorly with its intended audience. It was mercilessly spoofed on an episode of The Carol Burnett Show that Crawford found in poor taste, and for years was a popular selection in worst film festivals. Then it gradually became more and more obscure over the passage of time. Apart from a snippet of "Two-Faced Woman" number, shown side-by-side with the original number filmed for The Band Wagon in That's Entertainment III (1994), the film itself has been unavailable for years because of a copyright dispute with I.A.R. Wylie's heirs. With copyright issues now settled, however, Torch Song is ripe for rediscovery as one of the more ambitious undertakings in Crawford's later career.

Producer: Henry Berman, Sidney Franklin, Jr., Charles Schnee
Director: Charles Walters
Screenplay: John Michael Hayes, Jan Lustig
Based on the story "Why Should I Cry?" by I.A.R. Wylie
Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Preston Ames
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Principal Cast: Joan Crawford (Jenny Stewart), Michael Wilding (Tye Graham), Gig Young (Cliff Willard), Marjorie Rambeau (Mrs. Stewart), Harry Morgan (Joe Denner), Dorothy Patrick (Martha), Paul Guilfoyle (Monty Rolfe), Benny Rubin (Charlie Maylor), Maidie Norman (Anne), Charles Walters (Ralph Ellis), Adolph Deutsch (Conductor).
C-90m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

Sources:
BETTE & JOAN: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine
Joan Crawford by Bob Thomas

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