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Torchy Blane...Playing with Dynamite

Torchy Blane...Playing with Dynamite(1939)

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teaser Torchy Blane...Playing with Dynamite (1939)

Female characters who were competent, self-reliant, focused on their careers and generally smarter than the men around them were not exactly in great supply in the classic Hollywood period. When they were, they often seemed to be merely marking time until they found the love of a good man, preferably one who could "tame" them. The one exception was the spunky female reporter, and one of the best examples appeared in a B-movie series of nine pictures released over a period of just under three years. The series' standard formula saw its journalist heroine, Torchy Blane, solving a crime faster and more efficiently than her comparatively dim-witted police detective boyfriend, Lt. Steve McBride. In these stories, Torchy already has the love of a good man, but she gets to keep her job and her superior status while sleuthing her way through one mystery plot after another.

Torchy Blane didn't start her fictional life as a woman. In the mid-1930s, Warner Bros. bought the rights to one of the most popular series published in the famous Black Mask, a pulp periodical founded in 1920 that specialized in writers of the hard-boiled school, including Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner. Frederick Nebel was one such writer and more than three dozen of his stories appeared in the magazine between 1928 and 1936. Nebel created likely the most famous of the era's hard-drinking, smart-mouthed ace reporters, Kennedy of the Free Press, as he was known, whose job led him time after time into conflict with Captain Steve MacBride.

The series was a natural for screen adaptation, especially at the "urban" studio run by the Warner Bros., but somewhere along the road, Kennedy got booted. Perhaps he was deemed too often drunk and too much a son of a bitch to pass censorship. In any case, rather than simply cleaning up the character, he was replaced by the intrepid Miss Blane, and the result was an instant hit.

Casting was important to the series' success. Warner Bros.had under contract the perfect actress for the wise-cracking lead. Glenda Farrell was one of the host of Broadway actors recruited by Hollywood in the early days of sound because they could talk. She became known for her lightning-fast repartee in several of the studio's gritty crime dramas. Paired numerous times with Joan Blondell as girls living by their wits in the tough times of the Depression, Farrell didn't get top billing on a picture until the first Torchy film, Smart Blonde (1937). She played the character four times before the studio decided to replace her and co-star Barton MacLane with Lola Lane (interesting choice, since Superman creator Jerry Siegel said Torchy inspired his reporter Lois Lane, a name partially modeled on the actress) and Paul Kelly. The new duo proved to be unpopular with audiences, so Farrell and MacLane were brought back for the next three pictures. Farrell left the studio in 1939, and the role was given to an up-and-coming contract player who had played a small part as a hatcheck girl in the first Torchy movie (presciently earning praise from Farrell's Torchy: "You know, you're all right, Dixie; you ought to make a good newspaperman").

Jane Wyman had been laboring at the studio in uncredited bits and supporting roles for several years. Although she was just a replacement actress in a B series, her casting as the lead in Torchy Blane..Playing with Dynamite (1939) was something of a breakthrough for her. Audiences, however, rejected the new duo of Wyman and Allen Jenkins, and the picture's relative failure at the box office brought the series to an end, although a few months later Wyman appeared in a mystery comedy said to have been adapted from a leftover Torchy script, Private Detective (1939).

Even as the lead actors occasionally changed, there was one casting constant in the series. Tom Kennedy appeared in all nine films as McBride's dim-witted, poetry-spouting sidekick Gahagan.

What is the name of this picture, anyway? The working titles during production were "Playing with Dynamite," "Dead or Alive," and "Torchy--Dead or Alive." Many contemporary listings (including TCM's database) put a grammatically correct full ellipsis (three periods) in the title. The American Film Institute catalog uses only the two periods seen in the film's opening title but claims the Library of Congress Copyright Catalog has it with a dash as "Torchy Blane--Playing with Dynamite." A search of that catalog turns up only "Torchy Plays with Dynamite," the title that appears on the original release posters.

Director: Noel M. Smith
Producer: Bryan Foy
Screenplay: Earle Snell and Charles Belden, story by Scott Littleton, based on characters created by Frederick Nebel
Cinematography: Arthur L. Todd
Editing: Harold McLernon
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Music: Howard Jackson (uncredited)
Cast: Jane Wyman (Torchy Blane), Allen Jenkins (Steve McBride), Tom Kennedy (Gahagan), Sheila Bromley (Jackie McGuire), Joe Cunningham (Maxie)

By Rob Nixon

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