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Torchy Runs for Mayor

Torchy Runs for Mayor(1939)

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teaser Torchy Runs for Mayor (1939)

Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane reported for duty on the Warner Brothers backlot one last time to play lady journalist Teresa "Torchy" Blane and her big city cop paramour Steve "Skipper" McBride in Torchy Runs for Mayor (1939), the penultimate entry in the studio's nine film series. The mismatched but complementary castmates had sat out Torchy Blane in Panama (1938), replaced by Lola Lane and Paul Kelly, while Jane Wyman and Allen Jenkins would play their parts in the franchise capper, Torchy Blane... Playing with Dynamite (1939). Based on characters created by Black Mask contributor Frederick Nebel (albeit with a gender change for Steve's partner in crime-solving, originally a drunken Irishman named Kennedy), Warners' Torchy and Steve films had kicked off with Smart Blonde (1937), adapted freely from Nebel's 1936 novelette "No Hard Feelings." Eschewing the source material for the duration of the series, the wholly original sequels were banged out by such crime specialists as Don Ryan (Midnight Court, 1937), Robertson White (Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise, 1940), Albert DeMond (The Spanish Cape Mystery, 1935), Earle Snell (Private Detective, 1939), and Kenneth Gamet (who moved on to Warners' Nancy Drew series) - but the long suit of the Torchy Blane films was never their intricate plotting.

Torchy Runs for Mayor finds the "female newshound with a nose for news" entangled in local politics, digging up corruption in the administration of sitting mayor Saunders (Charles Richman) and stumping for reform candidate Hogarth Ward (Irving Bacon). When Bacon is murdered by poison injection, Farrell's indefatigable sob sister steps into the breach; before Torchy can expose the guilty party she is kidnapped, leaving Barton's irascible Lt. McBride to do what he does best - play the detective. The Torchy Blane films were intended by Warners to be nothing more than "dualers," B-pictures to be sent out in support of prestige releases. The critics (in particular, Bosley Crowther of the tony New York Times) were, in the main, unkind to the series, gleefully pointing out their plotting inconsistencies and lashing out at the main character (branded "the demon girl reporter" - a considerable slight against Farrell, a devout Catholic) with malicious sophistry where one might have expected film criticism. By the time of Torchy Runs for Mayor's release in May of 1939, The Times had given up on the franchise entirely. The trades, traditionally more forgiving, had grown cool to the Torchy sequels by this point, with the critic for Variety marking Torchy Runs for Mayor as "fully concocted for lower-deck dual fodder."

If the critics of the day failed to appreciate the charms of Torchy Blane, and her adventures largely forgotten, the character's influence was felt even as early as a year after the series' curtain call. Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940) was a free adaptation of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage play The Front Page, with newsman Hildy Johnson (Pat O'Brien in Lewis Milestone's 1931 film adaptation) gender-swapped for a tart-tongued lady reporter (Rosalind Russell, in a career-making star turn) molded in the Torchy Blane fashion (mannish suits, alpha dog determination). And just as His Girl Friday concludes with Russell's unstoppable Hildy Johnson forfeiting her professional life for married life with Cary Grant's sardonic editor Walter Burns, so had Torchy Runs for Mayor faded out with the newly-elected city official tossing her hat out of the political ring at the prospect of blissful domesticity. Knowing that Torchy fans would not want to see her dusting end tables and pinning nappies, Warners had Torchy Blane... Playing with Dynamite kick off with the protagonists back to their old ways, with no talk of setting up housekeeping, making the series conclusion feel less like a sequel than a busted reboot.

During production of the Torchy Blane series, Glenda Farrell's stock with the moviegoing public had risen to such a height that she was named honorary mayor of North Hollywood, beating out crooner-actor Bing Crosby and character player Lewis Stone for the honor. However ornamental the one-year appointment may have been, Farrell put in her time with the Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis Clubs of the greater Los Angeles area and dedicated herself to the cause of installing sewers along Studio City's Ventura Boulevard. Farrell quit Warner Brothers after wrapping Torchy Runs for Mayor for work at MGM (Johnny Eager, 1941) and Columbia (The Talk of the Town, 1942), though the parts - and her billing - were nowhere as good. The only offer of a starring role came from Producer's Releasing Corporation, in the whodunit A Night for Crime (1943) - but any hope for a potential "Susan Cooper, Girl Reporter" series went sadly unrealized. In the 1950s, a mature and slower-speaking Farrell distinguished herself on the small screen, guesting on episodes of Wagon Train, The Defenders, and Route 66, and winning a Prime Time Emmy for her work on a 1963 Ben Casey two-parter. Perhaps best remembered today as the cop on Sam Spade's case in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), Barton MacLane also enjoyed a measure of TV immortality by capping his career playing the bellicose General Peterson on I Dream of Jeannie.

By Richard Harland Smith

The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies by Daniel Bubbeo (McFarland and Company, 2002)
Girl Reporter: Gender, Journalism, and the Movies by Howard Good (Scarecrow Press, 1998)
Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film by Joe Saltzman (Norman Lear Center- USC, 2002)
Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood by Ron Backer (McFarland and Company, Ltd., 2012)
The Female Investigator in Literature, Film, and Popular Culture by Lisa M. Dresner (McFarland and Company, 2006)
Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film by Philippa Gates (State University of New York Press, 2011)

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