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Warner Bros.' entire Torchy Blane series was ahead of its time in its depiction of a tough female reporter who regularly went nose-to-nose with the men in her life. This 1939 entry has an extra appeal to the films' cult for two reasons. First, for all its forward-thinking treatment of the leading lady, the film is embarrassingly out of date with its derisive references to Asians. Second, in that strange logic only known to Hollywood, the film's title is a lie. Nobody in the film every goes to any Chinatown anywhere. In that light, it serves as a curious precursor to Roman Polanski's noir classic Chinatown (1974), where the title setting is a symbol rather than an actual location.
Torchy Blane was born as Kennedy, a fast-talking male reporter in a series of pulp magazine stories by Frederick Nebel. For the screen, however, Kennedy underwent a name and gender change to become the ultimate in news hens. To raise the stakes as she set out to solve the mysteries the police can't, the writers made her the fiancee of the police detective usually assigned to the case. The first Torchy Blane film, Smart Blonde (1937), was the only one adapted from one of Nebel's stories. For this entry, in which she investigates a blackmail case, they drew on a story by Murray Leinster called "The Purple Hieroglyph." Even thought the studio billed it as an original story, it had been filmed twice before -- as The Purple Cipher (1920) and Murder Will Out (1930). In fact, Torchy Blane in Chinatown even uses some of the same character names as the earlier versions, though the original female lead was changed to a supporting role to focus on the reporter. Curiously, Warners credited the story to Leinster and Will Jenkins, who were the same man. Jenkins was Leinster's pen name when he published the original story.
The heart of the Torchy Blane series was Glenda Farrell, one of the most dependable contract performers at Warner Bros. After years on stage -- first as a child actress, then as a leading lady -- she signed with Warner Bros. to re-create her acclaimed stage performance as a chorus girl who has a baby in Life Begins (1932). On screen, Farrell was considered too brassy for major leading roles. She usually played supporting parts in A pictures and starred in the Bs. But she had triumphed as the wise-cracking girl reporter in the horror hit Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), so she was a natural when they decided to launch the Torchy Blane series. One talent that served her well in the films was her ability to rattle off dialogue. She was once clocked at a record 390 words a minute (most people speak at 120-150 wpm). She also did her homework, talking to real newswomen to get a sense of the woman behind the notepad. As a result, her seven Torchy Blane films (there were two others, one with Lola Lane, the other with Jane Wyman) are considered the best of the series.
Helping to keep things moving was one of Hollywood's most accomplished B-movie directors, William Beaudine, who worked so quickly he earned the nickname "One Shot." Beaudine had done one earlier entry in the series, Torchy Gets Her Man (1938). Like Hitchcock, he edited in the camera, making only the shots he knew would end up in the final film. Where Hitchcock did it to control his films, however, Beaudine did it to save money. And though he rarely got out of low-budget films, he worked all the time, directing more than half of the Bowery Boys movies of the '40s and '50s. He also turned in some true cinematic curiosities -- including the early exploitation film Mom and Dad (1945), the horror comedy Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) and the horror westerns Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter and Billy the Kid versus Dracula (both 1966) -- that have unjustly earned him a reputation as one of the screen's worst directors. One look at the fast-paced action of Torchy Blane in Chinatown, however, should be enough to clear that reputation.
Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: William Beaudine
Screenplay: George Bricker
Based on the story "The Purple Hieroglyph by Murray Leinster and Will Jenkins [credited as an original story]
Cinematography: Warren Lynch
Art Direction: Charles Novi
Principle Cast: Glenda Farrell (Torchy Blane), Barton MacLane (Det. Lt. Steve "Mac" MacBride), Tom Kennedy (Det. Sgt. Gahagan), Henry O'Neill (Sen. H. Baldwin), Patric Knowles (Capt. Condon), James Stephenson (Dr. Mansfield), Janet Shaw (Janet Baldwin), Victor Sen Yung (Chinese Entertainer With Sword).
by Frank Miller