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Glenda Farrell played Torchy Blane for the first time in Warner Brothers' Smart Blonde (1937) but she had stamped the template for the hardboiled female reporter four years earlier as the salty heroine of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), directed by Michael Curtiz. Scouted from Broadway, the Oklahoma native made an impression in Hollywood just after the transition to sound films with her rapid-fire delivery - she was assessed at being able to speak nearly 400 words per minute. Cast as the skirt in such earlier assignments as Little Caesar (1931) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Farrell ripped through Mystery of the Wax Museum like a dose of salts, showing sex appeal in her scenes with city editor Frank McHugh while exhibiting the brass to get the big story while evading the catcalls and brickbats of the boys in blue, all the while dispensing sarcasm out of the side of her bee-stung mouth. Farrell's casting as Torchy Blane came after a long spell of supporting roles in such films as Heat Lightning (1934) and Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935), with Warners' purchase of the rights to the popular "MacBride and Kennedy" crime stories by Frederick Nebel.
The Staten Island-born Nebel had quit high school at age 15 and came of age laboring as a longshoreman and deckhand aboard a tramp steamer. Visiting family in Canada, he turned his hand to farming and began to write adventure tales and westerns that later saw publication in Action Stories, North West Stories, and Lariat. Nebel sold his first crime tale to Black Mask in 1926 and went on to become the pulp magazine's second best writer, after Dashiell Hammett. Between 1928 and 1937, Nebel (who succeeded Hammett as Black Mask's top writer after the creator of Sam Spade and The Continental Op was wooed west by Hollywood) wrote thirty-seven novelettes detailing the exploits of incorruptible Richmond City police captain Steve MacBride and his dipsomaniacal journalist pal Kennedy (no first name) of The Free Press. Warner Brothers paid out for the MacBride and Kennedy stories but jettisoned the problematic Kennedy (whose alcoholism would have drawn fire from the Production Code) in favor of a female partner - and love interest - for MacBride. Having just played a show girl in Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936), Farrell slotted easily into the more sensible shoes of Torchy Blane, a former hoofer turned newshound and amateur sleuth.
Based on Frederick Nebel's 1936 story "No Hard Feelings" (one of the last in the Black Mask series), Smart Blonde rolled into production in the fall of 1936, retaining Nebel's title and with former dialogue director Frank McDonald at the helm. Cast as the authoritative yang to Farrell's irreverent yin was movie tough guy Barton MacLane, a reliable Hollywood heavy whose lawbreakers evinced a distinctive cruel streak - plugging gun moll Ann Dvorak in the back in William Keighley's "G" Men (1935) and sending an innocent Boris Karloff to the electric chair in Michael Curtiz's The Walking Dead (1936); even when playing a prison guard in Lloyd Bacon's San Quentin (1937), MacLane was an irredeemable shit. The bulldog-like MacLane was an out-of-left-field choice to play Lt. Steve McBride (note the alteration of his surname and demotion in rank) and it remains remarkable in retrospect how little he had to vary his gangster shtick to play a good guy (and not, it bears mentioning, for the first time). Vastly different in temperament from MGM's Nick and Nora Charles or Warners' own Perry Mason and Nancy Drew, Torchy and Steve were rough-hewn, working class, beer-and-pretzels types more at home in a chop house than a nightclub.
Public reaction to "the Lady Bloodhound with the Nose for News" was sufficiently favorable for Warners to greenlight a follow-up, Fly Away Baby (1937), released only six months after Smart Blonde's January 1937 premiere. In all, there would be nine Torchy tales before the series wrapped in 1939. Farrell and MacLane appeared in seven of the nine, replaced by Lola Lane and Paul Kelly in Torchy Blane in Panama (1938) and Jane Wyman (who had popped up in Smart Blonde in a bit as a hatcheck girl) and Allen Jenkins in Torchy Blane... Playing with Dynamite (1939). The only principal player to remain constant throughout the series was Tom Kennedy, who recurred as McBride's childlike driver Gahagan. In a letter to Time magazine in 1988, Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel admitted that he and partner Joe Shuster had based Clark Kent's Daily Planet colleague and love interest Lois Lane (who made her Action Comics debut in June 1938) on the indefatigable Torchy, with Glenda Farrell the physical model and the character's surname cadged from Torchy Blane in Panama star Lola Lane.
By Richard Harland Smith
"Frederick Nebels' Hardboiled Heroes" by Walker Martin, Blood 'n' Thunder, Volume 34 (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, Summer 2012)
Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood by Ron Backer (McFarland and Company, Ltd., 2012)
Superman Masterpiece Edition: The Golden Age of America's First Super Hero by Les Daniels (Chronicle Books, 1999)