Saturday, September 30, 2017
The Torchy Blane Series: Overall
The Torchy Blane series are predominately whodunnits, but not all entries are. Some are regular run-of-the-mill crimes, sometimes involving a body count, but not even that all the time. This does serve to successfully shake things up enough, and keep the proceedings from getting too stale, but the first time it happens is five movies in, so you're not expecting it.
The mysteries are clever and well-written for the most part. They sometimes get a bit confusing or underwhelming, but even for the lesser mysteries, I found the reveals unexpected. The exclusively criminal plotlines are about half-and-half. Torchy Blane in Panama and ...Plays with Dynamite are both dull, but ...Gets Her Man and ...Runs for Mayor are pretty thrilling, even if their plots aren't the most interesting in places.
Surprisingly for its time, this series actually maintains a good continuity! As each film goes on, there's a clear progression of events. I wondered how long this would last, because once you make each film more than an individual story and set an endgame up, the series will presumably come to an end if the two heroes ever get hitched, not because Torchy would actually quit her job, but because her getting help from the police would unavoidably be seen as favouritism if she's married to the precinct detective. How does the series solve this conundrum, you ask? Simple-It ignores it completely!
The series starts taking an immediate downturn after Torchy Blane in Panama. The casting change really screws things up, and any previous continuity is either ignored or slightly contradicted. From this point on, the original actors return, but just in standalone stories. There are no more ongoing plot points, which wouldn't've been an issue if things were like that from the start, but they weren't, so it's a downgrade. Because of each film now being self-contained, the second casting change-up doesn't have as big an impact as the first.
One oddity is how Torchy and Steve never get married! In the first few it makes sense, as we're seeing the progression of a boyfriend and girlfriend to fiancees, and then the two planning the upcoming wedding. But after the fourth movie, we're stuck in a perpetual rut of 'We're not married yet. Oh, let's get married!' by the end of every film, only to never be followed up on. It's pretty annoying! Just get the two hitched already, dammit!
As mentioned in the review, Torchy Runs for Mayor in many ways actually feels like a finale, which was unexpected for the period. Even down to it being the last turn by Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane, it feels like the end, so it's all the more disappointing when a further movie was made, with two new actors in the main roles, no less. I'm at least glad for Torchy Plays with Dynamite's existence on the grounds that it undoes the dreadful ending to Runs for Mayor.
Minor continuity hiccups include the name of Torchy's newspaper, which is the Daily Star for most of the series, but the Morning Herald in at least a couple. There's also how Torchy's real first name changes from Theresa to Helena in-between movies. Granted, her name is only ever mentioned once, so I suppose I could cut the writer of Torchy Plays with Dynamite some slack...but then again, this info should've been written down somewhere! And it's revealed in only the second movie, ya chumps! Do your homework!
For a set of movies from the 1930s, you'd expect these to be a pretty sexist bunch, being dated at the least. They're far from it actually, for the most part. The first few movies show Torchy as an empowered female character and she's never shamed or belittled for her job, or for being snoopy and inquisitive. She doesn't seek out anyone's approval (well, except her boss's, anyway, being a reporter and all), and if she wants to do something as crazy as join in on an around-the-world race, she'll go right ahead and do it. The same goes for running for mayor in order to stamp out corruption. There's an annoying implication that when Torchy gets married, she'll have to quit her job, but you wouldn't expect her to buy into that societal bullcrap like everyone else does, and whenever in later entries Steve says stuff like 'When are you gonna settle down and quit that job of yours and marry me?', she often ignores him in favour of going for a scoop. The ending to the third film is definitely a surprise, for sure! Torchy Runs for Mayor totally sinks things though, with a truly aggravating ending, that's thankfully ignored by the next entry. This is a time when I'm glad a series got needlessly prolonged!
Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane are great as Torchy Blane and Steve McBride, sharing much-loved chemistry, and getting plenty of hilarious dialogue. Lola Lane and Paul Kelly very nearly flounder when they take the reins, as they have none of the famous chemistry, nor do they even really work to emulate their parts. Following that, Farrell and MacLane were back for the next three films, before being once again replaced in the ninth and final one by Jane Wyman and Allen Jenkins. They do much better than Lane and Kelly, having clearly watched the other movies and making the effort to act like the actors they were replacing. It also helps that they look a little like them, too, unlike the previous replacements.
Ted Kennedy is the MVP as Gahagan. He's comic relief who's actually funny, never annoying, and he even contributes to the action! His roles in the earlier films are smaller, but as the series goes on, his parts get bigger and bigger, especially from Torchy Blane in Panama onwards.
There's a steady supporting cast present, from police captain McTavish, to the ever forgetful desk sergeant, and Torchy's boss Maxie. None of these characters make it into every movie, and occasionally they're even recast, but their presence is still appreciated, as it keeps things tethered, whereas if let's say No. 5 had no familiar faces on top of its drastic casting change, it would've fared even worse!
Musically, everything here is sound (heh). It's a little disappointing that every entry has the same opening theme, but it's consistent, I guess.
Every film is about 58 minutes to an hour long, which was the usual runtime back then. It may be small potatoes now, but that was a feature length back in the 1930s, and the people behind the scenes knew how to work with it too, producing films that never felt constrained by their short lengths. Something I found amusing is the production periods. The first three entries all came out in 1937, the next three were all in 1938, and the final ones were 1939. Three movies per year! Man, they sure got 'em out quickly back in the day, didn't they!
To finish, the Torchy Blane series is a fantastic bunch of pictures! They're not all quality material, and some are even worth skipping depending on the viewer, but overall it's really good, providing hours of thoroughly entertaining murder-mystery fare...