Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Torchy Blane Series: Part 3 (-1939)

Torchy Blane in Chinatown

Three antiques dealers have seemingly earnt the ire of a vast criminal gang in China by shipping a  set of jade tablets from the country, on behalf of Senator Baldwin and his soon-to-be son-in-law Dick Staunton. One by one, the dealers are murdered, and neither the dire warnings by the gang ahead of time, not the heavy police protection can save these men. However, can Torchy Blane?...

So, Torchy Blane is going to Chinatown? That idea has some promise, and it won't end up being handled horribly, will it?...Will it?! Well that'll take a bit of explaining. The movie's not racist, just very awkward in its wording. For example, there's a moment during the engagement party when Steve sees who the entertainers are, and exclaims "Chinamen!". He's concerned because there's a large gang of Chinese criminals after those he's protecting, plus two people are already dead, so he's understandably suspicious, but the writer really could've worded that better! As things go on, the awkwardness continues, and it proves to be very nearly just as annoying as if it were just plain racist.

The term 'Chinaman' is used often, to an annoying degree. It's not as bad as if people were casually dropping the n-word though, at least. I felt it was amusingly telling that every Chinese suspect turns out to be innocent, and for nearly the whole movie, I had an inkling the killer was really white. Come the climax, when Staunton is handing the ransom over to the masked Chinese gangsters, they say stuff like "You no bling money" and "You are velly wise", and refer to a "Submaline!". At first this is facepalm-worthy beyond belief, HOWEVER!!! Wouldn't you know it, the villains are a bunch of racist white bozos after all! There was so little time of the movie left that I was afraid the borderline racist dialogue was meant to be genuine, but no, the movie was actually being subversive!

I have two big problems with the plot. The first is that it's never really about neato Oriental stuff. It's like there was a pre-written script about protecting antiques dealers from harm, and they wrote everything else around it, with that plot getting the lion's share of focus, while the added material basically amounted to set dressing.

My second problem is that the mystery is unsolvable for the viewer. The killer could be any one of 4000 Chinese people we've never seen before, and never see on-screen, so either the mystery is one where the identity of the killer isn't necessary, or it'll be revealed that the antagonist is really one of the main supporting cast, and that runs the risk of making all the Chinatown stuff seem irrelevant, and annoys the audience by having such a heavy focus for so long on one aspect, only to turn around and say none of it was actually important. Making things worse is that we're not privy to the clues Torchy receives that crack the mystery wide open for her.

The ending is rushed and absolutely ridiculous, but come the unmasking, it's awesome, and redeems the whole film! Torchy at first doesn't seem to be playing any part, but not to worry, she does. The identity of the crooks is certainly something!

Outside of the main story, the writing in Torchy Blane in Chinatown is decent, and there's an amusing line here and there, like the sleepy Torchy protesting to Steve "Speaking man to man, I'm a woman after all, and, well, I'm exhausted.".

The acting's all pretty standard.  The two leads are fine as usual. Tom Kennedy is a bit underused this time, especially when compared to his roles in previous outings, and it really doesn't help when some of his lines are more than a little awkward in regards to race relations. He's a little more prominent in the ending though.

Everyone else is alright, though three of the actors are pretty hard to tell apart. Thankfully one of them dies before too long, so that ceases to be an issue by a third (or would that be by two thirds?). Finally, the expert professor that Steve consults is actually played by an Asian! Every Asian character here is, actually, despite the fact that some are masked, and none are credited (this being a 1930s production after all, with no-one beyond the leads and a few lucky others getting the privilege of an unnamed credit.). Nice to know the film didn't get lazy and just hire all white dudes.

The effects here are pretty good, whenever they're present, such as the bomb-gutted cellar. The 'submaline' looks so convincing it might actually be real! If not, I commend the set design as well as William Beaudine's fab direction.

When McBride is urging the senator to cut the engagement part short and send all his guests home, I like to think a similar conversation was going on behind the scenes at the same time. "Listen up everyone, we've gotta get all these extras outta here, toot sweet. We're not paying any more than we have to!"

For the first 50+ minutes, Torchy Blane in Chinatown is wholly unremarkable, and possibly the dullest entry in the entire series. It picks up steam in the final minutes, but that doesn't save the picture as a whole. If you're not a fan of the series I wouldn't recommend it, but it's not so bad that it's worth skipping over if you're marathoning all 9 films...

Torchy Runs for Mayor

The sinister Doctor Dolan has the city's mayor comfortable in his pocket, and only Torchy Blane is brave enough to speak out against him, using all the overhanded and underhanded methods at her disposal, and battling everything Dolan throws at her. However, when the opposing candidate that Torchy finds to run against Dolan is murdered, she ends up having to run herself, hoping the same grisly fate doesn't befall her...

This is the most serious Torchy Blane movie, weaving a pretty straightforward tale of government corruption, with only the occasional snappy line or light scene with Gahagan as respite.

I quite liked the structure  in how instead of simply showing Torchy reacting to a murder, we're really getting a full-on view of her journalistic smarts, and how she goes about her job. It's a little disappointing that there's no mystery, and the killer is exactly who everyone think it is, but once again it potentially allows for a better fleshed-out antagonist!...Or at least it would if the villain here wasn't so dull. He's not awful, but he doesn't really have any motivation that we know of.

It takes forever for the proceedings to live up to the title, but that does eventually happen. I don't like that it isn't Torchy's idea but instead a joke by Steven and Captain McTavish, but I do enjoy how she rolls with it, much to the surprise of the two guys.

Not everything is handled well here though. The murder feels pointless and happens to a character we've barely seen and know nothing about, nor does their death really have much impact. There's also a major kidnapping that's completely offscreen! Other issues include how the incumbent mayor vanishes after a while without a mention, reducing the number of seen accomplices to Dolan's vast criminal enterprise to a total of one! At least he gains a few more by the climax, but we never get a good impression of the scale of his gang.

I like how supportive both the paper and the police are of Torchy's crusade (until outside forces compel them to cut it out, anyway). Maxie himseldf doesn't tell her no, and for once McTavish isn't telling Torchy to lay off. He knows she's acquired Dolan's little red book, through 'less than agreeable' methods to boot, but he doesn't care.

The climax is genuinely thrilling! The characters are in real danger, with the audience really feeling tense about whether or not they'll get out of this one ok, and the action is really good, as well as how a certain plot point is going to come into play for Dolan! Unfortunately a certain explosion is pretty underwhelming. I was expecting the whole car to go up. If I had to pick an issue with the finale though, it's that Torchy does literally nothing, directly or indirectly. She's barely even conscious for most of the final 15 minutes.

Finally, and this is a bit of a spoiler, but it bears discussion, especially given what occurs after it/afterwards. Torchy actually wins! She becomes mayor! Going in to this movie you know she's not, because the status quo isn't gonna change that drastically, but you expect her to just drop out of the race by the end, not to actually win! So what does this mean then? It means this movie has the most maddening fucking ending possible! Are you FUCKING kidding me with this shit? And great, now I've sworn up a storm in what was meant to be a family friendly review for an old movie. I bet monocles are being popped at this moment.

This is the most sexist of the series. In other movies, Steve has insisted that Torchy give up her job to marry him, but he's always seen as the fool in these isolated moments, with Torchy promptly ignoring him and chasing a hot scoop. The same is true here, but we get more than one scene like this, and they're really cringeworthy. Funny, but cringeworthy. Making things worse of course is Torchy actually coming around on the subject by the end, instead of further shattering this glass ceiling for the women in the audience, showing that they too can be mayor if they have the skills and put their mind to it.

Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane are very good in their final outings as Torchy and Steve, and I say adieu to them with a salute. Ted Kennedy gets another bigger role here, as does Frank Shannon's Captain McTavish. John Miljan falters a couple of times, but otherwise he's pretty good as the villain.

Overall, the story of Torchy Runs for Mayor is special and important enough that it's a fitting end for the series, and wraps everything up quite well! So much here feels like a final conclusion, even down to the ending, bar the final 30 seconds. It certainly has its negatives, but that shouldn't stop you from ever watching the film...

Torchy Blane...Playing with Dynamite

Brutal crook Denver Eddie is wreaking havoc all over the country, and a $5000 dollar reward is on his head that Torchy Blane is keen to collect. Keeping her true plan a secret from Steve at first, she gets herself thrown in prison in order to get pally with Eddie's girlfriend, jailed on a shoplifting charge. With Steve's help, Torchy arranges a jailbreak, but will her plan work, or will Denver Eddie realize what's happening, and blow Torchy's plan up in her face?...

Even though the Torchy Blane series ostensibly/for all intents and purposes ended with the last movie, there's now another one, released in the very same year, yet again with two new actors as Torchy and Steve. This time I believe Glenda Farrell had simply left the studio, and maybe the producers figured "Ehh, with her gone we might as well ditch MacLane too, since the magic is in the pair.".

Contrary to Lola Lane and Paul Kelly, Jane Wyman and Allen Jenkins actually look the part, and have clearly done their homework. Wyman in particular, nails the demeanour of the characters, which is great. Not as good as Glenda Farrell, but in a pinch, she's a good substitute. I was especially surprised by Jenkins being cast, as he was a predominately comic actor, and being a more heavyset guy, coupled with not being seen as a conventionally handsome heartthrob meant he didn't often get to play the serious lead (as far as I know, anyway. I could be hilariously wrong), and was frequently cast as a comic buffoon, sometimes in police roles not too dissimilar from Tom Kennedy's Gahagan! In a way, I liked Jenkins' Steve more than Barton MacLane's, but that may just be because I like Allen Jenkins as an actor more.

The rest of the acting is all fine. Ted Kennedy has stuck around the entire series, and it's always fun seeing him do his stuff, as well as a familiar face. On that note, it's surreal seeing the leads change casting while all the other supporting actors stay the same.

The plot here is boring. It takes forever to properly start, wasting our time with Torchy's attempt at getting herself thrown in jail (what she does, by the way, is pretty horrid!). When things do finally start, we're hardly treated to a compelling story. It was painfully telling when the 'wrestling Gahagan' subplot starts, and it's legitimately more interesting than the main stuff! Man, just think about it! We could've had a whodunnit at a popular gym, and Gahagan has to go undercover, getting back to his roots as a wrassler and reuniting with old acquaintances. That could've been neat! Thankfully the subplot isn't shortchanged or anything, and it's entertaining enough as it is.

Denver Eddie is a non-presence as a villain, and his girlfriend Jackie gets way more screentime. Sheila Bromley plays her pretty cold and aloof to start, but after the jailbreak she turns into a soft cushion. Not bad, she just loses her prior edge. When Eddie finally shows up, he's ok. The ending doesn't resolve anything for Jackie though.

The climax is pretty standard stuff, and Torchy doesn't really do anything. I like who does though, even if in an indirect manner. There are a couple of pretty amusing moments here and there. One is what Steve does to the first of Eddie's goons in the climax, and the second is the unintentionally hilariously specific guy who recognises Torchy at the boxing match.

Less funny are the recycled plot elements from other movies in the series, such as Torchy getting rebuked by a young traffic cop with no idea who she is, and her hanging out articles of clothing by a window as a signal. These aren't anything major, but it still smacks of at least mild laziness.

One last thing to mention is the title. I don't really like how it's written. Some posters instead read Torchy Plays with Dynamite, and I feel that sounds much better, gelling well with the mostly-consistent series titles so far. Between this and Once Upon a Time...The Mexican Revolution, I guess I'm just not much of a fan of titles with ellipses in them.

Torchy Blane...Playing with Dynamite is sadly the worst in the series, even moreso than Panama. Some aspects are better than that entry, but overall it comes off worse for me by just a smidgen. Making things worse is not only that this is the final movie in the series, but follows what was already a surprisingly fitting finale for an era of cinema when franchises didn't get true conclusions.

Well, that just about does it for the Torchy Blane series! Next up will be an overall look at the series, and then I'll be done!

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