Friday, August 4, 2017

#2,400. Torch Singer (1933)

Directed By: Alexander Hall, George Somnes

Starring: Claudette Colbert, Ricardo Cortez, David Manners

Tag line: "The worst woman in New York...sang the best love songs!"

Trivia: According to the pressbook, Bing Crosby acted as a technical adviser for a day and coached Claudette Colbert with the lullaby

With its somewhat controversial tale of an unwed mother who claws her way to the top, becoming the most popular (and most salacious) nightclub singer in New York City, Torch Singer is, in every way, a pre-code picture. But more than its so-called “indecent” content, what will stay with you after watching this 1933 film is its heartbreaking story, and how wonderful Claudette Colbert is in the lead role.

Sally Trent (Colbert) is a single mother, trying desperately to give her infant daughter as good a life as she possibly can. With the baby’s father off in China on business, Sally must care for the child alone, and soon the pressure becomes too much for her. Though she loves her daughter dearly, Sally (who cannot find a job) decides to put her baby up for adoption, in the hopes she will end up in a good home.

A few years pass. Sally, who has changed her name to Mimi Benton, is now a well-known night club singer whose scandalous personal life has made her a media sensation. One of her many boyfriends is Tony Cummings (Ricardo Cortez), a radio executive, and one day, while visiting Tony’s studio, Mimi ends up filling in for the nervous host of a new children’s program. Calling herself “Aunt Jenny”, Mimi wows the kiddies, and Tony as well as the show’s sponsor Andrew Judson (Charley Grapewin), sign Mimi to a long-term contract, paying her big bucks to play Aunt Jenny on the radio every night at 5 p.m.

At first, Mimi does it for kicks, laughing along with her friends at the thought of a “vixen” hosting a children’s show. Soon, however, Mimi’s thoughts turn to the baby she gave away years earlier, and she decides to use the radio program to find her daughter. The sudden reappearance of the youngster’s father, Mike Gardner (David Manners), only fuels Mimi’s determination. But with the odds stacked against her, Mimi must face the cold, hard truth that she may never set eyes on her beloved child again.

Claudette Colbert delivers what could be her finest performance as Sally / Mimi, going from a struggling young mother forced to do what’s best for her child (the scene in which Sally puts her daughter up for adoption will reduce you to tears) to a fun-loving singer, always ready to party with whichever man catches her eye (there are hints dropped that she even had a fling with Andrew Judson, much to the chagrin of the snobbish Mrs. Judson, played by Virginia Hammond). In addition to her outstanding performance, Colbert also gets to sing a little, her best number being “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love”, a suggestive ditty that draws the attention of every guy in the room.

There aren’t many “immoral” pre-code films that will pull on your heartstrings as completely as Torch Singer does. But then, a lot of those other movies didn’t have Claudette Colbert.

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