Ricardo CortezMildred WashingtonDavid MannersClaudette Colbert
Torch Singer
Medium: film
Year: 1933
Director: Alexander Hall, George Somnes
Writer: Grace Perkins, Lenore J. Coffee, Lynn Starling
Country: USA
Actor: Claudette Colbert, Ricardo Cortez, David Manners, Lyda Roberti, Charley Grapewin, Sam Godfrey, Florence Roberts, Virginia Hammond, Mildred Washington, Cora Sue Collins, Helen Jerome Eddy, Albert Conti, Ethel Griffies
Format: 71 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0024685/
Website category: Other
Review date: 24 March 2011
It's a pre-Code movie in which an unmarried showgirl has a baby, gives it up and then becomes the most notorious torch singer in town.
The reason to watch it is Claudette Colbert. This was just one year before her golden 1934, in which she won the Best Actress Oscar for It Happened One Night and three of the four movies she made were Oscar-nominated for Best Picture. She was regarded as one of the best actresses at screwball comedy, but she'd also be Oscar-nominated for dramatic roles too. As it happened she was French by birth, but bilingual. Anyway, here she's outstanding. She's extremely attractive, has an impressive range as an actress and creates some powerful moments. You've got to respond to the scene where she staggers half-blasted to the microphone, while you'll also want to look out for her response to "for all you know, she may be dead."
However at the same time, she's never laboured. You'd expect this storyline to be gruelling, but Colbert keeps it light. She even made me laugh with "I think he's drunk".
As a movie, it's a little bit primitive. I don't mind that. After all, Hollywood had only just left the silent era. Nevertheless her character jumps straight from "destitute and miserable" to "scandalous talk of the town" without the movie ever showing its working, while the ending is similarly abrupt. I like it, but it feels as if the editor ran into a wall or something. The movie needed more than 71 minutes, although I should point out that it never feels rushed. It's simply missed out a chunk of the plot, that's all.
Colbert's also not always best served by the direction, I think. Sometimes everything clicks, but sometimes I felt she was being left a bit stranded. Oh, and that's some terrible redubbing on the lullaby she sings to her baby.
Nevertheless it's a strong movie. It's a great vehicle for Colbert, who takes us on a roller-coaster ride from the very bottom to the talk of the town and then back again to humanity with her obsession with her abandoned daughter. She even scared me when it came to that radio gig. She's not professional about it. She does an excellent job, yes, but she blagged her way in without a second thought and she terrified me in the scene where she's doing it in the middle of a party, drinking throughout and dropping innuendo into this children's radio programme.
As for the rest of the cast, they're fine. I quite liked Ricardo Cortez, whom I remember as the super-sleazy Sam Spade in the original 1931 The Maltese Falcon. Mildred Washington is gorgeous and sweet as Colbert's coloured maid. David Manners does almost nothing with his crucial role, which is regrettable, but the film survives him being a plot device on legs. The real freak though is five-year-old Cora Sue Collins at the end, who's a shameless scene-stealer and there's nothing poor Colbert can do about it. Look at Collins's weird glances! I was actually laughing.
Overall this film's an easy recommendation, especially in the second half. There's strong material here. Some of these rich people are bastards, while Colbert leaves you in not the slightest doubt how she earned that reputation. She goes from downtrodden misery to being infamous and almost unstoppable, perhaps over-full of confidence but still powerfully missing certain things she once had. She's definitely no angel, but it's impossible not to like her. You've got to adore that response she gives to the little black girl, for instance. This film is Claudette Colbert's and she definitely delivers.
Incidentally, Colbert got a bit steamy for DeMille in her pre-Code days, especially Cleopatra (1934) and some partial nudity in The Sign of the Cross (1932). I love pre-Code movies.