Torch Singer (1933); Dir. Alexander Hall/George Soames

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One of the things that strikes me about the pre-Code movies I’ve seen is that the endings leave you, at times, with an unfinished feeling. You think, Huh. Yeah, everyone’s smiling, and ‘things worked out’, but how the hell is this going to go? The moral order has been tipped so far off to the side that you wonder if it’s ever going to right itself. And even with a “happy” ending, you can’t forget the pain and suffering you have seen, and you know, because you’re a human being, that things can’t just work out sometimes.

It makes me think, strangely, of the last sentence of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. After all of the pain and suffering and love lost, the two sisters pair up in marriage to two suitable men, and we’re supposed to be thrilled about it. I, for one, cannot forget Marianne’s suffering, and I also cannot forget the suffering of the cad Willoughby. That’s part of what the ending of the book has in it, even with the clanging of the wedding bells. And for some reason, I think Austen was aware of that, and so the last sentence of the book is a masterpiece of negative language used to express a positive happy ending. Look:

Between Barton and Delaford there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate; and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that, though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.

That’s a happy ending? With words tumbling all over each other, words like “least”, “almost”, “without”, “disagreement, and “coolness”? That is one cautious happy ending.

Sense and Sensibility was Austen’s first book, so perhaps she was not, as yet, in charge of her effects and that unbelievably ambivalent language was unconscious on her part, but I don’t think so.

Marriage sometimes comes at the end of a long hard road, of loneliness, pain and loss. You may be happy to finally be “protected” by having a mate, but you can’t just forget the man you REALLY wanted, and what it was like to nearly die for love of him.

So I am not left with a ringing sense of triumph and joy. I am left with a chastened almost crouching feeling of, “Sheesh, they made it through that one, okay! Some of us aren’t so lucky!”

The pre-Code movies make me feel like that, and Torch Singer, from 1933, starring the wonderful Claudette Colbert, has an ending that almost feels like it comes at the end of a marathon. All you can do at that point is lie down, pant for breath, check your pulse, and make sure that you are still among the living. If you think of the ending of Bringing Up Baby, with the crashing of the dinosaur, and the gymnastics on the scaffolding, and then the sudden embrace before the ending-music bursts forth – you can see the difference in sensibility. Yes, Torch Singer is a melodrama and Bringing Up Baby is a comedy, but the same principle applies. Although the moral order of the world is completely up-ended by Susan Vance’s screwball energy in Bringing Up Baby, we understand to not worry about it TOO much, even though she fells dinosaur skeletons just by walking into the room. We don’t worry about it because she is obviously insane and we are meant to laugh at her. She doesn’t MEAN to up-end the moral order. And Cary Grant is just trying to keep up with her (all the while he is running away from her at top speed). So the audience can relax, we can guffaw at these two people, and we can’t wait for them to get together. The world will go on turning. They aren’t challenging how we look at things, or the way things are.

Torch Singer does. And it challenges so much that the happy ending leaves me uneasy.

I find it refreshing. I also find refreshing how supposedly “bad” characters are treated in an egalitarian fashion, and we can see where they are coming from, they are not sneering villains – they are people who may have made some bad choices, and so have ended up in a particular kind of life … but they are not held up for scorn. At least not to the audience. We can see other characters scorn them (this happens quite a bit in Torch Singer – and also in Hot Saturday, come to think of it – when the larger community shuns one of its members), but since we are on the inside with this scorned character, our main response is: God, it’s unfair how such people are treated, isn’t it?

Now THAT is something that really WILL upset the moral order. (And rightly so, I might add. I’m always on the side of more compassion.)

If I can look at a smelly homeless man lying on the subway, taking up four seats that could be used by other people, and not judge him, or roll my eyes in contempt at him, but instead feel bad for his circumstances, well, then, I think that makes the world a better place. I do not always succeed at this, let me just say, but I think it is a worthy personal goal, and living where I do I am challenged in this manner almost every day.

Torch Singer was filmed in 1933. The Code was coming, and bad girls would need to be punished, black people knew their place, gay people would be turned into vicious stereotypes, and a host of other dictums would be in place.

Sally Trent, played by Claudette Colbert (and I’m sorry, but isn’t she just delicious? She is terrific here), is seen in the opening scenes of the film as a shy broke young woman (she doesn’t have enough money for her cab fare) going to a Catholic hospital, where we see a woman emerging with a baby in her arms. Okay, maternity hospital. The nun at the front desk stamps on Sally’s card ‘FREE CLINIC PATIENT’. Okay, so we understand everything in the first five minutes. Nothing is said, it is all done in images, concise, evocative. She is an unwed mother. I was interested to see how it would be handled.

Again, there is no euphemism here. Life is presented, as it is, and people speak of things that, a year later, would be unspeakable. Now it’s not that anyone is blase, and “over it”, and Sally Trent doesn’t have feelings of guilt and shame for being knocked up by some dude who isn’t there with her – she does – we are still in the world we recognize, our world, but there is a lack of inhibition in how these issues are presented. Sally goes in to talk to the Mother Superior of the hospital.

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A brief aside: I’m Catholic, obviously, and I grew up with great-aunts who were nuns. Nuns were a part of my life growing up. I remember my dad saying once, “I don’t understand why nuns are seen as funny. All the nuns I had as teachers were pretty wonderful.” Nuns get a bad rap. I get that there are some pretty bitchy nuns out there, but it is always nice to see the opposite portrayed as well. Because then we move out of the world of too-easy stereotype and into something that is more in the grey area of life, where most of us reside. Some nuns suck, others are compassionate and wonderful. The Mother Superior in Torch Singer has seen it all. Her job in life is to help unmarried pregnant girls have their babies. If they want the children to be adopted, she handles that. If they want to keep the baby, then more power to them. That’s what a Catholic maternity hospital is for. Mother Superior interviews Sally (and it’s a wonderfully played scene, by both actresses), and the nun asks for the name of the father. Sally refuses to say, refuses to the point that she gets up to leave the room. Mother Superior, I am sure with her own thoughts and feelings about the man who has left this poor woman before her pregnant and unprotected, stops Sally from leaving. Her job is not to judge. Her job is to help the women. I don’t know – it’s subtle, and that’s one of the reasons I liked the scene so much. Her priorities are clear. Sally, hesitant, sits back down and we see what the Mother Superior is writing on the patient card, in the slot where it says “Father”:

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Sally has the baby, and there is even a wrenching-to-watch labor scene, where she thrashes about in the bed, weeping, and calling out for “Mike”, as a couple of nurses and the doctor look on, worried and sad for her.

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To imagine this scene in a movie even a year later is unthinkable, although there are exceptions. I think of the wonderful Penny Serenade, a movie I love, and all of the things it handles openly and with sensitivity: marriage, sex, miscarriage, infertility, adoption … It’s really an adult movie. I love it, the compassion it has for people who have tough things happen to them, and are forced to make tough choices. But, on the flip side, Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade, while obviously a working single girl, wise to the ways of men (the way she handles Cary Grant’s request that he come upstairs the first night he walks her home, for example), is not as beyond-the-pale as Claudette Colbert eventually is in Torch Singer. To have compassion for a married woman who loses her baby when she is injured in an earthquake and then is unable to have any children at all is – well, I do not want to say it is par for the course, because there are those who say “God has His ways” or “It’s all in God’s plan” in the face of any tragedy, and that can be horribly insensitive. God doesn’t want me to be a mother? Suck on this, church lady, and take your ‘compassion’ elsewhere. But what I am saying is that Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade is “protected” by the institution of marriage. The sex she has is legal, the baby she has in her belly is accepted as part of marriage. She’s shielded. Claudette Colbert in Torch Singer is not. She is an unwed mother. The father is nowhere to be found. She is a chorus girl, who was wooed and bedded by a rich-boy from Boston, who has since gone on business to China, leaving her to deal with the situation. Her only recourse is to find work, again, as a chorus girl, but now she has an infant at home, no man, and how will she survive? To have compassion for the wayward is where true character is revealed. It’s a different focus, and Torch Singer doesn’t hold back from any of those implications.

Look at how she behaves now. You still like her? You still feel for her? Well, watch what she does HERE. How do you feel now? Do you still ache for her pain? How much will we accept from our wayward daughters before we cut them loose?

Torch Singer does pendulum-swing into schmaltz here and there, but not too much. It pretty much stays on target, and Colbert’s terrific performance has a lot to do with that. The script has what I would call some “bossy” elements, forcing the characters to do such and such, unrealistic, very plot-heavy … but the acting is so good that I forgive it. It’s really Colbert’s movie, but everyone around her is excellent as well.

Her financial stress eventually becomes so acute that she is evicted from her apartment. Desperately, she goes to the unknown father’s wealthy family and begs them to take the child. Since the snooty aunt she speaks to has never even heard of her before, “How do I know your claims are to be believed” – she is shown the door. There is no work for a tired chorus girl (we see shots of Colbert’s feet walking down the sidewalk in heels and, nice touch, there are band-aids on her ankles. Really nice moment. This woman has been walking for DAYS, looking for work). Finally, she can no longer survive, and she brings her beloved baby girl back to the Catholic hospital to give her up for adoption. The goodbye scene with the one-year-old girl is, yes, melodramatic, with close-ups of Colbert’s glistening tears, but I have to say, it is tremendously effective, and it does not feel “acted” to me. It seems that whatever is going on with Colbert is coming from a very real place. The baby, of course, is just a baby, and is behaving as babies do. Occasionally the baby says something like “Ba-ba” – and reaches out to touch her mother. She’s behaving spontaneously, as all babies do, and Colbert takes all of that behavior into consideration, reacting to it, responding. She is not just waiting for her closeup, she is actually dealing with the moving-breathing reality of the little creature in front of her. It’s really good work.

After the grim beginning of this film, we then see Colbert’s character make the choices that will define her life. She gets a job as a torch singer and eventually gets the attention of a Lothario-type who offers her a position in his swanky nightclub. Since she has given up her child, there is nothing left for her now, she has no pride left, nothing to hold onto. If she could do THAT, then why shouldn’t she sleep with the men who want her? She does. Her reputation plummets, she becomes notorious, and yet at the same time, her career skyrockets. She is beyond the pale, she is no longer a part of respectable society, and her friends reflect that. She finds herself surrounded by giggly platinum-blonde girls who drink all day long, and smoking cheeseballs who all want to sleep with her. I suppose she feels that that is what she deserves.

But Colbert doesn’t play this transformation in a self-pitying way. She keeps her cards close to her chest. She doesn’t show us too much. What we see is a woman who has shuffled off the past, and is now fully living in oblivion. It is essential that she not give herself quiet time or time for reflection, because then all she will see will be the daughter she gave up. This is just my interpretation, because again, none of that is expressly shown in the script. And instead of sitting back judging the bad girl, I ache for what she is running from. I know it will catch up with her sooner or later.

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I have more to say about this movie, and I will, but for now I continue to work my way through the pre-Code collection, and I’ll speak more on it when I’ve seen them all.

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4 Responses to Torch Singer (1933); Dir. Alexander Hall/George Soames

  1. Stevie says:

    This is so fascinating to read, Sheila. And TWO, count’em, TWO screen shots with the right side of Colbert’s face! God, I love your thought about how she’s living in oblivion now. I guess we all can relate to that instinct to blot out a painful past. And the idea that Irene Dunne in Penny Serenade was “protected” by marriage. So true. That was the point of view, all right – marriage was the safe haven everyone aspired to reach. Thank you for doing this series, Sheila. I’m loving it.

    I’ve asked you this before, but did you ever see the original Imitation of Life, with Colbert and Louise Beavers? I think it was produced in 1933 – right on the cusp of the Code. It’s. Awe. Some. xxx

  2. De says:

    Oh, Stevie I loved the Lana Turner version of Imitation of Life…I MUST MUST MUST see the Colbert version, now! Thanks!

    Sheila, amazing post. I am SO loving this! What’s next??

  3. Catherine says:

    Yeah, I’m with De, what’s the next film?? No pressure of course, I’m just interested in the title.

    I’m hugely ignorant of Claudette Colbert’s work. The only film I’ve seen of hers is It Happened One Night (which I thought she was magnificent in, duh!) and I’d love to see her in a serious drama like this.

  4. Alli says:

    Posts like this remind me why I love your blog so much.