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Torchy Blane

The term “B-movie” has become almost meaningless, applied as it is these days to essentially any low-budget, vaguely disreputable genre film, but it once detonated something quite specific: the short features made to fill the bottom halves of double bills in Depression-era America. Warner Archive has issued all nine films in the “Torchy Blane” series, one of the best of the B series of the 1930s thanks to the assurance of its performers — all but two star Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane, reliable Warners contract players here promoted to leads — and the infectious sense of fun of Frank McDonald, the talented B specialist who helmed the first four films in the group. My New York Times review of the collection is here, along with a quick look at Allan Arkush’s 1979 “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School,” one of the most engaging of the 70s exploitation films that were the final inheritors of the B-movie tradition. Among the film’s screenwriters are a couple of names familiar in these parts: Joe Dante and Joseph McBride.

115 comments to Torchy Blane

  • Those Sternberg films are indeed something to see! And UNDERWORLD is of course a must for any Hawksian as well.

  • Barry Putterman

    Fredrik, you may be interested to hear that LeRoy always claimed that the ending of FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG was an accident. He said that the power failed at just that moment and he liked the results enough not to re-shoot it. Possibly, but who really knows.

    Jean-Pierre mentions that LeRoy went from making 70 minute films through the mid 30s to two hour plus jobs in the 40s without adding that he also went from Warners to Metro during that time, which pretty much explains the whole thing.

    In fact, he went from being a director at Warners to being a producer at Metro, which is logical since he always struck me as a director who was more of a producer anyway. And not just because he married the boss’s daughter, but basically because it always seemed to me that he was of the mind set that equated success with achievement.

    Still, after a year of being a producer at the producer’s paradise, he willing went back to being a director. So there must have been something about directing movies that lit his fire since it seems to me that could have spent much more time at the race track as a producer than as a director. By the way, there is a much more damning assessment of LeRoy (and also Richard Brooks) in an interview with Mickey Knox that I read in one of Patrick McGilligan’s blacklistees volumes than anything I’ve read here.

    LeRoy landed in”Lightly Likable,” probably on the strength of Sarris’ major love for Vivien Leigh (WATERLOO BRIDGE) and Irene Dunne (SWEET ADELINE). Sarris cited LeRoy’s “innate vulgarity” as the basis of his personal style without really explaining what that was. Personally, I’ve always felt that innate vulgarity could have only improved most of his post 1935 films.

    Still, here is a guy who went from the Warners pre-codes to the Metro noble biographies to plush big budget soap operas in the 50s. Quite an interesting career path in terms of American film history.

  • david hare

    There’s a backstory to the Sternbergs. The negotiations with Paramount (who are stil the rightsholders, although all three prints come from GE House) go back a couple of years, basically before Blu Ray was in the loop. When Criterion organized for new HD telecines of these apparently superb new prints Paramount declined to give them Blu Ray rights – DVD only. They ahd the same problem initially with the Days of Heaven Blu rights until Malick no less stepped in. The resulting Blu is a thing of extraordinary beauty.

    I am trying to get as many people as possible to petition or simply email Peter Becker at Criterion for simultaneous Blu Ray releases of the Sternbergs. There’s a three month window for this before release date. The idea that Paramount would ever put these out in Blu, or that it even knew it owned them, beggars belief. This would simply be a totally wasted, once in a lifetime opportunity. Nobody else is ever going to do these.

  • Great news about the Sternbergs. They are landmark cinema.

    Mervyn LeRoy is far lesser. And I agree with Joseph McBride that there is little visual style in most of the LeRoy seen here. But quite a few LeRoy’s work as story telling: Little Caesar, Heat Lightning, Hi Nellie!, The King and the Chorus Girl, Fools for Scandal, Quo Vadis, Strange Lady in Town, The Devil at 4 O’Clock. The last is particularly rich and interesting. My web site has an “auteurist checklist” of LeRoy – it’s up to 35 running motifs in his films. They are a bit more personal in subject matter than their reputation suggests. LeRoy was especially sympathetic to women, gays and racial minorities. This was the man who depicted women scientists in Madame Curie and a pioneering woman doctor in Strange Lady in Town. And who made the anti-racist film The House I Live In.

    LeRoy liked hidden rooms and underground chambers. And circular architecture. And staircases. These give his work a least a smidgen of personal visual style:
    Secret rooms:
    Ma Magdalena’s hideout: Little Caesar,
    behind the curtain: The Wizard of Oz,
    hero’s suite: Johnny Eager

    Underground Architecture
    service bay under cars: Heat Lightning,
    sewers people flee to during fire: Quo Vadis

    Round settings:
    revolving Merry-Go-Round bar: Hi, Nellie!,
    revolving house in tornado, spiral start of Yellow Brick Road: The Wizard of Oz,
    round room at Nero’s palace: Quo Vadis,
    Busby Berkeley round designs: Million Dollar Mermaid

    Also distinctive:
    Metal clothes:
    “Pettin’ in the Park” armor and can opener: Gold Diggers of 1933,
    Tin Man and oil can: The Wizard of Oz,
    Roman armor, Poppea’s gold dress: Quo Vadis,
    gold metallic swimsuits: Million Dollar Mermaid

  • David, what is Peter’s e-mail address? As a huge blu-ray advocate, I would gladly petition him.

  • Joseph McBride

    John Lee Mahin, one of the writers of Mervyn LeRoy’s QUO VADIS,
    told me that when they were preparing the film, LeRoy asked
    him, “This guy Jesus — did he really exist?”

  • Michael Worrall

    Joseph McBride wrote: John Lee Mahin, one of the writers of Mervyn LeRoy’s QUO VADIS,t old me that when they were preparing the film, LeRoy asked him, “This guy Jesus — did he really exist?”

    Well, perhaps LeRoy was an atheist and wanted to debate Mahin on the validity of the script he was co-writing.

    I have always enjoyed Truffaut’s attack on LeRoy and his film version of THE BAD SEED in “Films of My Life.”

  • david hare

    Who would have ever thought Leroy had it in him to come up with a piece of camp like Bad Seed!

    MichaelG, the only portal I can find to get through to Becker is via: via your mail browser. I thank everyone who takes the trouble.

  • Michael Worrall

    David Hare wrote: “Who would have ever thought Leroy had it in him to come up with a piece of camp like Bad Seed!”

    THE BAD SEED looks like it was phoned in from the race track. Talk about insufferable.

  • david hare

    Mike I think it’s hugely entertaining! Especially Hortense!! Ever seen a drag performance a la Charles Ludlum?

    Reminds me of a joke, err.. “Isnt that Hortense over there?” “She looks pretty calm to me.”
    Donald O ‘Connor used to use that one in his 70s theatre “Revue” schtick. With which he succesfully travelled the planet. Including Oz.

  • Barry Putterman

    Hey fellas, can we at least acknowledge that “The Bad Seed” is an adaptation of a play by Maxwell Anderson?

    By the way, the screenplay was by John Lee Mahin and LeRoy no doubt asked him “Is that Hortense over there?” I understand that Donald O’Connor was on the set at the time.

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    I guess you don’t have to be a believer to direct a film like QUO VADIS. LeRoy directed (if it’s the right term) pretty much anything and everything…

    I’ve never seen QUO VADIS. I understand Anthony Mann did some directing uncredited. Is it discernible at all? It should be, as Mann had all the directing gifts LeRoy so distinctly lacked.

    Mike, do you really think that the can-opener gag from “Pettin’ in the Park” is a LeRoy contribution rather than Busby’s?

  • Jean-Pierre,

    QUO VADIS has some good spectacle scenes with a nice sense of composition – Andrew Sarris praised them in The American Cinema. Have no idea who directed them.

    Religion is not my subject of expertise, and do not want to lecture anyone here on religion. BUT: QUO VADIS mainly treats Christianity as preaching non-violence. In it, Christians renounce fighting and the use of violence. Similar themes appear in DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (Delmer Daves). QUO VADIS sees Christianity as liberal-social-movement, rather than as religious fundamentalism. One certainly sees echoes of pacifist beliefs. QUO VADIS also has some pointed pro-Jewish remarks.

    On “Pettin’ in the Park”: Who knows who did what? The tendency has been to see Busby Berkeley as an autonomous agent, one who had no input from his directors. But since we know so little about LeRoy, Lloyd Bacon, etc, who knows?

  • Bogolov

    “The term “B-movie” has become almost meaningless… but it once detonated something quite specific: the short features made to fill the bottom halves of double bills in Depression-era America.” DK

    “Detonated”? Quite an explosive statement. I would have gone with the admittedly wimpier “denoted”.

    Anyway, I bought the WB Torchy collection: they were great! Better than Charlie Chan, even. So now what do I watch? My life is empty. Any suggestions for other B-movie collections?

  • Thanks for the catch Bogolov. I plan to title my forthcoming autobiography “Betrayed by Spell-Check.”