Torch Singer (1933)

ALEXANDER HALL, GEORGE SOMNES

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1933. . Screenplay by , , based on the story Mike by . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

is excellent in this pre-code melodrama that prefigures the likes of Stella Dallas and To Each His Own, but with a very different take on the character’s difficult situation. Left to fend for herself after her boyfriend leaves to work in China, Colbert gives birth to a baby in a charity hospital and does her best to get by as a single mother, but after pounding the pavement with no success and losing her apartment, she decides to give the child up for adoption and at least give it a chance to avoid starving to death alongside her.

She offers the baby to her lover’s family but they refuse her, so she arranges a formal adoption before going to back to her own pursuits, this time successfully. After a year she’s a highly successful nightclub act with a notorious reputation for loose morals and hard partying, which makes it all that much more ironic that she steps into a second job narrating a children’s program for her radio broadcaster boyfriend’s network. The show takes off and fan letters start coming in, which leads Colbert to think that her own lost child might be out there listening, and she becomes obsessed with finding her again.

This wildly unpredictable plot takes more than a few preposterous turns, particularly a possible lapse in logic in the last few minutes, but what makes it so memorable is that, unlike in later films where the emphasis is on the woman who has sinned, this is a film about an intolerant, patriarchal society that refuses to be realistic about a situation that women frequently find themselves in.

Colbert, who was always the picture of practical wisdom even at her most flamboyant, makes it easy for the audience to stand behind her and sympathize with her suffering, then by the time the character begins to enjoy more material comfort, performs those scenes with an impressive soullessness behind her burned out eyes before making her way towards redemption.

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