Torchy Blane

Created by Frederick Nebel
(1903-1966)

“The Lady Bloodhound with a Nose for News”
“The Yellow-Haired Peril!”
— some of the taglines for the films

Torchy and MacBride get cozy, talk shop.


S
omewhere along the line, in the transition from the pulps to celluloid, Frederick Nebel’s skinny, drunk-as-a-skunk Kennedy of The Free Press who’d appeared in a slew of stories in Black Mask became a sassy, brassy, sexy newswoman named TORCHY BLANE and Lieutenant Steve MacBride, formerly Kennedy’s sparring partner, became the object of her affections.

Sound dubious? Well, nine entertaining B-films were made in the thirties featuring The Herald‘s hotshot newshawk and the series was an instant hit, and turned out to be quite profitable for Warner Brothers. Nothing great, maybe, but they had “a certain speed and zip,” according to Everson’s The Detective in Film.

Zip? Hell, they were greased lightning at times. The plots move so fast — and Torchy’s lightspeed wisecracks flash by so quickly — all you can do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

In the thirties, a world far, far away from Grafton, Paretsky et al, a female reporter was about the most independent and intelligent role model for young women the movies had to offer. And Torchy was by far the most famous female journalist of them all. As played by Glenda Farrell, Torchy more or less embodied everyone’s notion of what a female reporter should look and sound like — fast-talking and feisty, self-confident and even cocky — and forced to contend constantly with the biases of her era.

Particularly the cops, who were invariably meatheads. Farrell co-starred with Barton MacLane as MacBride in all but two of the films. Lola Lane and Paul Kelly took over in Torchy Blane in Panama (1938) and Jane Wyman and Allen Jenkins paired in the final film of the series, Torchy Plays with Dynamite (1939). But it was Farrell and MacLane together? That was the real deal — Farrell brought a energy and zest to the role that brought the so-so scripts to electrifying life, adding serious snap, crackle and pop to every scene she was in. Even the scripts couldn’t keep up, never mind MacLane.

Perpetually on the hunt for a scoop, Torchy would do whatever it took to get it — eavesdropping, breaking-and-entering, going undercover, even allowing herself to be kidnapped. She was utterly fearless and focussed — her only other interests being steak dinners and her “Stevie-Weevie.”

In fact, it was too bad that the screenwriters, mostly male, always seemed to make sure that no matter how cocky and independent Torchy was or even potentially subversive, that by the final scene she would once again find herself in the arms of the good-natured lump MacBride. It was as if to underline the fact that no matter how self-sufficient they seemed, what every woman really wanted was a man (even if he was a lunk) and a family.

As an article on journalist role models in popular culture on the Annenberg School for Communication web site put it, “The question wasn’t how could Torchy Blane care about a numskull policeman like Steve McBride. The issue was that in the 1930s, she really had no choice.”

Which, come to think of it, may be why Torchy was so driven and so gleefully determined to avoid playing second fiddle professionally to anyone.

Somebody buy this lady a steak.

THE CREATOR SPEAKS

  • Sexual politics or not, Nebel didn’t seem to mind the wholesale changes in his characters. When pressed about it, Nebel would respond, “Hell, they always change the stuff around. But I don’t mind–as long as I don’t have to make the changes.”

THE EVIDENCE

  • “Hmmmm… steak!”
    — Torchy in sniffing the air in a restaurant in Fly Away Baby
  • Steve (trying to prevent Torchy from following him): “This rat hole is no place for a woman.”
    Torchy: “But I’m a newspaperman!”
    — Smart Blonde
  • “I’ve got ink in my blood and a nose for news that needs something besides powder”
    — Torchy in Blondes at Work
  • “You always told me to play up the feminine angle in my stories. A woman doing anything is good copy. Here I’d be [a woman] against two men and I’ll beat them too.”
    Torchy tells her editor what’s what in Fly Away, Baby.
  • Cop: “Hold it. You can’t go in there, lady. There’s been a hold-up and a murder.”
    Torchy: “You’re wrong, boys. Hold-ups and murder are my meat. Here’s the open sesame that swings wide all portals – my press pass.”
    — Torchy Blane in Panama
  • Cop: “Quit kidding, Torchy. You ain’t no lady. You’re a reporter. ”
    — Torchy Blane in Chinatown

FILMS

  • SMART BLONDE | Buy this DVD
    (1936, Warner Brothers)
    65 minutes, black & white
    Based on the short story “No Hard Feelings” by Frederick Nebel
    Screenplay by Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan
    Directed by Frank McDonald
    Starring Glenda Farrell as TORCHY BLANE
    and Barton MacLane as MacBRIDE
    Also starring Winifred Shaw, Tom Kennedy,  Craig Reynolds, Addison Richards, Jane Wyman, Joseph Crehan, John Sheehan, Max Wagner,  George Lloyd
  • THE ADVENTUROUS BLONDE | Buy this DVD
    (1937, Warner Brothers)
    Based on characters created by Frederick Nebel
    Starring Glenda Farrell as TORCHY BLANE
    and Barton MacLane as MacBRIDE
    Also starring Tom Kennedy
  • FLY-AWAY BABY | Buy this DVD
    (1937, Warner Brothers)
    Based on characters created by Frederick Nebel
    Starring Glenda Farrell as TORCHY BLANE
    and Barton MacLane as MacBRIDE
    Also starring Tom Kennedy
  • BLONDES AT WORK | Buy this DVD
    (1938, Warner Brothers)
    Based on characters created by Frederick Nebel
    Starring Glenda Farrell as TORCHY BLANE
    and Barton MacLane as MacBRIDE
    Also starring Tom Kennedy
  • TORCHY BLANE IN PANAMA | Buy this DVD
    (AKA Trouble in Panama)
    (1938, Warner Brothers)
    Based on characters created by Frederick Nebel
    Starring Lola Lane as TORCHY BLANE
    and Paul Kelly as MacBRIDE
    Also starring Tom Kennedy
  • TORCHY GETS HER MAN | Buy this DVD
    (1938, Warner Brothers)
    Based on characters created by Frederick Nebel
    Starring Glenda Farrell as TORCHY BLANE
    and Barton MacLane as MacBRIDE
    Also starring Tom Kennedy, Paul Kelly
  • TORCHY BLANE IN CHINATOWN | Buy this DVD
    (1939, Warner Brothers)
    Based on characters created by Frederick Nebel
    Starring Glenda Farrell as TORCHY BLANE
    and Barton MacLane as MacBRIDE
    Also starring Tom Kennedy
    Arguably the best of the bunch.
  • TORCHY RUNS FOR MAYOR | Buy this DVD
    (1939, Warner Brothers)
    Based on characters created by Frederick Nebel
    Starring Glenda Farrell as TORCHY BLANE
    and Barton MacLane as MacBRIDE
    Also starring Tom Kennedy
  • TORCHY PLAYS WITH DYNAMITE | Buy this DVD
    (1939, Warner Brothers)
    Based on characters created by Frederick Nebel
    Starring Jane Wyman as TORCHY BLANE
    and Allen Jenkins as MacBRIDE
    Also starring Tom Kennedy.

COLLECTIONS

  • THE TORCHY BLANE COMPLETE MOVIE COLLECTION | Buy this DVD set
    Includes all nine films on five disks.

RELATED LINKS

Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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