Pushing the pre-code envelope: “Torch Singer”

As anyone who’s read my movie musings knows, I love Claudette Colbert as evidenced by my posts on It Happened One Night and Midnight. There’s another favorite of mine (heck, I love most of her films) called Torch Singer. This one has become a particular favorite of mine partially because it was my introduction to pre-code cinema.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term pre-code, it describes the period between roughly 1930-1934 when censorship was not enforced in Hollywood. As such, the storylines, characters, and innuendo they got away with seem outrageous considering the rules which did end up being enforced from 1934-1968.

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lol her underwear is pants, guys!

Some of those rules included not allowing couples to be shown in the same bed, at the same time, banned curse words, as well as not making any sort of immoral behavior look attractive or beautiful. Now, obviously filmmakers found a way to get around those rules to a certain extent, but there is something fascinating about films made during the pre-code era.

If you’re unfamiliar, Torch Singer, made in 1933, follows Sally Trent (Claudette Colbert), a woman who finds herself in a difficult situation when she becomes pregnant. She has the child and even raises her for a time, before realizing she’s just not making enough money. Ultimately, she gives up the baby for adoption. Meanwhile, the father of the child, Mike (David Manners) leaves the country, not having known about the baby in the first place. Sally changes her name to Mimi Benton and becomes a successful torch singer, drinking and partying in excess. Mimi then gets hired as the host of a radio talk show for kids and soon realizes she can use the show as a means for finding her daughter and as always…DRAMA ENSUESSSS.

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Welcome to pre-code cinema, guys!

Here are just a few reasons you need to check out Torch Singer!

The Cast

This movie, to me, is all about Claudette Colbert. It’s a fairly short film and she carries it. She finds a way to have you like her character, despite some of the bad choices she makes. This was still a year off from It Happened One Night, and obviously much more “out there,” but it’s still our same Claudette, sassy as ever!

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I can’t help but look at this gif and be like, what is that guy doing? #NeedsSomeDancingLessons?

David Manners, who was famous for his roles in horror films like Dracula and The Mummy, plays Sally/Mimi’s love interest, Mike. I’d like to say he plays a big part and you feel so much when they’re reunited, but honestly, he’s okay. It’s Claudette’s movie.

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He’s trying to be sassy, but he can’t pull it off. #RealTalk

The Script

Here we get to the fun that is pre-code. The lines are hilarious and pushing boundaries. The screenplay based on the story “Mike” by Grace Perkins, was adapted by two women, Lenore J. Coffee and Lynn Starling. As such, there’s a sensitivity to the script that I think sets it apart from other “women’s pictures” which were written by men. The story itself was tabboo just in showing an unwed woman becoming pregnant in the first place, not to mention the real doubts she has as to what kind of mother she will be. It definitely feels like it’s from a female point of view.

Additionally, I love that the star of this film is not the romance, but the reuniting of a mother and her child. That is where the emotional weight lies in this film, not with her ex-lover, but with her daughter. For a film that’s only a little over an hour, Torch Singer and Colbert’s performance has a lot to it.

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I’M
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NOT
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CRYINNNNG.

The Lines:

Okay, there’s just too many good ones not to share a few:

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or:

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and this one where Mike tells Mimi she’s become hard:

 

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The Singing

I’m also a musical fanatic as most people who know me know and as such, I get a kick out of seeing Claudette sing her torch songs with her raspy, yet still beautiful, voice.

It’s a sweet, feminist melodrama and a great introduction to pre-code cinema!

Written by two women, starring a woman, and about a woman’s struggles, this film is definitely a #FeministClassic and it’s great way into pre-code cinema, where women really got their chance to shine, in shades of grey as all different kinds of people. There’s no trailer for the film unfortunately, but take my advice, go out and buy the Pre-Code Hollywood Collection set from Universal. It’s one-hundred percent worth it and I promise, you’ll be a pre-code convert after devouring those films!

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A mother’s advice. Maybe a bit soon for a seven year-old, but whatever…

Gifs and photos property of Paramount Pictures.

Oh Claudette, you old so and so…

The two holiday weeks are equal parts stressful and fun. There’s family and hordes of food, but there’s also time for movies.

My favorite part of the holiday season here in Los Angeles is the schedule at the American Cinematheque. For those outside of the Los Angeles bubble, the American Cinematheque is a screening organization which shows classic or “alternative” films. They show films at the historic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and also at the Aero in Santa Monica.

During the holidays, they tend to show popular films, the ones that will sell out when people are off work and actually have the time to go to the movies. Die Hard and It’s a Wonderful Life are the christmas staples, but what I look forward to most is those first few screenings in the new year when they highlight 30s and 40s screwball comedies.

This year, on the second night of their screwball comedy tribute, they showed a double feature of Midnight (1939) and Remember the Night (1940). I had seen Midnight before, but it had been a while. I knew I liked it, but couldn’t remember the particulars. In this second viewing, I was blown away at how modern and hilarious it was. The audience was totally connected to the story and the characters.

For a little background, Midnight stars Claudette Colbert as Eve Peabody, a nightclub singer who arrives in Paris without a cent to her name. Straight off the train, she meets Tibor Chemny (Don Ameche), a taxi driver who falls in love with her at first sight.

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However, Eve, scared of her feelings for Tibor, runs away, right into a high class soiree happening nearby where she meets Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore…Yes, he’s Drew’s great-grandfather)….

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Georges sets his eyes on Eve when he sees that his wife’s (Mary Astor) lover, Jacques Piqot, played by Frances Lederer is interested in Eve. Georges tells Eve he’ll foot all her bills if she pretends to be a baroness and steals away Jacques from his wife. As if there is not enough problems, the taxi driver then comes back in and Eve does everything to protect her story, piling lie upon lie.

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Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett penned the script while Mitchell Leisen directed. It really was a dream team in a lot of respects, especially considering that Barrymore died only two short years later. However, the making of the film was slightly tumultuous as Leisen apparently liked to change dialogue. This enraged Wilder and led him to direct his own scripts from then on.

Midnight is light and tremendously fun. Ameche’s role is very much something Gable would have done. He’s gruffly lovable and we all watch hoping Eve and Tibor can make it work. But, Barrymore really steals the show, taking advantage of every moment he’s on screen.

It’s the perfect movie for those lazy winter days, especially when rain attacks Los Angeles and all you want to do is watch old movies and drink hot cocoa….or maybe that’s just me. Either way, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Vintage trailer below: