Spoilers ahead! So if you haven’t watched the movie, please do so before reading this post.
Joan Crawford was forty seven years old when she starred in Torch Song, a film which, according to Dr Megan McGurk of Sass Mouth Dames Podcast, marked her return to MGM after a decade. And what a return it was. The DVD cover for the copy of Torch Song that I own reads “Joan Crawford…shows she has the moves and gams to play Jenny”. Her “gams” are long, slender and agile, clad in classy fishnet stockings and paired with a figure hugging black leotard, or sheer stockings beneath a flared skirt that has medallions at the waist. The importance, and star power of her legs, are displayed very effectively when she compares them to their cardboard counterparts outside the theatre. Gig Young’s derisive playboy describes them as, “Living examples of perfect bilateral symmetry”. Slim cut black trousers with a large collared blue masculine skirt reminds the viewer that no matter what Joan is wearing, she is in control. That is until she is confronted with the quiet scorn of Tye Graham, her blind accompanist, played by the haltingly handsome Michael Wilding, whose crisp annunciation of every word seems to cut into Joan’s character, Jenny’s, hardened shell, breaking it down until she can no longer stop large tears from marring the shiny fabric of her blue shirt.
But Joan is not made pathetic by Tye’s disapproval. Her desire for him makes her even more fiery and demanding, but it also makes her analyse her own life choices. Joan achieves this character growth without sacrificing the powerful presence of her character. When she realises that Tye’s arrangement of one of her songs is better than her own, her reaction is not one of resignation, but quiet fury. She may be wrong, but she doesn’t have to like it. She does admit it, however, by using Tye’s arrangement in the final version of “Two Faced Woman”, a scene which left me feeling extremely uncomfortable due to Joan’s unnecessary black face. She’s still fabulous in the number, but she would have been no less fabulous without the incongruous black face.
Perhaps the only other man in the entire film who comes close to matching Joan’s powerhouse performance is Harry Morgan (billed here as Henry Morgan) as Joe, the director of the problem riddled play in which Jenny is the star. He stands up to Jenny, calls her out on her unwillingness to forgive human frailty, but does so in a quiet, composed way that rivals Tye’s. Another supporting player who shines is Marjorie Rambeau as Jenny’s mother, Mrs Stewart. Like Henry Morgan, she is not in very much of the film, but she, too, shows Jenny that there is room for vulnerability, even when you’re an unrivalled stage star. As Dr McGurk points out, the scene between Joan and Marjorie that is near the film’s denouement, shows how perfectly matched these two seasoned female performers are. They speak to each other frankly about their loneliness, and their maturity is not masked but enhanced by their shared realisation that Tye’s harshness towards Jenny is born of love, of carrying a torch for her that has burned so brightly that it has consumed his entire postwar life. For it is the image of Jenny as a “Gypsy Madonna” that has sustained him through his blindness. Jenny’s vulnerability is revealed fully when she marvels at his glowing praise of her when she performed in a dance hall in the infancy of her long stage career. He saw her potential and talent before anyone else, and his praise takes the form of a love letter that has taken many years to come to Jenny’s notice.
“Tenderly” has played throughout the film, but its significance is only revealed through Tye’s “love letter” to Jenny. The scene in which Joan sings along to India Adams’ rendition of the song, which is represented as an early performance by young Jenny via a well worn vinyl record that Mrs Stewart owns, is one of my favourites in the film. Joan looks so wistful and surprised, as if she is thinking about her own long, varied career. It is this scene, and the ones in which Jenny signs autographs for young theatre fans, and Tye describes her as being entirely committed to her audience and not fame, that shows how similar Jenny and Joan are. Joan was never as demanding as her onscreen character, and was always praised as a professional by her colleagues, but she was as devoted to her fans as Jenny is, and she was also as driven and talented. She makes everything in Torch Song look as if she is really living it. There is not a moment where the viewer does not see the credibility of her performance.
Michael Wilding almost matches Joan in regards to embodying his character in a way that is wholly believable. Not for a moment does he not look like a man who while self assured, has been made to live in a world of seeing people who cannot fully sympathise with his inability to exist as they do. Jenny purposely goads him at the end, delivering the blow that shatters his outer facade, as he has shattered her’s, by calling him out on his fear of her rejecting him due to his blindness. Tye completely destroys the careful order of his piano and his entire life, before falling over his piano stool. Jenny looks pained, and rushes to help him, but there is no embarrassment between them now. They recognise their need for each other in a final scene that is subtle and genuine, and closes out a love story that has been plagued by mature issues that they will slowly overcome as their relationship progresses.