One of the interesting things about reviewing very old films is the tension between my modern standards and my understanding of the morals of the day from when the film was created. How do you praise a film for its technical skill, its acting, directing, etc., if its underlying themes and message are out of date? Certainly, this isn’t only relegated to older films as some modern ones can be problematic, but classic films run into these problems more often.
With Torch Singer, we find Sally Trent (Claudette Colbert) desperate and alone as an unmarried pregnant woman without any money. The father of her unborn child, Michael Gardner (David Manners), has taken off for China to live without knowing he’s about to become a father. She has the child in a charity hospital. She tries to take care of her daughter, but finds it difficult to find employment with a baby in tow. She visits Michael’s family but without proof the baby is his, they kick her out. Out of options, she gives that child up for adoption, signing papers that she’ll never see little Sally ever again.
She then gets a job in a nightclub as a torch singer. She becomes quite successful. Rich and famous, she begins searching for her daughter but is told that it would never work out for being a torch singer is to be deemed unfit for motherhood. Singing in nightclubs is not proper work for a respectable woman.
From a modern perspective, all this seems a little silly. Unwed motherhood is no longer a big deal. Singing in a nightclub is perfectly legitimate work. The inherent drama within this film no longer works. Yet we must recognize that when this film was made those things were concerns within the culture at large. What makes this film so interesting and unique is that it treats Sally with respect. She is the hero of this story. She takes control of her life. The film does not look down on her for the situation she is in, even if some of the characters do. There are many moments throughout the film that feel almost modern. In a few short years, when the Production Code would truly go into effect, these things would no longer be allowed. Sally would have been punished for her perceived sins.
Early in the film, Sally is living with Suzanne Baggart (Toby Wing) whom she met in the charity hospital having her own baby out of wedlock. One day Suzanne comes home crying because she’s just lost her job. Her boss made a pass at her and she quit on the spot. The film doesn’t make a big deal out of it. This is just something women have to go through. Sexual harassment, the film notes, is just one of the thousands of indignities cast upon women every day.
Yet for all this modernity, the film is a giant snore. Due to my modern perspective, the shame Sally is supposed to feel for her choices make no sense. Thus the fact that she makes strong choices doesn’t really matter. At its heart, the story is all melodrama. But without the feeling of real drama at its core and a distinct lack of action or comedy or anything of real interest it was difficult to keep my attention up.
This brings me back to my initial question. How does one judge a film like this? I appreciate the film’s bold approach to its subject matter: something that must have been quite shocking in 1933 falls rather flat in 2021. I should note that Claudette Colbert is wonderful. She’s tasked to show a wide variety of emotions – from the destitute and despairing pregnant woman, to a sultry nightclub singer, from the successful and sassy woman about town to a mother desperate to see her daughter again. She makes us feel every one of those emotions and more. She makes the film worth watching if you are a fan.
Extras on this Blu-ray from Kino Lorber include an excellent audio commentary from film historian Kat Ellinger. She focuses more on the historical significance of the film and its modern sensibilities than the plot or behind-the-scenes gossip. Also included are numerous trailers for similar films.