The 1940s and Depression-era girl reporter embodies everything I could ever want to be. The very quintessence of dame-ness, she’s smart, savvy, confident, independent, and quick with the comeback. (She also looks pretty steppy in her fitted suit.) As adept at a snappy line as she is with a byline, she puts the repartee in reporting as she goes around beating deadlines, solving mysteries, and invariably being the smartest one in the room.
The epitome of the sassy girl reporter” was Torchy Blane, who snared exclusives and criminals in nine Warner Brothers movies in the 1930s. A female journalist in a man’s world, she lets nothing stand in the way of her getting the story, including her bull-headed police detective boyfriend.
Torchy is played by Glenda Farrell who, along with Joan Blondell, personified the tough, been-around-the-block, smart and smart-ass blondes in early talkies. Glenda made 122 movies in her career, most of them as the archetypal fast-talking dame. (Her wisecracks were delivered rapid-fire – she was said to be able to speak 400 words in 40 seconds!)
Less cherubic and more acerbic than Blondell, Farrell’s appeal lay in her sharpness rather than her curvy softness. Fearless and unsentimental, nothing gets in the way of a scoop. Torchy is not above wire-tapping or breaking and entering. They don’t boil’em much harder; encountering a dying man 1939’s Torchy Blane in Chinatown she shouts, “Oh boy! What a story!” and has no compunction impersonating the widow at the funeral.
Torchy makes her cinematic debut in 1937’s Smart Blonde as she jumps from a cab onto a perilously close passing railroad car. She adjusts her skirt, tucks her signature beret into her pocket, enters the train as if she were a paying customer, and proceeds to nab an exclusive interview.
“I’ve got ink in my blood and a nose for news that needs something besides powder.” — Torchy Blane in Blondes at Work
Torchy and others see her as a reporter first and a woman second. Even in today’s so-called modern movies, how often is a woman’s professional excellence her primary asset? When her dumb ass doughy boyfriend admonishes, “This rathole is no place for a woman,” Torchy retorts “But I’m a newspaperman!”
(An aside about Torchy’s “boyfriend” Barton MacLane: It’s hard to believe Torchy would saddle herself with this big blowhard. Even Torchy’s editor at the Morning Herald editor hates the idea that “the smartest reporter in this cockeyed town” plans “to marry some bourgeois boob and spawn a kennel of brats.” Mercifully, a running gag through the films centers around the fact that she and her “fiancé” are always on their way to City Hall to get married when a story-slash-murder inevitably gets in the way. We are never subjected to having to see Torchy in an apron making pancakes for this bozo. )
In 1937’s Fly Away Baby, Torchy’s fiancé tells her, “Running down criminals is a man’s job. It takes a masculine mind and years of experience to crack these cases. So you just go back to your office and write a nice little story about what the women’s clubs are doing to promote world peace, and then I’ll take you out to dinner…” Of course she proceeds to outsmart him minutes later. Part of the series’ template is that sexism abounds but Torchy is not deterred and we, the audience, know she’ll upturn every condescending remark.
There are more famous mid-century female reporters, but it’s worth noting that Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel cites Glenda Farrell’s portrayal of Torchy Blane as his inspiration for Lois Lane. (Actress Lola Lane played Torchy in one film, inspiring Lois’ surname.)
Lola Lane played Torchy once, in 1938’s Torchy Blane in Panama, where she tells the boys, “Murders and holdups are my meat.” Torchy’s other meat was…meat. To underscore our herione’s tough masculine side, another running gag involves Torchy’s appetite for steaks — “The fondest thing I is of,” she asserts in Torchy Gets Her Man.
Torchy does indeed always get her man, and now she’s getting her due. This month Turner Classic Movies has begun showing the Torchy series every Saturday. Or, dig in to Torchy’s “Tao of Dame” anytime with the series collection on DVD.
I’d love to be half as cool as Torchy, though I’d substitute a veggie burger for the steak, or perhaps great quantities of pancakes.