Tickling the Rivalries

Really not impressed with Feud, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries about the Bette and Joan conflict on and around WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? One expects the thing to be camp and trashy, and that’s fine, I guess, but does it have to be so tone-deaf, so inaccurate? It was inevitable it would seize on every rumoured ruction from the set of that film, but the weirdly OFF stuff just keeps striking me — the young actress who asks for an autograph from Joan (Jessica Lange) and then says, “It’s for my grandmother. She’s been a fan of yours since she was a little girl.” Joan Crawford was in her mid-fifties. I think, in a show about actresses battling industry ageism, keeping the actual ages of the participants clear is important, and shouldn’t be thrown into confusion for the sake of, basically, a mean joke.

Also, it’s one of those shows that’s wall-to-wall exposition — writers of fact-based stuff today seem to struggle with delivering information convincingly.

I should say that Fiona quite enjoys the show, and is reading Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud. But this led to us running TORCH SONG, in search of some real Crawford kitsch, and my Christ it delivers.

We see THIS a few minutes in. Admittedly, we’ve already seen Crawford herself, who is scary-looking already at this pre-horror-movie point in her life, with what Fiona called “apricot hair” and pretty much an apricot face too. Still, the cardboard version is so startling it should have really come with a warning. A Horror Horn or something to let you know it’s coming. With usherettes dispensing laudanum.

Of course, what the misbegotten venture is best remembered for is something else, but I’ll be more considerate than the movie and give you due notice that a truly alarming image is coming your way.

Meanwhile — script is co-written by John Michael Hayes who wrote some of Hitchcock’s best, but had a regrettable tendency to archness. He’s joined by Jan Lustig, who has distinguished credits too, and by I.A.R. Wylie, who seems more of a Pat Hobby type — except the I. stands for Ida. “I’m going to give them the best that’s in me, no matter who, what or when tries to stop me.” That’s a tricky line to account for. Unless Crawford garbled it and they just left it in, whichever scribe was responsible must have known it was gibberish, but presumably they thought it was clever gibberish. It ain’t.

Crawford’s character is a complete bitch, a showbiz diva who fires a blind man and browbeats and insults everyone in (her) sight. (Or almost: she’s civil with her super-efficient secretary/PA, Maidie Norman, who’s black. The racial insult comes by separate post…) The fact that she’s apparently lonely and cries herself to sleep at night doesn’t redeem her. The movie seems to believe that we’re somehow going to root for her to find love, even though evidently her search for it will involve just being mean to people for ninety minutes. They haven’t quite worked out how to make nastiness a compelling trait, by revelling in it unapologetically.

People we do like in the film — Michael Wilding, the blind pianist, who just does his usual unassuming chap act; Marjorie Rambeau, who is magnificent as Joan’s lovely, boozy mom (“I didn’t know you was comin’ or I’d a gotten some high-class beer”); Harry Morgan, also mild and unassuming. Despite these laid-back performers around her, Joan keeps giving it both knees, as the Germans say. Which is appropriate to the role she’s been given

Her dancing here is better than her mad auntie gyrations in DANCING LADY — maybe she just couldn’t tap, or maybe skilled dance director Charles Walters has restrained her dancing in a way he couldn’t do for her acting. But he does allow her to perform “Two-Faced Woman” in blackface, so we can’t give him too much credit. Of all the mystifying errors of taste in this movie, this one… well, is that sufficient warning?

I’m trying and failing to imagine ways this could be worse. After Joan rips off her black wig to reveal her rigid apricot tresses, she could rip those off and reveal a bald cap, like Constance Towers in THE NAKED KISS, and then she could rip her whole face off and reveal one of the skull-aliens from THEY LIVE, and then she could rip that off and reveal Don Knotts. Nope. Still not worse than what the movie gives us.

Robert Aldrich eventually came to feel — rightly — that casting ageing actresses in horror roles was “kind of cruel.” SUNSET BOULEVARD and BABY JANE and their imitators play remorselessly on a legitimately disturbing theme, the point where the age-inappropriate goes so far as to surpass embarrassment, comedy, and pity, and break through into nightmare. TORCH SONG’s problems only very indirectly relate to Crawford’s age — only insofar as she’s no longer got the clout at the studio to get the best roles in the best movies. It’s true that she doesn’t look really attractive in it, and reviewers pointed this out, but that’s a flaw but not a fatal problem — the performance and the character are far more unattractive than her hard, unnatural look.

Still, it could’ve been worse. Joan recorded the songs herself, and was very unhappy when the studio replaced her singing. but she and we dodged a bullet. This YouTube clip compares the two vocal performances, but is far more interesting because it lets us hear Joan’s speaking voice — when she’s not acting or doing interviews (ie. acting). The feeling that emerges — which is a chilling one — is that she could have made an even more frightening Baby Jane Hudson than Bette Davis did.

It also opens up new and alarming possibilities for Faye Dunaway in MOMMIE DEAREST. Imagine if the regal tone dropped away whenever the media weren’t around… Maybe something as strange and extreme as that would have pushed Dunaway’s perf clean out the other side of camp and into the psychotic-uncanny?

Laughing at fading stars is a cruel spectator sport, whether it’s in BABY JANE or Feud — the horrible thing about TORCH SONG is that it’s useless for any other purpose.

12 Responses to “Tickling the Rivalries”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    You’ve put your finger squarely on what is wrong with TORCH SONG. It has all the makings of a camp classic…except it’s too overpoweringly nasty to be entertaining!..

    Mind you, it’s still better than most of FEUD. At least we don’t have to watch Catherine Zeta-Jones play Olivia!

  2. That is the worst casting ever. Worse (in the opposite direction) than Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner in The Aviator. I recall you saying, ironically enough, that even CZJ would have made a more sensible choice for Ava.

  3. Carol Burnett did a marvelous spoof of this called “Torchy Song.” Alas its been blocked on You Tube.

  4. Apparently John Waters will play William Castle in tomorrow’s episode.

  5. BTW that’s Chuck Walters himself dancing with Joan in the opening rehearsal scene.

  6. chris schneider Says:

    Let me second that enthusiasm for “Torchy Song.” Burnett says in her autobiography that, when she met Crawford, she was reminded of her mother … and somehow there’s an intensity when she does Crawford which surpasses other Burnett impersonations. I came late to TORCH SONG, which seems more horrifying spectacle than anything else. And yet. I think there’s an impulse, here and in other ’50s Crawford, to establish actorly cred by avoiding nice and playing bad-ass. Which she succeeds at. There’s also an epigrammatic feel to some of the dialogue that I like. Crawford of piano accompaniment, “Well, I happen to *like* it unorthodox, arbitrary, and abrupt!” Crawford to a potential backer, “Your idea of art’s the fruit in the slot machine.”

  7. bensondonald Says:

    “Two Faced Woman” was also shot for and deleted from BANDWAGON; the clip is on the DVD and on YouTube.

    Athletic Cyd Charisse is always fun to watch; not sure if she’s singing with her own voice here. The sequence itself is a bit problematic. It’s supposed to be a scene from the pretentious failure version of the show-within-a-show, but it’s not trying hard enough to be bad or even comically pretentious. It’s just kind of generic, waiting to be plopped into an entirely different movie.

    In the finished film, we hear bits of cheesy dialogue being rehearsed, Jack Buchanan testing a hokey smoke effect, and a disastrous tech rehearsal with an arty, complicated set. Then, finally, the show itself is represented by a few elegantly desolate drawings (ending with an egg) and the first nighters filing out in stunned silence. We’re left to imagine how bad a musical comedy Faust can be.

    Contrast to THE PRODUCERS: The “Springtime for Hitler” number combines appalling content with fun — albeit old-hat — staging and performance. Or the CD of SPAMALOT, which mocks Broadway cliches via precise and often appealing imitation. The overture is just a little too enthusiastically chipper; lyrics deconstruct themselves; and the whole show calls attention to how absurd it is to musicalize this material.

  8. Is Two-Faced Woman a jinxed title? Dropped from The Band Wagon, ghastly in Torch Song, and the name of Garbo’s swan song…

    By coincidence, just enjoyed fellow Scot Jack Buchanan in Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo, which is fun. But The Band Wagon finds better use for his maniacal, vulpine grin: perfect for a visionary director in the throes of a terrible idea.

    John Waters as William Castle is sort of amusing, since he’s a fan, but dead wrong if you want to give any sense of who Castle was, what he was LIKE… Still, it’s always nice to see Mr. Waters, on any pretext.

  9. Ryan Murphy needs to use your ‘Torch Song’-to-‘Naked Kiss’-to-‘They Live’-to-Don Knotts sequence as the teaser trailer for the next season of American Horror Story.

  10. They haven’t done an AHS set in a movie studio yet, have they? I smell crossover!

  11. theredshoes1 Says:

    Fee here, presenting Torchy Song. The hair is only a slight exaggeration of the original. Burnett’s got great gams!

  12. theredshoes1 Says:

    Fee again – in fact Burnett did amazing spoofs of numerous classic movies. Here are ten of the best.


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