Thursday, May 1, 2008

When Stars Commit Unintentional Self-Parody: Rants on Torch Song and Hondo

Most of the major stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood had a definable persona and certain character traits. It's what made all of the MGM pictures of the 1930's such massive hits and why certain actors and actresses with limited abilities became popular. But, after awhile, the stars had to adapt their personas with the times, otherwise audiences would get tired of the same old shtick over and over again. By 1953, both Joan Crawford and John Wayne had been stars for years, but their respective films for that year, Torch Song and Hondo, proved that something needed to be changed to keep their careers fresh and free of unintentional self-parody.

Outside of a few pivotal performances, I've always felt that Joan Crawford (the actress, not the mother) has been a tad overrated. When she got a good script/film, as she did in Grand Hotel, The Women, A Woman's Face, Possessed and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, few could match her. But after wasting countless hours watching her early crap films from MGM in which the only decent thing was Crawford's performance, there's only so much of her saving that I can take. Torch Song (Charles Walters, 1953), her triumphant return to MGM after a 7 year stint at Warner Brothers, is more of the same old crap that her alma mater gave her in the early 30's. Instead of playing a scheming shopgirl, Crawford plays Jenny Stewart, the biggest star on Broadway, and judging by her first scene, also the biggest bitch on Broadway this side of Margot Channing. But that's where any similarities between the two films end, because the entirety of Torch Song isn't as written or acted as well as one line in All About Eve.

The first five minutes of Torch Song are somewhat amusing, with her belittling of her dance partner and the way she drives the composer to drink. But after awhile, it becomes exasperating to see her do the same thing scene after scene: there she goes chewing someone out and, what do you know, she being a major bitch to that poor person there. We also eventually realize that Joan Crawford is the star of this film, damnit, and she'll be damned before she will let any other actor in the film get a chance to give a great performance. I'm actually surprised that Marjorie Rambeau managed to survive, as StinkyLulu so eloquently put it, "Hurricane Joan," and receive an Oscar nomination. Nevermind that it's a nothing performance, just a couple of line readings and she's done, and that it's the most inconsequential nomination, in terms of story impact, since Maria Ouspenskaya in Dodsworth- it's almost a miracle she managed to walk upright after Crawford's whirlwind.

In the end, I feel like Torch Song isn't a film that couldn't have been saved by anyone, let alone Crawford, or one that is actually worth saving. But, for some reason, I kept imagining what Judy Garland would have done with Jenny Stewart and it feels more and more like a great idea as I continue to think about it. Except for the bitchy scenes, the loneliness sections would have fit well in the repertoire of Garland and she would have nailed the musical numbers in ways that Crawford couldn't even imagine.

I must admit that I'm quite a John Wayne fan. I could say that he's a guilty pleasure, given my admiration for Sands of Iwo Jima and True Grit, but there were times when he was an amazing actor (Red River, The Searchers). Unfortunately, Hondo (John Farrow, 1953) is not one of those times. Maybe it's just been awhile since I've seen a Wayne film, but those first ten minutes were excruciating. Wayne has one of the most stylized deliveries in the history of film, but I've never heard him that stylized. I would like to think that Wayne may have been making fun of himself, winking at the audiences expectations, but I don't think that's what he was trying to do. Not only does it not make any sense in the context of the film, but I don't think Wayne had that much of a sense of humor about himself.

Wayne does eventually ease into the role (or maybe the audience excepts his exceptional haminess), but Hondo does not become a great film. It's the classic story of the West: the good frontiersman versus the savage Injuns. I wish I could say I was offended by the film's treatment of Native Americans, but I've seen so many Westerns of this type I've come to expect it (and since when has Old Hollywood ever been a beacon for positive racial stereotypes?). Geraldine Page, who also earned an Oscar nomination along with Rambeau, plays the woman Wayne's Hondo is supposed to protect. I wish I could say I liked it, but Page gives one of the most frustratingly one-dimensional performances I've seen in awhile. Not only was the role nothing special, but everything she said and every gesture she made just fell flat in my opinion.

My Ratings:
Torch Song D+
Hondo D

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