TORCH SINGER (Paramount, 1933), directed by Alexander Hall and George Somnes, from the story, "Mike" by Grace Perkins, gives indication as a musical drama starring torch singer Helen Morgan, but, while Morgan, best known for her early work in Rouben Mamoulian's APPLAUSE (Paramount, 1929), might have stepped into this particular role with conviction, especially when songs are concerned, the leading role went to none-other than Claudette Colbert, with screen personality most associated with comedy than singing. The finished product, however, is not so much a musical, in spite of songs thrown in, but a Depression era theme of a poor woman's rise to success, unable to forget her past concerning that special someone she hopes to meet again.
Following the opening credits with titles over blazing fire, this hot item begins with Sally Trent (Claudette Colbert), a show girl by profession, arriving at St. Ann's Hospital, registering as a free clinic patient, where she soon gives birth to her illegitimate daughter. While there, she befriends Dora (Lyda Roberti), a young Bronx widow who gives birth to a little boy, Bobby. Upon their release, the two mothers help each other by sharing an apartment together and watching each other's babies while looking for work. With Dora finding a new husband after losing her job, Sally struggles on her own after landlady evicts her for non payment of rent. Unable to care for Little Sally, she comes to the rich aunt (Ethel Griffies) of the man who fathered her child for help, but is refused. Sally makes the supreme sacrifice by giving up her child to the sisters of St. Ann's Hospital, with the condition that she'll never see her daughter, again. The next few years finds Sally, now known professionally as Mimi Benton, torch singing in restaurants and night clubs before being discovered by Tony Cummings (Ricardo Cortez), who arranges her new career singing on radio for Andrew Judson's (Charley Grapewin) Pure Food Broadcast. Mimi soon finds further success hosting as Aunt Jennie on a children's radio program telling bedtime stories. In spite of her fame and fortune, and fan letters from children, Sally, a/k/a Mimi, starts yearning for her daughter, using her radio broadcast to regain custody of her, while the father of her child, Michael Gardner (David Manners), who had been away in China during her pregnancy, makes every effort to find her.
The supporting players consists of Florence Roberts (Mother Angelica); Mildred Washington (Carrie, the maid); Virginia Hammond (Mrs. Julia Judson); Helen Jerome Eddy (Miss Spaulding); William B. Davidson and Toby Wing in smaller roles. Ricardo Cortez, noted for playing heals or villains, is surprisingly effective as a loyal friend for a change, while David Manners, usually the good guy, as a rich young lad unaware of his child's existence. Appearing 40 minutes into the start of story, Manners is given little to do in the process, as with Lyda Roberti, whose character disappears shortly before the plot gets underway.
In a role that might have dramatically suited Paramount's own drama queens as Sylvia Sidney or Tallulah Bankhead, TORCH SINGER is made credible by the casting of Colbert, shortly before reaching super star status in 1934, vocalizing such tunes as: "Here Lies Love," "I'm Waiting For You," "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love," "Sail, Baby, Sail," "You Can Depend on Me" and the reprise of "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love." For her introduction during the opening minutes in the hospital, she comes close to becoming recognizable without makeup, especially during her moments of labor pain.
When this long unseen drama was selected as part of Turner Classic Movie's spotlight on "Complicated Women" broadcast May 13, 2003, host Robert Osborne, during his after movie profile, mistakenly gave credit to Baby LeRoy as Colbert's long lost son (an error commonly found in other related sources), instead of rightfully naming those who played her daughter, Shirley Christensen (the baby), and Cora Sue Collins (the child). Not broadcast since its TCM premiere, TORCH SINGER was brought back in circulation again when distributed on DVD in 2009 by MCA Universal.
With TORCH SINGER being one of the many prime examples on how unwed mothers are portrayed during Hollywood's pre-code era, and this being Colbert's preparation for another self sacrificing mother role in IMITATION OF LIFE (Universal, 1934), the movie itself is basically weakened by unbelievable circumstances taking place after such a fine start. Regardless of its flaws, TORCH SINGER is a worthy rediscovery. (**)