If it wasn’t for Torchy Blane there wouldn’t have been Lois Lane.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize the byline — the fast-talking female reporter Blane long ago disappeared from popular culture. But for Jerry Siegel, who created Lois (as well as Superman, the Daily Planet, Clark Kent and the rest of Metropolis) with illustrator Joe Shuster, was so smitten with Torchy’s feisty charms that she became a model for Lois’ rough-and-tumble, no-nonsense attitude. He said as much in a letter to Time magazine that was meant to give credit where credit was due.
If Torchy hadn’t existed, Lois might have been a librarian at the Daily Planet instead of the ace reporter of Metropolis. From 1937-39, Warner Brothers made nine “Torchy Blane” low-budget programmers. Warner Archive recently released these quick-fire newspaper mysteries as “The Torchy Blane Collection.”
Ironically, Torchy was loosely based on a male character — the hard-drinking Kennedy in Louis Frederick Nebel’s “MacBride and Kennedy” stories. As the story goes, she was transformed into a less-boozy, female reporter because Hollywood’s strict production code didn’t look too kindly on having a drunken male hero. And the newspaper world was one of the few places that accepted women almost on an equal basis with men. In fact, Torchy was very much one of the boys in these films and they all seemed to adore her.
The brassy blonde Glenda Farrell, who starred in such Warner Bros. classics as 1930’s “Little Caesar” and 1932’s “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” played Torchy in seven episodes, making her debut in the role with 1937’s snappy “Smart Blonde.”
Each subsequent film followed the same formula — the nimble-minded, intuitive Torchy (who never bothered to take notes when she interviewed a person) would end up solving a crime way before her lunkhead boyfriend, police Det. Steve McBride (Barton MacLane).
Farrell was so adept at the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, the studio promoted her as the actress who could “speak 400 words in 40 seconds.”
After making “Fly-Away Baby,” “The Adventurous Blonde” and “Blondes at Work” in 1937, the actress Lola Lane came on board as Torchy in 1938’s “Torchy Blane in Panama.” Though the brunette lacked Farrell’s sassiness, Lane wasn’t a bad substitute — and her name sounds even closer to a certain scribe from the pages of Superman.
But Farrell was back in the fold that year in “Torchy Gets Her Man” and “Torchy Blane in Chinatown,” as well as 1939’s “Torchy Runs for Mayor.” The final entry, 1939’s “Torchy Blane…..Playing With Dynamite,” starred a young Jane Wyman, who comes across as more of a cub reporter than an experienced newspaper woman. Wyman had a small role as a ditzy nightclub hat check girl in the first Torchy movie. The new DVD collection may inspire some Superman historians to consider adding a footnote or two — if so, they should yell, “Get me rewrite!”
– Susan King
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Photos: Vintage publicity photo of Gelnda Farrell. A panel from Action Comics No. 1 with Superman and Lois Lane. (DC Comics). Superman on stage in 1966 (Los Angeles Times archive).