Glenda Farrell: Torchy and Beyond

I’m a little astonished I haven’t yet done a post on stage and screen star Glenda Farrell (1904-1971). I’ve meant to for years, and hers is the kind of background we specialize in; we just hadn’t got around to it yet.

Farrell’s childhood involved lots of moving, from Enid Oklahoma to Wichita Kansas to San Diego California. At the age of seven she played Little Eva in a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Lots of work in vaudeville and with stock companies followed. In 1920 she met English performer Thomas Richards at a dance. They briefly had a vaudeville act. In 1921 they married and their child Tommy Farrell (who also became an actor) was born. The situation necessitated Farrell’s temporary retirement from show business for most of the twenties. By her own account, she worked in shops and factories and endured abuse from her hard-drinking husband. In 1928 she was hired as a replacement for a lead in a play called The Spider. The production went east; Glenda went with it, and it was her ticket out of the relationship. She divorced Richards in 1929. He later went on to become a successful film editor.

In the late ’20s/ early ’30s Farrell appeared in a half dozen Broadway shows, culminated with Life Begins (1932) which was also made into a film that year starring Farrell, putting her on the map (though she’d had a supporting role in Little Caesar the year before). In 1931 she was briefly engaged to Jack Durant of Mitchell and Durant; the rapidly shifting dynamic of her growing success seems to have put the kabosh on the marriage. Other early classics include Three on a Match, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), the latter of which seems like a dry run for her Torchy character in retrospect. Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day (1933) introduced her to screenwriter Robert Riskin, whom she dated for a time. She’s also in the musicals Gold Diggers of 1935 and Gold Diggers of 1937, Go Into Your Dance (1935) with Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler, and five movies co-starring Joan Blondell: Havana Widows (1933), Kansas City Princess (1934), We’re in the Money (1935), Miss Pacific Fleet (1935) and Traveling Saleslady (1935). And much else.

A film series starring Farrell as fast-talking girl reporter Torchy Blane launched in 1937 with Smart Blonde. Nine of these popular B movies were produced through the end of Farrell’s Warner Brothers contract in 1939. Superman co-creator Jerry Seigel was a major fan of this series and of Farrell. The character of Lois Lane is largely based on Torchy, and he named a character in another of his comics “June Farrell” after the actress.

In 1940 she returned to Broadway in the smash hit Separate Rooms with Lyle Talbot and Alan Dinehart. The show played for a year and a half. She continued to alternate films and Broadway plays throughout the 1940s and 50s. Starting in the late ’40s, television was added to the mix. In her later films she was normally a supporting player. You can see her in The Talk of the Town (1942), Klondike Kate (1943), and many others. In The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing (1955) she plays Evelyn Nesbit’s mother. Frank Tashlin put her in Susan Slept Here (1954), and Jerry Lewis’s The Disorderly Orderly (1964). She’s also in the Elvis movie Kissin’ Cousins (1964).

Toward the end of her life, she did two interesting projects. She co-starred with Julie Harris in the hit Broadway comedy Forty Carats (1968-1970). And she was in the heist movie Tiger by the Tail (1970) with Tippi Hedren and Christopher George. She died of lung cancer in 1971 at the relatively young age of 66.

For more on the history of vaudeville, including stars like Glenda Farrell, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous