Move over, Murphy Brown. Forget about Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw. To heck with Gilmore Girl's Cory Gilmore. Meet the most famous fictional journalist you've probably never heard of. Her real name was Glenda Farrell and she starred in seven movies about the “beautiful, headline-hunting, wisecracking female reporter” Torchy Blane.
You may not know Torchy or recognize the actress, but you probably will recognize this movie featuring Rosalind Russell as “fast-talking, ace reporter” Hildy Johnson. The movie is considered by many to be one of the must-watch movies about journalism, in large part because of its comedic tone and quick-witted, sharp dialogue.
Want more? How about these two? Lois Lane was not just the love interest for Clark Kent and Superman but a “tough as nails reporter with a mind for the truth.” Then, of course, there was “America's top female crime fighter,” Brenda Starr, “the fearless, feisty, red-headed journalist.”
By now, you've noticed a theme in all this. Actually, there are two themes... maybe even three. The first is probably pretty obvious. These are all women reporters, female journalists. The second point may not be so obvious. All of these characters come from one very short, specific period in American history: The four or five years surrounding the beginning of World War II, roughly 1937 to 1942. This, of course, was also the same time when the cinematic masterpiece and must-watch journalism movie of all time was produced – Citizen Kane (1941).
But like Citizen Kane, the movies about reporters were not so much about the war. One of the few reporter movies with that theme was Foreign Correspondent, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Even the one German movie produced during this time, Goodbye Fanziska, was about a “globetrotting reporter and his devoted wife” and not the war. Nearly all of the American movies of the time had a similar love theme.
The reporting on the war was dominated by men like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Ernie Pyle among others. The one woman reporter was Martha Gellhorn, who had an incredible career, covering not only WWII, but the Spanish Civil War, the war in Vietnam, the Six-Day War in the Middle East as well as “several conflicts in Central America.”
However, as much as the men dominated that reporting, a case could be made that the movies about reporting appear to have been dominated by women, like those cited above. For example, to the movies we've already named add these – 1937's Marry the Girl and 1942's Woman of the Year (with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy). In its analysis of “why” that may be true, the bio about Torchy Blane on Wikipedia argues that during this period, “newspaper reporter was one of the few roles in American cinema that portrayed women positively, as intelligent, competent, self-reliant, and career-oriented—virtually equal to men.”
Interestingly, a site focused on detective stories echoed that same theme: “In the thirties, a world far, far away... a female reporter was about the most independent and intelligent role model for young women the movies had to offer.”
No woman exemplified that more than Torchy Blane who both sites call the best known and most famous of all those women reporters. That brings me to theme number three, and a confession of sorts. I had never heard about Torchy Blane until I started researching movies about journalism. Confession number two, I knew Lois Lane and Superman as well as Brenda Starr were "old" but I didn't know they were this old and that they dated from this same critical period.
Altogether actress Glenda Farrell starred in seven Torchy Blane movies. There were two other Torchy Blane movies, one with Jane Wyman and one with Lola Lane. The public, though, wanted Glenda Farrell because she “more or less embodied everyone's notion of what a female reporter looked and sounded like for that era — fast-talking and feisty, self-confident and even cocky,” as the editor of the detective website put it.
Yes, these are all Touchy Blane movies, and yes, they do seem to have a certain... um, what's the right word... tone? The fact is the movies of the time probably did reflect some of that implied attitude. Yes, she did have a love interest, detective lieutenant Steve MacBride played by actor Barton MacLane. Torchy Blane though – especially as played by Glenda Farrell – was no “sob sister.” That was a derogatory term some male reporters used to describe their female counterparts when they first came into the business in the early 1900's.
Joe Saltzman with the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a project of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California-Annenberg, put it in a report on "Sob Sisters:" “Blane went after fast-breaking, sensational stories as aggressively as any newsman. Her scoops were usually in print before her male counterparts figured out what was going on. She was no sob sister, no gushy old maid, no masculine-looking lady.”
Part of the explanation for that may have been the fact that Torchy Blane was originally written as a man, says Saltzman. Part of the explanation though was also Glenda Farrell herself who went to the newsrooms in New York City to watch the women in action because, in her words, she wanted to make “Torchy true to life.”
The other movies in the Torchy Blane saga starring Farrell were Fly-Away Baby, Torchy Gets Her Man, Torchy Blane in Chinatown and Torchy Runs for Mayor. Farrell starred in more than a dozen other movies, including yet again, one about reporters titled “Hi, Nellie.”
And yet now, people know Lois Lane and Brenda Starr, but they don't know Torchy Blane even though, as you've seen, several sources say she was the most famous, most well known fictional female reporter of her time. In the list by IMDB.com of the top 80 journalism/reporters movies, not a single mention. In the list of the 61 “must-see movies” for journalists compiled by Ernest Pfauth, CEO and co-founder of The Correspondent, not a single mention. And in an article by The Washington Post of the Top 10 Journalism movies, as picked by Katie Couric, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – Zip! No mention.
So, maybe I shouldn't feel so bad that I didn't know anything about her. And maybe, just maybe, I should get the complete Torchy Blane movie set, some popcorn, some beer and learn what it means to be a fearless, feisty, independent, intelligent, aggressive Newshound with a Nose for News.