Thursday, June 17, 2010

Everybody Learns from Sherlock Holmes

They really do. Not long ago, I wrote about a particular episode of The Adventures of Superman that used a similar concept to a Sherlock Holmes story.

Well, recently, the original Torchy Blane movies came out on DVD through the Warner Archives program. I’d seen most of them over the years on TV from time to time, but there’s a few I’ve missed. It’s nice to be able to get completely caught up on them.

Torchy, by the way, has an odd history. The movies are supposedly based on an excellent series of hard-boiled detective stories by Frederick Nebel. These featured a cop named Steve McBride and a perpetually drunk reporter named Kennedy, who often worked together to catch crooks and uncover corruption in fictional Richmond City.

When Warner Brothers brought the series to the big screen in nine entertaining B-movies, poor Kennedy was replaced by spunky, smart and fast-talking Torchy Blane. Played in seven of the films by the very pretty Glenda Farrell, Torchy was now engaged to Steve McBride (usually played by Barton MacLane). Their relationship was often more adversarial than loving—but they usually managed to solve whatever crime needed solving. And, it’s the wise-cracking Torchy who usually gets to the correct solution first, scooping the other newspapers on the story in the process. Also, Richmond City was replaced by New York City—most likely to allow the use of stock footage.

The movies aren’t the hard-boiled fare that the original stories were. They are more light-weight. But good writing and Warner Brothers’ stable of reliable character actors make it a really enjoyable series.

Anyway, I’m supposed to be talking about a Sherlock Holmes connection. In Torchy Gets Her Man (1938), the girl reporter finds out MacBride is working on a top-secret sting operation at the race track, hoping to catch a counterfeiter. Eager to get a scoop, she decides to deal herself in by tailing the G-man who’s working with MacBride. What neither he nor MacBride know, though, is that the G-man actually is the counterfeiter. (That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The audience is given this information early on.)

When Torchy tries a straight tail, she loses the “G-man.” So she tries a different method. She pours creosote (a smelly oil that was used as a wood preservative) on the right rear tire of the guy’s car. Then she rents a bloodhound track the smell.

She even admits to have gotten the idea from Sherlock Holmes. In the novel The Sign of Four (1890—Holmes’ second appearance), someone fleeing from the scene of a murder steps in some creosote. Holmes uses a bloodhound named Toby to hunt him to the riverfront. This eventually leads to the classic boat chase that brings the case to a close.

Toby, by the way, is something of a fan favorite. If I remember correctly, this was his only actual appearance in a story from the original Canon, but he makes quite an impression on readers--or at least the dog-loving readers.

Well, Torchy doesn’t have access to Toby. She ends up with a German Shepherd named Blitzen (and is obligated to phonetically give commands to Blitzen in German). Despite the language barrier, Blitzen does a bang-up job, even playing an important role in saving Torchy’s life after she is captured and left tied up near a ticking time bomb.

So 48 years after the publication of The Sign of Four, spunky and pleasant-to-look-at Torchy Blane looks to the Great Detective for help. That same year, Orson Welles described Holmes during a Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast as “a gentleman who never lived and will never die.” Torchy Gets Her Man is just one small example of just how true that is.

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