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Humoresque (1947)

     Today’s review is an example of the power Joan Crawford wielded in the 1940s and, I think, to the limitations of the actress’ talents. Although speculation swirled that Crawford could get an Oscar nomination for Humoresque, the only reason it does not get the lower rating of Dullsville is because the music and performance of that music is really striking.

     Demanding top billing even though her role is secondary to that of John Garfield and she does not make her appearance until 30 minutes in, Crawford expected great things from the picture that featured Cinematographer Ernest Haller and Producer Jerry Wald, both of whom were involved with her award-winning turn in Mildred Pierce. Humoresque, however did not manage to be nominated for any Academy Award outside of Best Score, and frankly I find it surprising Crawford and others thought the woman could claim her own.

     It does not seem as though Crawford managed to make any enemies on this picture, however, even turning one cast member to a friend. The story goes that upon first meeting Crawford on the set, Garfield ignored the outstretched hand and greeting the star offered and instead said, “So you’re Joan Crawford, the big movie star. Glad to meet ya,” before pinching her breast. That riled Crawford only for a moment before she asserted the two would get along fine. And the duo did after Crawford insisted certain scenes be reshot to provide Garfield with more favorable lighting.

     Garfield does put on a nice performance as Paul Boray, a highly talented violinist. The story –based on the Fannie Hurst best seller of the same name with leftover inspiration from Wald’s previous Rhapsody in Blue biopic on George Gershwin– flashes back on Paul’s pursuit of music since a child. The son of Italian-American grocery owners (changed from Jewish in the book), Paul is not wholeheartedly supported by his family in his musical studies, especially during the depression when he is being formally trained. Paul’s friend and trainer, pianist Sid (Oscar Levant) introduces the young genius to a wealthy couple and patrons of the arts, the Wrights. Joan comes in as wife Helen Wright, an alcoholic whom Crawford once described as having too much time on her hands and love in her heart. That certainly softens the motivation of a character who generally has little appeal to me. Helen sets up/pays for Paul’s debut, which sets his career moving and he continues to play larger and more prestigious venues.

     The conflict arises in that 1. Helen is married; 2. Paul’s mother disapproves of his relationship with Helen; 3. Paul is too devoted to his violin to properly love Helen. When things wind down to the point that Helen’s husband is prepared to give her a divorce, the woman is conflicted because Paul proves he will not drop everything for her. Nevertheless it looks like the two will be getting married, which prompts Paul’s mother to converse with Helen. She thinks Helen is bad for her good boy and it seems Helen is dissuaded from some how disrupting Paul’s life by marrying him. SPOILER ALERT So, distraught by her love for Paul and the gallons of alcohol she has been drinking, Helen drowns herself in the ocean. This self-sacrificing-type move is not uncommon in stories where one party is bad for the other who happens to be hopelessly in love with the first. In Humoresque, however, it seems as though Paul would be more of a detriment to Helen’s life (because she will always come second) and less like Helen’s posh society standing would bring down his career or morality or something. It is difficult to sympathise with Helen because she is not the protagonist and her alcoholism makes her a less-than-endearing character.

     What does redeem this picture, however, is the magnificent musical performances therein. Strictly classical tunes make up Paul’s repertoire, and his fast and nimble playing seem to be the work of Garfield himself. Cleverly, however, the performances were shot close enough to Garfield to hide that fact that Musical Director Isaac Stern is crouched uncomfortably below the star while lending both his arms to the bowing and fingering. Levant, on the other hand, was an accomplished pianist and composer, on top of being the sole source of the film’s wisecracks and humor.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine; Turner Classic Movies

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