Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Humoresque (1946)

Director: Jean Negulesco                                 Writer: Clifford Odets & Zachary Gold
Film Score: Franz Waxman                              Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: John Garfield, Joan Crawford, Oscar Levant and J. Carrol Naish

There’s a fascinating moment in Humoresque when a girl at a party keeps telling John Garfield that he looks like a boxer, even though this was filmed a year before his boxing picture Body and Soul. There’s so much to this film that makes it great, that it can hardly keep from spilling off the screen. But by far the most magnificent music made in the film is the words by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold. It’s one of the most witty screenplays I’ve ever experienced and it keeps rewarding on repeat viewings. And the delivery of most of the great lines comes courtesy of the brilliant pianist and composer Oscar Levant. Throw in John Garfield and Joan Crawford, and top it off with some incredible music performed by Isaac Stern and conducted by Franz Waxman and this is one of the all time great productions in Hollywood history. And it’s not even that interesting of a plot. But the personalities and the humor make it something exceptional.

In noir fashion the film begins at the end, with John Garfield canceling his concert performances and his agent berating him for quitting. The rest of the film is told in flashback, beginning with his childhood. A young Robert Blake wants a violin for his birthday but father J. Carrol Naish believes it’s just a phase and won’t buy it. His mother, Ruth Nelson, defies him, though, and buys it anyway. When the kid is driven to practice by some inner fire, he becomes great, excelling in music school and finally burns to perform concerts. His best friend is the pianist Oscar Levant, whose playing seems so effortless it’s difficult to believe. Levant gets him into the home of Joan Crawford, a patron of the arts, for a party and he sufficiently impresses that she takes him on as a project. But Garfield, in his usual characterization, is resentful and hates to be beholden to her. So it takes a while for the two to fall in love, the biggest snag being the fact that she’s married to Paul Cavanaugh . . . that and the fact that he loves his music more.

Director Jean Negulesco was primarily associated with musical productions, which is probably why he was chose for this picture. Music plays a major role in the film, not only as background for the action going on but for the impetus of the plot as Garfield pursues a career as a concert violinist. Crawford was riding high at this point in her career, after being cut loose from MGM and then going on to win an Academy Award at Warner Brothers for Mildred Pierce. Garfield, however, was at the tail end of his contract with Warners and would soon go on to do some great work for MGM in The Postman Always Rings Twice and 20th Century Fox in Gentleman’s Agreement. And ethnic chameleon J. Carrol Naish does another one of his absolutely rock solid performances as a neighborhood grocer who had discouraged his son at first but eventually becomes his biggest fan.

The most obvious centerpiece of the film is the music. The incredible Franz Waxman outdid himself on this one. Erich Wolfgang Korngold had done something similar at Warner Brothers on the Bette Davis film Deception, with Paul Henried as a cellist. But it was much more limited in scope musically, though Korngold did write a cello concerto for the film. Waxman used existing classical pieces, rescoring them as concertos, his most famous being the “Carmen Fantasie” that can be heard with the masterful Jascha Heifetz recorded he same year as the film’s release. Waxman had wanted Heifetz to be in the film but Jack Warner, ever the cheapskate, wouldn’t pay what he wanted and Waxman wound up with the stellar Isaac Stern. As good as the music is, however, the script by Odet’s and Gold is a virtuoso work in and of itself and will always be the reason for watching the film for me. Humoresque is not all that original, but the film is done with such brio that has been captivating audiences for decades, and will continue to do so for many more.

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