Jean Negulesco’s Humoresque (1946) remains a fascinating study of mad/passionate love; of a woman so completely obsessed with a man that she would sacrifice her own happiness – and ultimately, her life – merely to illustrate the point of that compulsion, and a man so eternally driven by his creative muse, his romance with a violin, that he is willing to allow her this martyrdom. That the woman, near-sighted socialite Helen Wright (Joan Crawford), also happens to be an entrenched alcoholic cougar and the man, violinist Paul Boray (John Garfield) is self-absorbed, brash and teeming with rage against the establishment (that Wright just so happens to embody) are mere complications factored into the Clifford Odets/Zachary Gold screenplay, based on a short story by celebrated novelist, Fanny Hurst.
For at the crux of Humoresque there remains an elixir of the damned; the frustrations of an attraction between two immovable objects almost teetering on grand guignol; the narrative stifled from going completely over the edge into masochism by its utterly magnificent backdrop of sublime orchestrations and peerless plucking of the Stradivarius; incidentally recorded by Isaac Stern after virtuoso Jascha Heifetz asked for too much money. The fingering and bow in the movie utilizes Stern’s hands literally wrapped around John Garfield’s body (with Garfield’s hands taped behind his back); the illusion ingeniously photographed by Ernest Haller to quite uncanny and thoroughly convincing effect upon even the closest scrutiny.
Yet Humoresque is a not a tale of love, but obsession – its unconquerable highs, and more astutely perceived, perilous lows extolling the ultimate price that must be paid for giving everything to one’s art. The movie’s penultimate line, “Nothing comes for free…one way or another you pay for what you are,” is the very bleak realization that finally strikes Paul Boray in the forehead only after he has lost the two women in his life who ever meant anything at all to him. Or perhaps this is misrepresenting the two women to whom Paul has meant the world – youthful sweetheart Gina Romney (Joan Chandler) and aging sexpot, Helen Wright. It all could have come across as schmaltz, or maudlin and forlorn except that Jean Negulesco has placed a certain emphasis on the one true love in Paul’s life – his music. Humoresque features an extraordinary repertoire of time-honored classical music, perhaps the only time in modern screen history where the likes of Antonín Dvorák, Frédéric Chopin and Georges Bizet have roomed under the same roof with Arthur Dietz, Howard Schwartz, Cole Porter and George Gershwin – all under the bravura baton of resident composer/conductor/arranger Franz Waxman.
Given that Humoresque stars Joan Crawford (officially having crossed the threshold into her ‘crazy lady’ period at Warner Brothers following her Oscar-winning success in Mildred Pierce 1945), it is something of an oddity that we do not see la Crawford until a solid 26 minutes into the film’s run-time; the plot instead centering on Paul Boray (played as a boy by Robert Blake) and his not terribly difficult lower middle class upbringing during the Great Depression.
Yet the story opens on an even more ominous precursor, the tone of Humoresque decidedly anything but light and airy - the cancellation of a major concert and return of a very gloomy Paul to his apartment, accompanied by best friend, Sidney Jeffers (Oscar Levant, who never ages throughout a plot spanning some twenty years, even as Paul grows into a man who becomes Sid’s sometimes best friend). Broadway booking agent, Bauer (Richard Gaines) goads and chides Paul for his refusal to perform. But the reason for Paul’s morose behavior is not entirely clear to us and even more fraught with cryptic references made by the brooding virtuoso, as in the line “All my life I wanted to do the right thing but it never worked out. I'm outside always looking in. Feeling all the time I'm far away from home and where home is I don't know. I can't get back to the simple happy kid I used to be.” From here we regress to Paul’s childhood – the true beginning of the end for our angst-ridden musical protégée.
Dotted on by his mother Esther (Ruth Nelson) and chided, however lovingly by his father, green grocer, Rudy (J. Carroll Naish), Paul is reared alongside a brother, Phil (Tom D’Andrea) and sister, Florence (Peggy Knudsen). Given the closeness of the family, the willful Paul seems ever more spirited away by the muse into isolation after a chance encounter with Sidney, and the $8.00 fiddle his father absolutely refuses to buy him for his seventh birthday, but that his mother immediately runs out to acquire with dreams of someday having a musician in the family. Phil had been the first to show a musical interest, however fleeting - now, it’s Paul.
The weeks of practice turns into months, then years; Negulesco fast-tracking us through the life and times of Paul Boray just enough to whet and inflame his passion, and illustrate for the audience how hopeless the innocent romance with doe-eyed Gina (whom he doesn’t really love) will remain; furthermore, to showcase Paul’s poisonous affair that will ultimately taint his entire career. Paul is inadvertently introduced to Helen Wright by Sid at one of her lavish house parties where a fair-weather flock of sycophants has gathered to drink and laugh at the absurdities of all their collected wealth. Such is the vanity and the folly of affluence; at least so Helen’s husband, Victor (Paul Cavanagh) suggests. Paul begins a conversation with Victor, before realizing he is Helen’s husband, or in fact, even knowing who the woman holding court across the room he instantly admires and yet disdains, is.
Given Paul’s rudeness and snap analysis of his wife, Victor seems to harbor no ill will. Paul attempts his own damage control by serenading the guests with Sid’s accompaniment. But Helen is both cruel and condescending of Paul’s talent – which is obvious to everyone. Paul doesn’t allow her to get away with it however, and this begins the maelstrom that will ultimately consume all of their lives. Earlier, Sid had forewarned Paul of the dangers of his ego, “You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You're self-indulgent, self-dedicated and the hero of all your dreams.” Paul swats back with, “You ought to try a few dreams yourself, it might make you less cynical. When I look at you I know what I want to avoid,” and Sid backs down in true Oscar Levant self-evasive glibness with “One of us is offensive.”
Helen introduces Paul to Bauer and later, premiere philharmonic conductor Hagerstrom (Fritz Leiber). Both are impressed with Paul’s burgeoning musical genius. But Esther suspects a deeper intervention afoot in her son’s life. “She’s a married woman,” Paul’s mother reminds him, encouraging the sweetheart’s romance with Gina instead. But Paul knows what he wants: fame more than anything else - success through the machinations and connections that only Helen can provide. In retrospect, Paul exploits the self-pitying socialite rather callously, perhaps nowhere more obviously than in the scene immediately following Victor’s granting of a divorce to Helen – perhaps having suffered and been humiliated one too many times by his wife’s unapologetic trysts with younger men, and finally had enough. Besides, Victor knows that Helen is really in love with Paul. Rushing to the theater to share this good news with him, Helen catches Paul in the middle of a recital – passing a note to one of the stagehands, shared with Paul while Helen awaits his reaction in the shadows.
Only his response is hardly the one anticipated; Paul reading, then crumpling up the note and going on with the rehearsal without giving Helen a second thought. Realizes that a foul miscalculation has briefly resurrected her from the ashes of despair from a fantasy perpetuated only in her own mind, Helen slips back into her jaded repose, retreating in all her Arctic desolation to the beach house where she spent a rather blissfully obtuse weekend with Paul much earlier in the story. “Here’s to love,” Helen quietly reflects, alone and tear-stained, “…and here's to the time when we were little girls, and no one asked us to marry.”
This moment harks back to another at the start of Helen’s affair with Paul when she coolly explains her own romantic past thus, “I was married twice before - once at sixteen; once at twenty-one. One was a crybaby and the other a caveman. Between the two of them I said goodbye to girlhood.” With nowhere left to hide, no one to go home to and arguably nothing left to live for Helen Wright has come to the end of a very decadent existence. Nothing remains for her now but the obvious – suicide. In death, Helen’s memories of Paul will reign supreme as the unattainable fantasy that arguably never was, at least for her. But the sacrifice will also shake Paul from his seemingly impenetrable ego-driven quest for fame.
Throughout Humoresque runs a thread of disillusionment about imperfect, and in most cases grossly flawed male/female relationships. None are represented as anything but unreservedly tragic. Gina’s broken heart over losing Paul shatters her school girl’s crush. Victor’s aging fop permits his wife’s dalliances to satisfy her appetite for younger playmates while quietly emasculating him, even as he continues to keep the home fires lit. Paul’s all-consuming devotion to his art robs him of more earthly pleasures. Helen’s penultimate realization that in elevating Paul’s stature as concert hall performer she has lost him for good dismantles what is left of her own fragile notions of love. Paul’s penultimate awakening - that his art has devoured not only his own chance for lasting happiness but has also caused reprehensible damage to two of the most pivotal female figures in his life. If anything, Humoresque is the antithesis of its title; extolling sad ironies rather than the frothy leitmotif of escapist amour. The message is quite clear. Passion destroys. Love maims. Obsession kills.
Crawford’s image, at MGM built upon ingénues aspiring beyond their working class and ultimately triumphing as ladies of the manor house, is turned on end in Humoresque; a subversion of the perennial ‘American Dream’ mythology, steeped in studio-sanctioned glamour already begun the year before in Mildred Pierce. In this previous endeavor Crawford’s enterprising waitress and house frau once more became a great success and her own woman. Yet, in retrospect, the last act of Mildred Pierce, with its delicious murder committed by a jealous daughter, a destructive byproduct of privilege, seems to foreshadow Crawford’s role in Humoresque – and indeed, all of the other roles Crawford had yet to commit to under her Warner contract. Humoresque is, in a way, a warping of success itself, seen through the looking glass where grave uncertainties and dire consequences conspire to deprive us of affluence and celebrity – dragging each through the mire of mediocrity.
The Odets/Gold screenplay is a brilliant example of stichomythia; a technique by which single alternating lines represented in pairs elevates the dramatic and rhythmic intensity of every scene with scathing ripostes. Oscar Levant’s exchanges with John Garfield are particularly brutal; the two friends frequently at each other’s throats and just a line or two away from an all-out fist fight. Levant’s penchant for wisecracks – self-deprecating or otherwise – crackles with intense loathing, contempt and cynicism. His is an utterly perverse, yet inescapable, desire to slip into that world of high art and culture so readily admonished as tripe. And Levant is given a formidable adversary in John Garfield, whose career had been built upon playing tough scrappers who never take guff from anybody.
Instead of fists Garfield’s violinist uses brooding intonation to give Levant’s struggling pianist a wicked tongue lashing, and to assert Paul’s authority in the disastrous affair with Helen. Early on Helen makes Paul a gift of an expensive cigarette case; an apology for her arrogance at the party where they first met the night before, telling him “I spend my life doing penance for things I never should have done in the first place.” Yet Paul’s apology to Helen comes too late to do either of them any good; her lifeless corpse dredged from the sea; Paul – left to a total implosion of both their lives and seemingly bitter end to his own career; the muse having her way with these mere mortals who aspired to perfection in a world much too gritty and real for any of them to survive. Humoresque remains an extraordinary achievement – provocatively realized in its ideas, haunting in its execution and riveting in the universally sound performances given throughout. While Mildred Pierce arguably remains the role for which Joan Crawford’s movie career is best recalled today, Humoresque represents Crawford at her most statuesque, imperiously cultured, yet strangely common, occasionally vial, but ultimately, so very fallible and tragically human.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is disappointing. Although some work has obviously been done to remaster the original B&W elements, in a terrible state of disrepair, the overall image quality remains quite soft. The gray scale infrequently suffers from a faded characteristic, with light bleeding around the edges. Contrast is generally weak. Blacks never appear deep or saturated while whites are tinged in a rather dusty gray. There’s a slight hint of edge enhancement too. Film grain appears to have been severely scrubbed and is practically nonexistent. Overall, this is another uninspired effort deserving of a ‘ground up’ digital restoration if Warner can ever get around to releasing this title to Blu-ray.
The magnificent orchestral recordings on the whole are well served by this cleaned-up mono mix, although there are several brief instances where the tracks crackle and nearly break apart. Extras are limited to a featurette; ‘The Music of Humoreque’ that nevertheless manages to briefly touch upon other aspects about the making of the movie. As a melodrama Humoresque comes very highly recommended. It is an exemplar of that genre and a superior Joan Crawford picture besides. But this transfer will neither enthrall nor captivate: a pity indeed because a movie of this caliber deserves so much better.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)