Warner Bros. // 1946 // 125 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jesse Ataide (Retired) // July 4th, 2005
The most vibrant love story ever told!
The most glorious music ever written!
Swelled to breathtaking intensity by Warner Bros...
-- Original Theatrical Trailer
Joan Crawford clutching Martini glasses and decked out in Adrian fashions, swank sets that simulate New York, and lots of lots of classical music -- Humoresque reeks of class and prestige. And yet, despite director Jean Negulesco's best attempts to drown Joan in soft-focus close-ups, delicate lighting, and strains of Dvorak, one element of Humoresque cuts through the overwhelming classic Hollywood excess like lightening: the brooding, fiery intensity of John Garfield. This clash between Garfield's early method acting and Crawford's quintessential movie star posturing elevates Humoresque above the usual hankie-wringing histrionics typical of this kind of film.
The youngest child of a poor grocer, Paul Boray (Garfield, Force of Evil) is consumed with a desire to be a great violinist. Sid Jeffers (concert pianist and occasional actor Oscar Levant), who later becomes Paul's mentor, friend and accompanist, sees greatness in store for the young musician. Not only does he possess the skills of a virtuoso, he has an attitude and ego to match.
Paul finds little interest in, and even less practical use for, his musical skills during the Great Depression. One night Paul attends a society party with Sid. After a drunken woman dares him to prove that he is a violinist and not a "prizefighter," his playing captures the attention of his hostess, the fabulously wealthy Helen Wright (Crawford, Mildred Pierce). Interested by his rugged good looks as much as by his musical talent, Helen uses her social connections to launch Paul's career.
As should be expected of a film of this nature, Helen falls for her young protégé. Paul grudgingly begins to show a romantic interest as well, much to the horror of his no-nonsense mother (Ruth Nelson, 3 Women). But Paul's unfailing passion for his music drives a wedge between Paul and Helen, and threatens any chance they might have for a relationship and marital bliss (never mind that Helen is already married, and has been several times).
As its inclusion in the Joan Crawford Collection testifies, Humoresque is typically thought of as one of Joan Crawford's most effective star vehicles, with many fans declaring that her turn as Helen Wright is one of her best performances as an actress. Though she does have her moments, this reviewer still finds it hard to label this kind of diva act (even with the liberal utilization of tears in the characterization) as true acting. Crawford never truly becomes Helen Wright. She's Joan Crawford, famous shoulder pads and all; a larger-than-life woman playing a larger-than-life character descending into squalid "real life" to slum it for a while in the name of love. However, there is great pleasure to be derived from watching this almost laughable attempt at great self-sacrifice.
It's interesting that it is Crawford who receives the most attention from fans and critics, when the film is really focused on Garfield's character, and his development from a precocious young kid who fiddles his way out of near-poverty to a lauded musician who ultimately sacrifices love and money in the name of his art. Though Marlon Brando is rightly hailed as the actor who brought Method acting to the screen in the early 1950s, Garfield had been pioneering a tough, cynical, and all-consuming acting style throughout the 1940s, in films like Gentleman's Agreement and The Postman Always Rings Twice, that clearly paved the way for the likes of Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Robert De Niro, and other luminaries of screen Method acting. A lesser actor could easily have been overwhelmed by the opulence and grandeur of this glossy, big-budget production, but Garfield manages to draw all attention to himself and his character's plight in choosing between his amorous desires and his artistic calling. What's even more amazing is that he manages to give such a charismatic performance when all of his scenes playing the violin (and there are many of them) were performed with two musicians reaching around him, one to do the intricate fingering, the other to do the bow work. (The hand doing the finger work is actually musical genius Isaac Stern, who recorded all of the violin solos featured in the film.)
And that brings us to the glorious classical music featured prominently throughout the film. From Bach to Dvorak, from Wagner to Rimsky-Korsakov, film composer Franz Waxman (who is billed as conductor, but who also arranged all of the music) fills the film with the strains of the classical masters, lending the film an authenticity and an overall aural impressiveness that dominates many of the film's best scenes. Though perhaps it becomes a tad overwhelming in stretches, it is only appropriate that a film so intimately intertwined with the music world should rely so heavily on its score and musical selections to give it its dramatic thrust.
While certainly not one of Warner Brother's home run transfers, the print provided on this DVD is more than acceptable, with only occasional imperfections in the image. However, for a film with such a spectacular soundtrack, the audio quality could have been better (and ideally, pristine), although it is also more than acceptable. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
Besides the original theatrical trailer, the sole extra provided on this disc is a short featurette called "The Music of Humoresque," which brings together several film historians and composers, as well as Waxman's son John W. Waxman and Garfield's daughter, actress Julie Garfield, to talk about the music's impact and role in the film. Anyone with even a passing interest in the film's music should find this extra intriguing and insightful.
Humoresque is a perfect example of the kind of lavish, high-class films that the Hollywood studios excelled at from the 1930s through the 1950s. It features one of the screen's biggest stars and one of its most underappreciated actors, and contains a plot saved only by the conviction of the acting and a wonderful soundtrack. If it doesn't get you to run out and buy the Joan Crawford Collection, it'll almost certainly inspire you to dust off those Bach and Beethoven CDs that have long been stashed in your closet and give them another listen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1946
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Featurette: "The Music of Humoresque"
* Original Theatrical Trailer