Humoresque (1946) Starring: Joan Crawford, John Garfield, Oscar Levant. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Screenplay by Clifford Odets, Zachary Gold. Based on a short story by Fannie Hurst. Produced by Jerry Wald. Run Time: 125 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama, Romance, Woman’s Film
When you first hear the title Humoresque, do you think of George Gershwin? I know, I don’t either, but the film Humoresque apparently owes much to the Clifford Odets screenplay for the Gershwin musical biopic Rhapsody in Blue (1945). The screenplay, which was apparently a little heavy-handed with social commentary, wasn’t used for that film, but when time came to adapt Fannie Hurst’s short story, producer Jerry Wald used Odets’ themes of a slum boy musical genius being exploited by the wealthy. At the time, Humoresque was being made as a vehicle for John Garfield, who earlier in the year starred in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
Casting for an actress to play Helen Wright, the philanthropist who sponsors violinist Paul Boray (Garfield), Wald jumped at the chance to work with Crawford, who was already getting buzz for Mildred Pierce (1945). During the filming of Humoresque, Crawford received the Best Actress Oscar ®. To build on that, Wald had Crawford’s part expanded to the point, where she receives star billing over Garfield.
The film opens with renowned violinist, Boray, cancelling a concert performance at the last moment. Back at his apartment, Boray is confronted by his manager Frederic Bauer (Richard Gaines) who is angry about the cancellation. Boray confesses to his longtime friend, Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant) that he always wanted to do the right thing and wishes he could get back to the kid he once was.
|Paul Boray (John Garfield with pal Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant) in Paul's apartment.|
It is on his birthday that a young Paul (Robert “Bobby” Blake) is first introduced to the violin. At his mother Esther’s (Ruth Nelson) insistence, Paul’s father, Rudy (J. Carrol Naish), takes a few minutes from running the family grocery store to take Paul out to buy a present for his birthday. At a New York variety shop, run by proprietor Jeffers (Harlan Briggs), Rudy tries in vain to get his son interested in various toys, like a windmill or a baseball bat. Instead, Paul is enamored by a violin, which exceeds the price limit Papa has put on the gift, $1.50.
|A young Paul Boray (Robert "Bobby" Blake) with his first violin.|
Spurred on by the proprietor’s son, Sid, who offers piano lessons for 25 cents, “You’ll be my only student”, Paul tries out the violin. At $8, Papa Boray is put off by the price and worries that Paul will all too quickly tire of the instrument. Paul gets nothing, at least not initially. When they return to the grocery story, Mama speaks to Paul and is impressed enough by his interest in the instrument to go back to Jeffers to buy it.
Paul takes to the violin and continues to practice, even when the other kids want to play ball. He attends music school, despite the depression. When he hears his older brother, Phil (Tom D’Andrea), complain about Paul’s preferential treatment, that all he has to do is practice instead of work, and hears his father’s dismissing his chances of success, he resolves to stop being a dependent. With the help of his friend and pianist, Sid, he gets a job as a violinist for a radio orchestra, but gets fired when he openly complains about the station’s policy of cutting famous pieces to fit an allotted amount of time.
|Paul develops into a virtuoso.|
Paul tells Sid that he wants to go out on his own and be a concert violinist, but Sid warns him that there is already a lot of competition; That to get started will cost too much money, money being the one thing neither of them has. Sid encourages Paul to go to a party thrown by rich socialites and patrons of the arts, Helen Wright (Crawford) and her older, third husband, Victor (Paul Cavanaugh). Sid figures Paul might be able to find someone there to financially back him.
At the party, Paul meets Helen, whom is a self-centered adulterous caught in a loveless marriage to Victor. She is used to being the center of attention and there are several young men surrounding her at the party lighting her cigarettes and running errands for her. Victor admits to Paul that he’s weak and can’t stop her. Helen is surprised when Paul doesn’t treat her like the other men at the party. She is rude to him, but still intrigued by him and his talent. As a way of apologizing, she sends him a gold cigarette case the next day to the grocery. While Papa is impressed, Mama is suspicious.
|Helen (Joan Crawford) about to meet Paul for the first time.|
Helen provides Paul with connections, helping him get a manager, Bauer, and paying for his debut concert. Afterwards, Paul's family throws a small party in his honor, but he misses it to celebrate with the Wrights. Esther warns her son not to become involved with Helen and reminds him about Gina Romney (Joan Chandler), a fellow music student, who loves him. But Paul falls in love with Helen anyway. At first, she acts like she is not interested in him. At the Wright’s Long Island beach house, she initially rebuffs his advances, telling him she wishes to be left alone. But soon, she succumbs and admits she loves him, too.
|Paul makes his feelings known, but at first Helen rebuffs his advances.|
Back in New York, after a successful tour across America, Paul has lunch with Gina. Sid arrives with Helen, who is immediately jealous of Gina. Helen leaves in a hurry and Paul follows her, abandoning Gina, who cries to Sid. Helen is angry with Paul for neglecting her. He never called her, even when the tour was close to New York. Paul points out that she’s still married to Victor. But Helen still urges him to let her become more involved in his musical career.
While showing off his new apartment to his parents, Paul confesses his love for Helen to his mother. And later that night in the Wright's home, Victor asks Helen for a divorce. He is suspicious of her real intentions for Paul, but Helen admits to him that for first time in her life, despite her three marriages, she has known real love.
|Victor (Paul Cavanaugh) can't help but see Helen is interested in more|
than just Paul's musical ability. He will ask her for a divorce.
But when Helen attends Paul’s rehearsal, and sends a note that she has good news and wants to see him immediately, he continues to rehearse. Taking his dedication as a rejection, Helen heads to Teddy's Bar and becomes increasingly drunk. At one point she is unable to tolerate the house pianist/singer performing the Gershwin classic “Embraceable You.” Paul arrives to take her home, but this time, it is Helen who is cool; she repeatedly does not really hear his stated wish to marry her.
|Paul arrives to take Helen home, but she's had a few.|
Eventually Paul and Helen are on the same page and plan to marry. Helen visits his parents’ grocery store in an attempt to make peace with Esther. But Mama won’t have any of it. She reminds Helen of her three previous marriages and begs her to consider the effect of her drinking and need for attention might have on Paul’s career.
One night, when Paul is scheduled to appear on the radio, playing his own transcription of Wagners’ Leibestod, Helen doesn’t show. She is drunk out on Long Island and tells Paul to come get her the next morning and they’ll drive back into town together. But while he performs on the radio, Helen realizes that she will never mean as much to Paul as his music does and that, as Victor warned, her dissolute past can only taint his future. Her best solution is to walk into the ocean and commit suicide.
|Helen commits suicide by walking into the ocean.|
When Paul learns of the news he is devastated and cancels his concert appearances. He is distraught, but tells Sid, who is still by his side, that he is not running away from his music.
Humoresque is what they used to call a woman’s film, or weepy. Like Film Noir, the Woman’s film is not really a true genre, but rather films that revolve around woman-centered narratives, female protagonists and designed to appeal to women. In short, films made for women by men. They were also called weepies because they usually had a sad or heartfelt ending. These types of movies were made from silent films all the way up to the early 1960’s, but they were most popular during the 1930’s and 1940’s. They still make films like this to be sure, but the term died out in the 60’s. They’re now called chick flicks.
While I’ve written before about the careers of Joan Crawford and John Garfield, I’d like to discuss the third banana this time out, Oscar Levant. Levant is a very interesting man and somewhat hard to peg. A pianist first, Levant came to Hollywood from New York in 1928, There he met and befriended George Gershwin. Like Gershwin, Levant wrote for the movies, composing about twenty scores in the years from 1929 to 1948.
|Oscar Levant, playing himself in the Gershwin bio-pic A Rhapsody in Blue|
(1945), was a pianist, composer, actor and talk show host.
Around 1932, Levant began to take composing music very seriously, and studied with Arnold Schoenberg, an Austrian composer and leader of the Second Viennese School of music. Levant also impressed Aaron Copland, often referred to as “The Dean of American Composers”. But Levant became best known to America as the quick-witted pianist on the popular radio quiz show “Information Please.” Mr. Levant, as he was called, handled the musical questions and impressed everyone with not only his deep knowledge, but also his humor. As fellow panelist John Kieran, an author and journalist, once quipped, Levant had a "positive genius for making offhand cutting remarks that couldn't have been sharper if he'd honed them a week in his mind. Oscar was always good for a bright response edged with acid."
Next stop for Levant was NBC radio’s Kraft Music Hall, which paired him with Al Jolson. The two apparently were great together and had a great rapport. They both would appear in Rhapsody in Blue (1945), the George Gershwin biopic as themselves. Jolson, who appeared in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), also recorded Gershwin’s first hit song, “Swanee”, in 1920.
Levant then appeared in more films, including Humoresque, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) and An American in Paris (1951), Gene Kelly’s musical based on the music of the Gershwins.
In the late 1950’s, Levant would host The Oscar Levant show, originally on Los Angeles independent KCOP, but later syndicated. Levant would play piano, make jokes and interview celebrities. But his humor was sometimes off key and he got in trouble for jokes he made about first the sex life of Marilyn Monroe, which got the show suspended, and then finally Mae West, the latter led to cancellation. In later years, he was a frequent guest on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, leading to Paar’s sign off “Good night Oscar Levant, wherever you are.” He withdrew in later life and died of a heart attack at the age of 65 in Beverly Hills in 1972.
Even though he has a small role in Humoresque, Levant makes a lasting impression. He often makes self-deprecating comments like, “Me? I have no character” or delivers some of the best known lines from the film, including quipping to Joan Crawford’s character, “Tell me, Mrs. Wright, does your husband interfere with your marriage?” and to Paul Boray “You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You're self-indulgent, self-dedicated and the hero of all your dreams.” While the words may come from Clifford Odets' screenplay, the deadpan delivery is all Oscar. His performance alone makes Humoresque worth watching.
While I am not the intended audience of the film, I do like it up to a point. I don’t really see the attraction between Paul and Helen and it’s not the age difference that bothers me. One of the problems I have with some Hollywood films is that the characters fall in love more because they have to for the sake of the plot rather than a compelling reason within the film.
I also have a problem with the ending. The suicide seems a little more desperate than the situation calls for. This harks back to the idea that people can’t change, so if you made mistakes in the past, you will make them again in the future. Suicide is a coward’s way out and though Helen is a flawed character, taking her own life seems to be more expedient than called for.
Overall, I liked Humoresque, though not near as much as other Crawford or Garfield films. If for no other reason it is worthwhile to watch if you've never seen Oscar Levant before. For me this is a case when the supporting actor sort of steals the show.
Humoresque is available as part of a collection at the WB Shop:
Humoresque is available as part of a collection at the WB Shop: