sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-02-03 10:27 pm

It isn't what you are, it's what you don't become that hurts

I slept about four hours last night and they were the wrong hours, but [ profile] handful_ofdust said I should talk about Humoresque (1946), which [ profile] derspatchel and I watched last night on TCM. Mostly copied from e-mail:

Humoresque is an odd movie; I don't think it's a failure, and it's certainly an A-picture, but it's one of the kind that feel like two movies layered over one another, intersecting only accidentally at key points. One is the story of a brilliant, ambitious, impatient violinist from a Jewish family on the Lower East Side; that's John Garfield as Paul Boray, a hot-headed virtuoso who's done nothing but study the violin from the time he was ten, encouraged almost worshipfully by his mother and more warily by his father, resented by his siblings who were tramping the streets for work while Paul was let off for "practice," all without quite understanding that a real artist's career requires more than raw talent. It's a great part for Garfield, a Rivington Street Paganini1 with a tough sexual smolder and a desire for music so deeply twined in him, he has trouble even talking about it. We are meant to take him seriously as a genius; his playing is by Isaac Stern. He's not a complacent dreamer. He really has practiced every day, all day, all those years. The scene where he comes offstage from his Carnegie Hall debut and starts instantly identifying all the problems with his performance and wishing he could take the concert over from the top rings true. We're also meant to take seriously the curious naïveté with which he seems to think he can just announce himself and have the classical world fall at his feet. In practice it almost works out like that, but for complicated reasons, which is where the second movie comes in.

The second movie is the one starring Joan Crawford (quite good, even when the plot doesn't quite play fair with her) as Helen Wright, a wealthy socialite on her third loveless marriage with a habit of picking boytoys off the street and grooming them for society until she they bore her; she also has a habit of drinking. Paul interests her because he refuses to be groomed, although he'll accept professional assistance, and because he doesn't treat her drinking like a charming vice, and because it angers him so much when she does things like sleight-of-handing a social call from an old friend—who just happens to be the conductor of the New York Philharmonic2—into an audition for Paul, as though she doesn't trust his music to speak for itself. He doesn't want to be patronized; he wants to be heard. She doesn't know what she wants from him. At first it's the novelty of a fling with a man she can't buy, then it's a life. She's never had anything at the core of herself in the way Paul has his music and she beats herself against the charmed circle of his certainty until she's bruised, taking it as a damning rejection that she'll never come before his art. What makes their relationship a tragedy—and several hankies more of a melodrama than either of us was predicting—is that Paul is not cruel to her. He sees her correctly as a woman who's too intelligent for the shallow self-destruction she's bent on and too convinced of her own worthlessness to try to break the cycle without help; when he falls for her, he falls hard, partly because she does understand what it's like to want desperately out of the world you were born into, even if she hasn't quite managed it. It doesn't hurt that the sexual charge between them plows right over the Production Code. Despite class differences, despite parental disapproval, despite potential blowback to his career, and despite almost certainly incompatible emotional issues, he imagines he'll marry her and they'll be happy, one of those odd couples that everyone looks askance at, but it doesn't matter because they know it works. Of course that doesn't happen. Of course it almost derails Paul. I was just happy that the film didn't end in full-bore Liebestod, considering all the Wagner that was flying around the finale.

Fortunately, we have Oscar Levant throughout as Sid Jeffers, Paul's oldest friend and off-again-on-again accompanist—a lugubrious cynic with a self-deprecating motormouth who is nevertheless the only character in the piece with their head screwed on straight, much good it does him. He's a professional pianist about eight years older than Paul, a jobbing musician rather than a classical superstar; he plays for different radio stations, at parties, with any orchestra that will hire him, and the film is full of Levant's playing, so that we understand how good he is.3 He's the one who gives Paul the straight talk about a debut, about touring, about the schedule that a life as a first-rate solo violinist will demand of him; he knows it's not just a matter of playing when you're inspired or well-rested, but when you've signed a contract to. Talent alone doesn't get people to the top. Even people who get to the top don't always want to stay there, once they find out what it takes. And it's not like the middle isn't hard work, either. Every time the movie threatens to dissolve into a romance of the artistic life, Levant debunks it. And he just wants everyone to come out all right, even when it's not within his power to do much more about it than clown distractingly, offer to buy drinks, and sometimes quietly walk a person home. I can't tell if it was a casualty of the cutting room, but there is a ghostly kind of subplot around the edges with a young woman named Gina Romany, a bass player whom Paul met at the Institute; they have a friendship warming toward romance before he meets Helen, after which she's relegated to background appearances, not quite an alternate love interest—a missed opportunity, maybe. There's no romance between her and Sid, but he is unfailingly kind when he meets her at a bad moment and she recognizes that he can be relied on, much as he would protest the slander. Watching Oscar Levant being three-dimensional in among the mordant bon mots reminded me that Humoresque was directed by Jean Negulesco, who gave Peter Lorre the only romantic lead of his career in Three Strangers (1946). Perhaps by the same token, Humoresque is also the only film in which I've seen Oscar Levant flirt. He appears to do it by insult and fatalism and it's working until Paul interrupts.

It is probably evident that I am more the audience for the first movie than the second (and always for Oscar Levant), but I'm not at all sorry we watched the entire thing. In hindsight I'd probably recommend it for the performances more than the story, or just as a showcase for a number of classical pieces played extremely well in combination with memorable visuals—it's not Fantasia (1940), but Negulesco and composer-arranger Franz Waxman visibly foreground the music rather than fitting it to the action. Works for me. Rob thinks the title must have confused the hell out of viewers who went in expecting a comedy.

1. The film treads carefully around Paul's ethnicity, but his mother is named Esther and his father has Yiddish inflections all over his lines and his actor was born John Julius Garfinkle, all right? Garfield was a stunner and he looked like a New York Jew. It always makes me happy.

2. Played by Fritz Leiber! The writer's father, not the writer. I always wondered what he looked like.

3. And he really is; he's lovely to watch. Humoresque is, incidentally, the only film I know from its decade where so much screen time is music and, effectively, silent action; its ratio of dialogue to performance is about the same as a musical of the time, but it's all classical and instrumental. There are three songs performed by a piano-bar singer, none heard in full. There is also an amazing montage of New York city life quick-cut to Paul practicing a barn-burning solo over which a clangorous orchestral piece sweeps and recedes, hitting all its marks like bells. Lunch at an Automat has never been so meticulously scored. Many of the dissolves between scenes are similarly striking, poetically overlaid or linked by sound. The internet tells me that Negulesco started in film as a sketch artist in 1934; he had both a great eye and ear.
weirdquark: Ayame (Fruits Basket) with text "I'm just fabulous" (fabulous)

[personal profile] weirdquark 2015-02-04 03:58 am (UTC)(link)
I should check that out; backstage actor/dancer/musician stories is one of my narrative kinks.
weirdquark: Stack of books (Default)

[personal profile] weirdquark 2015-02-05 02:51 am (UTC)(link)
Recommend away! I actually probably haven't seen most of them.

I'm at least familiar with the 'let's put on a show' genre in that era of musical theater, though I haven't seen a lot of them; even the ones with actors that I like, like all of the Judy Garland ones that she did with Mickey Rooney. I'd watch whatever happened to be on but never got around to tracking down things in particular just because I don't track down movies that often. I'm even less likely to have seen the ones that aren't musicals.

[identity profile] 2015-02-05 05:32 am (UTC)(link)
Hey, just a few weeks ago I wrote about a set of "films about theatre: above all, about theatrical fiasco."


[identity profile] 2015-02-04 09:19 pm (UTC)(link)
Humoresque is one of the movies I really only know from the period when SCTV was doing parodies elaborate enough to be miniature remakes. (

[identity profile] 2015-02-06 02:00 am (UTC)(link)
Their Grapes of Wrath spoof was also a remarkable piece of low-budget filmmaking.

Tonight I watched Pulp Fiction yet again, and wondered if Mia Wallace was the 1990s version of Helen Wright, in that she fits the archetype (is it common enough to be an archetype?) of the woman who is really too thoughtful for the life she is leading.

[identity profile] 2015-02-04 11:37 pm (UTC)(link)
It does sound like an intereesting movie.

[identity profile] 2015-02-05 01:07 pm (UTC)(link)
Sid Jeffers sounds like a wonderful character. I like what you say about his stressing that life in the middle is hard, too, not just life at the top, and I like the balance of the fact that he offers not only career and work/art advice, but also is there for the hard work of friendship (clowning around if that's all that it's possible to do; walking a friend home).