Humoresque August 13, 2016
There’s a moment in Humoresque in which the camera holds an uncomfortably intimate, delectably smoldering, close-up on the face of Joan Crawford. In this moment, her love interest in the film, the much younger John Garfield, is playing first violin in a prestigious symphony, his passion seeping out of the romantic strings of the instrument. The audience is enthralled by his playing, gaping at him as if he were a descendant of a godly musical figure. But Crawford’s Helen, the forty-something mentor of Garfield’s aspiring musician Paul, reacts as though the music soaking the room is something akin to seduction. In euphoria, she closes her eyes, her palmetto eyelashes accenting her emotion; her shiny lips widen ever so slightly, her ecstasy deep-seated and vulnerably palpable. Helen loves Paul; his playing touches her sensually in ways his hands cannot. Something in her knows that this flurry of tune is the closest she’ll ever come to an adoration requited.
Humoresque, a sumptuous weeper directed by the emotionally handy Jean Negulesco, is the kind of melodrama that finds most of its intrigue through agitated sequences such as this one. It’s a tear-jerker of high style that believes only in grand gestures and simmering dialogue, which, synonymously, defines it as a perfect Joan Crawford vehicle (but not a perfect film).
So while Crawford is certainly the best thing about Humoresque, which begins as a surprisingly acidic course of sexual tension that unfortunately ends as a forced soap opera of potboiler quality, the film’s true star is Garfield, then at the height of his career and fresh from his legendary turn in The Postman Always Rings Twice. In the film, he is Paul Boray, an immensely talented violinist determined to overcome the limitations of his blue collar upbringing. He’d be fine working his way up to the top organically, even if that said working is long-winded and punishing.
But after attending a ritzy party with his friend (and confidant) Sid (Oscar Levant), an extraordinary pianist, he comes into contact with Helen Wright (Crawford), a wealthy socialite who goes through men excessively and unremittingly. She’s on her third marriage, to a wrinkled intellectual (Paul Cavanagh) this time around, but that doesn’t stop her from partaking in several affairs. Because she’s a seductress capable of getting nearly anything she wants, Helen sets her sights on Paul more for a good lay than for his talent.
And yet Paul, whose elbow greased rearing has taught him a thing or two about morals, resists Helen’s initial flirtations — he’s attracted to her, but is wary of her intentions. Not used to standoffishness in response to her most coquettish moves, her interest amplifies. Aware that he’s gifted and aware that providing him with the fame he deserves is the best way to win him over, Helen buys him an agent, lands him a tour, and integrates him into her social circle. In no time, Paul is the toast of the town. But entanglements arise from the mutual love consistently growing between him and his Svengali; their affection might be real, but their differences in age, class, and ideals block any clear paths.
For most of its length, Humoresque is so astute, both in its succinct conversation and its convincing performances, that it rings as something much smarter than a typical women’s picture — though it has love on the brain, it, more often than not, seems like a crisp drama more focused on human nature, and how overnight success can simultaneously lift up and destroy a person. As the person being lifted up and destroyed, Garfield is staggering, drifting back and forth between naïveté and cruel ambition with biting realism.
But as Humoresque starts to wrap up, it also begins to shift more of its attention onto Crawford, whose Helen is the classic adulteress who eventually realizes that all the love she has to give will never be enough. The film inevitably becomes unwittingly sudsy, thus betraying the vigilantly sharp theatrics of the acts preceding it. I would have found it more interesting, for instance, if Helen were to fall victim to a fatal accident of some sort, watching Paul deal with the repercussions of living without his mentor and his lover. But the film’s movement toward sudden despair is tired and unconvincing; it seems needlessly bleak, partly because Garfield and Crawford’s chemistry is never potent enough to prove to us that Helen and Paul’s relationship is as fiery as it’s made out to be, and partly because the conclusion, which is hinted at on the DVD release cover art, is overdramatic for a film that, unanticipatedly, refrains from covering itself in schmaltz.
Still, Humoresque is beautifully photographed — expansive with a hint of German expressionism — and superbly acted by the tough-talking Garfield and the luminous Crawford (whom the camera fondles). Ironically, the film was released the same year as Deception, a vehicle for Crawford’s archenemy, Bette Davis, which was similarly set in the music world. Because Deception is deadlier and is more willing to admit that it’s pretty wild, I prefer it to the more level-headed Humoresque. But in performance and in comprehensive design, the latter wins out. Always ethereal in its appearance and more fatalistic in its undertones, it’s something special, even though its intellect loses the battle against dumbed down crowd-pleasing. B