Humoresque (1946)

Recently I’ve seen several films starring John Garfield, and been impressed by all of them. After seeing this fine drama where he plays a virtuoso violinist, I’m starting to wonder if he ever made a bad movie.

I was doubly interested by this film because it sees him opposite Joan Crawford, an actress whose work I want to know better. This is said to be one of her finest performances, and she actually gets top billing over Garfield, although he has more screen time, signalling that at heart this is a woman’s emotion picture.

John Garfield and Joan Crawford

John Garfield and Joan Crawford

Despite the title, which might sound as if this is a comedy, in fact it’s an intense melodrama, with a dark, noirish look about it, wreathed in shadows. However, what sets it apart from other melodramas I’ve seen is the sparklingly witty dialogue by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold, with plenty of lines to remember for later.  Director Jean Negulesco, nominated for an Oscar a couple of years later for Johnny Belinda, was at the height of his powers, and, with great classical music on the soundtrack, it all adds up to a winning mixture.

Spoilers behind cut

The musical scenes are especially compelling, and it really looks as if Garfield is playing the pieces, although in fact two violinists were standing beside him performing the music for the close-ups of his fingers, and the music we hear is being played by Isaac Stern.

The whole film unfolds in flashback, beginning with a long close-up of a brooding Garfield with tears in his eyes, and then showing what happened to drive him to this point of despair.

Garfield plays Paul Boray, a young violinist from the New York slums who has no interests or ambitions in life  beyond his music until he is taken up by an older woman, bored, rich society wife Helen Wright (Crawford). Helen has a drink problem and her main hobby seems to be picking fights with strangers at parties or restaurants. Her first conversation with Paul is just such a fight.

A jealous mistress, she increasingly realises that Paul is too wrapped up in his music to have time for her. Even though her husband offers a divorce and she agrees to marry him, there never  seems much chance of a happy ending for this couple. The end of the movie sees wild melodrama unfolding to loud classical music, as Helen makes an excuse to miss Paul’s concert. Instead, she drinks at her beach house, smashes her glass against the mirror, and then walks out to sea in her evening dress, as the music rises to a crescendo. It’s like a nightmare and hauntingly effective, even though it’s also over the top.

Joan Crawford as Helen in her final scene

Joan Crawford as Helen in her final scene

As well as the two leads, another stand-out performance comes from character actor Oscar Levant as Paul’s best friend and mentor, pianist Sid, who keeps his feet on the ground and is always ready with a sarcastic quip. Sid has many of the best lines, for instance, of Helen: “She was born with a  silver flask in her mouth”. I’d definitely like to see more movies featuring Levant.

One odd thing about the flashback structure of the film is that, at the start, Paul says he “can’t get back to the simple, happy kid he used to be”  – but the early scenes show that he was never simple or happy. His father (J Carrol Naish) is seen bullying him to fit in – taking the young Paul (Robert Blake) to a toy store at the age of ten, and then being outraged when he refuses to choose a baseball bat or a toy for his birthday present. His father wants to punish him by buying him nothing, until his mother, Esther (Ruth Nelson) steps in and buys the violin he wants – so starting him out on the first step of his career. The family’s life is shown as tough and Paul faces a struggle to carry on studying  instead of settling for a lower-paid job. At one stage he says: “I feel guilty every time I eat a piece of bread in my own house.”  The film as a whole feels a little glossier than other Warner Brothers films I’ve seen, but these early scenes do have some of the studio’s trademark grittiness.

I don’t think there is any mention of the war which had just ended – but the noir atmosphere, and the feeling of being used up emotionally by the end of the film, are of the time.

8 thoughts on “Humoresque (1946)

  1. Hi Judy,

    I love John Garfield! Films like “Force of Evil”, “Body & Soul” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” are all excellent film noirs. Garfield was one of the first actors to play an anti-hero. I have not seen “Humoresque” but you review has whet my appetite. Hopefully if pops up on TCM soon.


  2. Hi John, I loved all those three movies too. Also recently saw ‘Out of the Fog’ which is interesting though not quite up there with the three you name – Garfield plays a completely evil character in that one. He’s yet another actor where I’d like to see all his films… so the list of must-see movies grows. The DVD of ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ includes a TCM biography of him which was very interesting.


  3. John Garfield has always fascinated me, ever since I saw him in 1939’s “They Made Me a Criminal.” While of the WB era of Cagney, Bogart, et al., he seems to be the “missing link” between the WB tough guys and the Brando-Clift-Dean era. He’s like a movie version of trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who’s always thought of as the missing link between Armstrong and Gillespie. I’ve never been disappointed by a John Garfield performance.

    I’m impresssed with Garfield in Humoresque, and how he’s able to keep up with Crawford, who was a formidable presence onscreen–and off!

    I’m big on Oscar Levant, only having seen his amusing appearances in “An American in Paris” and “The Barkeleys of Broadway.” Yet another tormented soul for me to admire…


  4. John, I do agree ‘Out of the Fog’ is a good film – I just think the other three you named are even better! I’d like to see it again and maybe write something about it. In ‘Out of the Fog’, I also enjoyed Thomas Mitchell’s performance – a long way from Uncle Billy in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life, and nice to see an older actor playing what is really the lead role.

    C.K., thanks for commenting – I’m fast becoming fascinated by Garfield too. I like your idea of him as a missing link between the WB tough guys and the method era, and am also pleased to hear that you have never been disappointed by one of his performances. I must continue to track down his movies. I forgot to mention that I also liked him in ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ with Gregory Peck – he doesn’t have a very big part in that film but seems to have hte most powrful scenes.

    I’d love to see more Oscar Levant and will bear in mind the two films you recommend – I know I’ve seen ‘Barkeleys of Broadway’ but it was many years ago and I don’t really remember it.


  5. C.K.,

    Years ago,I read a book called “Rebels: The Rebel Hero in Film” and the authors do just as you say using Garfield as the connection or link betweeen Bogart and later anti-heroes Brando, Clift and Dean. If you continued the trail it would lead to Newman and McQueen. I actually quote from the book in an article I wrote on Paul Newman on the Halo-17 website. Attached is a link to the article.


  6. I’ve never heard of the book, but now I’ll have to look for it. I’ll also be reading your piece on the subject.

    As for John Garfield, it’s a shame he’s pretty much forgotten; he never had a bad performance, but he never had the breakout role that immortalized him like his contemporaries. “Body & Soul” and “Force of Evil” come close, but not quite. Garfield died in 1952, essentially blackballed and a physical wreck. He’s a favorite of mine.


  7. C.K., Part of the problem with Garfield is he got caught in the middle of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and was somewhat blacklisted by the film industry. Toward the end of his life he went back to the theater never getting a chance to make any kind of comeback in film.

    You’re right also about never having the breakout role. There was no The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca type classics.

    There’s a couple of bios on him. I read one called “Body and Soul” by Larry Swindell some years ago. Then, I believe another bio came out a few years back called “He Ran All the Way.”


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