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.
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.
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.