Humoresque is an overwrought celebrity story with the cliche moral that life is lonely at the top. Joan Crawford plays a cold-hearted socialite with a healthy sexual appetite, which, of course, ends up being her downfall. Similar to yesterday’s film, Possessed, Humoresque gives Crawford a venue to sharpen her claws and be a dynamo of drama, but the film isn’t her’s; John Garfield is the true star and he has just as many great moments as ones that show he’s horribly miscast (although the script explains this away). Humoresque is a melodrama pulled and stretched to over two hours, which wears on the audiences’ attention. It’s another knock-out performance for Crawford, but I found Possessed to be more consistent in its entertainment.
Paul Boray (Garfield) is a violinist with dreams of stardom. His burgeoning role in an orchestra puts him on a collision course with bored socialite, Helen Wright (Crawford). Helen takes a shine to Paul and wants to become his patron, with the belief that she’ll be able to secure a relationship with him. When the two finally fall in love, Paul discovers that Helen’s love could ruin his career.
For all its beautiful music, cosmopolitan people, and the story of an “outsider always looking in,” I was left cold by Humoresque. Part of it is attributed to my dislike of director Jean Negulesco who perfected the Hollywood fable filled with positive lessons. (I continually return to his segment in O. Henry’s Full House for the best example). Maybe I haven’t hit on the right film – he could be the next Vincente Minnelli, to me – but anytime his name shows up on a marquee I go into panic mode. There is a lot of good within the movie, predominantly from the actors. The film may be in my Joan Crawford box set, but John Garfield is the star and Crawford doesn’t arrive until an hour into things. I’m still skeptical on Garfield’s ability to pull off playing a violin virtuoso. He’s so rugged, a man from the streets, and several times throughout the film characters will note how uncharacteristic he is (in hopes of quelling the audience?). The film employs a stellar technique to make it appear as if Garfield is playing the violin (done by having two people stand to the side of him and using clever camera angles). It’s amazing what movie magic can do, and seeing Garfield fake-play makes you buy into his character. He wouldn’t have been my first choice, but he pulls it off.
The relationship borne between Paul and Helen stems from mutual dislike and “bad manners.” Paul is uncouth while Helen is frigid. Their romance is fairly predictable, and while both stars have some decent set pieces and a tense chemistry, I never found it compelling. When events were finally settling down we’d get long sequences of Paul playing. The excessive music, although beautiful, did nothing but pad the runtime in several scenes. You need the climactic musical interlude, as well as the astounding Carmen number, but for a two-hour movie it appeared that over an hour was early music videos; if they weren’t framed exactly the same way, I might feel differently, but the blocking and camera angles never change.
If you’re tired of the music, you have to focus on the character dynamics, which I’ve already mentioned are quite good. Crawford’s Helen Wright is a unique animal on par with the characters played by Barbara Stanwyck. Helen is a sexual female who has no problem enticing men with gifts and endorsements, with the implicit knowledge that sexual favors will be necessary. The script explores the double standards between men and women in a subtle way that I wish had been the thrust of the film. When Helen is introduced, she mentions that “I’m constitutionally given to enthusiasm about nothing.” You could chalk it up to her frigidity, but it spoke to me as an indictment against women’s position in society; ladies must never show enthusiasm for a member of the opposite sex, for fear of being deemed an adulteress. As her character develops, the script explores feminine sexual desire and the right for women to have that desire; although here that’s given negative connotations with Helen being frigid and extorting men like Paul. Akin to Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas, Crawford’s character is forced to make a last-minute change in personality for a man and sacrifice herself. The script paints women in the Madonna/whore paradigm (with the antithesis of Helen being Paul’s girl next door galpal, Gina played by Joan Chandler), so I shouldn’t have expected anything different, but I wished it was.
Humoresque isn’t a terrible film; far from it. It’s in a similar vein to Possessed, where the runtime is far too long and the script is musty. Joan Crawford gives an incredibly modern performance tempered by studio politics, while Garfield – miscast at times – helps the audience believe he’s been playing the violin for years. It’s a common story with dynamo actors.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.