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teaser Humoresque (1947)

"I'm tired of playing second fiddle to the ghost of Beethoven."

Joan Crawford, Humoresque (1946)

However her character may have felt in this 1946 romantic drama, on-screenJoan Crawford played second fiddle to nobody. Although John Garfield hadthe larger role, as a ghetto boy who rises to fame and fortune as aclassical violinist, Crawford dominated the film. From her firstappearance, fending off a circle of admirers all trying to light hercigarette, to her final scenes as she walks into the ocean to saveGarfield's career, the film showcased Crawford in one of her most complexroles.

Humoresque was adapted from a Fannie Hurst short story that had beenfilmed as a silent in 1920. The 1946 version was inspired less by a desireto remake her classic tearjerker than by Warner Bros.' need to getsomething out of a very expensive and lengthy screenplay Clifford Odets hadwritten for Rhapsody in Blue, their musical biography of composerGeorge Gershwin. The Odets take on his story was good, but a littleheavier on social commentary than they'd planned. But his story of a slumboy whose musical talents are exploited by the wealthy had potential, soproducer Jerry Wald matched it with Hurst's similar tale to create avehicle for John Garfield.

Odets had created a particularly strong characterization for the role ofHelen Wright, a wealthy neurotic who sponsors the violinist's career inhopes of making beautiful music with him. Wald considered such luminariesas Tallulah Bankhead and Barbara Stanwyck for the part. When Crawford --who was generating a lot of buzz with her first Warners' film, MildredPierce (1945) -- expressed an interest in it, Wald jumped at the chance.During filming, Crawford won the Oscar® for Mildred Pierce, soWald ordered her role expanded and even got the studio to raise the film'sbudget, partly to pay for more glamorous gowns designed by Adrian and moreloving close-ups of his leading lady.

Crawford was thrilled to be working with Garfield on the film. Like herformer husband Franchot Tone, he had come to Hollywood after work with thepioneering Group Theatre, whose socially conscious plays and deeplypersonal acting inspired by the writings of Stanislavsky had alwaysintrigued her. At one point in the '30s, she had even considered leavingHollywood to work with them. She also was attracted to Garfield's brazenmasculinity. On their first meeting, he said, "So you're Joan Crawford,the big movie star! Glad to meet ya," and pinched her breast. At firstshe bristled, but then she smiled and said, "I think we're gong to getalong just fine."

She wasn't quite as comfortable with director Jean Negulesco, however.Crawford always liked her directors to talk her through her performances,but Negulesco preferred to watch his actors in rehearsal and work with whatthey gave him. After she went to Wald in tears about not getting anyguidance, Negulesco painted her a portrait of her character and presentedit to her with a note reading, "Dear Joan, This is the Helen Wright I seeand dream of -- and only you could give her to me." From then on, sheclaimed, she knew exactly what he wanted, and, indeed, she turned in whatmany critics consider her best performance.

Along with Crawford's performance, Humoresque is notable for thevery serious approach the filmmakers took to its setting in the world ofclassical music. Isaac Stern was hired for $25,000 to record the film's 23classical pieces, including the special arrangement of Wagner's "Preludeand Love Death" from Tristan und Isolde played over Crawford's finalscenes. Garfield studied the violin so he could appear in long shots. Forclose-ups he wore a jacket with cutaway sleeves. One violinist crouchedout of camera range and put his arm through the jacket's right sleeve tooperate the bow. Another hid behind Garfield and wore the left sleeve tosupply the fingering. After shooting one scene this way, pianist OscarLevant, who improvised many of his lines as Garfield's sidekick andaccompanist, quipped, "Why don't the four of us do a concert tour?"

Humoresque proved to be a big success for Warner Bros. and Crawford.With this and Mildred Pierce scoring at the box office, the studio,which had gotten her for a song when she left MGM, gave her a new contractfor seven years at $200,000 a picture. Years later, the film would bespoofed on SCTV Network 90, with Catherine O'Hara as a hilariouslyoverdressed Joan Crawford and classical violinist Eugene Fodor standingalone to provide his own playing in the Garfield role.

Producer: Jerry Wald
Director: Jean Negulesco
Screenplay: Clifford Odets, Zachary Gold
Based on the Story by Fannie Hurst
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Art Direction: Hugh Reticker, Clarence Steensen
Music: Franz Waxman
Principal Cast: Joan Crawford (Helen Wright), John Garfield (Paul Boray),Oscar Levant (Sid Jeffers), J. Carrol Naish (Rudy Boray), Joan Chandler(Gina), Ruth Nelson (Esther Boray), Craig Stevens (Monte Loeffler), PaulCavanagh (Victor Wright), Bobby [later Robert] Blake (Paul Boray as aChild).
BW-125m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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