John Garfield’s untimely death at age 39 in 1952 may have robbed him and us of a long and prolific career, but the performances and movies he left behind more than make up for it. Not least his performance in Humoresque (1946, dir. Jean Negulesco), one of the most tragic of all 1940s melodramas.
Written by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold based on the short story by Fannie Hurst, Humoresque tells the story of Paul Boray (Garfield), a violin virtuoso consumed by his love for party-girl socialite Helen Wright (Joan Crawford). Told in flashback, the film documents Paul’s life, from childhood to adulthood, in one of the most surprisingly accurate, if underused, depictions of what the life of an artist can be. As we see in the flashback, Paul has always wanted to be a musician. He navigates through his childhood years feeling like a misfit and an outsider, until he comes face to face with his destiny when he stumbles across a violin in a shop. His father (J. Carroll Naish) strongly advises him against it while his mother (Ruth Nelson) encourages him. Sure enough, he proves to be quite the talent and through the years, his career takes off, alongside his wise-cracking, piano-playing friend Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant). Then one day, he meets Helen at one of her high-society parties and everything changes. Their relationship starts off as a love-hate thing but it quickly becomes serious. More serious than either of them expected…
John Garfield and Joan Crawford have the type of chemistry that melodramas are made of and while Garfield’s fantastic performance is the best thing about the movie, Crawford’s gloriousness takes it to a whole new level. Helen’s non-committal ways and resistance in accepting her feelings for Paul, along with the frustration that comes from the those feelings, result in a simultaneously restrained and over-the-top performance, that can only be described as a masterclass on how to make love to the camera, even when John Garfield is in the room. She knew just how much the camera loved her and if there has ever been any doubt about that, look no further than the famous beach scene, which, for lack of a better word, is… sensational. Garfield, on the other hand, turns in a performance that keeps Humoresque from the type of film that gives melodramas a bad name. One of the original Method actors, he seems to have understood the emotional turmoil that artists often experience and he puts that into action beautifully, in a carefully understated and nuanced performance. He is the yin to Crawford’s yang and the two of them wander through Humoresque challenging its melodrama status and elevating it to full-blown tragedy. Humoresque‘s lessons on life, love and showbiz may go unnoticed amongst the music, the shadows and Joan Crawford’s fabulousness, but they’re there. For all they’re worth.
Humoresque has always struck me as one of the quintessential Joan Crawford movies, so when Pale Writer and Poppity Talks Classic Film announced their blogathon, I knew I wanted to talk about it. Mostly because Helen Wright is probably the most Joan Crawford-y Joan Crawford has ever been – and that includes her entrance in Rain (1932), which is nothing short of unbelievable.