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Warner Home Video presents
"Bad manners, Mr. Boray...the infallible sign of talent."
DVD ReviewIt's tough for a woman to play second fiddle to a fiddle, but that's just what happens to Helen Wright (Joan Crawford) in Humoresque, one of the most lushly romantic, beautifully produced films of the 1940s. In love with violin virtuoso Paul Boray (John Garfield), the thrice-married, disgustingly wealthy dipsomaniac tries her best to compete with Paul's musical passion, but can never quite inch ahead of his Stradivarius. She comes close at times, but Paul's ambition, discipline, and artistic temperament preclude him from fully committing to a serious human relationship, and Helen will accept nothing less. Her sponsorship helps Paul achieve the fame and recognition he has long craved, but every triumph draws him deeper into music and further away from her. Helen could surely handle (and defeat) a female rival, but she can't fight such a powerful abstract force.
Based on Fannie Hurst's tear-jerking novel, Humoresque wisely tempers its pathos with a perceptive examination of the life and art of a devoted musician. Previous Hollywood films wildly romanticized the lives of composers and performers, but the Zachary Gold-Clifford Odets screenplay gives us an unvarnished look at the single-minded dedication, selfishness, and brash ego of a great artist. More simplistically, it also suggests there's room for only one true love in a man's heart, and for Paul, that love is music. And that deep-seeded emotional pull sets up an unconventional triangle that soon leads Helen down a path of self-destruction.
Though she doesn't say her first line until the 35-minute mark, Crawford dominates Humoresque, filing a controlled, textured, and ultimately heartbreaking portrayal that outshines her Oscar-winning turn in the previous year's Mildred Pierce. Buoyed by the confidence of winning that long-elusive gold statuette, Crawford takes chances in Humoresque, and they pay off. Rarely has she seemed so natural on screen, so believable, and so unlike her patented screen persona. When she lifts her glass during the climactic finale, and almost whispers, "Here's to love... and here's to the time when we were little girls, and no one asked us to marry," she exhibits emotion so raw yet so restrained, the moment stands as arguably her finest on celluloid.
Both Crawford and Garfield are masters of non-verbal expression, and they convey reams of subtext through their close-ups and reactions. Their chemistry is a bit tepid, but that works in the film's favor, underscoring the futile nature of their affair. While Crawford may have the showier role, Garfield holds his own, bringing his customary swagger and intensity to Paul, yet displaying softer, more emotional accents when "playing" the violin. A young Isaac Stern brilliantly dubs his solos, but Garfield adopts a virtuoso's posture and demeanor, allowing us to successfully suspend our disbelief.
There's a lot of music in Humoresque—some might say too much—but it's all so gloriously performed, it's impossible not to be swept away by its beauty, or understand how it consumes and nourishes Paul. Rarely has classical music received such a showcase on film, but Negulesco never lets the visuals become static during the many concert and recital sequences. In one of the movie's most riveting scenes, he cuts between Paul in performance and the various people who love him in the audience, focusing on the ecstasy, angst, and deep-seeded concern he inspires. Negulesco's elegant shot composition also enhances the film (Crawford has never been more exquisitely photographed—despite a veritable mountain of hair), and he constructs a poetic finale that remains a Hollywood classic.
The dialogue by Gold and Odets (one of Broadway's premier playwrights of the 1930s) is also music to the ears. Thoughtful, perceptive, yet never pretentious, it avoids sounding too much like scripted talk, and gets to the heart of matters of the heart without gooey ruminations. A fair amount of sarcasm also laces the screenplay, impeccably delivered with sardonic glee by a rumpled, chain-smoking, and utterly delightful Oscar Levant, who also dazzlingly accompanies Paul on the piano. And yes, that really is little Robert Blake (billed here as Bobby) playing Paul as a boy, decades before Baretta and Bonnie Bakely.
At its core, however, Humoresque reminds us just how fine an actress Joan Crawford could be. When blessed with the right material, a talented co-star, and a sensitive director, she could command the screen like few before her... or since. In this one, she's the real virtuoso.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Warner offers up another stellar classic movie transfer, allowing us to revel in the beauty of Ernest Haller's cinematography. A master craftsman who specialized in "women's pictures" (usually starring Bette Davis), Haller lends Humoresque a glossy, rich look that beautifully complements the lush music and deeply emotional story. Clarity and contrast are both superb, with only a vague smattering of print defects occasionally afflicting the image. Black levels shine, sporting a solid depth that's downright luscious, and the well-modulated gray scale adds texture and depth to almost every shot. A few scenes possess a murky softness, but close-ups are warm and appropriately glamorous, and shadow detail is excellent. Crawford fans couldn't hope for more.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The original mono track has been nicely tidied up, and though a faint bit of hiss remains, it never detracts from the on-screen action or the glorious musical interludes. The symphonies and violin solos sound incredibly robust and dynamic, proving how potent and room-filling good monaural sound can be. Violins can sometimes sound screechy, especially during more frenetic pieces, but distortion is never an issue, and the quieter legato passages enjoy marvelous resonance. And though it's easy to get lost in the music, the literate dialogue of Zachary Gold and Clifford Odets also sounds great, remaining clear and comprehendible throughout.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 33 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Layers Switch: 01h:15m:13m
Extras Review: Aside from the original theatrical trailer, the only extra included is a highly interesting, all-new featurette, The Music of Humoresque. Historian Rudy Behlmer analyzes the film's plot and relates how a then-unknown Isaac Stern was tapped to record the various violin solos, while composer Franz Waxman's son and actor John Garfield's daughter talk about the intricate process of making Garfield look like he was actually playing the instrument. The nine-minute piece also includes perspective from various accomplished musicians, who discuss the fiery temperament and intense dedication of serious musicians, and how the film's symphonic music was chosen to purposefully underscore, complement, and enhance the story.
Extras Grade: C
Final CommentsYou don't have to love Joan Crawford to love Humoresque—but it helps. Impeccably produced, beautifully photographed, and containing some of the world's most glorious classical music, this absorbing romantic drama tells an emotional story without any syrupy clichés. Crawford contributes one of her best performances, and John Garfield files another strong, natural portrayal. Warner's top-notch transfer is as lush as the music, topping off this highly recommended disc.
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