The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Lana Turner, John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn. Directed by Tay Garnett. B&W, 113 minutes.

Frank Chambers (John Garfield) is a drifter who chances on a rural diner, owned by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) and his seductive young wife, Cora (Lana Turner). Before Frank can even sit down for his first meal at their diner, Nick has offered him a job.

Nick is blissfully unaware of the sparks between his wife and hired hand, and has no idea the two are having an affair and planning to kill him. Their first attempt fails, but eventually, they try again, and this time they succeed.

It’s up to attorney Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn), with his less-than-honorable methods, to keep Cora out of jail. Frank somehow is never suspected, but his worries aren’t over. It’s a troubled road Cora and Frank must continue to travel.

John Garfield Lana Turner The Postman Always Rings Twice
John Garfield, Lana Turner

This was considered one of Lana Turner’s best roles, which admittedly is not saying much, as most of her career was marked by so-called “blonde bombshell” parts, requiring less of her than the challenge playing Cora presented. She proved herself capable of a strong dramatic role, however, and gave a genuine performance as the conflicted woman seeking more.

Garfield’s understated presence is a precursor to the method acting that became so popular only a short time after this film was made. There’s no doubt what Frank is thinking at any moment, yet that understanding doesn’t come through words. It is in his expressions and subtle movements that Garfield communicates Frank’s story.

As a member of The Group Theater, a theater collective whose founding members included Lee Strasberg, it’s not surprising Garfield developed the skill to communicate emotion, vulnerability and strength together in the same glance or quiet move. His own rebellious nature comes through in this film as well, adding to the layers of depth for the character of Frank Chambers.

Hume Cronyn, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice
Hume Cronyn, Lana Turner

The film was well received by both critics and audiences. The critic for The New York Times wrote, “In its surface aspects, “The Postman” appears no more than a melodramatic tale, another involved demonstration (two hours in length) that crime does not pay. But the artistry of writers and actors have made it much more than that; it is, indeed, a sincere comprehension of an American tragedy. For the yearning of weak and clumsy people for something better than the stagnant lives they live is revealed as the core of the dilemma, and sin is shown to be no way to happiness.”

This is not a perfect movie; it starts out a bit slowly and ends on a melodramatic note somewhat out of tempo with the rest of the film. The courtroom scenes, however, particularly the part of the calculating, suitably amoral attorney played by Hume Cronyn, are gripping.

For fans of film noir, this is a must see, and for fans of classic films in general, this one is worth the watch if for no other reason than the strong performances of the entire cast, as well as the twist in the tale of crime and punishment, a borderline unacceptable plot element for movies of that time.

Advertisements

The Letter (1940)

Gale Sondergaard, Bette Davis in The Letter

The Letter, 1940, Warner Bros. Starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson. Directed by William Wyler. B&W, 95 minutes.

On a Singapore rubber plantation, shots ring out on a languid moonlit night. Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) has coolly shot a man dead, dropped the gun and related a story of attempted rape to her husband Robert (Herbert Marshall), his attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) and the local British constable.

While she is sent to the Singapore prison to await trial, there seems to be little doubt of the outcome. No one expects Leslie to pay a high price for killing this man she claims she barely knew. The dead man’s imposing and exotic widow, however, is in possession of a letter that could turn the tide.

In attempting to obtain that letter, Howard Joyce is first torn between honor and saving his client, then must face his client’s husband with the compromise, a half-truth that comes back to haunt him after the trial is over. Leslie, too, must face the repercussions of of her decisions, past and present.

Bette Davis, James Stephenson star in The Letter
Bette Davis, James Stephenson

Davis once again shows her ability to fully communicate to her audience with only nuanced movements and shades of expression, and Stephenson is compelling as the conflicted attorney. This tale of calculated malevolence received seven Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Stephenson), Best Original Music Score, Best Film Editing and Best Cinematography, Black and White. It won none, but was critically acclaimed and immensely popular with audiences.

In fact, the film critic for The New York Times commended William Wyler for his superb direction and further wrote, “It is an evil tale, plotted with an eye to its torturing effects. And Mr. Wyler has directed the film along those lines. With infinite care, he has created the dark, humid atmosphere of the rubber country. At a slow, inexorable pace, he has accumulated the details. His camera generally speaks more eloquently than any one in the picture.”

Not everyone was in complete agreement with all of Wyler’s direction, however. Davis famously walked off the set in disagreement over his decision about how to shoot the final scene between Leslie and her husband. Years later, when Davis was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, Wyler joked at the ceremony that if she had the chance she would “drop everything at that very moment to redo a scene in The Letter.” She nodded an enthusiastic “yes.”

Herbert Marshall, Bette Davis in The Letter
Herbert Marshall, Bette Davis

The dead man’s Eurasian widow was played brilliantly by Gale Sondergaard, with barely a word spoken and a mask-like visage looking out over each scene laid before her. The Asian character actors played their subservient parts with nominal caricature, somewhat surprising given the era and the film industry’s tendency at the time to rely on such techniques.

Based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham, The Letter had been made into a movie once before, in 1929. The play itself had been inspired by the real-life story of Ethel Proudlock, a Eurasian woman married to the British headmaster of a private school in Kuala Lampur who shot a man when he paid her a visit. She claimed self-defense, and was first sentenced to death, then pardoned.

This is a gripping melodrama, with fine performances and the moody backdrop of an exotic locale.  It is a story that would have been more powerful without some of the code restrictions of the day, however, Wyler made it work. Some DVD versions provide an alternate ending that is said to be truer to Davis’ vision of those final scenes; watch it and cast your vote for the better choice.

A Place in the Sun

Montgomery Clift Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun

A Place in the Sun, 1951, Paramount Pictures. Starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 122 minutes.

The poor relation of one of the town’s wealthiest families, George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is put to work in his uncle’s factory with the strict admonition not to date any of his co-workers. Eastman is in the odd position of being a working class member of local society, while at the same time, the boss’s nephew.

With no regard for company rules, he takes up with one of the women from the factory, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). Alice is naïve about men and the ways of high society, not believing it’s possible for George to be an Eastman without sharing in the privileges that come with the name.

During a brief visit with his uncle at the palatial Eastman estate, George meets the stunning and vivacious Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), and is drawn to this young woman from the upper echelons of society. Yet he knows his own humble standing forces him to stay virtually hidden from sight. 

Months later, his work at the factory impresses his uncle, who, as a reward,  invites him to a prestigious party with the wealthy and stylish members of local society. There, George meets up with Angela once again, and this time, she takes charge and leads them into romance.

Alice is jealous, even though she doesn’t yet know the full truth about George and Angela. What’s more, she’s pregnant. While she expects George to marry her, he is reluctant. He is torn between his obligations to a young woman he is nominally interested in, and the passion he feels for another.

Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun.png
Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor

Based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, the story was inspired by the real-life 1906 trial of Chester Gillette, who was convicted of the murder of a co-worker, Grace Brown. The two had been sexually involved, but when Brown became pregnant, Gillette left her for a wealthy socialite.

Reviews at the time of the release of A Place in the Sun were effusive with their praise. Life magazine’s film critic wrote: “Directed by George Stevens for Paramount, it gives three young actors the chance to give the most natural performances of their careers. Montgomery Clift as the confused, likable, rather stupid social climber; Shelley Winters as the dowdy working girl; Elizabeth Taylor as the dazzling rich girl.”

During filming, Taylor, a mere 17 years old, was said to be infatuated with the then 30-year-old Clift. While romance was not in the cards for them (Clift was gay, although he did become involved with at least one woman), the two began a friendship that lasted a lifetime. Director Stevens played on their intense emotions, resulting in powerful scenes of smouldering sexuality.

Shelley Winters, Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun
Shelley Winters, Montgomery Clift

Shelley Winters worked hard for her role as Alice, changing her appearance from her signature “blonde bombshell” look to that of a dowdy, lonely girl. Her work in the film won her a nomination for Best Actress, which she lost to Vivien Leigh for her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire.

The film won six Academy Awards: Best Director; Best Cinematography, Black &White; Best Costume Design, Black & White; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score; and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor for Montgomery Clift, and, as mentioned above, Best Actress for Shelley Winters.

The late Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies and noted film historian, called A Place in the Sun “the quintessential drama,” one of the best films of the era. While some of the dramatic elements are weakened with time, the story holds up as a gripping tale of the power of greed, passion and perilous young love.

To Have and Have Not

Humphrey Bogart Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not

To Have and Have Not, 1944, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 100 minutes.

Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) is an American expatriate making a humble living in Martinique, not long after the fall of France to Nazi Germany. He owns a small fishing boat and wryly caters to tourists looking to catch “the big one,” all the while doing his best to stay out of any political intrigue. For the most part, he’s left alone, even ignored, by locals.

Not much gets past him, and when he sees the sultry new girl in town (Lauren Bacall), artfully lift the wallet of the bombastic man who has been sidestepping his way out of paying the substantial sum he owes Harry, he steps in to control the situation. But this isn’t a woman who’s easily controlled.

Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not
Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart

This was the film that launched the romance between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, and in later interviews Howard Hawks frequently told how he’d warned Bogart he’d found a woman who could match his insolence — and thereby match his power — on the screen. Bogart affably laughed at the idea, and any tension that might have come from playing opposite a strong woman was no doubt helped when he found himself falling in love with his co-star.

In her autobiography, By Myself, Bacall tells of the subtle yet powerful start to her romance with Bogart. Initially helpful primarily on a professional level with the young actress, after a few weeks Bogart made the first quiet move, and gradually the two began a discreet, then increasingly open, romance. Hawks was opposed to any sort of relationship between them, although he didn’t hesitate to use the intense emotions in his movie.

Bacall also recalled that when shooting scenes with Bogart, she began to shake with nervousness, well aware of her novice standing with the on-camera and behind-the-scenes movie greats who were creating the film. She learned to calm her nerves by tucking her chin down and peering up at Bogart during her scenes with him, a move that soon became known as “The Look.”

Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not
Dan Seymour, Humphrey Bogar

Hawks also told about a bet he’d made with his friend Ernest Hemingway, claiming he could make a movie out of any of the author’s books, even the worst, which he without reservation said was undoubtedly To Have and Have Not. From there Hawks worked with Hemingway to create a rough draft of a script, focusing on how the main characters met, but using little of else from the book. Screenwriters Jules Furthman and William Faulkner wrote the final screenplay.

Despite her character’s sophistication, it is easy to see the girl in 19-year-old Bacall. To Have and Have Not introduced her as an actress, and was also the first major role for Dolores Moran, who was 20 at the time. Moran’s career was short-lived; she appeared in several more films over the next few years, but retired as an actress in 1954.

Lauren Bacall Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not
Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart

The film had elements of Casablanca in its supporting characters and secondary story lines, with the trusted piano player, the difficult political situation, and the characters bearing a strong resemblance to those played by Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. It also shares a moodiness with that film, but To Have and Have Not is not a cheap imitation of other great movies. It is a classic for its own reasons.

 

 

 

Out of the Past

Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer in Out of the Past

Out of the Past, 1947, RKO Radio Pictures.  Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. B&W, 97 minutes.

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has chosen a simple life in a small town, making his living from his gas station and dating the local sweetheart, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). He is content and at ease, until a dark shadow from his past appears in the memory of Kathie Moffatt (Jane Greer).

Years before, Moffatt had shot and wounded her boyfriend, the less-than-honorable Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). She fled to parts unknown, and Sterling hired a private investigator, Jeff Markham, to find her and bring her back. Markham, of course, is none other than the man now known as Jeff Bailey. His search leads him to find Moffatt hiding in plain site in Mexico, but he doesn’t let Sterling know about his discovery. He’s fallen for Kathie, and the two run off together.

They are living quietly until Markham’s partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), finds them and threatens to take Moffatt back to Sterling. Markham and Fisher get into a brawl, and Moffatt, now sharper in her aim, shoots Fisher dead. After Markham buries the body, he starts a new life, but without Kathie Moffatt.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past
Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer

Destiny steps in, and Jeff finds himself first back in Sterling’s palatial home, then in San Francisco, where he meets up once again with Kathie. The three have a few issues to resolve.

Before Mitchum was cast in the lead, the part allegedly was offered to Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield and Dick Powell, three of the most popular actors of the time. It was said to first have been offered to Bogart because the story on which the film is based, Build the Gallows High, and the movie itself, both strongly echo elements of The Maltese Falcon.

It is brooding, classic film noir, with tension that builds and a resolution that leaves its own questions. As the femme fatale, Jane Greer does a fine job, but her acting doesn’t match the quality performances by Mitchum and Douglas, nor is the interaction between her and either of those men half as interesting as the interplay between the male lead characters.

Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past
Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum

Filming took place primarily in a small town in northern California, with most of the cast and crew arriving a week or so before Mitchum appeared. He almost didn’t make it at all when the brakes failed on the four-seat plane he arrived in. The pilot was able to avert disaster, and while the two passengers in the back were unconscious after the emergency landing, Mitchum is rumored to have crawled out and hitched a ride to the set.

It was only Kirk Douglas’ third film role, the first being The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and he is sharp, cunning and unlikable as the unscrupulous Whit Sterling. Mitchum, also a rising star at the time, shines with his typical low-key style in one of his finest roles.

In 1984, Out of the Past was remade, with a significantly different script, as the film Against All Odds. The remake starred Jeff Bridges in the Mitchum role, Rachel Ward in Greer’s role and James Woods in Douglas’ part. Jane Greer played Ward’s mother, and Paul Valentine, who had a small part in the original film, played a councilman.

Virginia Huston, Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past
Virginia Huston, Robert Mitchum

For fans of film noir, Out of the Past is a must-see, with most of the classic elements of that style seen in this movie. The snappy dialogue, the moody lighting, the sharp contrast between good and evil, all play a role. Mitchum, with his laconic style and brooding appearance, is the quintessential film noir star. And for classic film fans in general, this is one to add to your list of movies worth watching.

The Constant Nymph

Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph

The Constant Nymph, 1943, Warner Bros. Starring Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith. Directed by Edmund Goulding. B&W, 112 minutes.

Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer), a concert pianist, is in a slump, and for inspiration he seeks out his friend Albert Sanger (Montagu Love) in Switzerland. Sanger has four daughters, all of whom adore Dodd, but Tessa (Joan Fontaine) is particularly enamored of him.

Shortly after his arrival, the Sanger girls’ worst fear is realized when their father dies. They are left penniless, but in the care of their wealthy uncle, Charles Creighton (Charles Coburn). Creighton visits Switzerland with his daughter, Florence (Alexis Smith), who also becomes enchanted by Dodd, and he returns her feelings. Florence and Dodd are married, leaving Tessa heartbroken. For Tessa, who has a heart condition, this stress is a serious problem.

The life of ease and wealth proves uninspiring to Dodd, however, and the newlywed couple soon discover they are no longer happy together. Equally dissatisfied with their lives are Tessa and her sister Paula, who have been sent to boarding school.

Tessa has never gotten over her feelings for Dodd, and through his music, he appears to now be returning them. But she is young, and he is married, and any union between the two seems unlikely to be destined.

Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith in The Constant Nymph
Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith

The Constant Nymph was nominated for one Academy Award, Best Actress for Joan Fontaine, who lost to Jennifer Jones for her role in The Song of Bernadette. The nomination was deserved; Fontaine created an engaging and memorable character, one that is said to be among her favorites. She was cast after director Goulding had conducted a difficult search for a star who could play a 14-year-old convincingly and with depth, rejecting Joan Leslie, the studio’s choice.

Charles Boyer wasn’t as happy with his part, saying he felt the character lacked strength and sensitivity. Peter Lorre is also featured in one of his most “normal” roles, as the new husband of Tessa’s older sister Toni, and an excited father-to-be.

Charles Boyer Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph
Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine

The movie had been out of circulation from 1951 to 2011 as rights to the story reverted back to Margaret Kennedy, the author of the book on which it was based. This was an unusual situation for Warner Bros., who typically bought story rights in perpetuity. Kennedy stated in her will the film could only be shown in universities and museums, and it was rarely seen even in those venues. In 2011, Turner Classic Movies introduced a restored edition at its annual Classic Film Festival.

This is a fine film, with a story that is well-told and realistic despite its melodrama, and sharp performances from the entire cast. It has a more esoteric approach than most films of its day, focusing a bit more on the ethereal (and perhaps ephemeral) aspects of life, yet it brings the audience into the realities of one of life’s most painful situations, the loss of love.

Marty

Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair in Marty

Marty, 1955, United Artists. Starring Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair. Directed by Delbert Mann. B&W, 89 minutes.

Kind and gentle Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is adept at handling the female customers in his butcher shop, but awkward and sensitive with ladies in a social situation. The 34-year-old bachelor lives with his widowed mother in the Bronx, and has resigned himself to the possibility he’ll be single the rest of his life.

While socially unskilled, he is a gentleman, and when a would-be Casanova dumps his date at a local dance hall one Saturday night, Marty’s sense of right and wrong compels him to approach the abandoned woman, Clara (Betsy Blair), and ask her to dance. That dance leads to a long evening of laughter, conversation and confidences.

Marty, it would appear, has met the girl of his dreams, but his — and her — social awkwardness and fears of being hurt still stand in their way. Add to that the meddling of Marty’s mother, aunt and not-so-well-meaning friends, and Marty has barriers to overcome he isn’t practiced in working through to a satisfactory end. Still, he holds fast to his hopes and dreams.

Ernest Borgnine, Augusta Ciolli, Esther Minciotti in Marty
Ernest Borgnine, Augusta Ciolli, Esther Minciotti

This film was a remake of a live television broadcast from May, 1953, starring Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand in her television debut. Marchand was considered for the same role in the movie, but Blair, with the help of her husband, Gene Kelly, lobbied hard for and won the role. Blair had been blacklisted for her suspected Communist sympathies, but the influence of Kelly, who was immensely popular at the time, was a significant help in getting her the part.

Director Delbert Mann, who first made his mark with live television dramas, also had directed the television broadcast of Marty. He was the first director to win an Academy Award for his motion picture debut, and it was 25 years before that achievement would be accomplished again, for Robert Redford and Ordinary People.

Joe Mantell, Ernest Borgnine in Marty
Joe Mantell, Ernest Borgnine

In addition to Mann’s award, the film won Best Picture, Best Actor for Borgnine and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky, who expanded his original script from the television program for the feature-length film. It was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Joe Mantell), Best Supporting Actress (Betsy Blair), Best Art Direction/Set Direction – Black & White, and Best Cinematography – Black & White.

Marty is a sweet and poignant tale of an average, hard-working couple in an ordinary, yet heartwrenching, situation. Add to the two stars several supporting characters who are well-defined and familiar, facing clear and recognizable dilemmas, and the film’s appeal is timeless.  With achingly realistic settings, a fantastic script and understated direction, you have a movie well worth the watch.

Manhattan Melodrama

clark-gable-william-powell-in-manhattan-melodrama

Manhattan Melodrama, 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Clark Gable, William Powell, Myrna Loy. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. B&W, 90 minutes.

Boyhood friends Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (William Powell) survive a disaster as children when the ship they are on catches on fire and sinks, killing many on board, including their parents. They are adopted by another survivor, but their life with him is short-lived as he is trampled to death by a policeman’s horse during a protest. A life-long bond between the two boys appears to be firmly set.

As adults, Blackie and Jim have gone down divergent paths, albeit paths destined to cross each other. Jim has taken the high road as an assistant district attorney on the fast-track. Blackie, on the other hand, has turned to a life of gambling, mostly in an illegal casino that’s allowed to stay in business with regular payoffs to the police department.

clark-gable-myrna-loy-in-manhattan-melodrama
Clark Gable, Myrna Loy

Blackie is dating Eleanor (Myrna Loy), but she objects to his lifestyle, and leaves him on the evening Jim is elected district attorney. By New Year’s Eve, she is brave enough to seek Jim out, despite Blackie’s predictions she would never be good enough for him. It turns out he was wrong, and Eleanor and Jim are soon engaged.

That same New Year’s Eve, Blackie shoots and kills a man who double-crossed him. Jim doesn’t know who committed the murder, but has the task of seeking out the killer, and his search leads him to Blackie, something Eleanor cannot abide.

Manhattan Melodrama marked the first pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who would go on to make a total of fourteen films together, including the six in the Thin Man series. The Thin Man, in fact, was released only three weeks after Manhattan Melodrama; it was also directed by W. S. Van Dyke.

Loy later recalled her first connection with Powell, “I don’t remember much about my scenes with Clark. The picture doesn’t get going until Bill comes in. From the very first scene, a curious thing passed between us, a feeling of rhythm, complete understanding, an instinct for how one could bring out the best in each other. In all our work you can see this strange kind of rapport. It wasn’t conscious. Whatever caused it, though, it was magical.”

Her belief that the “picture doesn’t get going until Bill comes in” is debatable, as Gable gives an engaging performance as the likeable ne’er-do-well.

myrna-loy-william-powell-in-manhattan-melodrama
Myrna Loy, William Powell

The ship sinking portrayed early in the movie was that of the General Slocum on June 15, 1904, when the excursion steamer, carrying more than 1300 passengers, among them 300 children, caught fire below deck. Ship hands, who had never taken part in a fire drill, discovered the hoses were rotten, as were the 2,500 life preservers they tried handing out to the doomed passengers. The final death toll was 1,021, the greatest disaster in New York City until 9/11.

This film is historically famous for being the movie John Dillinger was watching just before being gunned down by federal agents outside of the theater. It won one Academy Award, for Best Original Story (Arthur Caesar).

Manhattan Melodrama is a story that has been told numerous times since the making of this movie, making the tale seem a bit clichéd. It is, however, a notable film for a number of reasons, including the horrifyingly realistic depiction of the burning of the General Slocum, the assured performances of three stars, and a decent script. It is a movie classic film fans will want to see, if for no other reason than to watch the dynamics between Powell and Loy. Magical, indeed.

 

Humoresque

john-garfield-joan-crawford-in-humoresque

Humoresque, 1946, Warner Bros. Starring Joan Crawford, John Garfield. Directed by Jean Negulesco. B&W, 124 minutes.

Violinist Paul Boray (John Garfield) has overcome family objections and the constraints of the Great Depression to achieve modest success as a musician. That’s not enough for him, however. To help his search for greater fame, his closest friend, wise-cracking Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant), introduces him to socialite and patron of the arts, Helen Wright (Joan Crawford).

The two begin a tug-of-war toying of the emotions, with Paul mindful of her married status and she, not used to being rebuffed by men, alternately playing it coy, then cool. Paul has a childhood sweetheart who is clearly better for him then the tempestuous Helen, but he is being pulled into her affections.

It is a dangerous situation, and both are aware of the potential destruction to their lives, but as happens so often, passion draws them into a deeper and wider stronghold against their better judgment. At the same time, Paul is torn by his mother’s insight into his career and tortured relationships.

john-garfield-joan-crawford-star-in-humoresque
John Garfield, Joan Crawford

The relationship between patron and musician is complex, and performances by both Garfield and Crawford are up to the task of portraying the intricacies of the dynamics between the two. This is often noted as one of Crawford’s finest roles, coming on the heels of her Academy-Award winning portrayal of Mildred Pierce.

Close-ups of Garfield playing the violin are actually the hands of famed violinist Isaac Stern, who also served as musical advisor for the film and was the solo violinist on the film’s soundtrack. Stern was only 25 at the time, and this was a huge boost to his career.

John Garfield in Humoresque.png
John Garfield

Crawford later recalled one scene, in which she performs her own stunt by falling off a horse going at full gallop, in an interview with a biographer. “I must have been crazy because I said I wanted to do my own stunt. They must have been crazier, because they let me do it.

“The powers-that-be had decided it was too racy to have Johnny Garfield lay on top of me. We had to re-shoot the scene so I ended up on top of him. That passed. I couldn’t really understand what was the difference, him on top of me or me on top of him.

“Well, the difference was I had to fall off the horse again. I did, and I lived to tell the tale.”

joan-crawford-in-humoresque
Joan Crawford

The film was nominated for one Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring (Franz Waxman).

A musical term, “humoresque” means “a short, lively piece of music,” and while that is heard throughout the film, it is perhaps not the strongest title for the film, nor does it give much of an indication of its plot or tone.

One of the few movies ever made that features classical music in a key role, Humoresque is a compelling tale of a complicated relationship with flawed characters and an uneven path to romance, a path that ultimately leads to tragedy born of emotional, and likely distorted, decisions.

 

Madame Bovary (1949)

jennifer-jones-in-madame-bovary

Madame Bovary, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Jennifer Jones, James Mason, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. B&W, 115 minutes.

Emma Rouault (Jennifer Jones) is a young woman living alone with her father in rural France, lost in her dreams of romance and excitement, lives she has read about in forbidden novels while in a convent school. One day she meets aspiring doctor Charles Bovary (Van Heflin), who immediately falls for her and pursues her as he tends to her father’s health.

Charles has no illusions about himself. He tells Emma he is a rather dull person and not a highly skilled doctor, but promises to treat her well and provide a good living. Emma, captivated by her own dreams, doesn’t appear to hear his blunt words and lackluster promises when she accepts his proposal.

They marry, and Emma immediately begins living beyond their means, which an indulgent and weak Charles allows. Emma, never satisfied, begins an affair with first another man in their village, then with an aristocrat (Louis Jourdan) who moves nearer to Emma so they can be together.

The realities of life are overwhelming for Emma, and take her on a tragic course that destroys the lives of all who love her most.

jennifer-jones-louis-jourdan-in-madame-bovary
Jennifer Jones, Louis Jourdan

Lana Turner was originally considered for the role of Emma Bovary, but was considered too sensual, a problem given the way producer Pandro S. Berman was trying to frame the film. Too appease censors, he set up the story with the real-life courtroom drama of the book’s author Gustave Flaubert attempting to defend his novel against charges of indecency. In the movie (which loosely draws from the real-life trial), Flaubert, played by James Mason, portrays Emma Bovary as a sympathetic young woman who has fallen under the spell of romantic novels and seeks a lifestyle that doesn’t exist. Her dreams of beauty and excitement make her sympathetic and deserving of forgiveness, Flaubert argues, and not harsh condemnation.

Perhaps it was that set-up of the plot that was problematic for the critic for The New York Times, who questioned whether or not the story of Emma Bovary was “timely.” However, he had high praise for the male stars, saying “Louis Jourdan is electric as her elegant lover, and Van Heflin is quietly appealing as her trusting, small-town spouse.”

van-heflin-jennifer-jones-in-madame-bovary
Van Heflin, Jennifer Jones

The tale of Emma Bovary has withstood the changing whims of time because of the unflinching way it reveals human nature and foibles, spelling out the reality of disillusionment and despair in unrelenting terms. The story has been brought to film numerous times, but this production stands out, perhaps because of its stark focus on Emma’s character without sharp judgment, letting the story speak its own truth.

Minnelli’s opulent storytelling, including the dance sequence during which reason is lost and passions are flamed, supplements the great heartache and loss that is found in Madame Bovary. The courtroom drama seems nearly moot in the end, but still leaves us pondering the fate of all who crossed into the life of Emma Bovary.