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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

 

Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel, 1932, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford. Directed by Edmund Goulding. B&W, 112 minutes.

Five diverse individuals, each battling his or her own demons, are staying at the Grand Hotel where their lives and stories intersect. All lives are changed during that stay, some improve, some are left with nothing.

Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a retired assistant bookkeeper with only a short time to live. He’s decided to play out his last days in luxury, and despite his meek nature, demands an elite room. Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore) is an aristocrat without a penny to his name, forcing him to resort to thievery to maintain his standard of living. His latest victim is to be ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), whose declining career has led her to despair.

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Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore

There’s also Kringelein’s former employer, General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), whose business is depending on a merger that has fallen through, and ladder-climbing Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), the stenographer he hires for a business meeting with potential investors.

The Baron, despite his tawdry livelihood, is a gentleman and the one pivotal to moving all lives forward, whether to disaster or triumph. His fate seals that of the others.

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John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore

This pre-code film was the first to use an all-star ensemble cast, a tradition studios carried out for years to come. It also is known for its deft storytelling. The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was not nominated in any other category, the only film in the Award’s history to hold that dubious distinction.

Garbo’s famous line “I want to be alone” is uttered by her character in Grand Hotel, and is credited with solidly establishing her reputation as a recluse and loner. Later she clarified the real-life meaning of the phrase for herself when she said, “I just want to left alone.” In addition to that famous line, this film, along with Anna Karenina, is often credited as the movie that proved her star power was not just in silent films, but was also found in the new “talkies.”

She was initially reluctant to be in Grand Hotel, in part because she felt that, at the age of 27, she was too old to play a diva ballerina. Studio head Irving Thalberg convinced her otherwise, and promised she could select the actor who would play Baron von Geigern, her love interest in the story. Initially she wanted her former fiancé John Gilbert, but his career was in a decline, and she accepted Thalberg’s suggestion of John Barrymore instead.

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Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery

Thalberg had to convince Beery and Crawford to star in the movie as well, but lucky they did, given its success. Crawford in particular was credited for rising to the level of the performances of her well-established co-stars and gaining credibility as an actress in talking pictures.

The movie had a huge budget for the time, a good portion of which was spent on the phenomenal Art Deco set.

Grand Hotel established a new style of film, one of many characters whose lives may or may not be entwined, that Neil Simon, among others, later copied in some of his productions. It also was the direct inspiration for the production of Dinner at Eight a year later. It is a credit to the then still-young movie industry that it holds up so well today.

The Women (1939)

The Women, 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 133 minutes

This biting satire of the lives of Park Avenue women has lost none of its punch since it first was released more than 75 years ago. The movie is rich with characters, sub-plots and razor-sharp wit, and the story line itself is as old as marriage.

Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is a devoted, trusting wife who learns, with the unsolicited help of her less-than-true friend Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), about her husband’s affair with a perfume counter clerk, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford).

Rosalind Russell in the The Women
Mimi Olivera, Rosalind Russell

Sylvia has no problem sharing details, real or imagined, with other friends in their social circle, and soon the story has made the society pages. Despite pleas from her husband to stay, Mary chooses to divorce him. In the meantime, multiple other marriages are in trouble as well.

We’re nowhere near the end of this fine film here, but I’m leaving it to you to discover the rest. It ends in a classic screwball-comedy confrontation at a posh event that brings things to the final, melodramatic (yet satisfying) outcome.

The legendary Anita Loos and screenwriter/director Jane Murfin adapted the screenplay from the Broadway hit written by the equally renowned Clare Boothe (Luce). (Other writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, are said to have made uncredited contributions to the script.) The play was much racier, requiring re-wording of large portions of dialogue, which was heavily laden with innuendo too rich for acceptance by the Motion Picture Production Code.

Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford The Women
Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford

While men play a significant role in the movie, you don’t see hide nor hair of them throughout (with the exception of two minor pictures in advertisements). Apparently even the animals were female. There’s nothing contrived about this, however. While you’re aware of the absence of men, you won’t find a single scene that needs a man to make it realistic.

In a lucky break, director George Cukor had been fired from the making of Gone With the Wind a month before production on The Women began. Lucky, because, in addition to his skills as a director, Cukor was adept at handling the real-life rivalries between his stars, including a fierce professional battle between Shearer and Crawford.

There’s a Technicolor fashion show by top couture designer Adrian that’s a bit out-of-place, unnecessary to the plot, but fascinating all the same with its designs that range from stylish to outlandish.

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Paulette Goddard, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer

Surprisingly, The Women received no Academy Award nominations, but that was, after all, 1939, a year many consider the best for the Golden Age of Hollywood, with movies including Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz,  Stagecoach, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Today most critics agree The Women stands its own with those other fine films.

If you saw the 2008 remake, forget it. There’s no comparison in wit or star power.  Stick with the original.


Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce, 1945, Warner Bros. Starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth. Directed by Michael Curtiz. B&W, 111 minutes.

A sharp psychological drama that has had feminists debating the nature of its leading lady’s motivations and decisions from the day it was released, Mildred Pierce is as provocative a a mother/daughter tale as you’ll discover on film.

Set in sunny southern California, yet somehow dark in atmosphere and telling, this is the narrative of a woman who will sacrifice anything for her ever-ungrateful daughter. Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) married young and has two girls, and as she explains it, this is the only life she knows. However, her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) is out of work and apparently has an interest in another woman. After a particularly nasty fight one evening, he packs his bags and walks out, leaving Mildred alone to pay the bills.

Beyond the usual costs of keeping a home, Mildred has big dreams for her children that come with a price. She’s hired an expensive voice coach for her older daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), and her younger girl, Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) is enrolled in dance classes. What’s more, nothing will truly please self-absorbed Veda, yet Mildred is determined to give her everything she wants.

Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth
Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth

She turns to her friend Wally Fay (Jack Carson) for help with her dream of opening a restaurant. Wally finds a property owned by Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott) and arranges a deal with him that allows Mildred to open her new — and highly successful — place at a cost she can afford. Beragon, for his part, has fallen for Mildred.

What follows is a complex tale of confused relationships, a family’s sorrows and a woman’s choices in the face of losing odds in all she treasures.

Director Michael Curtiz had reluctantly agreed to Crawford’s unusual offer to do a screen test for the part after learning Barbara Stanwyck and several other actresses he sought wouldn’t be available. Despite his hesitation, that screen test quickly convinced him Crawford was the right choice, but tension remained between the two throughout production. Producer Jerry Wald often stepped in to mediate.

Not everyone had complaints about working with Crawford. Ann Blyth later recalled her as “the kindest, most helpful human being I’ve ever worked with. We remained friends for many years after the film. I never knew that other Joan Crawford that people wrote about.”

Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott
Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott

Crawford, whose career had been in a slump prior to this film, won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Mildred Pierce. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (twice, for Eve Arden and Ann Blyth) Best Writing, Screenplay, and Best Cinematography, Black & White. (The Oscar for Best Picture that year went to The Lost Weekend, starring Ray Milland.)

After seeing the film, James M. Cain, author of the novel Mildred Pierce on which the film was based, sent Joan Crawford a signed first edition of his original book. The inscription read: “To Joan Crawford, who brought Mildred Pierce to life just as I had always hoped she would be, and who has my lifelong gratitude.”

Mildred’s role as wife and mother has long been debated by feminists, and analyzing it in that way, particularly in context of the times, is beyond the scope of this review.  Interpreting motives in fictional characters is a difficult thing to do when singular actions in film may take place simply to move a story forward. However, as a well-played, complex character from that era, it doesn’t get much better than Mildred Pierce.