John Garfield and Joan Crawford star in this melodrama concerning art and love. Crawford plays wealthy socialite Helen Wright, unhappily married to Victor (Paul Cavanaugh). Garfield is a sort of rags-to-riches musician, Paul Boray (Robert Blake’s here in an early role as Paul’s young self). His family includes father and mother Rudy (J. Carrrol Nash) and Esther (Ruth Nelson), and brother and sister Phil (Tom D’Andrea) and Florence (Peggy Knudsen). Then there’s Paul’s best friend Sid (Oscar Levant) and music school (girl-)friend Gina (Joan Chandler).
So, we start with (the scamp Robert Blake) Paul hanging around the family grocery store in 1930s New York City. Paul is manuvered out of getting a violin as a birthday gift–he ‘supposed to’ get a toy. His mom’s got a feel for the situation, and gets him the violin after all. More notable for me is the enormous birthday cake on the table right there.
Back home, dad still isn’t down with Paul’s musical aspirations. Sid, meanwhile, although a fellow musician, has a radio job. As Paul puts it “I don’t want to be living in a hot box over a grocery store!”
So much for the teeny-weeny Robert Blake, as, viola! Paul quickly ages into John Garfield; plus he’s in a music school. With Gina looking on. So, just like that, he starts in on her: and she’s in love with him. He’s so open with her that he compares her–indirectly–with his mom; and it doesn’t even come off as goofy. Still, Paul needs some sort of career-boost. So, he talks to Sid about a job as a violinist. Here’s his friend’s hot tip “Why don’t you play gypsy mariachis in an Hungarian restaurant?” Good one.
Nevertheless, he’s soon playing violin–professionally, but for Sid’s “schmaltzy” radio audience. Paul runs into disagreement over his more refined interpretations. Then, sort of a quick-step montage of Paul sprucing-up his performance. Sid talks him into making a debut–risky, because it’s essentially advertising for himself, and costly. But then Sid has a better idea–the Wright’s party.
So, they put on their fancy duds and show up with the swells. Paul meets the Wright’s, and is goaded into playing by a drunk girl. Meanwhile, Sid has a funny flirtation with another girl. As soon as Paul starts playing, he draws plenty of attention. Helen remarks, “with all that talent, he’ll probably wind up in jail.” By now, the party centers on Paul. More interestingly, he pretty much locks eyes on her.
For some reason, things get off to a rocky start, as they trade insults. But, don’t you know, Paul gets a fancy cigarette case and an apologetic letter from Helen. They meet up in a cozy bar. Garfield’s film-noir persona certainly shows through in their dialogue; most of his lines are half-critical, half-defensive, and entirely terse.
Thanks to Helen setting him up with an agent, as he’s soon playing in classical orchestras. The weird (but not unexpected) side story is that Victor looks on passively at Paul and his wife hanging out, more or less as a couple. Victor’s attack is limited to remarking that Paul’s music has a “savage”appeal. Good news is that his father has come around. Gina reappears, or at least, wants to; Paul seems stuck with the smart set–the Wright’s. Still, he feels taken for granted by Helen, as though he’s “a possession.”
At this point, Helen’s drinking becomes obvious. She entertains Sid and Paul at their beach place. Sid is a little too snappy with his smart-aleck one-liners: “Does your husband interfere with your marriage?” Anyway, night finds Paul and Helen lying lazily on the beach. She declares her love for him.
Back home, he finds that he stood up Gina. His mom is savvy to Helen; but he ain’t listening. The career’s in high gear with a nationwide tour. Gina figures that he’s changed since he’s become successful; she’s out of the loop with him, “I’m blue.” His response is grandiose, but deliberately enigmatic “You’re a blank check with my emotions.” Sid and Helen show up. Gina can’t take the vibe, and leaves with Sid. Next thing, at a different club, he has to ‘explain’ who Gina is to Helen. She scornfully replies “did you play hopscotch with her on the sidewalk?” That’s nice.
Gina, who’s obviously still in love with Paul, can’t take hearing him perform while Helen looks on from the balcony; and she just up and leaves. When his folks show up at his fancy digs, mom again tries to talk him down from Helen. He admits that he loves her. Meanwhile, at the Wright’s, Victor drills her about Paul. Double-star-crossed romance.
Next, another concert. Helen pens a note for Paul, with “wonderful, exciting news!”. Ok, meaning she’s divorcing Victor? It’s as though it’s an air-raid and Paul should drop everything and go after her. Actually, she’s just getting soused in a bar; when Paul does show, her line is “Well, what do you know, the place is haunted.” She feels she’s “playing second fiddle to the ghost of Beethoven.”
At this point, I’m pretty much thinking that Helen is headed for a bad place. I was right about her getting a divorce from Victor. Also, she intuits, probably correctly, that Paul doesn’t love her; rather, he loves music. Well, she gets through the night; she’s in the Boray grocery store in the morning. Paul’s mom tells her to go fly a kite. Soon enough, another concert; he thinks he’s going to marry Helen.
But she’s freaking out, and calls him–she’s trying to chill at the beach. When she says she wants Paul to drive out to her cabin, now I’m suspecting a car accident. Actually, the music from Paul’s concert pervades the beach scene (it’s broadcast over the radio); which sort of taunts Helen.
Ok, I get it, she’s going to drown herself. Glub glub. All that’s left is a flyer advertising the concert. From the beach, Sid and Paul look out on the ocean. Now, Paul’s back in the city, returning to his roots, so to speak. The end.
For a melodrama, this is very good. Garfield, Levant, Crawford, and Chandler compliment each other in an intricate balance of personalities and motivations. The supporting cast amplifies or fleshes out the main characters (Levant’s character is a bit over-the-top, though). The plot and pacing (especially for such a long movie) manages to keep interest and tension at a high level. For example, the relatively brief scenes of Paul’s childhood serve to set the stage, and don’t intrude on the main plot.
My only big issue with Humoresque is Crawford’s character. Helen definitely makes her mark, but I don’t see how she could rival Gina. Chandler’s character is more attractive, younger, more stable emotionally, in the same career field as Paul, and has history with him. Helen’s only notable because she’s the exact opposite from Gina. Helen’s not evil, there’s just nothing really good about her. I suppose her wealth is an attraction; but, given her personality, she hardly represents security.
Farmermouse ain’t much for those high-society folks; but he found plenty of good stuff to nibble on at the Boray’s store. Eight pieces of that chocolate birthday cake. 8/10.