“Tell me, Mrs. Wright, does your husband interfere with your marriage?”—— Oscar Levant to Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford hit her peak in three consecutive years in three consecutive films, all for Warner Brothers. For Mildred Pierce, in 1945, she received her only Oscar among three nominations during an almost fifty-year career, here playing against type as a down-and-out waitress. Despite the Oscar, many viewers found her less than totally convincing in the role: it just wasn’t who she was. Perhaps the weakest of the three films, one of several major flaws was the over-acting of Ann Blyth as Crawford’s daughter and the weak writing of her part.
More comfortable with herself as an actress, Crawford in Humoresque in 1946 was perhaps never better in playing the kind of role that had solidified her career, the supposed sophisticated woman tortured by demons and overindulgence, whether it’s booze, men or power, or all three. Strangely enough, earlier that year the studio had released another film about brooding and scheming classical musicians. With Bette Davis and Claude Rains, Deception is better scripted and more technically astute about music, but is otherwise surpassed by Humoresque.
The Crawford film is simply a better movie as entertainment, made in Warner Bros.’ slickest style, thanks to director Jean Negulesco, cinematographer Ernest Haller and a script by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold. The source is a 1919 short story by Fannie Hurst, high-class soap opera and here lifted even higher.
Possessed, which many regard as Crawford’s best performance, came in 1947. Here, more so than even in Humoresque, she could employ the full range of acting pyrotechnics in portraying schizophrenia, obsessive love, insanity and, finally, murder. Oscar-nominated for her role as Louise Howell, the two men in her life were Raymond Massey, the supportive husband, and her obsession, Van Heflin, the scoundrel who warps and changes her life.
In Humoresque—so named after the seventh in a set of nine piano pieces by Czech composer Antonín Dvorák—the husband (Paul Cavanagh) is not so much supportive as “understanding,” maybe “dismissive,” of his wife’s sexual indiscretions. Helen Wright (Crawford), an alcoholic and neurotic patroness of the arts, is much impressed by the violin playing of Paul Boray (John Garfield) when introduced at one of her lavish parties by his friend and co-music student Sidney Jeffers (Oscar Levant).
But to backtrack. Earlier in the film—told in flashback—Paul has matured now from a young lad (Robert Blake) and gone against his father’s (J. Carrol Naish) protests to take up the violin. As a young music student, he has relations with other members of the orchestra besides Sid. The school head (John Abbott, a mediocre cellist in Deception) does what he can to guide Paul’s instructions, and later his agent (Richard Gaines) arranges a public concert.
Cello student Gina (Joan Chandler) confesses her love for him, and Paul, though overly ambitious and his mind set on becoming a concert violinist, seems to reciprocate her feelings. This is before he comes under the influence of Mrs. Wright. (Chandler, by the way, after her début in Humoresque and an appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, went into television, soon retired and died at the early age of fifty-five.)
After Sid has accompanied Paul in a piano/violin arrangement of the finale of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Sid pompously observes: “From now on, you can sign all your letters ‘fiddle player.’ I have spoken. . . . Little too brash, little over-brilliant. You need more restraint. . . . You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You’re self-indulgent, self-dedicated and the hero of all your dreams.”
Much as the year before in Rhapsody in Blue, another Warner Bros. music saga, Levant has some of the best, certainly the most comical and satirical lines in Humoresque. “It isn’t what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.” “I don’t like to play the piano. It makes me too attractive.” “I hate cold showers. They stimulate me and then I don’t know what to do.” “I envy people who drink. At least they know what to blame everything on.”