Thursday, January 17, 2008


Every year, I make a resolution not to make New Year's resolutions. However, this year, I have decided to make an effort to watch more classic movies which I have deliberately avoided. Most of these are well-known films (mostly from the 50's) which everyone says I should see, like REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE or MARTY or SHANE or SERGEANT YORK, but for which for some reason, I just can't work up any enthusiasm. Sometimes it's because, as with REBEL, I know so much about it that I feel like I've seen it already. Other times, as in HUMORESQUE, it's because it seems like a film I would definitely not enjoy. Joan Crawford in brittle bitch mode and John Garfield as a sensitive tough-guy violinist? Typically, I'd say, "No, thanks, seen it already." But I made this my first "resisted" film, and by God, I loved it! And not even in a campy way.

Robert Blake is a kid growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the son of a grocer (J. Carroll Naish) who can't understand his boy's desire to have a violin for his birthday. His mother (Ruth Nelson) is more understanding and he gets the violin. He grows up (becoming John Garfield) devoting himself to the violin and studying at an arts institute, and is mentored by cynical pianist Oscar Levant--what other kind of pianist could Levant possibly play? After years of frustration, he finally gets a break when he plays at a party given by Joan Crawford, a famed patron of the arts. Surrounded by callow playboys and fawning gay boys (my interpretation of the presence of cute blond Teddy in the party scene) and a passive, weak husband, Crawford is attracted to the young, cocky, darkly sexy Garfield. After a brief battle of wills, he lets her help him out by getting him an agent and paying for his first public recital. He's a smash and his career skyrockets. Crawford and Garfield begin a tempestuous affair, with Crawford constantly jealous, sometimes of other women, but ultimately realizing that he's married to his music; she says she's "tired of playing second fiddle to Beethoven." The film climaxes with the distraught Crawford listening to Garfield playing Wagner over the radio, and taking a last, long walk, dressed to the shoulder-padded nines, into the ocean.

This is an old-fashioned "woman's picture" involving passion, suffering, and a fabulous wardrobe, but there are several things that make this stand out above the rest. Crawford is at her peak as a Movie Star, and once she enters the film, about thirty minutes in, she monopolizes the screen, seeming to glitter in every frame. She's very good, better even than in MILDRED PIERCE, for which she won the Oscar, and she hadn't yet started going campily over the top as she would in her 50's films. She's older and classier than Garfield, but the relationship never feels false. Garfield is also good, though he tends to take a back seat in his own narrative in the last hour. Paul Cavanagh is fine as the effete husband and Naish, who I'm coming to admire more and more as a consummate supporting actor, is quite good as the father. Oddly, the one weak link is Oscar Levant, whom I normally like. Here, his dry, cutting wit is overused, sometimes feeling artificially shoehorned in, and his line readings are done at a breakneck speed which doesn't fit with the feel of the rest of the movie. I did like Levant's somewhat ambiguous friendship with Garfield; at one point, he tells someone that his relationship to Garfield is the same as George Sand's to Chopin. Ruth Nelson, as the mother, rather overdoes the disapproving glares she gives Crawford throughout. There is a lot of classical music in the movie, but it avoids the "classical vs. pop" plotline that many 40's films partake of; there is a scattering of pop tunes used as counterpoint, including "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" and "Embraceable You." I don't want to risk overselling this movie, but I was caught off guard by how much I liked it. [TCM]

No comments: