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Tag Archives: Ernest Haller

Humoresque (Dec. 25, 1946)

In a recent NY Times interview with David O. Russell, the director of the Oscar-nominated biopic The Fighter (2010), he compared his star, Mark Wahlberg, to John Garfield. Russell said that — like Garfield — Wahlberg is “always kind of in character, because it’s always him in some way.”

Garfield might seem as unlikely a choice as Wahlberg to play a concert violinist, but Humoresque never tries to pass Garfield off as something he wasn’t. His character, Paul Boray, spends his boyhood in what appears to be New York’s Lower East Side, in an immigrant family that has neither the time nor the money for classical music. (Garfield was born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, where he was enrolled in a school for difficult children.) At a high society party, a tipsy young woman refuses to believe Boray when he tells her he’s a violinist. She pegs him as a prizefighter, and refuses to believe he even knows what end of a violin the music comes out of. “It comes out of the middle,” he responds. (Garfield would, however, play a boxer in his next film, Body and Soul.)

There are plenty of hoary cliches in the early sections of the film. Bobby Blake plays Boray as a child. His immigrant father (J. Carrol Naish) works hard and always has his eye on the bottom line, while his mother (Ruth Nelson) is more sensitive, and grows to believe in Paul’s desire to play music. All of these scenes are pretty laborious.

Perhaps director Jean Negulesco wanted to be explicit about how a rough young man from the slums could become a dedicated concert musician, but all of the scenes of Boray’s childhood are less effective than a short sequence later in the picture in which the adult Boray storms out of a recording studio after being forced to cut a major chunk from a piece for radio time. He returns to his apartment to play alone, and the wildness of his music is reflected in a herky-jerky montage of chaotic city streets and teeming masses of people.

Long stretches of Humoresque are told through music, which is beautifully played by violinist Isaac Stern, but there’s plenty of snappy dialogue, too. When Boray gets in an argument with his friend, accompanist, and mentor Sid Jeffers (played by pianist and wit Oscar Levant), Jeffers tells him, “You’ll do all right. You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You’re self-indulgent, self-dedicated, and the hero of all your dreams.” Boray responds, “You oughta try a few dreams yourself, it might make you less cynical. When I look at you, I know what I want to avoid.” (And to give you an idea of the rapidity of the dialogue in the film, that exchange takes place in less than 12 seconds.)

The plot, such as it is, kick in around the 30-minute mark, when Joan Crawford shows up as Mrs. Helen Wright, a myopic, dipsomaniac socialite with a sharp tongue. Her husband is a cultured, sensitive man, but — by his own admission — very weak, and as soon as Helen takes an interest in Paul and his career, tongues begin to wag.

Garfield and Crawford have great chemistry, and both are good enough actors to give their relationship depth. It’s unclear for a time exactly what each wants from the other, but her alcoholism and his deep-seated anger make for plenty of stormy scenes. At one point, Paul blows up and yells at her, “Well, you didn’t do any of this for me, really. You did it for yourself, the way you buy a racehorse, or build a yacht, or collect paintings. You just added a violin player to your possessions, that’s all.”

In Bosley Crowther’s review of Humoresque in the December 26, 1946, issue of the NY Times, he wrote, “The music, we must say, is splendid — and, if you will only shut your eyes so that you don’t have to watch Mr. Garfield leaning his soulful face against that violin or Miss Crawford violently emoting (‘She’s as complex as a Bach fugue,’ Oscar says), and if you will only shut your ears when folks are talking other such fatuous dialogue, provided by Zachary Gold and Clifford Odets, you may enjoy it very much.”

I love Crowther’s reviews. Maybe if I’d been around when he was writing them I would have resented the stranglehold he had on public perception, but in retrospect they’re fantastically entertaining. I liked Humoresque more than he did, but I don’t disagree with his assessment. One has to take into account his longstanding hatred of Joan Crawford, of course, but by the time the credits rolled I was more moved by the music than by any of the vacuous melodrama.

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Deception (Oct. 18, 1946)

In my recent review of Decoy (1946), I mentioned that most of the movies that are now classified as film noirs were originally called “thrillers” or “melodramas.”

Irving Rapper’s Deception, about a love triangle in the world of classical music, sometimes gets thrown on the film noir pile, but it’s a melodrama through and through. The film reunited the director and all three stars of the popular, classy flick Now, Voyager (1942), which featured one of Bette Davis’s most iconic performances.

Lightning didn’t strike twice. While Deception, which reunited Davis with her fellow Now, Voyager alumni Paul Henreid and Claude Rains, received generally positive reviews, it was the first picture Bette Davis made for Warner Bros. that lost money. It’s a good film, but as melodramas go, it’s not terribly thrilling, and the criminal activity is kept to a minimum.

In the first scene of the film, piano teacher and musician Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) rushes through the driving rain to a concert in a small, second-floor performance area. She sees cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), and she begins to cry. Quite by chance, she saw an announcement for the performance and couldn’t believe it, since she believed that Novak, her old flame, had died during World War II.

Their reunion is so emotional that it quickly leads to marriage. Even before the nuptials, however, Novak senses that Christine might be hiding something from him. She lives in an enormous apartment with a spectacular view of Manhattan, and her closets are full of fur coats, all improbabilities in the tight housing market of 1946, especially on a piano teacher’s salary.

Things quickly reach a head at their wedding celebration, with the appearance of Christine’s teacher, the famous composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains). He has witticisms and icy remarks to spare, but he doesn’t really tip his hand until Christine sits down to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, the “Appassionata.” Hollenius listens, enthralled, and crushes his champagne glass in his hand. When Christine rushes to tend to him, he says, “Like all women, white as a sheet at the sight of a couple of scratches. Calm and smiling like a hospital nurse in the presence of a mortal wound.”

That’s the first hint he drops about his feelings, but it won’t be the last. When Christine goes to visit him the next day, she walks into Hollenius’s conservatory and calls the piece he is playing “wonderful,” to which he responds, “Extraordinary, isn’t it, that music can exist in the same world as the basest treachery and ingratitude?”

From the beginning, Christine kept Novak in the dark about her relationship with Hollenius. Hollenius goes along with this deception, but never misses an opportunity to drop a hint or needle Novak about something. Compounding the mess is the fact that Hollenius is one of Novak’s favorite composers, and when he offers Novak the chance to be the soloist for the world premiere of his new cello concerto, Novak is ecstatic. Christine, on the other hand, senses that the mercurial Hollenius may be setting a trap for the emotionally fragile Novak.

And it certainly seems that way to the viewer, especially when Hollenius brings in Bertram Gribble (John Abbott), a journeyman cellist, to act as understudy in case Novak’s strained nerves get the better of him. Besides all the barbs and insinuations in social settings, Hollenius the conductor even seems hell-bent on tormenting Novak during the serious work of preparing for their concert, when he forces him to replay the same measure over and over during a dress rehearsal.

I’ve rarely seen a character in a film wield his art as a weapon quite so effectively as Hollenius does. It’s a perfect role for Rains, who as an actor projected a unique mix of effeteness and virility. By the time the climactic world premiere scene rolls around, the audience’s nerves are so thoroughly jangled that merely watching Henreid bow and pluck at his cello’s strings is as suspenseful as watching someone defuse a ticking time bomb. (It helps that Henreid’s pantomiming is nearly perfect. His cello parts were actually played by cellist Eleanor Aller, the wife of Felix Slatkin, when she was pregnant with their son, Frederic Zlotkin. Henreid was coached on how to properly mimic playing the instrument by Aller’s father, Gregory Aller.)

The score of Deception and all of Hollenius’s compositions were written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), an Austro-Hungarian composer whose stirring, neo-Romantic scores for films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) presaged the work of John Williams. His style was too old-fashioned and his medium was too populist to attract anything but disdain and indifference from critics and scholars during his lifetime, but he was incredibly talented, even though his music was neither groundbreaking nor avant-garde. In Deception, he seems to be straining against the bonds imposed on him by the conventions of the cinema, and Novak’s cello part in the concerto is especially moving and powerful. At least I thought so.

Mildred Pierce (Oct. 20, 1945)

Mildred_PierceIf you’ve only seen the film adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce, you’re forgiven for never wondering whether the striking murder set piece that opens the film and informs the entire picture was an invention of the producer and the screenwriters that never occurred in the novel.

It was. But it’s a brilliant invention. Even though long stretches of Mildred Pierce (told in flashback) are essentially melodrama, the sequence that opens the film is one of the greatest examples of film noir I’ve ever seen. It is nighttime. Heavy shadows fall over caddish playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), resplendent in a tuxedo, as he is gunned down in a Malibu beach house. Not every shot hits him. A few smash into the mirror behind him. But enough hit him to kill him, and he falls to the floor. Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) flees from the house, walks down the boardwalk, and looks as though she is contemplating suicide by jumping into the Pacific Ocean, but is stopped by a policeman. She talks her way out of the situation and later entices the beefy and amorous Wally Fay (Jack Carson) back to the house on the beach and locks him in, with the intention of pinning the murder on him. The scenes in which Wally realizes Mildred has left him alone in a locked house with a corpse and a revolver and he attempts to escape are stunning, and are one of the greatest noir sequences in film history.

Unlike Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), another noir classic adapted from a novel by Cain, Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce takes a lot of liberties with its source material. This is partly due to necessity. I loved Cain’s novel, and found it every bit as good as his 1934 crime classic The Postman Always Twice and more believable than his 1937 novel Serenade, which is about a male opera singer who loses his voice after he gives in to homosexual temptation. Cain’s Mildred Pierce contains no murders, just plenty of bad behavior, and the most despicable character waltzes off at the end with no punishment in sight. Apparently the moral tone of the novel was troubling to the Breen Office, so producer Jerry Wald devised a murder plot with a culprit who could be punished, which sufficiently palliated the concerns of producer and studio head Jack L. Warner, and he purchased the rights to the novel in 1944. The script for the film went through eight different versions before Ranald MacDougall’s version was accepted. William Faulkner and Catherine Turney both made uncredited contributions. (And we can all thank our lucky stars that Faulkner’s scene in which Mildred’s maid, played by Butterfly McQueen, consoled Mildred while singing a gospel song was either never filmed or was left on the cutting room floor.)

Mildred Pierce is a fantastic film. Crawford’s longtime nemesis Bette Davis and fellow fading star Rosalind Russell were both considered for the lead role, but both turned it down. It’s impossible for me to imagine anyone but Crawford playing Mildred Pierce. She brings not only her finely controlled histrionics to the role, but her own life history as a woman who crawled up from nothing.

When the picture opened, it was a huge hit, both with critics and audiences. It was nominated for best picture, best actress, best supporting actress (for Eve Arden, who plays Mildred’s wisecracking best friend), best writing, and best black and white cinematography. Joan Crawford won the Academy Award for best actress, and accepted the statuette at home, where she was sick in bed. (Her adopted daughter Christina claims she was faking, but this is hardly the worst accusation she has lobbed at her mother.)