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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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Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (January 1946)

A lot of fans of Johnny Weissmuller’s work as Tarzan in the MGM series of the ’30s like to beat up on the RKO Radio Pictures Tarzan pictures of the ’40s. They’re campier, the production values are cheaper, and Weissmuller was older when he made them. I say, so what? They’re still great Saturday-matinee entertainment, especially this one. Tarzan and the Leopard Woman moves at a good pace, it’s loony without being over-the-top, and Weissmuller is in better shape than he was in the previous few entries in the series.

Weissmuller was a big guy; 6’3″ and 190 pounds in his prime. Like a lot of athletes, he had a tendency to gain weight when he wasn’t competing professionally (when he was making the Jungle Jim series in the ’50s, he was reportedly fined $5,000 for every pound he was overweight). In Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, however, he was 41 years old, and looked better than he had in years. His face looks older and his eyes are a little pouchy, but three divorces (including one from the physically abusive Lupe Velez) will do that do a guy. Even though he was nearing middle age when he made this picture, Weissmuller was still a sight to behold. When he jumps into a river to save four winsome Zambesi maidens (played by Iris Flores, Helen Gerald, Lillian Molieri, and Kay Solinas) from crocodiles, he knifes through the water, and it’s not hard to see why he won five Olympic gold medals for swimming, and was the first man to swim the 100-meter freestyle in less than a minute.

When Tarzan and the Leopard Woman begins, the local commissioner (Dennis Hoey) is speaking to Dr. Ameer Lazar (Edgar Barrier), a native who has been educated and “civilized.” The commissioner is concerned about a spate of attacks by what seem to be leopards. Dr. Lazar appears to share his concern, but we soon learn that Lazar is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Privately he spouts anti-Western doctrine that sounds suspiciously like Marxism, and is the leader of a tribe of men who worship leopards and wear their skins. Tarzan believes that the “leopard” attacks are really the work of men, so to throw off suspicion, Lazar releases a trio of actual leopards as cannon fodder. Their attack against the caravan is repelled, the leopards are killed, and everyone is satisfied that the terror has passed. Everyone, that is, except Tarzan, who still smells a rat.

The original shooting title of Tarzan and the Leopard Woman was Tarzan and the Leopard Men, which is probably a more accurate title, but definitely a less sexy one, especially once you see the leopard men. The eponymous leopard woman is Dr. Lazar’s sister, Lea, high priestess of the leopard cult. Played by the exotic-looking actress Acquanetta, Lea makes a few memorable appearances in the beginning of the film with her voluptuous breasts barely concealed behind a gauzy wrap, but after the halfway mark she wears a more concealing leopard-print dress, and spends most of her time standing on an altar, goading on the leopard men’s dastardly acts. For the most part, the leopard men are paunchy, pigeon-chested, middle-aged men whose poorly choreographed ritual “dancing” never stops being unintentionally hilarious.

Acquanetta was born Mildred Davenport in Ozone, Wyoming, in 1921. She changed her name to “Burnu Acquanetta,” then to just “Acquanetta,” and starred in films like Rhythm of the Islands (1943), Captive Wild Woman (1943), and Jungle Woman (1944). The raison d’être of most island pictures and jungle movies in the ’40s was to show a whole lot more skin than was considered appropriate in any other genre of the ’40s, and on that count, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman succeeds. Weissmuller’s loincloth is as skimpy as it ever was, and the scene in which he’s scratched all over by the leopard men’s metal claws, then tied tightly to a pillar and menaced by Lea surely excited plenty of future little sadomasochists in the audience.

Former model Brenda Joyce, in her second outing as Jane, has really grown into the role, and looks great. I missed Maureen O’Sullivan when she left the franchise, but Joyce has really grown on me since Tarzan and the Amazons (1945). She’s pretty and charming, not to mention stacked.

There’s a subplot in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman that I’m going to call “Battle of the Boys.” Johnny Sheffield is still playing Tarzan and Jane’s adopted son, “Boy,” but he’s quickly outgrowing the moniker. Sheffield was 14 when he made this film, but he looks older. Unlike a lot of cute child stars to whom puberty was unkind, Sheffield looks like he’s in better shape than anyone else in the movie, and he’s good-looking. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Tommy Cook, who’s a year older than Sheffield, but looks younger and weirder. The last time I saw Cook, he played the cute little sidekick named “Kimbu” in the 1941 Republic serial The Jungle Girl. Here, in an enormous thespic stretch, he plays Lea’s younger brother “Kimba,” who insinuates himself into the lives of Tarzan, Jane, and Boy. He might as well have been named “Bad Boy,” since he’s Boy’s evil doppelgänger. Jane takes pity on Kimba and cares for him, but his true intention is to cut out her heart in order to become a full-fledged warrior among the leopard men.

I don’t think I’ll be giving anything away if I say that Tarzan, Jane, Boy, and their pet chimp Cheetah make it through the proceedings relatively unscathed, while the bad guys all die horrible, gruesome deaths. Tarzan and the Leopard Woman might not be the greatest entry in the Tarzan franchise, but it’s far from the worst, and packs plenty of action and thrills into its 72-minute running time.