One hot night in July, in the middle of a period of relentless mass production of preview features about aspects of the Edinburgh International Festival, I decided to give myself a night off and watched a movie. I’ve seen it before, but have been repeatedly drawn to it because, from start to end, in every layer of its texture, and at every level of its dramatic development and working out, it is about music.
Humoresque is a black and white film dating from 1946. It stars John Garfield and Joan Crawford, and, essentially, is about a driven, ambitious musician, a concert violinist called Paul Boray, for whom everything and everyone takes second place to his art and his music.
Joan Crawford’s character, a dominating, manipulative society queen who gets him his breaks and his entrée into the big time, is drawn to the violinist. She is the moth to his flame. She gets burned and, unable to play second fiddle to Boray’s violin, takes a one-way walk into the sea.
But the film is about music. It is deeply and quite extraordinarily about music. The music is not just a backdrop. It’s not an accompaniment. It’s not just an atmosphere. It’s not a mere narrative device. It suffuses and permeates every moment and every motivation in the movie. I would not be surprised to learn that someone, somewhere, has written a thesis on the place and function of the music in Humoresque.
I’d love to delve into it here, but this is not the time. What rivets me about the music and the movie is how it was done, so brilliantly, so effectively and so absolutely convincingly.
Here’s how. Composer Franz Waxman was in overall charge of the music. He composed, arranged, scored and conducted the soundtrack, dazzlingly integrating extant music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Lalo, Beethoven, Bizet, Chopin, Gershwin, Dvorak, and just about everyone else into the soundtrack.
But they needed a real violinist to play for John Garfield. Jascha Heifetz was the leading violinist of his time. He agreed to do it. But then he wanted more money. Jack Warner, head of the studio, gave Heifetz the bum’s rush, summoned Waxman and issued a characteristically terse imperative: “Find me a kid.”
Waxman flew to LA to hear the young Isaac Stern, then in his mid-twenties, in recital, and offered him the job on the spot.
Stern’s first job was to pre-record all the music featured in the film with the Warner Bros orchestra. That was then played on the soundstage during the actual filming. Then came the tricky bit: how to make Garfield look as though he was actually playing. The results were, and still are, phenomenal.
What it looked like, during the filming, can only be imagined. Garfield had to stand, stock still, his arms behind his back. One musician reached his arm around Garfield from behind, and through the actor’s coat, to do the fingering on the violin.
Another musician, on the other side, had to reach around Garfield’s shoulder to do the bowing work. And a third musician, a double, was used for long shots, while Stern was filmed from above, looking down on the violin, the bowing and the fingering, so you can see his fingers doing what they are supposed to be doing. The editing is stunning and completely convincing.
It’s a masterpiece of filming and editing. But the seriously interesting layer is the actor, Garfield. Even with all the Hollywood trickery and magic surrounding his “performance” as a violinist, an absolutely key element is Garfield’s face while “playing”. Presumably under direction, he eschews all of the facial and head movements, and the expressions, that all violinists find themselves doing.
Without a trace of flamboyance, Garfield’s face simply registers total concentration and intensity. It’s what he did best anyway. And it bridges any potential credibility gap. It’s worth watching the film just to study his face as he “plays”. A cracking performance, musically and dramatically. An unqualified five stars.