Legerlines

The Herald - Arts - - Arts - Michael Tumelty

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.

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