Humoresque has been showing up a lot on the classic movie channel this summer, coinciding with the release of a new DVD set of Joan Crawford films. This movie's one of those that I'd always had a vague impression about but had never really watched all the way through until a few months ago.
The movie's title (and not too much else) comes from the short story by Fannie Hurst, about a child prodigy whose gift is nurtured by his immigrant mother. After achieving fantastic success as a world-renowned concert violinist, he enlists to fight in the Great War. The story ends with his brief visit home on leave. He plays "Humoresque" for his mother ("It's like life, son, that piece. Crying to hide its laughing and laughing to hide its crying."), and then a piece he's composed to accompany Alan Seeger's "I Have A Rendezvous with Death." He asks his childhood sweetheart to marry him, then leaves for Europe.
The movie attempts melodrama of its own (boy from the slums meets violin, boy with violin meets rich girl, rich girl wins boy [mama has a fit], boy loses girl, boy keeps violin and mama), not quite as successfully. The violinist in the movie needs to be more of a wunderkind with a streak of mama's boy, but there isn't a grain of innocence in the world-weary John Garfield (whose character as a boy is played by Robert Blake). He's merely penniless and defiant, and completely unbelievable as he mouths platitudes about How Much His Music Means To Him and How Much Joan Crawford Means To Him. (However, although John Garfield is somewhat short for a leading man, and not at all handsome in my book, he is inexplicably, um, hot.) The movie is, of course, famed for its music (even inspiring this tribute album from Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg), but the violin solos in the movie (although played ably by Isaac Stern's fingers and John Garfield's furrowed brow), are mostly of the histrionic diva genre, not so much my thing.
But I find this film worth returning to, for a couple of reasons. I'm not a particular fan of Joan Crawford, but she is so pretty (not haughty, not brittle) that it makes you want to stare at the screen here, even (or maybe even especially) in the scene when she's drunkenly warbling along to "Embraceable You". Her classic line, of course, is: "I'm tired of playing second fiddle to the ghost of Beethoven!" (Funny...I think I had that said to me too, around Day Three or so of The Beethoven Experience.)
And then there's Oscar Levant, who does double duty as a concert pianist and the movie's comic relief. I had one of those "You know you're getting old when..." moments when I first saw him in this movie: Oscar Levant looks like a kid to me here. They give his piano playing a fair amount of screen time (considering), and it is thrilling to watch his outsized hands on the keys. Not to be missed are his inspired non sequiturs, which seem to be his own way of turning to the fourth wall and saying "What am I doing in this movie?":
Did I ever tell you I was in love once? It took me two weeks to get over her. I played all the thirty-two Beethoven sonatas. It took exactly two weeks.
Are you sure there's nothing else I can do for you? Maybe you'd like to hear me play the Hammerklavier sonata—it only takes an hour, if I leave out the repeats.
I realized at some point that I've felt a presumptuous familiarity with Oscar Levant for years, although I've only seen him in one other movie (The Band Wagon), have never seen any vintage reruns of his television appearances, and, aside from my copy of Levant Plays Gershwin and the various versions of "Blame It On My Youth" dotted here and there in my jazz library, don't know all that much about him as a performer or composer. I was curious to see what he was like as a writer, so I tracked down his first book, A Smattering of Ignorance, written several years before he appeared in Humoresque. It's a collection of musings and anecdotes delivered with deadpan hilarity, based on his life to that point, as a concert pianist, conductor and composer in New York City, as a composition student of Schoenberg and Hollywood studio "cog in the wheel" in L.A., and as a grieving friend of the then recently deceased George Gershwin. The book is as meaty as it is entertaining, and its best chapters are those in which Levant gets serious about the future of American music: "The progress that had been made toward insinuating new American works into the program of symphony orchestras was arrested because the support of the orchestras was dwindling, and the conductors did not wish to alienate their audiences further by forcing difficult works on them. [....] A new generation of composers was emerging which inevitably would be subject to the same cycle of mild patronizing interest and essential indifference as that which preceded them." (Plus ça change...?) But I'm also happy to indulge in the guilty pleasure of laughing at this tale of a particular studio boor:
The level of musical perception among Holywood producers is, if anything, slightly lower than their perception of values associated with the other arts. [....] I recall the plight of one, whose social prestige decreed his presence at a certain Hollywood Bowl concert. It chanced that the important work of the evening was the C minor symphony of Beethoven, which he suffered in silence until the coda of the final movement. This has, as you will recall, what could be desribed as an 1805 Roxy finish, with the tonic and dominant chords repeated a dozen times, with flourishes. At each insistent recurrence of the tonic he half rose from his chair to facilitate his exit . . . also because he was bored. When the third series of tonic and dominant chords still left him short of the actual end of the movement he turned and muttered, "The rat fooled me again."
Perhaps his most searching bit of musical criticism was propounded when he said to me dictatorially, "In my opinion"—marking the words carefully to allow the full weight of his thought to rest on me—"the greatest piece of music ever written is 'Humoreske.'"
It was after such a characteristic demonstration that S. N. Behrman said of this producer, "Now I know why he can make those instantaneous decisions—he is never deflected by thought."
Oscar Levant, A Smattering of Ignorance. Garden City Publishing Co., Inc., 1942 (reissue ISBN 0848821521).