All year, I’ve been working my way through my 4-disc DVD set of Joan Crawford classics, packaged for department store sale by TCM about a decade ago . . . It’s generally been a personal goal to clear my pile of unwatched physical media from my shelf during the pandemic, and with the more daunting sets like this (as opposed to standalone horror schlock with no air of sophistication or prestige) I genuinely have no idea how long I’ve allowed it to collect dust on its still in-tact shrink wrap. Three movies into the Joan Crawford set, I thought I had a grasp on the types of movies TCM was attempting to highlight with the collection: stylish noirs with a touch of romantic melodrama. Then, I got to the final film of the set, a full-on melodrama with no interest in crime genre tropes and barely any interest in Joan herself. I think I have a much better understanding of the inanely titled TCM Greatest Classic Legends Film Collection DVD set now; it’s just four movies Warner Bros would license to TCM for cheap that happened to share one of the studio’s biggest stars. Basically, it’s the Old Hollywood equivalent of those Drive-In Classic 50 Movie Pack DVDs you’ll find haunting the bottom of every Wal-Mart bargain bin in the country. The fact that all four of the Joan Crawford discs were stacked on top of each other in a single slot in the case should have tipped me off that this wasn’t a lovingly curated set with a clear, explicit theme.
Maybe going into Humoresque with expectations of seeing another stellar Joan Crawford Noir killed any chance I had of enjoying it for what it is. Humoresque is a sweeping melodrama about a virtuoso violinist whose promising career is derailed by his obsession with a wealthy drunk socialite played by Crawford (and by his own runaway hubris). While all the other films included in the TCM set have been stylish noirs with Crawford at the center, the much less charismatic John Garfield is the star of this picture as the troubled, romantically obsessed violinist. Crawford still plays a kind of sultry femme fatale, but she’s more of a supporting character than the center of attention. It’s at least a half-hour before she even appears onscreen. There are also no crime thriller tropes to speak of despite Crawford’s framing as the femme fatale. The movie is intensely fixated on the world of chamber music both as an industry and as an artistry. We follow the violinist through a prolonged rags-to-riches uphill battle where he defiantly proves himself as the greatest living artist in his field, locking the rest of the world away as he hones his craft to an unmatched extreme . . . until Crawford derails his attentions. As a result, the musical performances often overpower the film’s function as an actors’ showcase, with great attention paid to making it look as if Garfield were actually playing the violin (with a technique similar to how Sesame Street makes it look as if Weimaraners were actually eating spaghetti off a twirled fork). And because of the context I encountered the film within, I couldn’t help but spend those scenes asking “Where’s Joan?” instead of simply enjoying the show.
Of course, Crawford does make great use of the diminished screen time she’s allowed here. Her role as an adulterous socialite who wears old-lady glasses and downs way too much top-shelf liquor is a fun turn for the powerhouse actress, even if it’s one she could play in her sleep. Her alcoholism affords her some moments of violent, wildly passionate outbursts and her exorbitant wealth affords her opportunities to model gowns by Adrian – which look gorgeous on her, as always. She gets to be the life of the party, holding court over her socialite minions who bray at ever tossed-off quip she amuses herself with, like when she calls the violinist “a rare animal, a New Yorker from New York.” She’s also painfully aware of the fact that this is not her story, that she’s only lurking at the periphery. In the emotional climax of the film, she shouts in her young lover’s face that she’s “tired of playing second fiddle” to his art, and I totally got it. I was tired of watching it too. It’s in those drunken outbursts where the movie finally comes alive for me, especially once she punctuates her wildly jealous complaints by smashing her cocktail glasses in a fit. No one can hurl a drink at the wall in anger like our gal Joan, and here she earns bonus points by throwing a second one through a closed window. None of the film’s orchestral spectacle could match the pure ferocity of that drunken anger, and the movie could’ve used a lot more of it, centering her as the protagonist.
The good news is that there is a movie in this same TCM set where Joan Crawford is unhealthily obsessed with an (amateur) musician, and the story centers her story instead of the over-confident beau’s: 1947’s Possessed. At this point, it’s near impossible for me to watch any of these films without comparing it to the other inclusions in the DVD set. That’s especially true of Humoresque because it is such an outlier, both for falling entirely outside the confines of noir and for not featuring Crawford as its lead. In that spirit, here’s a picture of what the TCM Greatest Classic Legends Film Collection looks like and a best-to-worst ranking of how much I enjoyed each title.
Watch this one last, if you bother to watch it at all.