Humoresque (1920)

Film Review

HUMORESQUE

Release Date: 30 May, 1920

Studio: Cosmopolitan Productions

Director: Frank Borzage

Starring: Alma Rubens, Gaston Glass, Vera Gordon, Dore Davidson, Bobby Connelly

Writers: William LeBaron, Francis Marion. Story: Fanny Hurst

Cinematographer: Gilbert Warrenton

Synopsis

The Kantor Family live in the Jewish ghetto of New York City. On his ninth birthday, Leon Kantor (Connelly) wants the fiddle he has seen in a toy store window. His father, Abraham (Davidson) refuses, but Mama (Gordon) knows her prayers have been answered; one of her six children will be a musician. She gives Leon the broken fiddle his older brother, Izzy, did not want. Leon immediately plays some plaintive notes.

As the years pass, Leon (Glass) develops into a virtuoso. He plays a Stradivarius violin to large and appreciative audiences in America and Europe. In Europe, he renews his acquaintance with a childhood playmate, Gina Berg (Rubens), formerly Minnie Ginsberg, who has been studying on the continent.

Leon’s earnings have enriched his entire family who have moved from the ghetto to a fine apartment on Fifth Avenue. Mama is very proud of her "wonder boy" who has achieved fame and provided them with so much.

Before each concert, Leon's mother must pet her boy and calm his agitation. Audiences are particularly responsive to his fervid playing of Dvorak's Humoresque. Mama says the piece cries to hide its laughter and laughs to hide its crying. The day Leon signs a large contract with a leading impresario, WWI begins in Europe.

In 1917 with two of his brothers already in the army, Leon signs up. Before going overseas, he says farewell to his family, all of whom unsuccessfully try to hide their sorrow and fear. Mama, in particular, laments that her "wonder boy" must go. Leon soothes them. Gina visits to say goodbye; she and Leon pledge to meet in spring. Gina asks Leon to play a new piece, and she will sing, the first line is "I have a rendezvous with death".

Months later, Leon has returned wounded from the war. He cannot lift his immobilized right arm. Despondent, Leon refuses to move from his chair. He tells Gina to leave him because he is a cripple. She goes outside the glass door, says she cannot stand a separation, drinks some liquid from a bottle, and collapses. Leon rushes to her, and with no one around to help him, lifts her and carries her to his mother in the next room. Gina is quickly revived; she did not drink any dangerous substance, but only wanted to stimulate Leon into motion. His fear for her has enabled him to move his arm. He picks up his violin and begins to play. Gina embraces him. His parents and siblings are happy and grateful for his recovery.

Discussion

Based upon a short story (of the same name) by Fannie Hurst, the film was extremely popular and played extended engagements all over the country. The public and critics were particularly impressed with the performance of Vera Gordon as the Jewish mother.

Until the ending scene, the film shares with the story the same plot basis, the intense love of a Jewish mother for her artistically successful son and the intense pain and foreboding she feels on his becoming a soldier and leaving for war. Humoresque, the music hiding pain amid laughter, signifies the responses of Mama, hiding her pain under smiles, as her boy goes off to war. The film undercuts the plot’s focus on the intensity of mother’s feelings by adding the happy ending focusing on the relationship of Leon and Gina.

Mama's character is within the stereotype of the intensely loving and overprotective Jewish mother who has great aspirations for at least one of her children. Vera Gordon's striking portrayal made her a star. To the modern viewer, the character comes off as intrusive and smothering the son's development.

Leon is a colorless character overpowered by his dominating mother. Even as he is going to war, she dominates him, insisting he sit on her lap as when he was a small child. Gaston Glass, playing the son, displays little personality.

Alma Rubens, although top billed, has a small role. She first appears near the middle of the film and has her longest screen time during the final scene in the hospital.

Frank Borzage (No Greater Glory (1934), His Butler's Sister (1943)) an important director of silent and talkie films, began his career around 1912 as an actor; by 1915 he was directing and starring in his own films. By 1919, he had given up acting.

Borzage's best known silent is 7th Heaven (1927), one of the biggest hits of its time. His career continued successfully into the talkies. He made his last credited film (The Big Fisherman) in 1959. Humoresque was his biggest hit before 7th Heaven.

The music, Humoresque (composed by Antonin Dvorak in 1894), is a nice tune but lacks the intensity needed to induce feelings of pain and laughter. The music was composed as a cycle of 8 piano pieces, named Humoresques. The seventh Humoresque is the most popular of the pieces and arrangements of the music have been produced for many instruments, including the violin. As a musical genre, "humoresque" refers to music with a light and humorous mood.

The appeal of the film has not withstood the test of time. To a modern viewer, it is slow moving, dull, and mawkish.

The story was filmed under the same title but with a revised (and improved) plotline in 1946, starring John Garfield and Joan Crawford and directed by Jean Negulesco.

References

Noticed and Noted. New York Times. August 1, 1920.

Humoresque is Still Appealing. Los Angeles Times. September 5, 1920.

Vera Gordon. Obituary. Variety. May 10, 1948