By 1942 Joan was so dismayed with her assignments at MGM that she felt she would do better as a free agent or at another studio. Despite fine performances in films like A Woman's Face, the studio was no longer giving her the kind of buildup and support that she knew she deserved. She never blamed Mayer for this. She knew there were higher-ups who felt that she was simply getting too old to maintain her hold on Hollywood stardom and remain a profitable performer for the studio. She'd had a good run; now they wanted to put their money on somebody younger. Mayer tried to talk her out of leaving, but she was adamant. Years later, she would say, "If you think I made poor films at MGM after A Woman's Face, you should have seen the ones I went on suspension not to make!" Leery of becoming a completely independent agent, in 1943 Joan signed a contract at Warner Brothers for one-third the salary that MGM had paid her. It was a disappointment, to say the least, but she was determined to survive.
Joan's first picture for Warner Brothers was the forgettable Hollywood Canteen (1944). This was an all-star salute to the Canteen, with dozens of actors playing themselves. The "plot" was a pretext to showcase Warner Bros. stars; it involved two servicemen on leave (Robert Hutton and Dane Clark) spending time at the Canteen before returning to duty overseas. At one point the soldier played by Dane Clark gets to dance with the real Joan Crawford. Other Warner Brothers stars in the picture included Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, John Garfield, Jack Benny, the Andrews sisters, and Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. For what it's worth, Joan had no scenes with her friend Stanwyck or her nemesis Davis. Some reviewers, such as Kate Cameron in the New York Daily News, found the whole project objectionably patronizing. "The players in the picture seem constantly awed by their own gracious and hospitable entertainment of the servicemen," Cameron opined. Movies in which ordinary people mingle with dozens of self-absorbed movie stars (who are fully aware that said vehicle will do little to move their careers ahead) are always rather painful to watch.
At first it was suggested that Joan do a song number in the film, but her high regard for her own voice had finally waned by this time, and she asked to do a dance and dialogue scene instead. Joan was gratified that so many people on the Warner Bros. lot showed up on the day they shot her cameo, clustering around her after she was finished. But her brief foray in front of the camera only reminded her of how stalled her career had become. It almost seemed as if she spent more time actually working at the real Hollywood Canteen than she did making movies. One or two nights a week, Joan would report to the Canteen, where she would make sandwiches, serve coffee, and write notes home to the families of service-men. She also became a member of the American Women's Voluntary Services, and was one of several women who started a daycare center and school for the children of women working in war factories. Years later, Joan would completely dismiss Hollywood Canteen, even wondering whether she actually appeared in it - considering the triumphs that came immediately afterward, it's no wonder.
Warner Brothers had trouble coming up with good scripts for Joan. They still seemed to see her as a singer or dancer and even suggested she costar with James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Joan turned that down, as well as many third-rate scripts that had been offered to and rejected by Bette Davis and other actresses at Warner Bros. Meanwhile, Phillip Terry's career at RKO seemed to be on the rise. RKO had high hopes for Terry, and they let it be known that they were grooming him to be their answer to Clark Gable. Without a film of her own and bored at home, Joan would often accompany her husband to the studio, where she'd coach him or go over lines in his dressing room. Terry had starring roles in minor movies such as Pan-Americana (1945), in which he played a photographer who falls for a writer when they are sent to Latin America for a story. There were several "hotcha" musical numbers, and Eve Arden stole the show, as she so often did, with her acerbic delivery as the leading lady (but not the love interest) of the picture. In his next film, George White's Scandals (1945), Terry romanced Martha Holliday and was support for stars Joan Davis and Jack Haley. And then his option was dropped by RKO.
In a sense, both Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Terry were unemployed. Joan was still drawing a salary at Warner Bros., but she was turning down picture after picture. She was determined not to get caught in the same but she'd been in at MGM. Despairing of finding work at another studio, Terry went to work at a war plant, brooding over the fact that his wife was turning down scripts when he would have taken a part in anything. By this time they had adopted a young baby boy they named Phillip Jr. After Joan divorced Phillip, the child was rechristened Christopher so that his name would match his sister Christina's and no longer remind Joan of her ex-husband.
Jack Warner was furious that Joan could not settle on a picture. He came up with a vehicle that he thought would be perfect for her, an Edmund Goulding project named Never Goodbye. Warner knew that Joan had always enjoyed working with Goulding and was certain she would approve of the storyline. But Joan gave the script a careful reading and decided that it had "loser" written all over it. When she turned it down, Warner told her that she couldn't expect to draw a salary from Warner Brothers when she refused to appear in any of the pictures they chose for her. Warner was flabbergasted when Joan agreed with him and told him to take her off salary until she and Warner came to an agreement over a project, however long it might take. No other star had ever made such an offer. But it suggested to Warner that Joan was a very determined lady, that she guided her career and guarded her screen image very carefully, and that she truly cared about quality. Never Goodbye was never made. Instead Joan did Mildred Pierce.
Joan wanted to star in the film version of Mildred Pierce very badly. Warner Bros. queen Bette Davis had turned it down, and the front-runner for the role was Barbara Stanwyck, who had already triumphed in another James M. Cain adaptation, Double Indemnity. Stanwyck also wanted to play Mildred, and director Michael Curtiz, who had won an Oscar for Casablanca in 1943, gave Stanwyck his backing - that is, until Joan agreed to test for the role, changing Curtiz's mind. Until he saw the test, Curtiz was adamantly opposed to casting Joan as Mildred. For the first couple of weeks of filming, he and Joan frequently argued, disagreeing about everything from clothes to screenplay revisions to other matters of interpretation. Producer Jerry Wald, who had been eager for Joan to take the part all along, refereed as often as he could until a mutual respect finally developed between Joan and Curtiz. It did not, however, develop into a warm friendship. Mildred Pierce was the first film Joan did for producer Wald, who would produce six more films with Joan from 1946 to 1959. "Jerry always had faith in me," Joan was to say years later.
Mildred Pierce is the story of the eponymous housewife and mother (Joan), who has a pathological need to win the love and approval of her older daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Mildred asks her unemployed husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) to leave their home when he begins spending way too much time with a Mrs. Lee Biederhoff (Lee Patrick). Mildred takes a job as a waitress, afraid that snobbish Veda will find out what she does for a living and think less of her. She enlists her husband's unctuous former business partner Wally (Jack Carson) to help her open her own restaurant. Mildred throws herself into her work after the tragic death of her younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), who she knew loved her unconditionally. Mildred becomes involved with Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), the owner of the property she buys, but she sends him packing when he turns out to be a parasite. When she has a falling-out with Veda, however, she marries Monte in the hopes that the people he knows and the elegant world he inhabits will attract Veda into coming home. This she does, but she and Monte have an affair, which ends when Veda shoots him after Monte tells her that he never loved her. Mildred tries to cover up for Veda, but the police see through her story. Veda is taken away, and it is implied that Mildred and Bert, their love rekindled, will see each other through the coming hard years.
Considering its importance to Joan's career, it is worth taking a look at the property that Warner Bros. had originally acquired. A "serious" book as opposed to a mere crime thriller, Cain's novel is generally excellent. In the book there is no murder, which was created for the movie. The Mildred of the novel is in many ways ahead of her time, a woman determined to make it on her own terms when her husband leaves her. She is a fascinating character, although as one reads the book, one doesn't quite see Joan Crawford in the role - Barbara Stanwyck is probably closer. Some of the changes made for the film make sense; others are inexplicable. In the novel, there is a fascinating scene in which Veda learns from a famous music teacher that she has no real talent as a pianist; she is unable to explain to her mother why this revelation is so devastating to her (this scene partly explains Veda's nastiness). Later, in a moment as contrived as anything in a film script, Veda coincidentally encounters this same teacher as she walks in a park one night singing out loud after hearing a concert, and he somehow recognizes genius in her voice. This improbably leads to Veda becoming a kind of Eileen Farrell, an opera singer who makes her name singing on the radio as well as on the stage. The screenwriter, Ranald MacDougall, wisely grasped how ludicrous and convenient all this would play on the screen and left it out altogether.
In the book, Mildred discovers Veda in bed with the husband that she only married to appease Veda in the first place, and she loses her temper so violently that she begins to strangle Veda. This apparently causes Veda to lose her precious voice, but in a gesture that is totally out of character, she agrees to live with Mildred and Bert, her father, when they decide to reconcile. But this is all an act; Veda has not really lost her voice, and the reconciliation was a ruse as well. Veda goes off with Monte, and Bert and Mildred agree that the proper response is "to hell with her!" They take comfort in the fact that they still have each other, and decide to "get stinko." End of book.
It is strange that the filmmakers left one scene in the novel out of the film. In the book, Mildred and Monte break up in highly dramatic fashion; Mildred drives away from his mansion during a storm and her car gets caught in a flood. Monte races after her and tries to drag her out of danger, but she is so anxious to get away from this man that she has come to loathe that she repeatedly struggles out of his clutches and is nearly swept away by the rising waters. After her car is ditched, she manages to walk miles home, sopping wet and miserable. This would have made for quite a vivid sequence for the movie. (Incidentally, Eve Aden's humorous lines, "Leave something on me, I might catch cold," and "Alligators have the right idea; they eat their young," are clever inventions of the screenwriter - they do not appear in the novel.)
As for the film, Mildred Pierce is almost perfect moviemaking. The picture is imbued with real cinematic know-how (albeit in a style not as showy as Hitch cock's), and the dialogue is often priceless. Michael Curtiz's direction is crisp, smooth and highly efficient, his handling of both players and props taut and assured. Curtiz and the brilliant cinematographer Ernest Baller ensure that Mildred Pierce is filled with expert camerawork, interesting angles, and evocative lighting schemes. Max Steiner may have recycled some music from his score for Now, Voyager, but his opening theme for Mildred Pierce is excellent.
It is a question if Mildred Pierce, like Double Indemnity, can truly he classified as "film noir." It shares many of the same elements - sleazy men supported by women, too-young women with hot bodies, illicit love affairs, murder in ritzy quarters on a moonlit night - but it lacks one of the most essential ingredients: a hard-boiled anti-hero, unless one counts Veda.
Joan is wonderful in Mildred Pierce, although there were critics of the time who suggested that she didn't have the requisite emotion in certain sequences. Joan does seem to hold back a bit after the death of Mildred's other, younger daughter; she was afraid that if she overplayed the hysteria and abject grief most mothers would feel at such a moment, she would be accused of chewing the scenery. More important, Curtiz felt strongly that she should underplay the scene to emphasize her character's obsession with Veda. "Please, God, don't let anything happen to Veda," Mildred says significantly at the end of the scene. Mildred's over-the-top desire to do everything and anything to please Veda can be attributed to her overcompensating because of the death of her other child, but Mildred's obsession with Veda actually begins long before her younger daughter's death. When she asks God not to let anything happen to Veda, it's as if she's saying, "I can deal with this child's death, barely, but Veda's - never!"
There are moments in Mildred Pierce when Joan seems to be striking attitudes, or "indicating" an emotion rather than embodying it, but they are few and far between, and occur at appropriate junctures. In general, her performance as Mildred is accomplished and understated. Henry Hart of Films in Review wasn't the only one to suggest that there were many elements of Joan in Mildred. "Crawford gave Mildred Pierce a reality it might have otherwise lacked," said Hart, "because it was her own life in some ways, a strong woman struggling against misfortune and the wrong men." Because of this, Joan made her Mildred Pierce seem real despite the melodramatic and even far-fetched aspects of the plot, and despite the bravura and charismatic "star turn" that Joan's performance is (one suspects that the more "naturalistic" approach of a 21st century actress wouldn't be nearly as interesting). In other words, Joan worked hard for her Oscar and thoroughly deserved it. True, the role was not new territory for her (as other roles were); everything she did in Mildred Pierce she had always been capable of doing, but she was at the top of her form, bringing to bear everything she knew in order to fit herself into the required image and then bring it vividly to life. James M. Cain was delighted with Joan's portrayal; he inscribed a copy of his novel to her, "To Joan Crawford, who brought Mildred to life as I had always hoped she would be and who has my lifelong gratitude."
Joan was complemented by an extraordinarily effective supporting cast in Mildred Pierce. Jack Carson was born to play Mildred's sleazy real estate friend Wally. It was the role of a lifetime for Carson, who is natural, believable and altogether excellent in the part. Zachary Scott, who came to prominence earlier the same year in The Southerner, was never considered a Hollywood heavyweight, but he was a fine actor who played up to Joan with great ease and knowing aplomb in their many scenes together. Bruce Bennett"s performance as Bert is solid and appealing, and Ann Blyth crackles with youthful sensuality and almost sublime bitchiness in her broad put perfect turn as Veda. Eve Arden is as pungent and amusing as ever as Ida, Mildred's business manager and Veda's chief detractor. Butterfly McQueen, who also played Joan's maid in The Women, also offers a flavorful and nuanced performance. In her few scenes as Lottie, she exudes a certain poignancy under her dizzy, likable surface that makes you wonder what Lottie's life might be like when she isn't on screen.
Eve Arden had had a bit part in Dancing Lady, but she didn't really get to know Joan until she appeared in Pan Americana in 1945 with Phillip Terry. Arden knew that Phillip and Joan had adopted children, and since she wanted to do the same, she solicited advice from Phillip, who told her that he would ask Joan, who knew more about it than he did, to give her a call. Arden never expected to hear from Joan, but Joan called her at six forty-five the next morning. "This is Joan Crawford! I have a baby for you!" she cried. Joan and Arden met for lunch and discussed the possibility of adoption, but for some reason it never happened. However, six months later Joan did prove instrumental in getting a child for Eve. This cemented the bond of casual friendship between them, more than their picture work together, which was limited to two films (not counting Dancing Lady, in which they had no scenes together). Once, however, Arden did get annoyed with Joan, when after a couple of martinis at a party at Aden's home she went in to wake up and play with the new baby. Arden wrote in her memoirs that "Joan and I got along well together" when they were making Mildred Pierce. Joan was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, which she won. Arden received a supporting nomination, but lost to Anne Revere in National Velvet. Arden theorized that she and Joan got along so well together because "she didn't consider me a threat, neither as an actress nor as a rival with men." (In her memoirs, Arden also trots out a tiresome anecdote regarding Joan's alleged cruelty to her children, citing an incident during a visit with her daughter to Joan's house. Christopher got bored with the company and wanted to go out to play, but Joan wouldn't let him. Parents who want their children to be polite and stay and talk to visitors - especially if one of the visitors is another child - aren't generally classified as child abusers, but Joan was afforded no such luxury. )
On the other hand, Ann Blyth remained a friend until Joan's death and a supporter afterward. After doing a reading with her, Joan thought that Blyth had potential, and they rehearsed together in the dressing room before the screen test was shot. Curtiz and Wald had doubts, but again the test convinced them Blyth would be marvelous as Veda. Jerry Wald's first choice to play Veda was none other than Shirley Temple, who had played some good supporting roles since becoming a teenager. Curtiz would have none of it: "And I suppose we'd get Mickey Rooney for the part of Monte?" he snickered.
With the benefit of hindsight, there are many parallels between the monstrous daughter Veda and Joan's real-life adopted daughter Christina. Like Veda, Christina made self-centered and unrealistic demands on her mother that Joan could not possibly meet, and, like Veda, Christina grew to despise her mother. Veda manipulated her mother for money; Christina destroyed her mother's reputation for money.
Joan had a panic attack the night of the Academy Awards and came down with a cold and sore throat that many considered psychosomatic. She was unable to attend the ceremony. Her competition for the evening seemed formidable: Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary's, Greer Garson in The Valley of Decision, Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, and Jennifer Jones in Love Letters. If nothing else, Joan gave a performance that was much more striking than the other four: it was pure Hollywood at its best. Joan told others that she was certain Bergman would win. She was surprised and overjoyed when she was announced as the winner.
Good friend Van Johnson, costar Ann Blyth, and many others rushed over to Joan's house to offer their congratulations. Old boyfriend Ray Sterling sent a telegram, as did many, many others. Michael Curtiz brought her the Oscar statuette and was photographed handing it to his bedridden star. Joan conceded that the Oscar might have been given to her for her cumulative efforts, not just for her performance in Mildred Pierce. "Frankly, I thought it was about time ," she said many years later. She thought she was just as good in such films as Susan and God and A Woman's Face, among others, which she was. But there was something especially irresistible about Mildred Pierce and Joan's vital portrayal of the long-suffering title character.
It was after the premiere of Mildred Pierce that Joan realized that her allegedly storybook marriage to Phillip Terry had gone sour. In truth, it had never been in such great shape to begin with. The two had not known each other very well when they got married, and what with their busy schedules at the studio, the children, and both attending a multitude of dinner parties and other official premieres and engagements, they had little time to get acquainted afterward. They also discovered that they had little to talk about. But the main problem was simply that Joan had gotten bored with Phillip.
The inertia set in during the months Joan was unemployed, when she first came to Warner Bros. She began finding ways to avoid Phillip, whose utterly placid nature she sometimes found unnerving. When she was making Mildred Pierce, she felt so alive in front of the cameras, and so wan at home with Phillip. She loved being with the children, but she didn't expect them to provide intellectual stimulus or excitement. A Stanford graduate who had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Phillip was hardly unintelligent, but he couldn't compare to Tone. In fact, Phillip always came up lacking when compared with some of Joan's previous inamoratas. Through no fault of his own, Terry lacked Fairbanks Jr.'s outgoing, gregarious, showoffy nature, couldn't hold a candle to Gable's charisma, and was absolutely no good in a fight the way Tone was. "I think it got to a point where Joan would have welcomed those knock-down, drag-out fights with Franchot Tone over Phillip's bovine-like nature," said Jerry Asher. "He was an awfully nice man, but much too dull as far as Joan was concerned. He just lacked that inner spark that the others had. Joan eventually got bored with Fairbanks, as well, but Phillip was the one who really drove her crazy."
Joan was also afraid that Phillip was losing his drive and ambition. Not only did he not mind being "Mr. Joan Crawford," but he seemed to enjoy it - which Joan found unsettling. He was getting used to Joan being the breadwinner. In fact, in this regard he was altogether too much like Monte in Mildred Pierce. Joan had initially been attracted to Phillip's calm, placid, languid nature - it promised a peaceful atmosphere very different from the one she'd had with the abusive, drunken Franchot. Phillip would never beat her, she was certain - but Phillip was too far on the other side of the spectrum. Phillip's docility, the tranquil sterility of their marriage, eventually got on her nerves. For Phillip's part, he perhaps came to find the idea of a ready-made family equally unsettling. "I think he came to feel as if he were a baby who'd been picked out of a bassinet while Joan went on about how adorable he was," said Jerry Asher.
Although there had been professional gains during the time he was married to Joan, they might not have represented enough compensation, although most people who knew Phillip agree that he was not much of a predator. Rather, Phillip always took the path of least resistance. When Joan was done with him, he did not put up much of a fight. "Why should he have?" Jerry Asher said, "Joan paid him a very generous settlement which nearly cleared out her bank account. Joan thought Phillip could give her a life of serenity, but he was much too tame for a woman as vital as she was. He was easy-going, when she wanted exciting. Franchot may have beaten her, but he never bored her. It probably wasn't until Joan met Al Steele that she found a happy medium." About Phillip Terry, Joan would later write, "I realized I had never loved him. I think I've owed him an apology from the first." But she spoke very little about him, in public or private.
Joan landed in hot water with Hedda Hopper when she phoned Louella Parsons with the exclusive that she and Phillip Terry were getting a divorce. Hedda felt that she had been a big booster of Joan's in the pre-Mildred Pierce days, and the first columnist to suggest that Pierce should net her the Oscar. "I knew about Joan's early life," Hopper wrote in her memoirs, "her ambitions, loves, disappointments. Many lesser actresses, who hadn't given half her service, had received Academy Awards. I don't say my plugging got her the Oscar, but it certainly didn't hurt.... I will never understand why friendship isn't a two-way street." The sentences were carefully phrased, especially the bits about "Joan's early life" and "given half her service," to sound as threatening as they were flattering. Hopper was letting Joan know that she knew where the bodies were buried, and that there was a lot more she could say about Joan's early days - if she wanted to. Why did Joan risk Hopper's wrath and give Parsons the scoop about the divorce? Possibly she was just trying to maintain or establish her independence. Joan did not like anyone to tell her what to do.
This was not the last time Joan would cross swords with Hopper. Twelve years later, the two had a public brouhaha reported in Mike Connolly's column in The Hollywood Reporter. "Oh wow, that tongue-lashing between Joan Crawford and Hedda Hopper," Connolly wrote, but without providing any details. Joan was annoyed, to put it mildly, when Hopper insinuated that she and fourth husband Alfred Steele might be getting a divorce because a business commitment of Alfred's prevented them from attending a party William Haines had organized for the newlyweds. After their verbal brawl, Hopper printed a quote from Joan: "I'm not about to divorce Mr. Steele, today or any other day." Five years after that Joan sat down for lunch with Hopper and Bette Davis as part of a publicity campaign for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Joan never really liked Hopper, who had had small roles in a couple of Joan's early movies, but felt that "she had her uses. We got along as long as she didn't go too far." She would send Hopper nice notes after every favorable mention in her column, and upbraid her in no uncertain terms after every unfavorable item. Hopper would fume and obliquely mention some little bit of Joan's past that she might someday reveal, in the hopes of getting Joan in line again. But Joan knew that Hopper wouldn't dare. When push came to shove, Hedda Hopper was a little scared of the tenacious Joan Crawford, who was in many ways even tougher than she. In her heart of hearts, Joan Crawford was the woman Hopper, failed actress turned gossip hen, always wanted to be.
After Phillip Terry was out of her life, Joan began dating a handsome lawyer named Greg Bautzer. Bautzer became her main escort to parties and premieres, and the two ran hot and cold for several years. Bautzer enjoyed being in the limelight and relished his status as "celebrity lawyer to the stars." (The "Greg Savitt" character in the movie version of Mommie Dearest is probably based on Bautzer.) Most chroniclers of their relationship (including daughter Christina) paint Joan as the villainess, with her purported expectations that Bautzer bow down and worship her, be her slave and carry out her every whim. The truth was that Bautzer, like most men Joan met, expected Joan to bend to his will as the natural order of things: men were the bosses, women did as they were told. This would certainly not sit well with an independent female like Joan Crawford. The story generally goes that Joan booted Bautzer out of her life - indeed, her car - because he paid too much attention to younger women at parties, and that aspect may well have been true. But mostly Joan got tired of constantly battling with Bautzer, who regarded it as his male prerogative to be in control at all times. He wasn't a placid doormat like Phillip Terry, which is one reason he lasted as long as he did; neither did he end up at the other extreme, and beat Joan, as Tone had. The trouble was that Joan didn't like taking orders from anyone - and why should she have? She had made it to the top on her own. No man was going to tell her what to do.
The title of Humoresque (1946), Joan's next film, of course comes from Antonin Dvorak's famous piano composition. It begins as the story of Paul Boray (John Garfield), who as a child nags his father for a violin and surprises everyone by practicing every day when he does get one. Years later he becomes a talented musician, but has trouble holding down a job until his friend and mentor Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant) takes him to a society party run by Helen Wright (Joan), a patron of the arts. Helen and Paul are rather rude to one another, but Helen is intrigued by Paul's ability and rough-hewn appeal. She becomes Paul's sponsor, but both Helen's husband and Paul's mother are afraid that something more will develop between the two - which then happens. Her husband having agreed to a divorce, Helen is willing to commit to a relationship with Paul; even though she knows that he is totally committed to his musical career, she can't accept playing "second fiddle" to anyone. Drunk, alone, and afraid that she will never find happiness with anyone, Helen walks into the ocean as Wagner's "Liebestod," played by Paul in a concert hall, blares from the radio.
Helen Wright is perhaps Joan's most glamorous role, and the movie has a gloss normally associated with MGM rather than Warner Brothers. Thirty-five minutes elapse before Joan appears, dressed in an elegant gown by Adrian and surrounded by men vying to light her cigarette. When we first meet her, Helen comes off as somewhat insolent and "superior," but when she finally notices Paul she becomes intrigued and even a little intimidated, leading to the verbal sparring match between them. Some felt that neither Joan nor costar John Garfield were always up to the challenges of playwright Clifford Odets's wonderful dialogue, but if the star duo - who enjoyed splendid chemistry together - can be accused of anything, it's an occasional lack of spontaneity. Joan's line readings are always on the money, and her performance is generally assured and charismatic. A few times, she gets the most out of the pungent dialogue, such as when Helen tells Paul about her two previous husbands: "One was a crybaby, one was a caveman; between the two of them I lost my girlhood. " If her performance is somewhat artificial, it is understandable insofar as Helen is essentially a "drama queen" who drinks too much and clings to intense emotions; she's wealthy, entitled, and accustomed to having her own way. In other words, Joan plays Helen just the way she ought to be played. In the climactic scene, in which Joan expertly pantomimes her confusion and anguish as she listens to Paul play on the radio, every note rings true. The scene is moving even before the "Liebestod" starts, this despite the fact that Helen is not a terribly sympathetic character. There is a moment during Helen's final phone conversation with Paul when Joan responds too quickly, but otherwise her timing and technique are flawless. She also pulls off some expressive pantomiming when Helen sits in the concert hall in an earlier scene and listens to Paul play - her eyes close, her glistening lips part, her head goes back as she abandons herself, not so much to the music, one suspects, but to Paul's sensuality. "What do you think I was thinking about?" she jokingly responded when asked about this sequence. In later years, Joan wasn't entirely pleased with her performance in Humoresque, lumping it with Rain and feeling that she had overacted. "There are some scenes where I think I just did too much," she said, but the film itself doesn't bear this out. Helen was, after all, a rather neurotic character, and her reactions were generally outsized.
Any movie that uses the "Liebestod" from Wagner's magnificent Tristan und Isolde for musical background is, of course, hedging its bets, but at least Humoresque uses it more appropriately than Blume in Love and others. The suicide sequence is artfully put together, and it works beautifully, although some have criticized the way the camera follows Helen into the water and sinks toward the bottom, as air bubbles rise to the surface. It is clear that Helen's suicide is foolish and completely compulsive, a sudden irreversible decision fueled by alcohol and self-pity, as she faces the enormity of the ocean and the peace it represents. Helen's death is a tragic waste - but one can't help but feel that Paul is well rid of her. As Helen herself puts it, "You don't want me. I'm too wearying on the nerves. "
Again Joan was surrounded by a top-flight supporting cast: J. Carrol Naish as Paul's grumpy but loving father; Ruth Nelson as his initially supportive and later disapproving mother; and especially Joan Chandler as Gina, the musician colleague who is unrequitedly in love with Paul. Oscar Levant was never much of an actor, but his personality perfectly fits the cynical, self-deprecating Sid, who continuously cracks jokes to hide his obvious despair over his lack of success in life. Paul as a boy is played with great sensitivity by little Bobby Blake, who decades later would be arrested (as Robert Blake) for allegedly murdering his wife outside a restaurant.
The dialogue by Odets and Zachary Gold lifts Humoresque above the usual soap-opera level, but not quite into the realm of "masterpiece." To its credit, the movie does delve into the difficulties of becoming an artist while also making a living and dealing with unsupportive family members, and it doesn't gloss the grim realities facing those who aspire to a career in classical music - the need for money, a sponsor, publicity, critical approval, and so on. Director Jean Negulesco makes excellent use of frequent close-ups, such as during a scene in the concert hall when the various characters react to the emotions brought out by the music. Of course, much of Humoresque should be taken with a grain of salt. Garfield, although quite good as Paul Boray, is Hollywood's stereotype of the rude, stubborn, temperamental artiste, and patrons of the arts don't always lust after the artists they promote, as Joan's Helen Wright does.
Producer Jerry Wald thought that Joan shouldn't do Humoresque, and at first he did not offer it to her. She might never have gotten the part if John Garfield had not objected to some of the other names being bandied about as leading lady. Wald thought the role was merely a supporting part, and besides, it was really a John Garfield movie. Joan thought that the role really suited her, and she wanted to work with Garfield, whom she admired as a "serious" actor. When everyone finally realized that Joan was genuinely anxious to play Helen, the role was beefed up into more than a supporting part. Joan got top billing; her name was placed above Garfield's, just as it had been above Gable's for Strange Cargo.
Joan and Garfield got along well during the making of Humoresque; Joan would never confirm whether or not she and Garfield (who was married at the time) had an affair, or even a Hollywood "quickie." It is hard to believe that Joan and Garfield, who certainly exuded sexual tension in the movie, did not get together intimately at some point during filming or shortly afterward. Garfield's wife Roberta was nervous about Joan, but Joan won her over when she had William Haines help her with some redecorating. Rumor has it that when they were first introduced, Garfield pinched Joan's nipple; initially furious, Joan later admired his audacity and sexual aggressiveness - and told him so. She got Garfield in her corner when she realized some of the concert scenes weren't showing him to his best advantage and suggested that Negulesco reshoot them. It gave the scenes the proper balance.
For her next picture, Joan was fully prepared to go mad - and she did.