The star of HUMORESQUE was composer Franx Waxman, not John Garfield’s driven concert violinist nor Joan Crawford as his patroness-slash-lover. Waxman’s Oscar-nominated score took center stage, featuring everything from Tchaikovsky to Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov to the Dvorak piece upon which the film’s title was based, plus a couple of Gershwin songs thrown in for good measure as source cues.
Waxman was responsible for all the adaptations of the classical music as well as a small amount of original music, though he only gets a perfunctory “Music Conducted By” credit. Isaac Stern was credited as “Music Advisor,” it is his virtuosic playing that Garfield mimics, and, in many close-ups, it was Stern’s actual hands fingering the violin by standing behind Garfield off-camera.
In addition to numerous performances and rehearsals of condensed classical pieces, Waxman composed two virtuoso pieces for violin and orchestra based on melodies from famous operas. The first, Carmen Fantasie, based on Bizet’s tunes, was written earlier that year for Jascha Heifetz, who was originally supposed to provide the violin solos for the film. When a financial dispute with Heifetz left Waxman in search of a new violinist (cue Stern), the Carmen Fantasie stayed in the picture and went on to become a common staple in the violin literature (and Heifetz’s signature encore piece for the rest of his life). The piece wonderfully undercuts the fiery tension between Paul (Garfield) and Helen (Crawford) as she disrupts his rehearsal to tell him that she is getting a divorce. When she sends a note to him onstage that she must see him immediately, he crumples up the note and continues the fiery piece as Helen storms from the auditorium.
The Tristan and Isolde Fantasie for violin, piano, and orchestra, based on the famous “Liebestod” from Wagner’s opera, plays up the film’s melodrama to the hilt and provides Crawford with one helluva memorable—and waterlogged—finale.
One of my favorite cues occurs early in the film as we see shots of the bustling New York City streets intercut with Paul’s (Garfield) everyday life. Waxman’s original music (reminiscent of Gershwin) weaves Paganini’s wicked Molto perpetuo op. 11 into the mix before ending with the final bars of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor as Paul and Sid (Oscar Levant) practice a violin/piano duet version of the piece.
Back in 1946, the Oscar category was called “Best Music Score of a Drama or Comedy Film” instead of “Best Original Score,” thereby allowing what is primarily an adaptation score to compete against some other fine original scores—Bernard Herrmann’s ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, Hugo Friedhofer’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (the winner), William Walton’s HENRY V, and Miklos Rozsa’s THE KILLERS. Still, adapted or not, it’s hard to dispute the effect Waxman’s marvelous arrangements had on the film.