#464) Humoresque (1920)

#464) Humoresque (1920)

OR “Fiddler Under the Roof”

Directed by Frank Borzage

Written by Frances Marion. Based on the short story by Fannie Hurst.

Class of 2015

The Plot: In the Lower East Side of turn-of-the-century New York, the Kantor family struggle to make ends meet. Nine-year-old Leon (Bobby Connelly) wants a violin for his birthday, and while father Abrahm (Dore Davidson) discourages the expensive gift, Mother (Vera Gordon) supports it, stating that God has finally answered her prayer of a having a musical prodigy in the family. Leon grows up (Gaston Glass) to become a successful violin player, performing concerts for the likes of the Royal Family. Despite his success, and the love of childhood friend Gina Berg (Alma Rubens), Leon opts to give it all up and serve his country during the Great War. This family drama will stop at nothing to tug at your heartstrings, pun definitely intended.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of the film’s plot and historical significance, and praises director Borzage and actor Vera Gordon’s “riveting” performance.

But Does It Really?: I’m definitely on the fence about this one. On the one hand, “Humoresque” holds up quite well 100 years later, despite its tinges of melodrama. On the other hand, this film rarely gets mentioned among great American films, and has no notable legacy. “Humoresque” works best as a document of the kind of movies 1920 audiences enjoyed; stories of immigrants in America, and their dream for their children to live better lives. I know I give most movies a slight pass for NFR induction, but “Humoresque” is getting by on my slimmest margin yet.

Everybody Gets One: Vera Pogorelsky was a child actor in her native Russia, but anti-Semitism in the Russian theater community led to her emigrating to America. For over 40 years Vera Gordon divided her time between film and the theater, almost always playing the lead’s Jewish mother.

Wow, That’s Dated: I want to take a moment and acknowledge Mannie Kantor, Leon’s brother and possibly one of the first developmentally disabled characters in a movie. The film makes him a purely pitiable figure, calling him “a living dead thing…with a tiny baby’s mind”. It’s all quite antiquated and manipulative by today’s standards, but still worth noting.

Title Track: A humoresque is a genre of music known for its lightness (you’ve probably heard Antonin Dvořák’s rendition). In this film, “Humoresque” is the piece that Leon plays on several occasions, his mother comparing it to life: “Crying to hide its laughing, and laughing to hide its crying.”

Seriously, Oscars?: Obviously, this 1920 film was not eligible for an award still eight years away, but it’s worth noting that “Humoresque” won the first Photoplay Medal of Honor for Best Film of the Year. The Medal of Honor is generally considered the first major American movie award, and was handed out for almost 50 years.

Other notes 

  • The producer of “Humoresque” is an uncredited William Randolph Hearst! That’s right, the real-life Citizen Kane (and his production company Cosmopolitan) was behind this, and it was allegedly Hearst himself who suggested giving the film a happy ending. This all begs the question: did Leon have a name for his violin? And did he cryptically utter it on his deathbed?
  • Intertitles are always a fun source for ’20s phrases, as well as those whose meaning have changed over the years. Young Leon is first introduced “showing off his birthday suit”, which has a very different meaning these days.
  • Adjusted for inflation, the $4 violin Leon wants would be over $100 today.
  • The main thing I appreciate about this film is how many Jewish traditions and customs are observed throughout the film, including lighting a menorah for non-Hanukkah reasons, touching the mezuzah upon entering a room, and Leon’s performance of “Kol Nidre“. It’s a detailed look at Judaism that unfortunately got lost once the Production Code set in. Added bonus: the intertitles give us such Yiddish words as “ganef” (thief), “potch” (slap or smack), and “nebich” (a poor thing).
  • Sure Vera Gordon is great in this, but she is every overbearing Jewish mother stereotype rolled into one. Kay Medford and Renee Taylor owe their careers to this woman.
  • With its family of immigrants, its violinist main character, and its reverence of Jewish traditions, this plot is somewhere between “The Jazz Singer” and “Golden Boy”
  • Wow, this audience is rally clamoring for Leon to play “Humoresque”. It was the “Free Bird” of its day.
  • The poem Leon recites before leaving his family is a paraphrase of “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” by poet Alan Seeger, who was killed while serving in the French Foreign Legion during WWI. You’re more familiar with his nephew, singer and anti-war activist Pete Seeger.
  • The scene where Leon says goodbye to his family goes on forever. My (ultimately correct) suspicion that this was a short story padded out to a feature started here.
  • This is all well and good, but is it really a great idea to make a silent movie about a musician? Especially when the climax of the movie involves him playing the violin?

Legacy 

  • As the NFR write-up states, the success of “Humoresque” led to other studios making films about impoverished families in New York’s Lower East Side. They don’t list any specifically, but I’ll take their word for it.
  • Director Frank Borzage would continue making films for 40 years, most notably 1927’s “7th Heaven”, for which he won the first Oscar for Best Director.
  • “Humoresque” was remade in 1946, with some drastic departures. Joan Crawford is a married woman who falls for John Garfield’s violinist and almost wrecks his career. It ramps up the melodrama, and throws in some ’40s noir for fun.
  • There was a study some years back that suggested there was a correlation between a film’s IMDb connections and its likelihood of making it into the NFR. “Humoresque” may be the exception that proves the rule with only two IMDb connections: the aforementioned remake, and the now-lost 1921 Marx Brothers short “Humor Risk”.
  • Fannie Hurst would go on to write the novel “Imitation of Life”, which has not one, but two film versions in the National Film Registry. She is currently tied with Edgar Allan Poe and John Steinbeck for the author with the most film adaptations of their work in the NFR.

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