Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Grab it and pull: John Garfield and Oscar Levant

Don't watch all of this, because most of it is a little slow. The good part starts around 2:00 and is only about 45 seconds long.

To set this up, here's an interesting fragment of a conversation - at least *I* think it's interesting, and since it's my party and I'll cry if I want to, you simply have to come along - which took place in 1938.

Hedda Hopper: Well, when I saw you in 'Daughters', I gasped and said: 'There is Oscar Levant.'

John Garfield: You're the first person who's recognized it. When I read the script, that mad, sardonic genius of music flashed through my mind. And I based my character on him.

Levant's biographer explains that "it is clear from the wrinkles in his suit to the limp curl hanging over his forehead that Garfield had imagined Mickey Borden as Oscar Levant."

This is interesting, to me anyway, because it illustrates how someone can just remove someone else's skin and try it on, walk around in it.  If it sounds gruesome, it is. The movie in question, Four Daughters, is all about a proper New England family (or if they're not New England, they sure seem like it) and the lively and exuberant four marriageable young daughters who to seek to blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and French kissing and stuff like that, except it's not allowed on the screen. And women will get pregnant without anyone ever attaining an erection. 

The only really bright spot in this otherwise too-Rockwell-ish thing is John Garfield's pirating the soul of Oscar Levant. He plays this bitter, sardonic tough wreathed in cigarette smoke who plays the piano like nobody's business, but never seems to catch a break. (Which means, of course, that the most beautiful of the four daughters throws herself down on the cement in front of him.) And he did it so well that no one knew who it really was. Levant was mostly famous as a radio personality at the time, though he'd played a sardonic sidekick in a few movies. But this isn't a caricature; it's that thing where you grab someone's guts and pull. 

It's doubtful Levant knew he had been taken over either, or vice-versa, because no one expected it. It was pretty hard to riff on such a strange, saturnine, yet oddly appealing personality. I vaguely remember Oscar going on the Jack Paar Show in the early '60s and talking about being in a mental hospital, describing it all in delicious detail as if he'd just come back from a vacation. The audience found it screamingly funny. When I found out, years and years later, that it was all true, that he DID do serious time for psychosis and drug addiction, it made my mouth fall open, and it still does.

Garfield had a gangsterish quality to him, and Levant did too, hanging out with an unsavory element, wearing Nick the Greek's cast-off overcoat and never wearing a hat. That alone would be grounds for incarceration in those days. I think Levant fell victim to his own wit, however, and became a sort of salon doggy, sitting up and performing his slicing and dicing, things we'd never say because they'd be seen as lacerating and even cruel. When he did it, it was somehow OK. Something about his face. And women loved him, God how they loved him, he must have had some secret or other.

It interests me also that Garfield and Levant did eventually star together in a delicious movie with Joan Crawford. Humoresque was gorgeously parodied on SCTV many years ago as New York Rhapsody, with Catherine O'Hara wearing shoulder pads that jutted out so rigidly you could practically sit on them. She played the sexy older woman with bags of money but an empty life, just looking for a young genius (the violin prodigy with talent to burn) to "encourage" and bankroll/patron-ize. This had obvious sexual benefits for both.

But the movie didn't need parody, for it was already over the top, noir-ish with a hint of sepia, a dark story of bitter failed romance and enraged artistry sucked dry by an insatiable carmine-lipped emotional vampire. The beach scene is a real classic, and they even show them riding horses together. The problem that a tough urban kid like Garfield never would have come within ten miles of horses is never addressed.

Levant is very funny, self-deprecating and caustic in this movie. He was allowed to write his own lines, I mean, just sit down and write dialogue for himself. This was almost unprecedented, but I guess directors must have realized he could do it better than anyone else. Who knows what the screenplay-writers thought. No one listens to them anyway.