This is a story about film structure. At various times, I have tried to lecture on the subject of structure in screenwriting, and I usually am forced to admit that we teach structure, in part, because it is something that can be taught. There’s some sort of indefinable spark of creation in any work of art that defies all attempts to analyse it or turn it into an equation. But structure is something that has heft and definition. It can be dissected and studied. One of the main questions that comes up when talking about structure – especially the three-act structure that has dominated most American feature film – is this: If so many movies are employing the same structure, doesn’t that suggest that the movies will all be derivative of each other? Here’s one answer to that that question.
The year was 1946. The war was over and the boys were coming home. It should have been a time of great joy, and in fact, in many ways it was. But there was disquiet as well. The nation’s focus had been so riveted for fifteen years on crisis. First the Great Depression. Then, the second Great War. Crisis has a way of removing distraction. In 1946, distraction returned. Hollywood captured this magnificently in one of the best movies of the decade, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives.
Two other movies from 1946, Alfred E. Green’s The Jolson Story, and Jean Negulesco’s Humoresque, dealt with a different type of disquiet. Unlike Best Years…, which explored the fears and frustrations of soldiers returning from war, the movies directed by Green and Negulesco examined the fears and frustrations of men imbued with high artistic aspirations. In some very fundamental ways, the movies are nothing alike, and that is what makes them so interesting to look at in tandem.
The Jolson Story, produced by Columbia, is schmaltzy to the nines. It is jam-packed with popular songs made famous by the title character, Al Jolson. Of course there is conflict, but it is of such a good-natured variety that nothing really gets in the way of a good time. So when a blackface vaudeville performer gets too drunk to go on stage, the young Jolson simply slaps some shoe polish on his face and blows the audience away. The drunk gets a new contract due to his supposed bravura performance. Jolson also gets a new contract from the sharp producer who knows it was him all along. Everybody is happy.
Humoresque plays a totally different tune, this one on the classical violin. Produced by Warner Brothers, it is dark and hard. The movie straddles the genres of film noir, with clipped, smart dialogue from Clifford Odets, and romantic melodrama, with the outstanding adapted score of composer/conductor Franz Waxman. Maybe nowhere are the differences in the two movies more obvious than in the way each resolves its central romantic relationship. Without giving away too much, The Jolson Story delivers break-up with a song and a laugh. Humoresque, well Humoresque takes a different tack. Suffice to say, everyone is decidedly not happy.
But the remarkable thing, and this is where we can talk about structure, is how similar the two movies are in their broad strokes. They are both about men driven beyond any limit to perform. Al Jolson must sing. He runs away from his family when they refuse to let him. In Humoresque, main character Paul Boray must play the violin. He has a scene early on when he sees his first violin and stubbornly refuses to accept any other present for his birthday, much to his father’s chagrin. In both movies, we get an extended sequence of the two characters as boys, initially falling in love with their performance mode of choice.
As young men, both will be taken under the wing of older, more experienced artists. In Jolson, William Demarest’s Steve is a wise-cracking vaudeville vet who will help guide Al’s career until Al blows past him. In Humoresque, Oscar Levant’s Sid is a wise-cracking classical pianist who will help guide Paul’s career until Paul blows past him. Beginning to see some parallels? Both Al and Paul will meet and fall in love with women. And the second half of each movie will be largely predicated on the conflict that arises when the women threaten to come between the artist and his art. Art will win out in both cases, but as mentioned above, the feeling will be very different.
Structurally, the movies are almost identical. And that is the point about structure. The same structure can be used to tell a wide range of stories with a wide range of emotions. I usually think of it as the blue print for a house. Two houses may have similar floor plans, but a million other decisions, from what paint to put on the walls, to where to put the love seat, to how many kitschy little knick knacks to stuff onto your bookshelves, combine to create totally unique spaces.
There’s plenty more to say about the two movies in question. Neither may be great, but both are good, and must-sees for anyone interested in the golden age of American film. The Jolson Story was through-the-roof successful, leading to a sequel in 1949. That is in part due to the wealth of great songs, which however dated they may seem to 21st century ears, remain undeniably fun. It is also no doubt due to the filmmaker’s decision to smooth over any painful edges. For instance, the movie would have you believe that Jolson was Warner Brothers first and only choice to play the lead in The Jazz Singer, when in reality, had Eddie Cantor not demanded too much money, he would have had the role. Most obviously, the movie ignores Jolson’s first two marriages and makes his one on-screen marriage seem like total bliss right up until the divorce. In reality, the wife in question, hoofer Ruby Keeler, was so turned off by her experience with Jolson that she demanded the character’s name be changed on screen. Thus Evelyn Keyes plays “Julie Benson” even though the whole world knew it was Keeler. Still, no one really cared. The heretofore unknown Larry Parks delivered an outstanding Oscar-nominated lead performance, and it was all great entertainment.
As for Humoresque, it was a more modest success, but still had the star power of Joan Crawford, coming off her Oscar-winning turn in Mildred Pierce, giving what many of her fans consider her greatest performance. John Garfield seems an unlikely violinist (there is even a joke about his looking more like a prize-fighter than a musician), but he does quite well. And it has possibly the greatest death sequence from Hollywood’s classical period – often satirised, but still capable of bringing chills. So, if you like that sort of thing….
Finally, Jolson had Jolson singing – he recorded all the songs and Parks lip-synched them. And Humoresque had Isaac Stern, whose fingers stood in for Garfield’s during the frequent musical passages, playing violin. Not a structural similarity, perhaps, but another way in which two movies can be alike, and yet oh so different.