After a rafter of quickie westerns, Frank Borzage first made a name for himself as a director with Humoresque, a shameless soap opera based on Fannie Hurst’s novel set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The first half has some fascinating location work and glimpses of the Jewish community in the New York of 1920: in a very unpleasant scene, young Leon Kantor (Bobby Connelly) is ambushed by some boys and has a dollar-bill sign chalked onto his back. This depiction of anti-Semitic ugliness is mitigated by Leon’s meeting with young Minnie (Miriam Battista), who is trying to bring a dead cat back to life by warming it against her body, just as Mary Duncan warms Charles Farrell back to life in Borzage’s The River. The director establishes verisimilitude swiftly, then goes indoors to find the heart of this queasy mother love story.
Leon’s Mama (Vera Gordon) seems simple and sincere, but she’s really a creepy piece of work—her weirdness is emphasized by Gordon’s big, patently insincere emoting. Every day she prays that one of her sons will someday be a great musician, and it’s increasingly clear that when Mama Kantor says “great musician” she really means “great lover.” Leon becomes a famous violinist playing for heads of state, and Mama Kantor proudly shows a nude baby picture of her son to a respectful guard, saying that her little boy looks just like a cupid. Later, when she kisses him, she bashfully wonders how she got herself such an attractive son, “a plain woman like me!” When Leon goes off to war, Mama Kantor makes him sit on her lap, cradles and fondles him, then kisses him on the mouth over and over again, while his fiancée, a grown-up Minnie (Alma Rubens), stands by and simply watches. Miracles are the norm for Leon. When he picks up the violin as a kid, he seems to be able to play it all at once. And that little World War I hand injury? Nothing a mother’s prayers can’t fix!
As his career went on, Borzage was able to focus sentimental material like this so that miracles based in love can seem quite believable, but the twists of Humoresque are unconvincing. It remains of interest because it sheds somewhat disturbing light on the longing for maternal comfort in all of his famous love stories. The grotesque Mama Kantor and her sublimated sexuality looks today like a demented cross between Mrs. Portnoy and Shelley Winters. Borzage eventually integrated this alarming figure into his later masterpieces of heterosexual bliss, but seeing Humoresque is a little like finding out too much information about a friend’s psychosexual hang-ups. History is made at night between Borzage lovers, but Mama Kantor is baking her cakes for her boy at night, too, and you know that Oedipal icing is tasty and tear jerking, don’t you, son?