One of my favorite movies from the 1940s is The Human Comedy (1943; MGM), an episodic coming-of-age story depicting World War II’s affect on the fictional small town of Ithaca, California. Its central character is young Homer Macauley, who is dealing with his father’s death as well as the absence of his older brother, now overseas in the army. In order to help out the family, Homer takes a job as a messenger at the local telegraph office.
Those familiar with Mickey Rooney will no doubt have seen MGM's Andy Hardy series. It chronicled the idyllic life of Judge James Hardy and family in the "Anytown" of Carvel, California. Judge Hardy's son, the "irrepressible" Andy, engaged in wholesome shenanigans but always learned a valuable lesson by each film's end. I've always seen The Human Comedy as the dark flipside of the Hardy series. Comedy's Homer Macauley has no father and must make his own way through the world. Like Andy, Homer has a dedicated mother and goodwilled sister, but Homer, at 17, is the man of the house. And unlike Carvel, his hometown of Ithaca has several of its citizens serving abroad in the war. It is a dark, uncertain time in this particular "Anytown, U.S.A."
The Human Comedy is often regarded as a film of its time; a World War-II propaganda film extolling the virtues of American life. It is at once sentimental, sad, uplifting, sentimental, joyous, and with a romantic view of the world and its future possibilities. It depicts an idealized America that never existed, yet it is unabashedly in love with the ideal of America. A genuine attempt is made through the film’s imagery and dialogue-- sometimes preachy but more often poetic-- to convey to the wartime viewer what it was our soldiers were fighting for, by romanticizing what they had "back home." The film's message is effectively conveyed by the film's narrator, the late Matthew Macauley:
"I am Matthew Macauley. I have been dead for two years. So much of me is still living that I know now the end is only the beginning. As I look down on my homeland of Ithaca, California, with its cactus, vineyards and orchards, I see that so much of me is still living there - in the places I've been, in the fields and streets and church and most of all in my home, where my hopes, my dreams, my ambitions still live in the daily life of my loved ones."
The film was directed by the underrated, unheralded, and just plain unappreciated Clarence Brown, who, after finishing The Human Comedy, went on to direct, in succession: The White Cliffs of Dover, National Velvet, and The Yearling. The Human Comedy also features, for my money, the best performance that Mickey Rooney ever gave, earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Rooney detractors expecting another mugging, hammy performance from him will be impressed by his brilliance in The Human Comedy. The movie would receive four additional Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, and would win for Best Story (William Saroyan). In an interesting twist of fate, Saroyan would win the Oscar even though much of his original story was altered by Hollywood screenwriters. Saroyan would later publish The Human Comedy as a stand-alone book and include numerous elements (like social commentary) that did not make the finished film. The book, like the film, was a hit.
A number of vignettes run through the course of the film, but the movie’s center is Rooney’s Homer Macauley. His character endures the pains of growing up amid the most tumultuous world events that would profoundly affect him, his family, and his hometown. There are the typical coming-of-age trials and tribulations: Homer’s attempts at getting a date for the town social, competing against a rival for a girl’s affections, the big school hurdle competition, and the humiliation of having to sing a telegram to his rival at the latter’s birthday party. But Homer finds himself with ever-growing, decidedly adult responsibilities. Whether it be tending to the kindly, but perpetually inebriated co-worker at the telegraph office (the wonderful Frank Morgan), or dealing with the traumatic events during his workday, as when he must read the Department of War telegram he delivers to the mother of a soldier killed in action. Homer must break the news to her himself because the soldier's mother cannot read English. Her reaction—and Homer’s—are heartbreaking. There’s also a touching scene featuring Van Johnson as Homer’s brother, Mark, as he and his fellow soldiers are en route to the battlefield aboard a train and who find comfort by joining in a gospel hymn. And then there’s the film’s finale, which is about as over-the-top as Hollywood gets, and which I won’t reveal here, but it works beautifully.
While the emphasis here is on Rooney's parts of the movie, it should be noted that The Human Comedy is episodic, with several characters receiving substantial screen time. In one of the extended sequences not involving Rooney's character, the film's pro-American aspects are heavily applied, notably the scene where two characters (played by James Craig & Marsha Hunt) see the various ethnic cultures "in action" in Ithaca, in an early example of "diversity" or "melting pot" philosophy. It is the most propagandistic portion of the film. This heavy handedness sometimes works against the movie's total success, and those elements pale in comparison to the powerful Rooney scenes.
The Human Comedy is a memorable film, an example of Americana that will fascinate anyone with an interest in the American "Home Front" of World War II. It is very much an MGM-style production, with that studio’s typical gloss and sentimentality. It was reportedly MGM boss Louis B. Mayer's favorite film. Thematically, The Human Comedy in some ways owes a stylistic debt to Our Town (1940), but is closer in spirit to Mrs. Miniver (1942) (with its focus on the British home front), and Since You Went Away (1944). Like The Human Comedy, all are Oscar-nominated films that serve as representative takes on Hollywood’s view of WWII’s home front.
The Human Comedy next airs on Turner Classic Movies (U.S.) January 19 at 11:45am (est).