Like “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), “American Beauty” (1999), and “Menace II Society” (1993), 1943’s “The Human Comedy” is not only a brilliant film (probably the best movie you’ve never seen), it’s also one narrated by a dead man. But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike the others, there’s nothing cynical, dark, or fashionably ironic about what, apparently, was MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer’s favorite film. And it’s easy to see why this one production might earn that honor out of the thousands generated by Mayer’s legendary Dream Factory.
Not only was this eloquent and affecting film a critical and box office success (and nominated for Best Picture), but the story itself — that won its author William Saroyan an Academy Award — is touchingly told through a series of beautifully photographed and acted vignettes that seem to finally tie together in a perfect bow a narrative theme that had been thread through so many MGM classics in those days: Not how American life was, but how it could be.
Our narrator is Matthew Macauley, the patriarch of an impoverished family living in the fictional small town of Ithaca, California, somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley. Mr. Macauley’s been dead for two years now, and it’s from above that he’s returned to tell the story of those he left behind. Between his untimely death and the start of World War II, a hole’s been blown into his family — into all of our families. But Mr. Macauley isn’t here to reassure them. He’s here to reassure us. To remind us that death and war and tragedy, and the political, class, and ethnic differences exploited by the cynical, means nothing in the scheme of what represents the very best of the human spirit and the American ideal of e pluribus unum.
Mr. Macauley left behind a widow (Fay Bainter); his eldest son, Marcus (Van Johnson); 15 year-old Homer, (Mickey Rooney); teen-aged Bess (Donna Reed); and Ulysses, an endlessly curious five year-old played by scene stealer Jackie Jenkins. Like many Americans at the time (and today), the Macauley’s are struggling, and not just financially. These are the darkest days of the war, when the outcome is still unknown, and while the Macauley’s are just starting to recover from the loss of the head of their home, the specter of death still looms over and permeates everything. For it’s an inevitability that Marcus will soon be sent to the front lines in Europe.
This means that the man of the house is now Homer, a role he’s eager to fill. By day, Homer lives the normal life of an American teenager. He attends high school, runs track, and pines for a beauty who sits in the row next to him. By night, while traveling through Ithaca on his older brother’s bicycle, Homer is forced to grow up a little too soon. Every day after school, Homer delivers telegrams until midnight for Tom Spangler (James Craig), the hale and hearty manager of the local telegraph office, and all too often Homer delivers the news of a son’s death into the hands of an inconsolable mother.
Meanwhile, Ulysses is off exploring the many simple wonders of his small town, and one day finds himself fascinated by a man who waves to him from a passing freight train. The hobo sings of home, a concept that like death and fear, Ulysses can’t quite grasp. The women in the story, especially Bess and Mary (the girl next door engaged to Marcus), have their own struggle. Both want to devote themselves to the war effort but don’t really know how. They volunteer for the Red Cross, but are unsure of what else they can do or if the best thing is to fight instead for a sense of normalcy by continuing their education and keeping the home fires burning.
Mr. Spangler’s also in a tough spot. In-between running the telegraph office, he’s being chased by the wealthy and refined Diana Steed, who constantly assures him, “You love me, yes you do, you know you do.” And love her he does. But he doesn’t belong in or very much care for the world of privilege she inhabits. Spangler’s working class and proud of it.
Marcus, of course, is dealing with homesickness and the knowledge that each passing moment brings him closer to battle and the very real possibility of an early death. To help fill the intense boredom, he talks of Ithaca with fellow enlisted man, Tobey (John Craven), a young man who grew up in an orphanage — a young man without a home or even an identity. Although he’s never seen it, Tobey begins to see Ithaca as the symbol of something worth dying for. And should he fight for this town and survive, maybe he’ll let Ithaca adopt him, and in a place he can finally call home, “pass the time of life.”
Finally, there’s old man Grogen (Frank Morgan), the kindly town drunk and Spangler’s telegraph operator. At 67 years of age and in a profession progress will soon snuff out, Grogen’s greatest fear is that he might live long enough to bear witness to his own obsolescence.
In lesser hands, the entire production would’ve collapsed into an insufferable, cloying preachiness. But the tone set by director Clarence Brown is very similar to that of “Our Town,” which gives him the artistic license necessary to successfully and memorably weave together a story without a traditional narrative. Character and theme drive the plot, and thanks to wonderful writing and astonishingly good performances by all, what “The Human Comedy” pulls off is a series of charming, funny, insightful, and moving (some very moving) scenes meant to teach and comfort and inspire.
Arguably, a handful of moments push the sentiment into the red, but that doesn’t mean they’re not effective in their own way or offset by dozens of perfectly crafted scenes, many of them you won’t soon forget. There’s the quietly devastating moment where Homer tells Mrs. Sandoval that her son Juan died in the war; the moment Spangler discovers he’s the one being a snob to Diana’s wealthy family; the ceremonial stealing of an apricot; Bess and Mary’s night out with three lonely servicemen (one of them a very young Robert Mitchum) just days away from being sent into battle.
But the film’s most touching few minutes (which start at the 1:55 mark below) are filmed mostly in a single take late at night in the telegraph office where Rooney (who would win a well-deserved Oscar nomination) delivers the finest moment of a storied career. Just days away from being deployed into the meat-grinder, Marcus has sent to Homer what he knows might be his final letter. In simple, small town American language, Marcus tells his brother goodbye, that he loves him, and that he’s now the head of the family. Homer reads this letter aloud to old man Grogen, reads aloud Marcus’ reassurance that Ithaca is a cause worth dying for, that God has a plan, and that regardless of what happens, Ithaca and the Macauley’s must go on.
It would be easy to write off “The Human Comedy” as a piece of pro-American war propaganda, but that would be a surface interpretation. The themes at work here are those of self-sacrifice, the dignity of the individual, and the human capacity for good. Marcus and Tobey and Juan didn’t go to war to fight for a piece of land, treasure, an ethnicity, or even tradition; they went to war for an idea that makes evil cringe and those who enable it scoff: human liberty.
The sad fact that one country, America, is the Great Experiment of those noble ideas, does not make the exploration of those ideas a form of nationalistic propaganda.
All of this might sound very old-fashioned to some, but that’s because too many of us have been trained to interpret that which is fundamentally good into something that is hokey, corny, and simplistic. In this jaded era where cynicism and detached irony permeate every part of our culture, where a sitting president and the media that enables him have staked a reelection strategy on division, I would argue that the message of “The Human Comedy” is not only timely and urgent, but also something that might be described as an antidote.
“The Human Comedy” is available at the Warner Archives