We want the Ithaca that the Macauleys have in The Human Comedy. At least MGM hoped we would. We did back in 1943 when MGM nearly quadrupled the million dollar cost of the film at the box office (Rooney 199). But no, I think Ithaca is what we’re supposed to think that we want and once the movie is over we can be glad it doesn't exist. Life this sweet would be intolerable.
I don't mock the old-fashioned sweetness and purity of The Human Comedy to seem purposefully dark or fashionably cool. I often enjoy escaping into movie worlds built around the kindness and brotherly love so rarely encountered in real life day to day situations. I'd like to bump into it more often. But too much is too much and the hearts of Ithaca swell to proportions that I personally wouldn't be able to handle in more than twenty minute shifts every year or so. All of this goodness is built into a movie that at its own heart serves not only as war propaganda but trumps it as a celebration of an idealized American spirit that connected especially well during World War II.
Mickey Rooney stars as Homer Macauley, standing in as head of this perfect California family after the semi-recent death of his father, Matthew Macauley (Ray Collins), and the call to service for older brother Marcus, played by Van Johnson. Rooney and Johnson never interact with one other in The Human Comedy as Johnson’s Marcus is on the East Coast where he's being prepped for combat and spending spare time initiating loner Tobey George (John Craven) into the Macauley family by sharing stories and letters from back home, while Rooney’s Homer is now the official Macauley breadwinner after having landed a job in Tom Spangler’s (James Craig) Ithaca telegraph office.
Rooney received his second of four Oscar nominations for Best Actor as Homer Macauley, a part he successfully plays with the “simplicity and restraint” that he wrote he had aimed for (197). His delivery of a classroom soliloquy about the nose is brilliant as is his general portrayal of adolescence coming of age under wartime conditions. He shares thoughtful scenes with Morgan, Craig, Fay Bainter as his mother, Mary Nash as his schoolteacher and other players as well. All of the strongest scenes in this movie feature Rooney. Rooney deserved the nomination.
Homer’s world in Ithaca actually turns out to be a far more realistic world than the one Mickey Rooney most often found himself working in, Carvel of the Hardy family series. Homer is imbued with all of Andy’s goodness, he’s just too busy to ever stop and clown around. His best scenes are shared with Frank Morgan, who plays an over-the-hill alcoholic telegrapher who has instructed Homer to wake him with a splash of cold water if new messages arrive and he’s discovered indisposed.
The drinking habit makes Morgan’s Willie Grogan one of the more interesting characters of Ithaca and directly leads to his taking part in the most effective scene of the movie with Rooney at the climax of The Human Comedy. James Craig also gets to do some good work at that point after having been largely wasted in a romance with society girl Diana Steed (Marsha Hunt) that didn’t seem to have much bearing on anything but movie runtime.
Back at the Macauley house Fay Bainter is present to drip the thickest syrup of all as mother of Homer, Bess (Donna Reed), Ulysses (Jackie Jenkins) and Johnson’s serviceman, Marcus. Widowed for two years now, Mrs. Macauley leaves the breadwinning to the menfolk and spends her time cooking breakfast and spouting the wisdom you wished your mother had saved up for you.
Bess spends most of her time with neighbor Mary (Dorothy Morris), who is also older brother Marcus' girlfriend. Reed and Morris share a nice scene providing morale to a trio of soldiers played by Don DeFore, Robert Mitchum and, the mouthpiece for the group, Barry Nelson. The girls permit the soldiers to accompany them to the movies before allowing them each a peck of their cheeks that results in much whooping and hollering as the boys head off to fight.
Speaking of Robert Mitchum, I couldn’t help but to be reminded of Desire Me (1947), a postwar film he stars in with Greer Garson and Richard Hart, when Van Johnson so generously shared Ithaca with service mate, Tobey (John Craven), who had grown up an orphan. “You know, Marcus, it’s a funny thing," says Tobey, "but I almost feel that Ithaca is my home town too.” Yeah well, that was the purpose of all that tripe, wasn't it? As Marcus gives Tobey more and more of Ithaca, right down to a photo of his sister and big ideas about how he might one day marry her, I couldn’t help think that he was setting himself up to be replaced just as Hart took over Mitchum’s life in the later film. Maybe young Mitchum popping up brought all of this on, but now I’ve got Desire Me wrapped up in my mind as a sort of sadistic sequel to Van Johnson’s story here!
But back to Ithaca, where little Ulysses is all teardrops and innocence. He learns about boyhood and life from big brother Homer and passes time with best pal Lionel (Darryl Hickman), a boy a little too tall for his illiteracy, who nonetheless loves looking at all of the spines lining the rows of shelves inside the public library. "There's a green one" and "There's a red one." Too much, again.
Jenkins' best scene as Ulysses comes when he tags along unwanted with the neighborhood gang, led by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, to steal apricots from Old Man Henderson’s (Clem Bevans) tree. Henderson is not only on to the boys, but appreciates their brashness and hides away wishing the apricots were ripe enough to be worth stealing. The boys creep around his property expecting to be chased away or worse. All except Ulysses, who stands right out in the open because he's so pure that he has yet to learn what fear means. He figures it out soon enough in a bizarre little scene with a live window mannequin that doesn’t really fit in this movie, but was appreciated nonetheless.
We meet many folks in the nearly two hours of Ithaca we’re exposed to and sometimes it feels as though we don’t need to know them as well as we’re shown. Just when Mickey Rooney is allowed to pick up some steam as Homer another little vignette pokes through to distract us with the goodness of others.
MGM hired Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist William Saroyan to adapt his own story and to direct The Human Comedy, but Saroyan was removed from both jobs by Louis B. Mayer either because of an inferior test film or because his script was too long (Longer than this?). Howard Estabrook, who had previously won an Oscar for his adaptation of Cimarron (1931), was put on the screenplay and longtime MGM hand Clarence Brown directed and produced. Brown received one of The Human Comedy’s five Oscar nominations for his directorial work and the film itself was one of ten nominated for Best Picture in the year that Casablanca (1944) won. The only Academy Award winner to emerge from this project was somehow Saroyan for his original story. I can only imagine the victory came courtesy of a swirl of patriotism and reputation.
Critic Bosley Crowther noted the almost schizophrenic nature of The Human Comedy in his original review for New York Times:
"For here, cheek by jowl and overlapping, are set some most charming bits of fine motion-picture expression and some most maudlin gobs of cinematic goo. Here, in an almost formless tribute to the goodness and sweetness of man's soul, are spliced some quick, penetrating glimpses with long stretches of sheer banality. Here, in a picture which endeavors to speak such truths about Americans as should be spoken, pop up such artificialities as make one squirm with rank embarrassment."
Once Saroyan was removed from the movie he quickly published his story in book form as his first novel. His book came out the same month as MGM’s movie, March 1943, and both were huge hits. I imagine each helped propel the other or perhaps, a year and a half into World War II, this is just what the American public wanted. Excepting Bennett Cerf, literary critics weren’t as kind to Saroyan as the book buying public was. One negative review, written by William Phillips for The Nation, which referred to Saroyan’s book overall as “a rather puerile performance,” may have hit on a deeper cause of its success in noting, “the world of The Human Comedy is rather like an enormous five and ten seen through the eyes of a child” (’The Human’).
The world we want, or think we want, it is the stuff of childlike dreams. As an adult it seems delusional and I certainly shared more than one “squirm with rank embarrassment” with Mr. Crowther while I watched. But I somehow seem conditioned to feel a little guilty about those squirms.
The Human Comedy is a quality film and filled with professional and mostly strong performances. Rooney is very good, exceptional even, though he occasionally seems a bit too purposefully melancholy. Frank Morgan and James Craig, an actor I don’t normally care for, are both excellent as well.
I recall being shown this movie sometime during my schooldays, probably Junior High after VCRs had replaced all of the film projectors, and I can only imagine now that it was part of my mid-80s Cold War training. When I watched this week I didn’t remember much of it: Not little Ulysses, not Donna Reed nor Robert Mitchum, not even Van Johnson outside of his relation to Rooney’s final scenes in and around the telegraph office.
Yes, I did recall the ending and even if I’m now a jaded adult who found himself begging for a world not quite so sweet or seeking to be always so profound, it was worth talking back to my television for the first ninety minutes or so just to make it to the end of The Human Comedy.
Two additional Mickey Rooney titles scheduled on TCM August 13 that I have previously written about are Death on the Diamond (1934), airing at 6 am EST, and the first of the Hardy family movies, A Family Affair (1936), which plays at 9:45 am. The Human Comedy is on later Tuesday at 10:00 pm EST.
The Human Comedy is available as a manufactured on demand DVD-R from Warner Archive. As always, my thanks for using my affiliate link should you decide to purchase.
- Crowther, Bosley. “Movie Review: The Human Comedy (1943).” New York Times 3 Mar 1943. Web. New York Times. 12 Aug 2013.
- ”’The Human Comedy’ by William Saroyan.” St. Petersburg Times 7 Mar 1943: 28. Web. Google News. 12 Aug 2013.
- Rooney, Mickey. Life Is Too Short. New York: Villard Books, 1991.