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.
Enjoy Mickey Rooney on TCM today and be sure to check out what other film bloggers are talking about at the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon at Sittin' On a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film.
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.
Well written piece on this important film from MGM’s war effort. In many ways I agree with you-THE HUMAN COMEDY can be treacly and the sentiment sometimes almost oozes out of the edges of the screen (the whole sequence where James Craig takes Marsha Hunt to that multinational picnic always stops the film dead in its tracks for me, making me long for the less saccharine scenes with Van Johnson prattling on about life in Ithaca). But there are a few things to keep in mind about this film that either Robert Osborne or Ben Mankiewicz may not mention in their intros:
-this was Louis B. Mayer’s baby-the one film during his stint as head of the studio that he personally oversaw (he would not be this involved in the making of something until his ill-fated attempts to film JOSEPH & HIS BRETHREN and get the musical PAINT YOUR WAGON off the ground after he was fired from MGM). Clarence Brown was his favorite director at the studio and probably his closest friend amongst the creative personnel there, and while he loved Saroyan’s words, his directorial style and method of shooting went against the studio’s style, so he brought in the one man he knew was good enough to take over yet also follow the bosses orders. Considering how much of a flag waver Mayer was and how he almost made John Wayne look like a pinko politically, this film actually shows some restraint…
-Brown was able to do a pretty good job keeping Rooney in check acting-wise for this film, as opposed to the musicals he did with Judy Garland or the Hardy family films, where his tendency to hog the spotlight makes this film look subtle by comparison. His scenes with Morgan look like a contest between the two as to who can out-act the other by not overdoing it, and the scene where he and Craig talk after getting one devastating telegram is one of Rooney’s finest moments in film. I must tell you, every time I watch this film I admire his work so much that I wish he had won the Oscar that year…
-when I taught a class in Popular Film at a college some years ago, I used this film as an example of studio system filmmaking and how the assembly line ethic at a studio like MGM worked to the material’s advantage. You had a good craftsman director, a proven literary property and a screenwriter in Estabrook who could turn out solid material even if assigned to it after someone else had written it (and probably had others polishing his work uncredited), a cast with not a misstep made (Hickman may be a bit big for his role, but contrasting him with Jackie Jenkins (who is right up there with Rooney and Morgan for perfection) was a wise move in which two different innocents manage to find a way to make their way through the perils of childhood (and not look like they will take a butcher knife to their families in ten years)…
-and lastly, it is a film that, with an audience, still works. That class I taught was made up mostly of 18- and 19-year-old students who had never been exposed to a film like HC but were familiar with STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, so fast-paced adventures were more what they knew, but I saw a lot of misty-eyed males and females at the end of this film, and the papers that they wrote about their reactions to it consisted of a lot of “I didn’t want to like this film but I loved it,” and “Really sappy but it really gets to you,” with a few naysayers who mostly did not like it because they felt it was too long. I have watched this film a number of times both on video and with a crowd of people, and it works better with a bunch of people who are getting the film and allowing its sentiment and hopeful message to be heard from the big screen. On video watching it by yourself the film can seem very goody-two-shoes because it does wear its heart on its sleeve and films like that work best with a lot of people, I have discovered (if you don’t believe me, just compare watching the end of THE WIZARD OF OZ on TV with watching it with an audience-the former seems corny while the latter will give you goosebumps).
This is one of my favorite MGM films because while it was made there, it does not seem like it at times. It has the intellectual feel of an RKO film, the grittiness of a WB film, the hodge-podge of a Fox musical, the magic feel of a 30’s Paramount, the ethnicity of a Universal film and the polish of MGM. In some ways, THE HUMAN COMEDY just might be the prototypical example of a studio film made during the war that is of its time yet still entertains enough to make you want to watch it again.
Cliff Aliperti says
Wow, thanks for this comment, a perfect contrast to all of my digs from a completely different perspective. I believe what you say about this one in a group atmosphere as it probably reinforces why I was shown it during my own schooldays, though I must say I’m surprised it’s still shown in classrooms today.
While I’d rather see Bogart have that Oscar, I’d certainly give it to Mick over Paul Lukas! For me he was basically everything that was right with this movie.
I couldn’t really bring myself to mention the picnic, though it was so wild I probably should have. Can’t really see the benefit of the Marsha Hunt character at all beyond allowing James Craig to discover not all rich folk are bad, a point which didn’t seem to have much bearing on the story as a whole unless, possibly, the point was every American has good in them. I probably would have gotten that anyway.
I could see that Fox hodge-podge and MGM polish, but most of the rest was lost on me. The intellect and ethnicity both felt forced and I didn’t see much in the way of grit at all.
It’s a quality project all the way, but it just didn’t click for me beyond Rooney and Morgan. Also Craig in a few spots–and I agree with you on the scene you mention. I do admit I watched it alone this time and you’ve got me curious about seeing it with a group now!
Thanks again for taking the time to leave such a detailed comment, great stuff!
Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) says
The late Jim McPherson was the TV editor for the Toronto Sun and one of my favourite entertainment writers. His listing for “The Human Comedy” sticks in my memory: “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be tired in the morning.”
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks as always for the north-of-the-border perspective. We’re probably tired because we weren’t supposed to be laughing, not all that much, at least.
Hi Cliff! Just a note to say I really enjoyed your post on this film, as well as the discussion above.
I admit THE HUMAN COMEDY is a film which really works for me, but that probably won’t surprise you, knowing that I like somewhat lighter stuff and MGM Americana, etc. And I love Hunt, Reed, Morris, and other cast members. Just as you saw the movie in junior high, I read the book as a 9th grader, and it made a big impression; I found the movie on local, commercial-filled television a couple years later. I thought the movie was one of the better book-to-film adaptations (given the book’s parallel history with the film, that might not be quite the right way to describe it, but you know what I mean!). In fact, when homeschooling my three younger kids, I deleted a book I didn’t like from our curriculum and inserted THE HUMAN COMEDY instead, wrapping up the unit with the kids doing a book-to-film comparison!
All that said, I appreciated your thoughtful, detailed take explaining what worked for you and what didn’t, as well as the contemporary reviews you found. We have so many film interests in common, it’s kind of interesting to see where we part company and why.
Have you seen MGM’s OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES? It’s in some ways much the same MGM Americana, including Craig, Jenkins, and Morris in the cast, but it has a much darker edge, with death, danger, and mental instability popping up as issues amidst the idyllic farm childhoods of Butch Jenkins and Margaret O’Brien. I’d love to know how that one strikes you if you see it.
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Yes, our tastes crossover in a way that I believe we each sometimes find some surprises on the others site, even if we often agree. OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES is a good one to bring up: I found myself thinking, Boy, this is sappy quite a bit, but I wound up enjoying it overall. Though my own partial Norwegian roots may have made me more interested in that title than I would have been otherwise.
Outside of Homer the characters of THE HUMAN COMEDY just never really struck me as being real people. I’m not averse to sentiment (I usually get sucked in and eat it up!), probably best illustrated by pointing back to my HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY post, or a bit of escapist fantasy, but in the case of THE HUMAN COMEDY it just kept piling on and on and on. Right from Ray Collins’ voice in the beginning, that too soothing tone that actually reminded me of one of my least favorite aspects of HOW GREEN, the sweetness never seemed to stop in THC. In fact, I tried giving it another shot last night tuning in to hear Robert Osborne rave before Collins’ soft tones hit me like a razor blade. I didn’t last past the woodchuck.
I didn’t discuss the ending here so as not to spoil, but I will say that after powerful stuff from Rooney & Morgan, then Rooney & Craig, John Craven’s arrival, though expected, left me with a bad taste at the finish. Good for Tobey, but wow, give those Macauleys a little room!
Thanks again, Cliff
Still working my way through all the contributions and I have to say, this piece is one of my favorites.
Mickey Rooney was one of the most talented actors in Hollywood and I have really grown to love him over the years. It’s a shame that his curmudgeonly behavior and antics have caused some to forget his amazing career. He was absolutely brilliant. THE HUMAN COMEDY is one of those films I can watch over and over again. It’s sentimental, but it’s that “MGM Americana” as Laura put it (I like that, btw), and there’s just something special about it.
Thanks for a great write-up of one of Rooney’s best.
Cliff Aliperti says
Don’t worry about it, Jill, I’m about a week behind in replying to comments myself thanks to SUTS (blaming Glenda Farrell today!).
Not much more for me to say on this one other than Mick worked me, not much else did. Glad you enjoyed my take on it, even if you didn’t agree with much/most of the opinion oriented parts.