Classic Film Guide

Human Comedy, The (1943)

Writer William Saroyan won an Oscar for his first effort, an original story which earned this film a Best Picture & Best Director nomination for Clarence Brown, as well as one for B&W Cinematography and its lead actor Mickey Rooney.

The film opens with the recently deceased (two years ago) Mr. Macauley, voice of Ray Collins, describing his home town of Ithaca, California. It's during World War II and though he has passed, he lives on in the memories, and therefore lives, of his remaining family members. We are then introduced, one-by-one, to:

  • his youngest boy, 5 year old Ulysses (Jackie ‘Butch’ Jenkins), who's still fascinated by passing trains, the egg a chicken of their's has just laid, and what the words scared & frightened mean
  • his wife, played by Fay Bainter, who delivers her typically strong performance in this type of role, however briefly
  • his high school aged son Homer (Rooney), who'd like nothing more than to win the 220 yard low hurdles race, and gets a job in the evenings delivering telegrams to help with finances
  • his eldest son Marcus, played by Van Johnson, who's in basic training in the Army artillery elsewhere, and "promised" to Mary (Dorothy Morris), their next door neighbor & best friend of
  • his daughter Bess, played by Donna Reed (also given little to do) who, along with Mary, "entertains" the locally stationed troops (including a cameo by Robert Mitchum) by going to a movie with them.

Through Homer, we meet Tom Spangler (James Craig), who runs the telegram office and won the 220 yd. low hurdles championship when he was in high school, and Willie Grogan (Frank Morgan), the 67 year old night telegrapher who drinks to relieve the stress of typing the messages from the front which "regret to inform" that someone's son has died in the service of his country. There is another similarity between Homer and Spangler as well: Homer is interested in a classmate (Rita Quigley) who is also being pursued by a boy from a wealthy family, Hubert Ackley III (David Holt); whereas, the self made Spangler is dating a woman from a wealthy family, Diana Steed (Marsha Hunt). So, a little bit of class envy and/or mild disdain for such differences is introduced into the story. There is even a scene late in the film when Spangler is driving Diana through a park on a holiday where all the people are segregated into different, partying ethnic groups around a lake (kind of like Disney's Epcot in Orlando;-)

The film has some minor story-lines but it's real emphasis is to give us a sense of life on the homefront during the war. It plays out as a series of small plot points which serve to more fully introduce the characters and delve into their feelings as the different events occur. Marcus plays an accordion-like instrument and he & his Army buddies sing songs which remind them of home. In fact, he has glamorized small town life so much that a fellow soldier (John Craven), and former orphan, verbalizes that it's "what they're fighting for" and vows to return home to see Ithaca one day, when "all this" is over. Spangler, absent Homer's father and brother Marcus, acts as a surrogate for Homer. However, I found the story of his and Diana's love for each other to be the weakest, and least credible, in the film (even though Mr. Steed, her father, is played by the great & prolific Henry O'Neill).

The most interesting storyline, IMO, is the relationship between Homer and Willie, which delivers some of the best insight into the times as it plays out (and is perhaps the reason why Rooney received his Oscar nomination). Their late night conversations, especially their last (the most sentimental in film), in addition to some of the moralizing spoken by Spangler, features the best dialogue in the film.

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