Dir. Clarence Brown. Starring Mickey Rooney, James Craig, Frank Morgan
I enter ninety percent of the movies I watch with an almost a ludicrous amount of optimism. I want them to surprise me and move me; at least once a week, I think to myself as I start a movie, “Maybe this will be the best movie I’ve ever seen.” But as I push through the major studio releases of the past, sometimes I come across films that I’ve heard of but never seen anyone else talk about. They were important in, oh, 1943, and they caught attention and good notices, but in the present day no one has much to say about them. Let’s call it the The Human Comedy Rule: if it doesn’t have any major supporters many decades on, there may be good reason for that dearth of support.
Insofar as a movie made in the mid-1940s can have an intended audience in the present, I actually kind of think I’m pretty close to an ideal contemporary viewer even if I’m not Farran Smith Nehme or Alicia Malone. I have seen a number of ’40s movies and a number of MGM movies. I have seen all the Andy Hardy movies and I’m extremely susceptible to Mickey Rooney. Van Johnson playing a soldier, as he does here, is the backbone of a movie I really admire, Battleground, and another that I adore, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. I tend to love movies about World War II, especially films which focus more on the homefront or the domestic struggles of the time. Because I trust you to keep a secret, I will even reveal my amusing susceptibility to the Americana guff that Louis Mayer’s MGM was prone to proselytizing. And yet, this movie is a bridge too far for me; I struggle to imagine anyone my age enjoying this film, prizing this film, believing this film.
The best part of the movie is in the final act, as one death meets another. Somewhere across the seas, a young Californian named Marcus McCauley (Johnson) has been killed in service of his country. In his nominatively determined hometown of Ithaca, an old Californian named Willie Grogan (Morgan), frequently drunk beyond consciousness but still a committed telegraphist, slumps over at his desk while receiving a telegram. The splash in the face and the hot coffee that typically revives the geezer are insufficient in this case, and he dies. The one who finds Willie Grogan dead is Homer McCauley (Rooney), and he is the first living soul in Ithaca who can take in the news of his brother Marcus’s death. The initial scene is fine, but the film deepens it with other characters. A slow walk home with Homer’s mentor, Tom Spangler (Craig), braces him to give the bad news to his family. And then outside his home, he finds a wounded soldier, a friend of Marcus’s named Tobey (John Craven) who has come to believe in the myth of Ithaca. A man with no home to go to, when he comes out of the army, he does so in a place he only knows about because of a friend he had there. Homer speaks with him a little, and then announces a vague omen to his family as he walks up the steps with Tobey: “The soldier’s come home.”
It’s a surprisingly powerful moment, but maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. Rooney was a fine dramatic actor when the occasion called for it, and Brown an effective director. The darkening set is a fitting way to appreciate the loss of the firstborn McCauley. More than that, “the soldier’s come home” is a beautiful sentence. Brief, clipped in the way of American contractions, and basically inscrutable. Home, to Ithaca? Home, to family? Home, to a coffin and tons of earth? And Homer’s meaning is intensified by saying “home” for Tobey, who will walk into this house sight unseen and become one of the grieving McCauleys too. It’s a toothsome sequence, and then The Human Comedy remembers what kind of movie is. The spirits of Marcus and of his father (Ray Collins) appear on the front steps. Collins’s character has already been narrating this film, sorta kinda, and I guess it was too much to hope for that he might be lost to the ages after his last appearance. But seeing Marcus is like a slap in the face for the rest of the scene. For a few brief moments, The Human Comedy is working out grief and, considering it came the month after victory at Guadalcanal and defeat at the Kasserine Pass, it’s got some truth to it as well. The film has avoided anything too somber, and it can’t linger on that sadness at the end. There must be a hint that Marcus will be able to touch people on the shoulder in some ghostly fashion just as his father does earlier in the picture. The film defeats its own emotional thrust because it is scared of depicting a mother’s terrible sacrifice without optimism. Philosophy, literature, faith: these are consolations. The Human Comedy is not a consolation. The Human Comedy is a schlockfest.
I said already that this film can’t be for me because I’m not of the time, but the question of who it would have actually been for when it was released in 1943 is genuinely an interesting one. This is a movie more about who isn’t here at home than who is. Marcus and Tobey have some significant scenes together despite never appearing in Ithaca together, and Mr. McCauley, of course, is not really “there” in the normal sense of the word. It’s a movie which is not really made for people in Fresno who can see themselves, but for people in Los Angeles or San Francisco, people in New York or Chicago, people deployed at military bases at home and abroad. Alice in Wonderland or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are not for the Mad Hatter and Mr. Tumnus, but for those of us without warrens and wardrobes.
In the same way, The Human Comedy is working on fantastical lines, but there’s no magical food, no mythological creatures. The magic is in kids congregating to steal fruit off a neighbor’s tree (badly, I guess it’s cute?), pitching horseshoes, visiting the local library, making nice with snobs. That last is especially meaningful. Homer has something of a running campaign against the local rich kid, evocatively called “Hubert Ackley III” (David Holt), who has a running campaign against his less privileged classmate to boot. The two are the key figures in a locally prominent hurdles race, which neither one appears to be able to race in until, serendipitously, both are rescued from detention and Homer takes the victory. Later on, the two of them are able to shake hands manfully and put aside their differences. Even the older folks have their own issues with social class, though those can be put away. Tom, who is from humble origins, has some anxiety about his girlfriend later fiancée later wife Diana (Marsha Hunt), who comes from money. Eventually he manages to work it out, her family is accepting, and in one of the film’s longest shots, he takes Diana on a tour of many different kinds of families picnicking and dancing. To this lilywhite scion, Tom can present the dances of Mexicans and Armenians and many, many others, all of them seen faceless and in the distance, all of them presented as being Americans now. It is such a moment of tokenism, and it pales compared to even earlier stories of primarily white immigration. Consider Four Sons, a silent John Ford film from 1928, focused on a German immigrant to America who leaves a mother and three brothers behind in Germany. The immigrant thrives, sets up his own business, marries, fights in World War I against his onetime Fatherland, and then helps his mother emigrate to America. Nestled in a family tragedy of the Old World is a hopeful story about the chances offered to its refugees in the New one, a human story with like, faces, characters, motivations. All that Tom can offer Diana from their fine automobile is something like the slightest version of one of James Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks.
What’s most worthy of resentment in The Human Comedy is its willingness to act as a filmic Potemkin village, which is what ultimately makes it different not just from Sturges films of the same time like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek or Hail the Conquering Hero, but from other slice of life films of the first half of the 1940s like Remember the Night, Our Town, or Meet Me in St. Louis. Sadness may befall these people, but it’s not meant to last or linger. Let Remember the Night recall old feuds between parents and children, let Our Town put a young mother at the edge of death, let Meet Me in St. Louis suggest that we’ll “muddle through somehow.” Let the nations of Europe stifle in their miserable exploded squalor. And pay no mind to that concentration camp in Manzanar, perhaps one hundred miles as the crow flies from Fresno. Ithaca is the real America that no real American would recognize.