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Monday, May 20, 2019

Being Alive in 1943 Probably Means You Saw It

The Human Comedy a Home Front Of Our Dreams

Firstly, what a title. Sounds like would-be majestic literature, importance writ all over it. Suppose someone may have suggested Andy Hardy Delivers Telegrams? Didn’t matter, The Human Comedy was a hit, a large one, as in $1.5 million profit. Here was absolutest proof of Mickey Rooney stardom. What a tumble he took after the war. No wonder Mick got a little cracked, redefining truculent at late-in-life autograph shows. Beg pardon, we’re about The Human Comedy here, and it’s about much more than Mickey, in fact it was all-caps Celebration Of American Life circa 1943, when outcome of a World War was by no means assured. Worry came with fun of showgoing then. Is that what makes movies of the time seem a little manic now? The Human Comedy ducks that, in fact aims for subdued, pastoral, thoughtful, all of things Hollywood came at reluctantly, if at all. Reason Metro made exception was prestige of Human writer, William Saroyan, a biggest literary noise of the day who was said to stack even with Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner, names we know better today than Saroyan’s. For MGM to score him as a screenwriter for hire was lassoing the moon, and they would bow deep in appreciation of it. The Human Comedy was Saroyan written for the screen, not a translation from text, though the author did what amounted to a novelization which flew up Best Seller lists just in time to be a Book-Of-The-Month selection with The Human Comedy movie at eve of release.

If I Can't Go Back and Attend the Astor, At Least I Can Keep On Posting Images Of It Here at Greenbriar

The home front was never so inviting, The Human Comedy’s small-town a nearest Heaven to be had this side of the Veil. Had anyone in uniform known life like this? And yet The Human Comedy proposes that they all did. Setting here is like a Carvel with no need of a Judge Hardy because there’d be no crime nor conflicts to resolve. Police are there mostly to bring lost little boys home to Mother. The Human Comedy held that we must protect such way of life with all the fight we had. Postwar noir would supply bitter antidote, that a possible reason why The Human Comedy won’t be revived outside TCM broadcast. Had you told folks in 1943 that this Greatest Of All Motion Pictures would become so obscure, they would have reacted like devil horns were sprouting from your head. The Human Comedy had as much to do with wartime reality as Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, and there was its strength --- this is what we wanted the struggle and surely-to-God outcome to be. So what if it is as remote as pyramids now? The Human Comedy needed a nationwide suspension of disbelief in 1943, and presumably got it. None but Metro could have woven such reassuring tapestry, and no matter the fantasy, a need was met. Of course there are bathos, emotion like syrup out of Vermont trees, but there is magic too that can overcome barrier of our most cynical selves. Save your view of The Human Comedy until a next Up With People moment. Surely we still have those, if not in such abundance as audiences in 1943.

Director Clarence Brown with Author William Saroyan
Army camp scenes, focused on Van Johnson as Marcus Macauley, the brother sent to serve, are all kinds of ludicrous, and I wonder if soldiers of the time mocked, or went tender, for them. This is a doting mother’s idealized notion of what military life is like, being a time of heightened emotion, as in lives at stake, many lives, so let's surrender to The Human Comedy and films like it (but wait, there were no films quite like this one). Johnson serenades canteen pals with homey tunes, as well because there’s not a juke box in sight. In fact, The Human Comedy shuns swing in any capacity, its pristine setting devoid of taint modern fashion would impose. There is also song aboard the troop train, church songs, which all of personnel enter into. Marcus has a buddy named Toby George whose orphan status makes him an almost Holy Man, or Boy, in search of family he might call his own. Toward that, he co-opts the Macauley’s to disturbing extent, his decision to love and eventually marry Bess Macauley (Donna Reed) based on a photo in Marcus’ wallet. Creepiest element is Marcus accepting the plan on face value. Long memories could evoke Henry B. Walthall swoon over Lilian Gish posed on a daguerreotype from The Birth of a Nation. At least Walthall kept the crush to himself, Toby doing an opposite in blabbing that he’ll go home with Marcus and take his seat at the family table. Even the loss of Marcus in combat won’t deter Tobey, who heads right to the Macauley's for a finish, expecting to enter and be embraced, which he does/is at Homer’s invite. Worse still is Homer carrying the telegram reporting his brother’s death, which he now wads up and throws away (Is he not going to inform his family?). I wonder if 1943 viewership was as nonplussed by this as me. Of all things in The Human Comedy, it sits most uneasily now.

Book and Film Go Hand-In-Hand

Hometown girls are right and virtuous, on-leave soldiers their counterpart for gallantry. A “pick-up” of Bess and her neighbor friend by a trio of G.I’s amounts to nothing but a shared trip to see Mrs. Miniver, frisson not apparent in 1943 supplied by Robert Mitchum as one of the guys (others are Barry Nelson and Don DeFore). There is no thought of improprieties beyond a chaste kiss the boys get when they part from girls they’ll have no access to again. Far from frustrated, they leapfrog (yes, leapfrog) down the sidewalk and back to camp. All this Eden is overseen by those who’ve departed, not just to war, but to eternal reward, which in this case amounts to coming back home and monitoring progress survivors make. Here was reassurance for those who had lost dear ones. Wartime’s benign ghost cycle could fill a dissertation, perhaps already has. In this instance, it is Ray Collins as father Macauley, materializing for us, but not family members he visits. The dead are not gone in The Human Comedy, maybe not even dead for all of participation they enjoy. If it all seems formless, be advised that this was intent, from a start and throughout making. Director Clarence Brown and staff writers had pared down Saroyan’s script, but kept essence to avoid pic-formula. The Human Comedy was a lofty venture that did a colossal click, and when had that happened before? I think a lot of Meet Me in St. Louis’ uncluttered story and tempo were enabled by success The Human Comedy had.

Maybe Metro needed trimming for excess hubris (review ads gushing praise), because here came James Agee and critic elites who pooped The Human Comedy for every valid reason, but their notices read like sour milk (“Most of my friends detest it,” said bubble-resident JA). Agee could love-hate a movie to insensibility, ours, that is, for following him. I still enjoy Agee, his a prose to aspire to, but he can sure knock foundation from under a favorite. Just remind yourself that he was seeing all this stuff new and not yet absorbed into sacred canons. Agee admits to fright of tearjerkers, aware that the rest of us are “too eager to be seduced.” That there are “unforgivable lapses of taste and judgment” is a given ---possibly even remotest hicks sensed that. Agee said the only sound performance came from Jack Jenkins, the five-year-old who plays Ulysses Macauley. Agee adored movies, but was always frustrated that they couldn’t be his idea of better. He was sorry to see “unfortunate young man” Mickey Rooney cast in the leading role, but took all actors to task for representing a tradition that was “worse than dead.” So how could studios be expected to fix a problem vast as that? “Why did they bother to make the film at all,” he asks. “Why, for that matter, do they bother to make any?” You could ask why pic personnel would even bother coming to work if they followed Agee. Cash register attendants fortunately did, as note crowds to the Astor; word was they lined up even in driving snow. We have it easier (but less vivid) what with The Human Comedy on TCM in HD, and there is a DVD from Warner Archive.


Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Need to see this one again, although it's not exactly up Stinky's alley. Remember one devastating scene with Mickey and Frank Morgan.

Of course the pinochle of Saroyan's career was when he later co-wrote Come On-a My House with cousin Ross Bagdasarian.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

John, have you done a piece on the whole MR. JORDAN MEETS A GUY NAMED JOE sub-genre of recently-departed-checking-in-with-the-living wartime flicks? Great topic!

12:48 PM  
Blogger mndean said...

Stinky, I love the malaprop you left. Pinochle for pinnacle is inspired!

1:05 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I recall seeing this in the 80s at a revival house -- the Vitaphone in Saratoga, whose old owner was proudly more about nostalgia than Cinema.

Looking back, my main impression was that it was more deliberately stylized than "realistic" Andy Hardy type films. The audience then knew full well they were looking at a heightened, dreamlike version of America's self-image. Much like "Our Town", but more reassuring and comforting. The slightly portentous title and the presence of a Great Writer announced that this was not a family photo but Art. Accessible and attractive, but more elevated than the usual sentimental movie.

It's not quite Norman Rockwell, whose vision of America was affectionate but still rooted in real life and far more wry. Definitely not as syrupy and cynical as Thomas Kinkaide.

3:53 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

mndean, Stinky freely admits he borrowed it from Norm Crosby! Steal from the best, as Howard Hawks advised.

11:16 AM  

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