Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Howard Estabrook, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and William Saroyan
There is, of course, no possibility that The Human Comedy earns its title in full. It's a pompous and arrogant thing, and I have a distinct recollection of it having put me off the movie every time I had to refamiliarize myself with the Best Picture nominees of the 1940s. Hell, I have my doubts if Balzac's own La Comedie Humaine earns its title, and that title at least has the decency to represent a vast collection of literature, 130 or so different works of varying length and purpose, ranging from full-fledged novels to unfinished essays. This Human Comedy, by contrast, had originated with author William Saroyan, a novelist and playwright of some repute already, who wanted to be a film director and had directly targeted Louis B. Mayer's most maudlin sensibilities with a movie script; he apparently believed his success in other media entitled him to turn in a 240-page screenplay and to make his feature directorial debut with it. Saroyan reputedly spent the rest of his life resentful that Mayer didn't let him, and the writer's first act upon leaving MGM was to take his unwieldy screenplay, adapt it into a novel, and publish it just in time to beat the film into the theaters. (It was a widely-publicized controversy in its day, but it backfired if Saroyan's goal was spite: MGM was happy to use the novel's success in their marketing.) But Mayer had liked Saroyan's screenplay, after all, and tasked Howard Estabrook with streamlining it for a movie-sized runtime, and named Clarence Brown its director.
In either medium, this Human Comedy concerns several months in the life of a mid-sized California town during the first year of America's involvement in the Second World War, and while there are many universals touched upon throughout, and a deliberate attempt to employ its protagonist as "the human" who stands in for us all (whilst touching upon those lives associated with him), there is obviously little prospect for any scope sweeping enough to really justify the title Saroyan chose. But if I would, myself, have had second, third, fourth, and fifth thoughts about letting audiences believe I was so full of myself as to call my movie The Human Comedy, I can at least say that it doesn't abuse its title, either—it doesn't completely earn it, but it sort-of earns it, and sort-of earning it is pretty amazing.
Maybe it's because it's a little ironic in context, or at least sarcastic: if the most basic definition of "comedy" (for example, The Divine Comedy, and yes, we all get it, though none of these things really has much to do with one another) is "a story that has a happy ending," then The Human Comedy certainly fails to deliver on that promise. (If the most basic definition is "a story that is funny," that's not its main operating mode, either, even if it sometimes strikes comic beats.) Yet it's not, strictly speaking, an unhappy ending either—it's a teary and beautiful ending that seeks to preserve the already deeply-qualified happiness of several its characters, albeit certainly only for a small little while, perhaps no more than just few more hours. It's about, I suppose, carrying on, retaining dignity and purpose in the face of a brutal and unfair world. If I remind you it was made in 1943, you shall recognize the urgency of that mission.
We begin not with a casualty of war, however, but a casualty of simply being alive, Matthew Macauley (Ray Collins). Matthew's already dead when the movie opens hard with a title sequence set against Herbert Stothart's yearning, Aaron Copelandy title theme and credits appearing and disappearing against a backlit painting of an impossibly gorgeous and mystical sunset (or sunrise, since it's in black-and-white and it's naturally hard to tell). Matthew's passing will not prevent him from serving as our narrator for these proceedings—in fact, it won't prevent him from being a surprisingly active character in the ongoing narrative—so the very first gesture of the film proper, after being situated in a sort of American fantasia by the overture and by the imagery of sun-kissed rolling hills, is to overtly confirm the existence of a supernatural governorship over this chaotic universe, and to emphasize the accuracy of the explanations that Matthew's widow (Fay Bainter) will provide to their youngest son, Ulysses (briefly-ubiquitous weird-looking child actor Jackie Jenkins), as regards the continuation of life after death, though these explanations are so non-denominational, and so rooted in survivors' memory and in biological legacy, that they do indeed feel as humanist as Christian.
Matthew introduces us to his children, beginning with young, innocent Ulysses, and likewise mentioning his oldest, Marcus (Van Johnson), serving in the army and now awaiting deployment to Europe or the Pacific, while Marcus's girl, the Macauleys' next-door neighbor Mary (Dorothy Morris) waits for him. (It is slightly noticeable, unfortunately, that Matthew's daughter, Bess (Donna Reed), is a bit of an afterthought, as the story is extremely invested in the stages of youth represented in a triptych of brothers. Bess, not attributed the same symbolic value, is mostly consigned to just generally existing in the same space.) Our actual focus, anyway, is on Matthew's middle son, Homer (Mickey Rooney), still in high school, though in the wake of his father's death he's seen it necessary to contribute an income, and hence he's gotten a job as a delivery boy for the local telegraph office run by an energetic and friendly manager named Tom Spangler (James Craig) and staffed by the kind but frequently-drunk old operator Willie Grogan (Frank Morgan). We follow these folks as they deal with their little slice-of-life problems; but, as the world is at war, Homer's particular slice-of-life includes delivering telegrams from the War Department, and his first day concludes with such a telegram, informing a widowed woman not unlike his mother—matters are made worse in that she doesn't read English, so Homer has to read it to her—that her son is dead.
If I were pressed to call it just one thing, then fundamentally it's a war film. Evidently, it's one that very much needed to be made in 1943 to work: Meg Ryan directed a remake ("new adaptation") in 2015 that is humiliatingly poorly-made to have come from anyone involved in the film industry as long as she's been, and it's bad on a number of levels; but if it's at all useful, it's that Ryan's movie helps one understand how the 1943 film functions, simply by doing everything it does but wrong. (She did, however, have the sense to retitle it Ithaca.) Above all, though, it misunderstands what this thing is for, and accordingly makes a hash out of The Human Comedy's declamatory dialogue and sentimental platitudes, and, as it has very little idea about what to do with "wartime" other than "create a generalized depressive dourness," it's completely incapable of the uncanny mood that Brown captures contemporaneously, where life, laughter, and love carry on against the backdrop of horrors occurring overseas, punctured every-so-often by the salient reality that boys from here are dying over there, and you won't ever see them again. And so, when that reality collides with the reality of those at home, all still engaged in their own life-sized, low-impact ventures, it's exactly like being slapped directly in the face—even when you can predict, in flawlessly fine detail, precisely what bad news this plot set-up is obviously going to bring.
It's a homefront melodrama, then, what you might call palliative propaganda, for an audience that knew the war was being won, but was nevertheless needled by the losses that the fighting continued to produce. I have written of Brown's slide towards extreme, extravagant mawkishness in the 1940s, and The Human Comedy is where this explodes out into full force. But Brown's mawkishness is unusual for his era: it's all egregiously sentimental, but sentimental with such horribly sharp edges, packaging razor blades in with the cornpone so that you become uncomfortably aware you're going to chomp down on something painful; and the way these feelings mix together makes even that metaphor seem direly insufficient.
By 1943, Brown had completed his transition toward "Frank Capra mode," which is handy shorthand though I'm not sure I like to use it, in part because I don't believe they shared exactly the same politics—Capra's sentiment-laden nostalgia-bait films are reactionary and oppositional and paranoid in a way that Brown's sentiment-laden nostalgia-bait films are not—and in part because Brown's sentiment-laden nostalgia-bait films of the 40s are tougher and softer simultaneously, relishing the emotional ambivalence of life. That's true for most of them, but somehow maybe especially true here, despite The Human Comedy being a film that shoves enormous chunky monologues into its characters' mouths to tell you exactly what their creator's worldview is, on top of an omniscient dead narrator whose own declarations about the meaning of life are presumably just repeating what God told him. There's a compelling dissonance to The Human Comedy as a result, a feeling that "yes, God exists but that doesn't mean that life just stopped being hard" that keeps it line with the wished-for beliefs of its characters rather than an objective cosmic fact, like in It's a Wonderful Life. The Human Comedy itself is suffused with some otherworldly power, but an esoteric one, and this distinction is forcefully made with the insistent unreality of the opening sequences—the veil between life and death so easily perforated that Matthew actually manifests onscreen (in the most flawless rear-projection I've ever seen in a 40s film, to boot). But he only gives his wife a comforting kiss on the head. His phantom presence isn't seen, only felt. That she can still feel him there is the important part. This ambiguously-supernatural bent abates toward the middle (it does return in a big way in the end), but it creates a certain sensation of hyperreality, where it's feasible that maybe folks could break into practiced sermons about American utopia.
Hence the setting, this "Ithaca," CA, standing in for an imagined idea of what America was fighting for, altogether more the hometown a serviceman wished he could return to, rather than the one he would, this being a notion the film makes more-or-less explicit with its one outsider character. But there are great, blunt naturalistic details to the film's constructed fantasy: it almost goes unmentioned that two of our Ithacans are named "Homer" and "Ulysses," not so much "significant" as merely the result of a dad who thought it might be neat to give some of his kids names based on The Odyssey, and so wound up naming one of his kids after the poem's author without any overarching scheme behind it, which is why his later kid's named after a character—and, obviously, he only realized he even could play off the name "Ithaca" rather belatedly, since his eldest children are just named "Marcus" and "Elizabeth." (So maybe you won't actually notice that The Odyssey was about, well, coming home once the war was done.)
I mentioned that it makes a big deal out of its triptych, even if Homer is the priority, and Brown applies something of a distinct narrative style to each brother. And so Marcus winds up in the crappy patriotic war dramedy, joined by his new orphan friend Tobey (John Craven), their scenes dominated by statements of purpose and resolution delivered by Johnson and Craven with a tendency to look upwards at the sky, and the dynamic between them driven by Tobey's off-putting pushiness to come back to Ithaca as an honorary Macauley, and by Marcus's frankly equally off-putting unilateral acceptance of a new brother on behalf of his family, as well as a new boyfriend on behalf of his sister, specifically. (I do, however, like the little punctuations of normal psychology Johnson provides—several individual collar-pull close-ups with "um, sure" expressions that indicate his amused discomfort. But as this is not, in fact, the perfect version of itself, it bears noting that Craven is legitimately awful even granting the film its deliberate stiffness: he's the only actor here who chokes on his dialogue, including the very little children.) Marcus's scenes, anyway, are shot with stultifying normality by Brown and cinematographer Harry Stradling, not without the occasional cool shot, but with a remarkable willingness to keep things extremely stagelike and rigid.
Ulysses, meanwhile, is in something more like Terrence Malick's Our Gang (it does, in fact, co-star Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer), a borderline-impressionistic series of vignettes viewed from a childlike perspective, figuratively as well as literally thanks to Brown's keenness in these scenes to practically scrape his camera against the ground. Finally, Homer is in the identifiable Clarence Brown movie, somewhere between the straitened "maturity" of the dull framing that goes along with Marcus and the dreaminess that goes along with Ulysses, trapped in acute deep compositions, with an equally keen eye for the basic truth that Rooney, with only slight mean-spirited exaggeration, is still only barely taller his movie's little brother.
So to interrupt that, let's consider Rooney: for starters, Brown uses his diminutive physicality in some downright heartbreaking ways. But I'd believe he never gave a better performance, and I say that as someone who generally finds Rooney's performances as MGM's high-strung permateen perfectly agreeable, though I realize there's a large constituency that dislikes him on principle. It would be, anyway, a terrific little performance from anyone, a film-long, maybe even conscious struggle by Homer to retain his youthful optimism as he enters adulthood, shaded with intelligence and insight despite his entire existence evidently consisting of contrived thematic modules—for example, consider the way that reading the War Department's death notice to the bereaved mother devastates Homer in the moment, but by the time he gets home, he's only weary, because he's sixteen and fatherless and already acquainted with death, even if he doesn't yet know quite how unfair it can be.
The casting itself is studio perfection: I presume Rooney was cast because he's who MGM would've cast in anything that called for a teen boy lead—he'd played a smaller role as the little brother for Brown back in 1936's Ah Wilderness!, which is rather like the failed test-run for The Human Comedy—but whether deliberately or not, it becomes a quietly intertextual performance. Rooney had spent the bulk of his working life by this point playing Andy Hardy in a series of films, starting with 1937's A Family Affair and snowballing into a thrice-annual sitcom prototype, fitting comfortably into the same generic box of cutesy, pious Old Hollywood Americana that The Human Comedy exemplifies. The Human Comedy, however, is like if somebody took Andy Hardy's life and beat it into a twisted ruin: the former's strong father becomes the latter's father's absence; the former's wealth becomes the latter's worried poverty; the former is defined by endless romantic schemes, the latter by failing so hard at making time with his crush that he basically gives up on girls entirely for the moment; and Andy Hardy is tantamount to a sociopath in order to drive his sitcom plots, and while I should admit that I've only seen a couple of his movies, in any case Homer's the more sensitive figure by far. Eventually Homer is just beaten into complete nonresponsiveness: Rooney's greatest "big" moment involves him doing almost literally nothing, sitting in a tiny nook in the back of the frame while activity swarms before him and he stares off into nowhere, with an expression somewhere between full-blown catatonia and "what the fuck" peevishness.
The Macauley brothers are not the entire show, but this is appallingly long already, so let's simply say that The Human Comedy can meander off into entirely different situations for a reel at a time, fractally branching until returning, eventually, to Homer. (Bess Macauley even gets her own showcase too, flirting with a fourth narrative style when the implausibly-charming, implausibly-innocent G.I.'s she and Mary encounter on the way to the movies raise the specter of The Human Comedy becoming a musical—it's dorky enough they might as well have burst out into song.)
But Brown is most active of all in Homer's scenes. This is where he fully brings out his customary attention to light as a storyteller in its own right, though it's a curious work of cinematographic art: The Human Comedy is pervaded by increasingly-unsubtle use of hard key-lighting and especially lighting from above (most of the lighting pretends to be practical, but isn't that interested in whether it's pretending successfully), so that scenes are spent with light tending to pool in the center of frames while shadows congeal around it, usually on the sides in ways you might not always consciously notice—though it can be belligerently open with its symbolism, too, as when Bess's G.I.'s skip triumphantly across bright islands of streetlight while intermittently fading into the abysses between them, then disappearing entirely in the darkness beyond. There's a sense of holiness in Brown's light, but also an encroaching threat that only the light of life keeps at bay—it both never wins and always wins, is the idea—culminating in the staggering return of the film's most supernatural, subjective impulses, when Homer, given an epiphany, is enveloped by a straight-up ray from heaven.
It's a terrifically diligent film, then, despite the strong family resemblance to MGM's churned-out programmers, basically taking their ethos and smashing them into the consequentiality of the real world outside. It's a weird and deliriously unstable mix, capable of transitioning from dopey family-friendly schmaltz to brutal tragedy in a heartbeat, yet smart enough to use the abruptness of those tonal shifts to dramatize the sensation of the world suddenly dropping out from under you. I won't claim it isn't one of the most face-meltingly trite movies ever made, and it was recognized as such even in its day (even Bosley Crowther described it as "maudlin gobs of cinematic goo," albeit not entirely negatively). But everything that's true—or even just nice—is bound to be trite, by definition. The Human Comedy is absolutely sincere about it. It works entirely: it is, undoubtedly, the corniest movie I love this much.