Odyssey of Nostalgia: The Human Comedy (1943)

PosterIf you can watch The Human Comedy and not cry at least once, I don’t think I want to know you.

Of course, I realize that the hip thing for a modern reviewer to do is denigrate the film as mawkish propaganda… which is only a small part of why you’ll never catch me doing so.

As for the greater part, the timelessly moving scenes in Clarence Brown’s WWII-era coming-of-age drama, written by William Saroyan, more than outweigh any syrupy sentiments. Seen from a vantage point of seventy years later, many of its intimate vignettes powerfully memorialize the personal sacrifices of all those who served—and all those who loved them. Although it may idealize, preach, and meander, the film delivers a handful of unforgettable moments, so heartfelt and honest even in their MGM glossiness that they reawaken the emotional impact of an anxious period which is, sadly, slipping away from living memory.

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Most important, The Human Comedy deserves our respect as a tender, thoughtful elegy for America’s fallen soldiers of WWII. Because the majority of the action takes place in the little California town of Ithaca, the story conveys the loss of an individual with greater poignancy than a standard war movie could.

The main plotline centers on high school student Homer Macaulay (a captivating and unusually soft-spoken Mickey Rooney) who, to help support his siblings and his widowed mother, takes a job delivering telegraphs. (By the way, are you picking up on the Odyssey allusions yet?) Homer thus becomes the frequent bearer of the worst possible news: condolence messages from the War Department. Working in a telegraph office with old-timer Mr. Grogan (Frank Morgan), Homer sees the tidings coming in on the wire for the first time. Far away from the violence of the battlefield, the clatter of typing and the neutral, freshly inky letters of “We regret to inform you…” translate the sorrow of the news by reminding the viewer of an absence, a hole in the lives of the recipients. We don’t see the death. We don’t know the details. And the matter-of-fact precision of the telegraph machine only accentuates the sadness of the news and the helplessness of those about to learn of it.

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Homer grabs the message and heads out on his bicycle to change someone’s life forever, riding to the outskirts of town. Greeted by grey-haired, heavily-accented Mrs. Sandoval, the messenger obviously wants to escape the situation… but Mrs. Sandoval can’t read English, so he’ll have to break the news himself. Hesitating and looking down at his telegraph, Homer rips it open and the message drops to the floor.

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Here, Clarence Brown seizes the opportunity to slow down the pace and draw the audience into the suspense. A cut takes us to the hem of Mrs. Sandoval’s skirt as she picks up the letter, and the camera fearfully tilts up to reveal her expectant face. In the reverse shot, Homer fumbles for a way to break the news slowly. “It’s from the War Department.” Cut to Mrs. Sandoval; she doesn’t understand, but seems to intuit what she’s about to hear. Cut back to Homer. He looks down. He looks up. Finally he forces himself to meet the mother’s eyes. “It says that your son is dead, Mrs. Sandoval…” We anticipate that the bereaved mother will fall apart, as Brown again cuts to the mother’s face, but instead it’s Homer whose voice trembles as he stammers that maybe there was some kind of a mistake.

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The almost clumsy naturalism of the performances, Homer’s futile attempts at denying the news, and, above all, the straight-forward elegance of the staging imbue the exchange with the delayed-reaction horror of unimaginable loss. The scene (which you can watch here) is a masterclass in self-effacing, yet potent continuity system filmmaking.

As the news finally sinks in, Mrs. Sandoval collapses into a rocking chair and starts to sing a Spanish folk song. Unexpectedly, after such a realistic segment, part of the screen dissolves to show a younger version of the bereaved mother, rocking her son as a baby, and then back to the present.

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Is this the mother’s vision? Or Homer’s? Homer lingers in the half of the frame untouched by the flashback, but he’s still visible, included in her vision. Well, I appreciate the ambiguity, but I personally read the effect as a fusion of their mourning in a moment of intense empathy. After all, the WWII-era in America, despite a number of underlying social problems, did encourage people to pull together and feel the pain of others.

And I consider it significant that the first mother Homer must inform is clearly coded as a new American, someone on the margins of Ithaca’s establishment. Since this is an MGM film, even the outskirts of town are quaint and cozy, but you needn’t be a historian to recognize the tiny houses as a glamorized immigrant shantytown. The Human Comedy, for all its schmaltziness, acknowledged that the costs of American ideal were often inflicted most severely on those who’d barely been able to enjoy the benefits of being American. I also applaud that the first war-related death that comes to our attention is an American who differed from the Andy Hardy-esque Anglo-Saxon denizens of Ithaca. The film reminds its audience that anyone who chooses to lay down his or her life for America is a true American, regardless of his or her background.

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Moreover, Homer’s bond with Mrs. Sandoval transcends class and cultural differences to honor a sacrifice and to grieve a loss. Although Homer’s reaction surely stems in part from his worries about his own brother, I believe that the connection he feels goes deeper than that. And therefore never send to know for whom the telegraph comes; it comes for thee.

In this scene and elsewhere, the film wistfully examines the dynamic between absence and presence. Indeed, a narration from beyond the grave opens the film, as Mr. Macaulay explains how, although he has passed on, the essence of his character thrives in the places and people he cared about.

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With Mr. Macaulay’s face superimposed over the images, swooping aerial and crane shots float over the town, eventually zeroing in on the youngest Macaulay son, Ulysses. I strongly suspect that this metaphysical opening influenced It’s a Wonderful Life, made three years later. These sun-dappled, gently descending shots approximate the dead man’s benevolent point of view, almost like a guardian angel’s.

Mr. Macaulay is there, but he is not there—like those who left to fight.

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Despite their physical absence, their continued presence can be felt in numerous ways. For instance, the audience’s first glimpse of Marcus Macaulay arrives when Homer proudly takes off his delivery boy cap to show a group of G.I.s the picture of his brother he keeps there, forever on his mind. To stress the spiritual link between this talisman and the real young man, a dissolve from the photograph introduces the first actual shot of Marcus. In addition to obvious symbols of remembrance, like service flags in windows, the incidents of daily pleasures and frustrations in the town allow us to observe what many of the soldiers are missing… and how they are being missed.

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In perhaps The Human Comedy‘s most tear-jerking sequence, Homer reads his brother’s latest letter aloud to Mr. Grogan. It sounds almost anti-cinematic, doesn’t it? A teenager reading a letter to an old man in a telegraph shop. Yet, in the simplicity of this scene—basically long take medium shots, interrupted by the occasional close-up of Grogan—Marcus’s absence aches.

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Only Marcus’s words, spoken by his brother, remain of him in the moment. Marcus isn’t there, but ironically his presence is felt so acutely, precisely because he’s not there. And Rooney’s halting, sensitive reading of the letter conjures that void where a brother should be. He is utterly spellbinding. Van Johnson, who played Marcus, got tears in his eyes just thinking about Rooney’s performance in a 1992 interview, recalling, “I just think it tore everybody to pieces.” Get your hankies, folks, is all I can say.

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As you watch The Human Comedy, and I hope you will, notice the preponderance of long shots, especially those in deep focus, with a clear foreground and background. Director of photography Harry Stradling Sr. (who worked on Suspicion and A Streetcar Named Desire, to name just two of his best) endows the film with an open, multifaceted look. Instead of showcasing just the stars in the cast, he tends to compose shots with a number of faces and details. Even the most dramatic scenes mostly avoid the glut of close-ups we’ve come to expect from serious acting. It’s as though the film were urging us to remember that, although it tells the stories of certain individuals, everyone’s got a story and they all matter.

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In “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, the French film critic André Bazin argued that deep focus photography, which often involves more than one center of attention, facilitates a more democratic style in film. Unlike manipulative montage-driven tactics, this technique enables the eye to wander the frame so that a viewer can interpret the visual information for himself.

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Now, if you’ll pardon my egregious oversimplification of film theory, The Human Comedy visualizes the American ideals of diversity and democracy through its cinematography. Although the film certainly never yields in its endorsement of patriotism, the liberty allowed to the eye reflects an ethos of freedom and independent decision-making.

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Propaganda doesn’t leave much room for choice, but Brown and Stradling’s abundance of long takes and multiple planes of action and focuses of interest offer the audience a wider world than one might expect.

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In a narrative sense, to evoke part of that wider world, The Human Comedy cultivates one major character who ostensibly doesn’t initially fit with the apple-pie ideal of contentment and family in Ithaca. As Marcus Macaulay’s best friend in the army, Tobey George listens with rapt attention to Marcus’s stories of home.

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Tobey confesses that, as an orphan who doesn’t even know his real name, he lacks everything that motivates Marcus. To nourish Tobey’s hope of coming through the war alive, Marcus invites his comrade to share his memories, to adopt Ithaca as his fantasy hometown.

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In one telling scene, Marcus and Tobey ride on a mortar being transported to the front as Tobey says his prayers aloud—and it sounds as though he’s reading from Marcus’s thoughts, as he recites the litany of home-town sights he longs to visit and to protect through his service. As Brown switches from close-ups of each man looking wistfully into the distance, we can sense the transfer of thoughts and dreams between men from very different backgrounds.

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Through Tobey, The Human Comedy quietly admits that Perfectville, U.S.A. is largely a chimera. After all, like many, if not most, soldiers, he could just as easily have lived and died without experiencing the joys of a tight-knit family and community for himself. Yet, by granting this outsider the ultimate homecoming, the movie gives viewers from all walks of life permission to yearn for that ideal.

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At the end of the film, as Tobey hovers by the Macaulay household, he gazes in at Mrs. Macaulay, Bess, and Mary singing and playing an old-fashioned love song. Framed, contained, and shining, the domestic scene seems like a window into heaven, in contrast with the shadows of the evening and the silhouette of Tobey’s head and shoulders from behind. Here Tobey stands in for the audience members who are also beholding this vision of harmony and probably wanting to be a part of it. He watches the family the way we’re meant to watch the movie. This shot actually echoes an earlier shot during a brief sequence in a movie theater. In both cases, the darkness is punctuated by a square of light and a potent image of hope.

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The Human Comedy isn’t as naive as it might appear. Guess what? People didn’t get any more complex in the last seventy years or so. You can love an abstraction and try to make it seem real… while never losing sight of the fact that it’s an abstraction. In this way, Clarence Brown subtly reveals and celebrates cinema’s power to build dreams—like the myth of Ithaca and the Macaulays—that can sustain a population through tough times.

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No wonder Louis B. Mayer—a ferociously patriotic adopted American—considered this film his favorite of more than 800 movies made under his reign at MGM.

Still, if The Human Comedy rejoices in its own ability to refine and market collective fantasies, it acknowledges that the true credit for those dreams belongs to those who defend them. This drama honors the lives lost in WWII with glowing sincerity by glorifying the values and ideals they fought for, even if those ideals never fully existed in their lives.

In other words, most of us don’t make it to Ithaca—even the men and women who gave their lives for what it represented. But, thanks to them, Americans can keep on dreaming of it. And as long as we do, perhaps, like Mr. Macaulay’s narration suggests, those brave individuals are still living in us.

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