Oct. 27, 2005

The Human Comedy (1943)
Grade: 77/100

Director: Clarence Brown
Stars: Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, Frank Morgan

What it's about. The Macauley family adjusts to the homefront of World War II. Oldest son Van Johnson goes to war, sister Donna Reed works for the Red Cross, and high school student Mickey Rooney gets a job at the telegraph office, where he works with alcoholic old timer Frank Morgan. Robert Mitchum and Alfalfa have brief roles.

How others will see it. The title is misleading. It's not a comedy, although The Human Comedy has no shortage of heartwarming moments. Most viewers, especially women, will be pleased, even though some snippets of scenes don't quite work.

How I felt about it. Mickey Rooney was a star by 1943, courtesy of a series of generally disappointing Andy Hardy movies. The Human Comedy gave him a quality script and a flesh and bones character to work with. He makes the most of it, and if it isn't his best role, it's hard to come up with a better one.

Earnest, honest, and dependable, Rooney's only failing is his contempt for a snobbish fellow student (David Holt), a rival for both his girl and a track meet medal. This character weakness is one more than any other member of his family has. The mother (Fay Bainter) is eternally patient and loving; the youngest child Ulysses (Jackie Jenkins) is adorably precocious; Donna Reed is both virtuous and beautiful. Van Johnson is the world's nicest soldier, and although his death isn't depicted on screen, one can only assume it occurred when he tried to help a German soldier to his feet. "Oh, did someone knock you down? Here, take my hand."

While the family is too good to be true, it has to be remembered that there was a war going on at the time. Not a stupid war, with only dominoes or oil fields at stake, but a war with democracy itself in peril of eradication. Certainly, only the United States stood between Hitler and Tojo's eventual division of the world.

A war such as this required great sacrifices. The Macauley family represents, in idealized form, what had to be done on an individual basis to win the war.

The two telegraph operators provide an unusually stark contrast. Frank Morgan is washed up and knows it. He drinks on the job, he's narcoleptic, he's old, and he blusters. Mr. Spangler (James Craig), on the other hand, is the Perfect Man, whose only dilemma is whether or not he should marry the beautiful young woman who fawns over him, despite the fact that her family is wealthy.

This curious reverse class prejudice reflects the era. It is preferable to make it on your own, and any success at doing so becomes sweeter if you deliberately passed up a common sense but easy opportunity.

Spangler's days in the sun include a surreal pleasure drive by the park with his newlywed bride. He regales her with his knowledge of the town's "exotic" cultures: Mexican, Armenian, Russian, Swedish. It's like a theme ride through "It's a Small World" at Disneyland. Spangler, of course, informs us that these people are all Americans despite their funny costumes and cultures. Great input, Mr. Spangler.

Other silly moments: old maid Miss Hicks (Mary Nash) waxes ecstatic over Mickey Rooney's track victory; Ulysses and an older, nerdy kid hold hands while walking to the library, although neither can read. Grown orphan John Craven becomes a substitute for Van Johnson in the Macauley family, like an understudy seizing his big opportunity.

Overall, though, The Human Comedy is a winner, and is superior within its class of support the war efforts.