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Film / The Human Comedy

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The Human Comedy is a 1943 film directed by Clarence Brown, starring Mickey Rooney.

It is the story of the Macaulays, an American family in the fictional small town of Ithaca, California, during World War II. Mr. Macaulay has passed away a couple of years before the time frame of the film, and eldest son Marcus (Van Johnson) is in the Army, waiting to go off fighting somewhere. This leaves teenaged Homer Macaulay (Rooney) as the man of the house, working as a messenger boy for the local telegraph office, trying to support his widowed mother and his sister Bess (Donna Reed), and his little brother Ulysses (Jack Jenkins). The telegraph office is owned by Tom Spangler (James Craig), who is in a romance with local rich girl Diana Steed (Marsha Hunt). Homer winds up making friends with Willie Grogan (Frank Morgan), the telegraphist, who is staring old age, obsolescence, and retirement in the face all at once.

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This film is notable for featuring several up-and-coming young actors. Both Reed and Johnson had been players in B-Movies like the Dr. Kildare series, but would soon break out as big stars. And a young Robert Mitchum appears in one scene as a friendly soldier.

The screenplay was written by William Saroyan, who also wrote a novel adaptation, and released it before the film came out, leading many to believe that this film was based on the novel, when it was technically the other way around. The story was adapted again in 2015 as Ithaca, directed by Meg Ryan (in her directorial debut).


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Tropes:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: The soldier pestering Bess to go with him to the movies stops to send a telegram in which he tells some other girl that "I love you. I miss you."
  • The Alcoholic: Grogan gives Homer instructions on what to do when finding Grogan drunk—ignore it in public, splash of cold water followed by coffee in the office. Homer has to put this into practice more than once when finding Grogan passed out in front of his teletype machine.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Observing all the multicultural communities of Ithaca having their celebrations moves Tom to quote from, of all things, The Book of Revelation, Chapter 22, verses 1-2.
    "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations."
  • Cool Old Guy: All the local kids think they are being reckless by stealing peaches from old man Henderson's tree, but old man Henderson actually likes seeing the kids raid his peach tree, and he sits behind his window and laughs as they sneak in.
  • Crowd Song: The soldiers on the train deliver a pretty impressive rendition of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms."note 
  • Cue the Rain: It's embarrassing enough when poor Homer has to deliver a singing telegram, singing "Happy Birthday" to Mary at the party he wasn't invited to. It's more embarrassing because Hubert paid for the telegram. And to make it even more of a downer, the skies let loose with rain after Homer leaves the party.
  • Death Notification: By far the most unpleasant part of Homer's job, as he has to deliver telegrams from the War Department notifying people in Ithaca when their sons are killed in the war.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: The teacher says "We will begin by reading followed by oral discussion", and one of the students nails her with "What kind of other discussion is there?"
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Unlike most movies where young Mickey Rooney was courting a pretty girl, in this one he fails to land Mary, who prefers rich Hubert.
  • During the War, everyone pulled together and supported the war effort as good, patriotic Americans should, working for the Red Cross or in defense industry jobs, or joing the Army and Navy. In fact, the whole movie is an extended propaganda piece encouraging patriotism and giving maximum effort in the war.
  • Everytown, America: Ithaca, CA, is a generic small American town with a generic Main Street. It also has a surprisingly large variety of ethnic communities, including Hispanics, Russians, and Greeks.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Does Marcus show pictures of his sister and his girlfriend to his new friend Tobey? Yes. Does Marcus survive the war? No.
  • Free-Range Children: Five-year-old Ulysses is allowed to wander quite a bit. In one scene he gets separated from the bigger kids, and winds up running down Main Street scared and crying, until he's turned over to Homer.
  • Inner Monologue: Heard from Tobey as he arrives in his old friend Marcus's hometown and takes stock of things.
  • Novelization: An interesting example. Author William Saroyan was hired to write an original story and screenplay for the film, with a possibility of directing as well. Instead MGM declined to let him direct, and after clashing with the studio, Saroyan was fired from the project. He then proceeded to turn his original story into a novel which was released a few weeks before the film. Saroyan got some more revenge when he won an Oscar for his original story.
  • Posthumous Narration: The film opens with the ghost of Mr. Macaulay, personified by a giant floating head in the sky, introducing the town and naming the characters. He pops up from time to time the rest of the way, seeming to give Homer a pep talk from beyond the grave toward the end.
  • The Rival: Hubert Ackley III, a snobby rich kid who is Homer's rival in track and his rival for the attentions of Mary, the prettiest girl in class.
  • That Russian Squat Dance: Seen briefly when Tom and Diana observe a crowd of ethnic Russians at the town festival.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: After getting a pretty good one-two punch—finding Grogan dead, then observing that Grogan had received the telegram reporting Marcus's death—Homer slumps into a chair and indulges in one of these for a little while.
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