Sunday, February 27, 2011

A WWII movie much different from Destination Gobi

The movie in question would be The Human Comedy, which is airing at 2:00 PM ET tomorrow on TCM.

The scene is the town of Ithaca, which could be a town almost anywhere in the US. Mickey Rooney gets top billing as Homer, the second son of the Macauley family. Dad died a few years back (which we learn from a voiceover at the very start of the movie), and Homer's older brother Marcus (Van Johnson in one of his earliest roles) has left home to enlist in the Army. There's a war on, after all. So, it's up to Homer to be the father figure of the family as best he can, even though he's just a high school student. To that end, Homer has taken an after-school job delivering telegrams, which is tough in a number of ways. First is the fact that the man who types of the telegrams (Frank Morgan) is a chronic drunk, and needs Homer to be a bit of his keeper: wake him up if he gets into the bottle too much, and ply him with coffee to sober him up. Worse is the content of those telegrams. With the war on, people die, and Homer has the difficult job of delivering one such telegram to a Mexican immigrant who is illiterate, but whose son has just died in the war.

Marcus, meanwhile, seems to be taking well to the army. He writes home telling that he's doing just fine, and has even taken another soldier under his wing, one who was an orphan and doesn't have a family -- and certainly not a family as wonderful as the Macauleys. That having been said, The Human Comedy is much more about Homer and the homefront. And because of that, you can probably see the ending coming from a mile away....

Despite the weakness of the ending, The Human Comedy is still a worthwhile movie. This, as long as you keep in mind that is was released in 1943, at the height of World War II when it was still uncertain that the Americans would be able to win the war. Folks on the homefront wanted something warm and comforting, and that's something The Human Comedy delivers in spades. The movie is also helped by a bunch of good performances from a fine ensemble cast. Mickey Rooney gets unfairly criticized, probably because of all the Andy Hardy movies and musicals with Judy Garland he did. In fact, Rooney was a capable actor, as this and A Midsummer Night's Dream both show. Johnson is good in a smaller role, and Morgan is wonderful. The rest of the cast has a lot of names you might recognize, either as character actors, or as people who would go on to much bigger things: Fay Bainter is Mrs. Macauley; Homer's kid sister is played by Donna Reed; and Homer's actual boss at the telegraph office is James Craig. Watch also for the seen in which Reed winds up going to the movies with a couple of soldiers: one of those soldiers is a young Robert Mitchum in one of his earliest roles.

The Human Comedy has gotten a DVD release as part of the Warner Archive collection.

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