powered by AFI
MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer turned himself over to populist writer William Saroyan - at least for a while - for what turned out to be the movie mogul's favorite film ever. And even though more sophisticated critics carped that the tale of small-town family life during World War II was "sugary" and "over-sentimental," The Human Comedy (1943) turned a big profit and brought Saroyan an Oscar for his only film assignment.
Mayer wasn't alone in his admiration of the author. Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Time of Your Life and memoirs of his Armenian family's adjustment to life in America had won him a horde of devoted fans, including MGM producer Arthur Freed. Freed brought Mayer and Saroyan together, leading to Mayer's suggestion that the writer create a film for the studio. But though he was under contract for $300 a week, Saroyan never showed up at the studio, not even to pick up his pay. Freed tracked him down to his hometown of Fresno, California, where he convinced Saroyan to write a story based on his memories of growing up there. Saroyan holed up in a San Francisco hotel room, emerging with the finished story three weeks later.
But Saroyan didn't just want to write the film, he wanted to direct it and produce it as well. Mayer humored him until the script was finished, even allowing him to write and direct a short film called The Good Job. But the short was considered un-releasable, and Saroyan's episodic screenplay for The Human Comedy would have produced a four-and-a-half hour movie, so Mayer paid him for his writing, then assigned the re-write to studio scripter Howard Estabrook. Saroyan tried to buy the script back, then consoled himself by turning it into a novel. It came out the week The Human Comedy opened and became a major best seller, driving ticket sales for the film as well.
Saroyan had written the role of Homer Macauley with Mickey Rooney in mind. Working with director Clarence Brown, who had led him through Ah, Wilderness (1935) years earlier and would later direct one of his biggest hits, National Velvet (1944), Rooney turned in one of his most sensitive performances, winning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The film's small-town charm was in distinct contrast to Rooney's life at the time. He was in the middle of a painful divorce from his first wife, Ava Gardner, while the studio was fighting to keep him out of the draft (he would eventually enter the service in 1944).
More in keeping with The Human Comedy's small-town values was the career of Jackie "Butch" Jenkins, who almost stole the film as Rooney's younger brother. The spirited six-year-old was spotted clowning around on Santa Monica Beach by a Metro talent scout and tested for The Human Comedy, which led to a contract with MGM. Jenkins scored a big hit in the film and followed it with similar roles in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), with Margaret O'Brien, and the imaginatively titled My Brother Talks to Horses (1946), with Peter Lawford. But he didn't take well to the strain of filmmaking. When he developed a stutter, his mother pulled him out of the movies and moved him to Dallas. Ironically, his final release was 1948's Summer Holiday, in which he ended his career as he had begun it, playing Mickey Rooney's kid brother. Jenkins never returned to the films, settling down on a farm near Dallas, where he runs a string of car washes. When asked if he ever regretted leaving the movies, his answer would have been perfectly in character for The Human Comedy: "There may be a better way to live than on a lake with a couple of cows, a wife, and children but being a movie star is not one."
Director/Producer: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Howard Estabrook
Story: William Saroyan
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: Mickey Rooney (Homer Macauley), Frank Morgan (Willie Grogan), James Craig (Tom Spangler), Marsha Hunt (Diana Steed), Fay Bainter (Mrs. Macauley), Ray Collins (Mr. Macauley), Van Johnson (Marcus Macauley), Donna Reed (Bess Macauley), Jackie "Butch" Jenkins (Ulysses Macauley), Barry Nelson (Pat), Robert Mitchum (Horse).
BW-117m. Close captioning
by Frank Miller