Made in 1943 at the height of World War II, Happy Land offered up something quite different than the usual patriotic propaganda churned out by Hollywood studios at the time. Instead of reveling in the glory of war, or the need to fight, it focuses its entire story on a father, Lew Marsh (Don Ameche), grieving and mourning for his only son, Rusty, who was killed in the war. When he receives the news, he doesn't take it lightly. He doesn't accept it and move on. He drops out of life, stops going into the pharmacy where he works, and stares silently out his backdoor window. Eventually, with the whole town worried, the local pastor stops by and gives him the usual pep talk: His son died for a great cause. His son was a hero. God has a plan. None of it works. The pastor leaves, defeated.
Later, as Marsh paces around his house, a voice calls to him in the backyard. It's the voice of his father and he stands stunned as his father, Gramp (Harry Carey), materializes out of thin air. He explains that he had to because he could see that his son wasn't coming around. While Lew doesn't pass it off as a bit of underdone potato, he does believe his eyes are fooling him and the appearance of his father merely signals the final breakdown of his mind as he struggles with grief. Gramp doesn't give up though and, eventually, Lew comes around to accept this ghostly visit as real and begins to stroll through time, just like Ebenezer Scrooge.
Happy Land works its way around to that pep talk the pastor gave by way of having Lew realize his son had a happy and fulfilling life, as short as it was. As Gramp takes him through both of their lives, he sees that his endless grief serves no purpose. When a fellow brother in arms of Rusty shows up at the end, played by Harry Morgan (billed as Henry Morgan), Lew accepts his son's death at last.
One can view Happy Land as a sincere, sentimental weeper or as one of the most cynical propaganda films ever released. Honestly, it works either way. It's not propaganda in the normal flag waving mode but more of a reminder to the folks back home that, yes, this war is going to take some time and we all have to deal with grief so just remember what we're fighting for. And to that degree, it works. As a purely sentimental journey, it works even better.
The film was directed by Irving Pichel, a director most known for his adventure work, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and his sci-fi classic, Destination Moon (1950). Pichel was blacklisted after he was one of the nineteen writers and directors called to testify before HUAC in 1947 but was later cleared. Nonetheless, he was forced out of Hollywood and died at the age of 63 before the blacklist ended.
Don Ameche, the star of the production, was a familiar face to moviegoers at the time but not for serious, deeply affected roles. His turn here was quite different for him and surely signaled a desire on his part to try for more dramatic roles. While very good, Hollywood kept Ameche in lighter fare throughout his career. Years later, after making a minor comeback in the Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places (1983), he won his first and only Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor, for Cocoon (1985).
Also appearing in the film were Frances Dee, Ann Rutherford, and Richard Crane, all doing solid work. Two child actors of note also appeared. One was Dickie Moore, now a teenager, and the other was Natalie Wood, though she wasn't billed. She was five and it was a tiny role but greatness would come her way soon enough.
Happy Land was filmed on location, something not done much at the time. Rather than build a Main Street at the studio, they used the real Main Street of Healdsburg, California and did some more location shooting in Santa Rosa. Sentimental crowd pleaser or propaganda plea to prepare for grief, the film works either way and stands as one of the better war films released during the war itself.
Director: Irving Pichel
Producer: Kenneth Macgowan
Writers: Kathryn Scola, Julien Josephson; based on the novel by MacKinlay Kantor
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Director of Photography: Joseph LaShelle
Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: James Basevi, Russell Spencer
Cast: Don Ameche (Lew Marsh), Frances Dee (Agnes Marsh), Harry Carey (Gramp), Ann Rutherford (Lenore Prentiss), Cara Williams (Gretchen Barry), Richard Crane (Russell 'Rusty' Marsh), Henry Morgan (Anton 'Tony' Cavrek), Minor Watson (Judge Colvin), Dickie Moore (Peter Orcutt)
By Greg Ferrara