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The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy(1943)

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rThe film's title card reads: "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Presents William Saroyan's The Human Comedy." Voice-over narration, spoken by the character "Matthew Macauley" (Ray Collins), is heard intermittently throughout the picture. Collins, as a spirit, also appears onscreen in two scenes. Saroyan's novel was based on his screenplay for the film. Like his character "Homer," the teenaged Saroyan worked as a telegraph messenger in Fresno, CA. Later, he worked as the manager of the local Postal Telegraph office. According to contemporary sources, M-G-M bought Saroyan's 240-page script, which he reportedly wrote in about two weeks, in February 1942 for approximately $60,000. At the same time, Saroyan was negotiating with M-G-M to produce and direct the picture, and made a short film for the studio as a test piece. In May 1942, after Saroyan had completed the short, A Good Job, M-G-M decided to drop him as director of The Human Comedy and announced that King Vidor was to direct the film. (Sources disagree as to whether Saroyan was dropped because of the poor quality of the short, or because of the length of his script for The Human Comedy.) Angry, Saroyan walked off the M-G-M lot and returned to his home in Central California, where he then wrote the novel version of his story. Modern sources state that Saroyan attempted to buy back his screenplay from M-G-M head Louis B. Mayer, but was refused. In July 1942, Clarence Brown was assigned to direct the film, and Howard Estabrook was hired to trim Saroyan's screenplay to a two-hour length. Saroyan's novel was published concurrently with the film's release, and was the March 1943 "Book-of-the-Month Club" selection. According to the New York Times review, the novel became a best-seller a week after its release.
       Child actor Jack "Butch" Jenkins, son of actress Doris Dudley and grandson of columnist Bide Dudley, made his screen debut in the picture. According to the Variety review, which praised his performance as "one of the most natural and outstanding...ever transferred to the screen," Jenkins was "discovered" by Clarence Brown's secretary. Brown went on to direct Jenkins in M-G-M's 1944 film National Velvet. According to modern sources, Jenkins' acting career ended in 1948, after he developed a stutter. His last film was The Bride Goes Wild . John Craven, who plays "Tobey George" in the picture, also made his screen debut in The Human Comedy. Craven's father James appears in the picture as well.
       Contemporary news items add the following information about the production: In August 1942, Gene Kelly was announced as a cast member in an unspecified part, and Lionel Barrymore was announced in the role of "Willie Grogan." Spring Byington was first cast as "Mrs. Steed." Keenan Wynn was reportedly sought for a role, but was unavailable. Richard Quine, Margaret Wycherly, Howard Every, Kathleen Howard, John Ardizoni, Marjorie Kane, Lee Phelps, Ben Hall, Art Belasco, Del Lawrence, John R. Wald and Horace McNally were announced as cast members, but their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Although S. Z. Sakall, in the role of "Mr. Ara," Jessie Arnold, Connie Gilchrist, Margaret Armstrong, Sarah Padden, Leila McIntyre and Joseph E. Bernard are listed as cast members in CBCS, they did not appear in the final film. Some scenes in the film were shot at an abandoned Pacific Electric freight station in Santa Monica, CA, the athletic field of North Hollywood High School, Sunland, CA, and the Clarence Brown Ranch in Calabasas, CA. In August 1942, Hollywood Reporter announced that Brown was scouting locations in Fresno, but it is not known if any scenes were actually shot there. In addition to the above-listed songs, portions of the following songs are heard in the picture: "Rock of Ages," "Cielito lindo," "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Church in the Wildwood." The festival scene includes shots of various ethnic Americans, performing folk dances from their native countries.
       The Human Comedy was generally well-received by critics and earned many accolades. The Hollywood Reporter reviewer described the film as "the best picture this reviewer has ever seen," while the Daily Variety reviewer called the picture "one of the screen's immortals, destined to leave its mark at the box office as well as on the scrolls of critical praise." According to a February 1943 M-G-M publicity item, PCA director Joseph I. Breen declared the film "the greatest motion picture we have ever seen." Modern sources claim that The Human Comedy was Louis B. Mayer's favorite film. The Human Comedy was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Picture, Best Actor (Mickey Rooney), Best Director and Best Cinematography (black and white). Saroyan won the Oscar for Best Writing (Original Story). In addition, the film earned one of the Motion Picture Research Bureau's best audience ratings, and was named the best film of 1943 by the Canadian Department of National Defense.
       On September 9, 1949, the Hallmark Playhouse broadcast a radio version of the story, starring Mickey Rooney and directed by Clarence Brown. On March 30, 1959, the CBS television network broadcast an adaptation of Saroyan's story, directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Michael J. Pollack.