The Human Comedy: The 1943 Original vs. the 2015 Reboot

William Saroyan, author of The Human Comedy. Image: Wikipedia

Remember that rule in Creative Writing 101 about every story having a Beginning, a Middle and an End?

We (as in, yours truly) are fond of this formula; it’s what we’ve come to Expect.

But not everyone cares about it. American author William Saroyan, for instance, didn’t follow this rule in his 1943 novel, The Human Comedy.

The novel is (mostly) about a family in the fictional town of Ithaca, California. Here is a widow with three sons: one is in the army; one delivers telegrams; and one is very little and asks lots of questions. There is a daughter, too, who wants to help the War Effort.

It’s a novel concerned with the Goodness in people. It has flashes of brilliance and humour, and it feels like we’re peeking through the windows of Small Town America. We meet a lot of interesting people, but because we don’t follow them through an evolving story, we don’t develop an attachment to them.

Added to this are Lectures. Folks in Ithaca love to lecture each other, and it’s not an endearing quality.

These lectures can be just as cringing in the 1943 film.

Mickey Rooney (R) and Frank Morgan in The Human Comedy (1943). Image:

In 1941, MGM hired Saroyan to write a film treatment, but the studio became disenchanted with the writer, and vice versa. MGM felt the treatment was too unwieldy, and Saroyan swore off Hollywood.

The author turned his film treatment into a novel, while MGM reworked it and cast Mickey Rooney in the Starring Role.

The 1943 film, The Human Comedy, is powerful. First, there is the charismatic Rooney, on whom the film rests, and he carries it effortlessly. He gives a pitch-perfect performance of a teenage boy grappling with his place in a world at war.

Then there is the war itself, and this film is a desperate plea to support the American War Effort. Unlike the novel, the film makes us care about its characters. In one touching scene, for instance, Rooney’s character delivers a telegram from the War Department to a woman who can’t read English.

This same scene is almost as poignant when it was filmed again, 70 years later, by actress/director Meg Ryan.

Alex Neustaedter as a brand-new telegram delivery boy. Image: Old Ain’t Dead

Ithaca (2015), a remake of The Human Comedy, has been criticized as a slow-moving film with no real story. But, as we have seen, the source material doesn’t have a real story. And, while the cast in the remake isn’t as charismatic as the original, the film feels closer to the novel’s intent. (Fortunately, the 2015 script spares us the patronizing lectures.)

This is not an action-packed film, but once you get into the rhythm of it, you can forgo the expectation of a Story. It’s a quiet study of war and family, and the uncertainty of life.

Ithaca and its predecessor, The Human Comedy, share the same characters and many of the scenes from Saroyan’s novel. Both explore the goodness of people in a time of tyranny and war, although the 1943 film has a cynical edge that’s absent in the remake.

Curiously, both films omit the attempted robbery of the telegraph office in the novel – but this action results in an Exceedingly Long Lecture, so perhaps it’s just as well.

Nevertheless, Ithaca and The Human Comedy are two very different films. The 1943 version is urgent, while the 2015 version is nostalgic. Nothing in the 1943 film is wasted; one scene charges into the next. The 2015 film allows itself some indulgences; in one scene, for example, Ryan playfully chases a young boy through bedsheets hanging on a clothesline.

Which film is better? We can’t decide. If you’re looking for Star Power, try the 1943 version. If you want a more authentic interpretation of the novel, you might like the 2015 film.

Oh – and remember the mutual Disappointment between MGM and William Saroyan? In the end, the 1943 film was nominated for five Oscars, and Saroyan won the Academy Award for Best Story.

  • Read Bosley Crowther’s 1943 New York Times review of The Human Comedy HERE.
  • Read Variety‘s review of Ithaca HERE.

The Human Comedy: starring Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, James Craig. Directed by Clarence Brown. Written by Howard Estabrook. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, B&W, 1943, 117 mins.

Ithaca: starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Sam Shepard. Directed by Meg Ryan. Written by Erik Jendresen. Co-Op Entertainment (et al), Colour, 2015, 96 mins.



    • It would be really interesting to hear your reaction to one or both of these films, especially since you really liked the book. The 2015 version is not as bad as it’s made out to be, and the 1943 version is riveting. I am reluctant to recommend one over the other…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The late Jim McPherson who wrote the movie column for the Toronto Sun would use this synopsis when The Human Comedy was scheduled on the late show: “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be tired in the morning.”

    I was unaware of the 2015 film, but you have intrigued me. I may just have to put it on the 2018 list of things to watch.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good Heavens! I had no idea anyone ever remade The Human Comedy! The first version has some of the most beautifully acted scenes ever filmed, most of them featuring Rooney — delivering the telegram to the bereaved mother, for instance. And the riveting scene where Homer finds his friend Mr. Grogan dead. You’re right, it all depends on Mickey Rooney. Frankly I think he is still underrated as an actor — he was consistently brilliant, right into his 70’s, but his rather wacky personality still overshadows his artistry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mickey Rooney is mesmerizing in the original film. Like you said, that scene where he finds Mr Grogan dead is unforgettable.

      I was surprised, too, to learn of the remake, but it has its strengths, notably its faithfulness to the novel. It would be interesting to hear what you think, if you ever have the chance to see it.


    • You said it, Rick. A person can’t help but like the original because of that sincerity and a cast with real star power. Nobody can match Mickey Rooney’s performance.

      Having said that, I think the 2015 version is worth a look because it closely follows the novel. It has none of the urgency of the 1943 film, but it does have a more touching portrayal of the mother’s loss of her husband.


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