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: oscarchamps.com

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.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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