Cloying, but Comforting
My memory of this film is fonder than it should be. It appeals to me because Mickey Rooney is restrained and affecting in it and certain scenes were etched in my memory from the first time I saw it on television a thousand years ago.
But I forgot about the soundtrack. And the harp. And the platitudes. And the dripping sentimentality. Oh god, and the folk dancing -- THAT slipped my mind. But if all I retained, lo these many years, is Rooney's truly excellent performance, the cinematography, the sudden overwhelming grief brought on by a wartime telegram, and Jackie "Butch" Jenkins generally, maybe it's worth the slog through molasses.
The story opens under the narration of the late Matthew Macauley (Ray Collins) who soothes us with the idea that although he is dead, his "self" lives on in the places he frequented, the town he called home (mythical, allegorical, Ithaca, California) and the family he left behind: 6-year-old Ulysses (Butch Jenkins), high schooler Homer (Mickey Rooney), next oldest Bess (Donna Reed), eldest son, Marcus (Van Johnson), a private in the US. army about to go to combat, and wife Kate (Fay Bainter).
Now that dad's dead and Marcus has joined the army, Homer is the "man" of the house and has recently taken a job at the local telegraph office. His boss is sturdy, up-and-comer, Tom Spangler (James Craig), who used to be Ithaca's 220 low hurdle champion, but who now runs the Western Union office and keeps the telegraph operator, drunken, world-weary old man Grogan (Frank Morgan) in coffee and pie. Spangler is also engaged to Diana something-or-other (Marsha Hunt), a frivolous debutante, who is in this movie, one supposes, to show us that all classes are sacrificing for the war and that the rich are people too. She also gets to comment on the quaint folk dancing during the "It's a Small World" portion of the film that showcases the melting pot that is America. One feels for Marsha Hunt.
It's Homer's job to deliver telegrams all over town -- the sad as well as the singing ones -- to keep Mr. Grogan sober enough to type out the messages as they come in, and to be on the receiving end of whatever lengthy pearls of wisdom come from an adult's mouth. Could be his teacher, Mr. Spangler, his dear mother, why, even a soldier on leave. Everyone has something to impart.
The soldiers are all fine young men: they sing hymns and think about their mothers or their girls, even when three of them (a super young Robert Mitchum, Barry Nelson, and Don DeFore) meet Bess and her friend Mary (Marcus's fiancée) and take them to the movies. No monkey business or threat of impropriety; this isn't Crossfire. And here's a bit of cinephilia: the hymn all the boys sing together on the transport train is the same one older Robert Mitchum sings menacingly throughout Night of the Hunter some years later. Telling...
But it was 1943, smack in the middle of the war (for the U.S. anyway) and lots of young people were heading off to possibly die, certainly to be forever changed, leaving families and friends behind. I'd like to think this movie made people feel better about the worry. Some of it is beautiful and painful, and some of it is maudlin and corny, but in spite of feeling socked in the face every so often with a bag of maple syrup, this movie makes me cry and makes me hope that audiences in 1943 watching it cried together and felt like maybe all their hardships were worth it.
But seriously, a harp?
This post is my entry for the MGM Blogathon, sponsored by Silver Scenes.
Please check out all the fabulous posts by other classic movie bloggers: More stars than there are in heaven.
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