Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. USA, 1943. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Story by William Saroyan, Screenplay by Howard Estabrook. Cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr.. Produced by Clarence Brown. Music by Herbert Stothart. Production Design by Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design by Irene. Film Editing by Conrad A. Nervig. Academy Awards 1943.
William Saroyan’s script, which he was also set to direct, was deemed too long and heavy by Louis B. Mayer and was rewritten by someone else, inspiring Saroyan to publish his version as a novel after the film was a success that netted him, ironically, an Oscar for his original story. While his older brother (Van Johnson) fights overseas, Mickey Rooney works in the local telegraph office to help support his single mother (Fay Bainter), delivering embarrassing singing telegrams and tragic notices from the War Department in equal measure. At school Rooney gets into fights with boys and has a crush on a girl, at work he keeps alcoholic Frank Morgan awake at his telegraph machine and takes advice on entering adulthood from his boss (James Craig), while his younger siblings try to make sense of the world through the lens of the war that has overtaken everyone’s consciousness. There’s also Craig’s relationship with a society woman and issues of class and responsibility that this inspires in him, and subplots that play like charming vignettes, such as Rooney’s elder sister (Donna Reed) going on a double date with three soldiers (one of them played by Robert Mitchum in his debut). This film doesn’t have a straightforward narrative and is liberally padded out by philosophical musings on life and death, peace and battle, likely something that Americans on the homefront, at this point a year in from having sent their loved ones overseas, really needed to see (which is also why I’ll forgive the incredibly weird supernatural ending). It’s not a formless collection of emotional indulgences, the film has a confidence in its unusual structure that makes it compelling to watch thanks to sincere direction by Clarence Brown, who made a career-long habit of genuinely sentimental films that were never sappy. Rooney, always such a vaudevillian ham on film, manages more than his fair share of genuine moments, and there are some wonderful speeches that are illuminating even if they are the screenwriter preaching at the audience: Rooney and his schoolmate getting a lecture from their teacher on being civilized in a world of disagreement, or Bainter explaining death to her toddler, are unforgettable highlights. Reportedly Mayer’s favourite of his studio’s films, this was remade decades later (with more fidelity to the original source material) as Ithaca, directed by Meg Ryan.