FILM REVIEW: The Apex of American Religious Humanism: Clarence Brown’s “The Human Comedy

David Shasha

Posted Oct 3, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Apex of American Religious Humanism: Clarence Brown’s “The Human Comedy” (1943)

by David Shasha

The edge of love, the only way

Just give it all for heaven’s sake

And when we fall God will keep us safe

And that’s when time stands

That’s when time stands still

Mindy Smith, “The Edge of Love”

Central to the American myth as it has been parsed in its literary and artistic heritage is the intimate link between the human condition and the inclusive social community.  Human life is one that is lived in the midst of people; families, communities and the world of God here on earth signal the places where we are able to be most fully human.  The human family is one that relies on individuals to do what is right, just and noble.  These are the sacred and precious values that once constituted our culture, before it was taken over by the false, the vain and the dishonest.  The drama of human existence is not banal or maudlin as it is not a vain and self-centered optimism.  It is a world of pain, suffering and the ennobling joy that comes from the accomplishments of work, struggle and passion.

At the heart of the human drama is the primacy of love as an enabling force that cushions the pain of the tragedies that we must face in our lives.  Love emerges triumphantly out of the human community in the midst of our prosaic daily lives.

In the first images of Clarence Brown’s masterpiece “The Human Comedy” a young child named Ulysses Macauley stands along the train tracks waving at the men who are riding the rails.  We are not told who these men are, but we sense that they are lost in this world and are looking to find a home; a place where they can find comfort, hope and love.  Ulysses is the youngest child of a family whose patriarch, played by Mercury Theater vet Ray Collins, is deceased and from heaven will narrate the various stories of this deeply reverential film; a movie that speaks in the awesome cadences of the sacred and the holy. 

“The Human Comedy” is a grand artistic statement that speaks in the sacrosanct tones of Scripture as it tells the interwoven stories of some very ordinary people in a California town called, not unexpectedly, Ithaca where the full flowering of the American myth is shown as a form of Religious Humanism that effectively marks the high point of this brilliant tradition in our civilization.

Little Ulysses goes proudly into the world with his tiny eyes wide open and with a spirit of boundless adventure.  He happily waves his hand to any and all who come his way while continuing to seek understanding as he discovers the rudiments of language.  His brother Homer – played with a rare intensity and sensitivity by Mickey Rooney in one of the most extraordinary performances in the history of the American cinema – has been forced to take on the role of “man” of the family with his father dead and his brother off to fight in World War II. 

A high school student of humble means, Homer has taken a job in the local telegraph office where he works the night shift in order to help support his depleted family.  The Macauleys are a poor but proud family whose matriarch Kate is the personification of American wisdom.  With her Bible at the ready and her harp never far from her heart, she dispenses the moral values that cynics mark as clichéd, but which those who value the tenets of Religious Humanism see as the very core foundations of a life lived well.

“The Human Comedy” maintains a quiet dignity that distinguishes it from the American classics of Frank Capra that are often overloaded with a nervous comedy meant to leaven the deep seriousness of the themes of those movies.  In the brilliant films of John Ford as well there is rarely such quiet as people and things are generally presented in the full range of their kinetic motion; in “The Grapes of Wrath” the Joad family is on the move while in “How Green was My Valley” the socialist subtext brings the viewer face to face with the harsh and unsparing realities of life in a Welsh mining town with all the attendant sights and sounds of that life.

“The Human Comedy” is a deeply American film containing all the classic markers of American society: Homer works at the very epicenter of the community in the local telegraph office which serves as the repository of all human life in the town.  There is nary a detail in the lives of the people that does not somehow pass through that office.  An old man named Grogan, beautifully played by Frank Morgan (best-known for his role as the wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”), sits at the telegraph machine through the long and often intense nights at the office where he frequently gets drunk and falls asleep.  Grogan cannot live with or without his job: he is a lonely man in his late 60s who has no other life beside the telegraph office and yet the depth of emotions and the pain of the many death notices coming because of the war take an inevitable toll on his spirit.  He asks Homer to splash water in his face and to bring him a hot cup of black coffee in order to keep him going when he nods off.

The boss in the office is a man named Spangler who is seen early on in the film selflessly assisting a poor, sick man trying to send a wire to his mother asking her to send him some money.  It is in this scene as Spangler pulls out some cash to give to this anonymous man who is down on his luck that we are clearly shown the moral base of the film: human beings have been put on this earth not for self-aggrandizement, but in order to serve others.  Just as little Ulysses opens his tiny heart to the poor hobos on the train, and just as Homer takes on the role of family provider with his after-school job, so do we see the way that responsibility takes on an enormous importance in the world portrayed in this movie.

Responsibility is not what gets assigned to a person in a formal way, but is something that comes from inside us.  Responsibility is an intuitive morality that is learned from the religious traditions and national myths of the American culture.  It is an intuition that is learned in the home, in the school and in Church.  Such a morality is to be maintained in a very organic way.

We see Homer going to school where his teacher Miss Hicks, long a staple presence in the place where she had once taught its current principal, sets her pupils on the correct moral path.  Miss Hicks provides the discipline to her students in a way that is meant to infuse them with honor, respect and humility.  She marks for the students the need for fair play and to maintain a foundational concept of right and wrong.  In her words we hear the most eloquent definition of democracy and freedom ever to be uttered in a Hollywood film.  She shows no favoritism to her students as she teaches the youngsters that no one person is better than any other.  This didacticism is dispensed with love, tenderness and warmth in the manner of the American generative mythos.

Homer and his classmate Hubert Ackley III are punished as they quarrel over a girl they both like, and Miss Hicks insists that neither Homer, the poor boy, or Hubert, the wealthy scion of a local dynasty, are to be given favorable treatment.  When the wealthy boy is given a pass by the track and field coach who spirits him away to run an important race, Miss Hicks – in the spirit of American fair play, lets Homer out of his punishment to run in the race and then proceeds to root for him to win!  Such enthusiastic support for the underdog and the falsely-stigmatized runs constantly through American tradition.

In the course of the film there is a marked, but subtle, noting of the differences between rich and poor.  As the film progresses we see that the natural tendencies of people to become divided over their place in the class structure is diminished in favor of the humanity which ultimately transcends our material existence.  Promoting neither a predatory libertarianism nor a doctrinaire socialism, the film consistently brings the viewer back to reflect on the primacy of the human condition and the ways in which people must love and respect one another.

The film also shows us Homer’s brother Marcus, played by the beloved Van Johnson, with his army platoon preparing to be sent off to the European front.  Marcus pines for his girl Mary, the Macauleys’ neighbor, and takes his army buddy, an orphan boy named Toby George, under his wing.  Marcus becomes so close to Toby that the latter has been able to learn almost every minute detail of life in Ithaca and in the Macauley family from Marcus’ verbal descriptions.  Marcus’ religious beliefs bestow on the relationship with Toby a solemn holiness and a grace that comes to play a major role in the film’s resolution.

Homer’s sister Bess, played by Donna Reed in a role that presages a similarly rich character study a few years later in Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” where her snow-white image is heightened and brightened, and her friend Mary – Marcus’ girl – go out one night to the movies and befriend a group of three soldiers just looking for some pleasant female company.  It is a tender moment that is shot through with the wonder of innocence and marks a different age in our culture; an age when respect and propriety ruled and where decency was an absolute value.

The film expertly spins these plotlines in a seamless manner.  Its visual sense is anchored in the classic images of the American landscape and the world of the small town.  Clarence Brown was once one of the best-known and best-loved of American directors of his era even though in our benighted age he languishes in relative obscurity.  The gentleness of his films, classic works like “National Velvet” and “Come Live with Me,” speak of his deep ties to the American national myth and the ways in which it has been formed on the template of Religious Humanism.

“The Human Comedy” is permeated with prayers and liturgies that are made manifest in the secular lives of these characters.  It is a film where life’s tragedies are recounted in a stoic spirit that reflects the mettle and brawn of the American character.  It is a film whose real subject is not the stories of its characters, but the characters themselves.  In each of the film’s interwoven episodes the script makes precise reference to the human condition.  It is the human condition, as the title of the film indicates, that is the main character of the film and which permeates its rich symbolism and the greatness of its storytelling.  The film demands multiple viewings in order to truly ferret out the great depth of its narrative and symbolic richness.

Based on a masterful story by the great author William Saroyan, “The American Comedy” is a text which reveals the great genius of American culture.  In it we see the kindness, the sense of charity, the giving and the inclusive nature of American society. 

In a key moment towards the end of the film, Spangler and his rich fiancée Diana get married and take a car ride out to the country where an outdoor festival is taking place.  With great delicacy and care, the script points to the various ethnic groups that are participating in the festival; a festival dedicated to the American Red Cross – an organization which exemplifies all of the values that we have seen presented in this most wondrous film.  As Spangler drives along the path of the festival he specifically references each of the groups to Diana and to the audience – the Swedes, the Russians, the Armenians and the rest, while excitedly describing their fidelity to their own ethno-cultural traditions. 

The pride with which Spangler narrates this litany of different and differing cultures forms a central part of the American myth: the unity of American society is made up of a mosaic of different pieces much like one of the classic American symbols – the patchwork quilt.  Contrary to the monolingual model of the melting pot where people lose their particular ethnic cultures and which is only one part of the larger American experience, the sense of difference that separates Americans is something that the classic spirit of the country sees as strengthening the larger national identity.  The movie shows the ways in which religion serves as a unifying element, not as a means of stigmatizing people, but in a way that accentuates the joy and love in human relations.

It is here that the profound words of the Bible serve to permeate the film’s humanism.  Loving one’s neighbor as oneself – the Golden Rule of Israel – becomes the basic template of our existence.

Little Ulysses has an older friend Lionel who is cruelly taunted by the other boys.  Lionel is a bit of a sad sack, but the Macauleys treat him as if he is an honored figure and do not let on that he is awkward.  The pain of the young man is palpable, but the dignity with which Mrs. Macauley and the other members of the family bestow on him serves to reinforce the way in which they understand Christianity: all human beings belong to God and are created in His image.  This means that every human being is precious – there is no exception to this rule.  All men are to be treated with kindness and respect no matter who they are or where they come from.  This is the very definition of Christian ethics that is so central to American culture.

When the awkward, geeky Lionel comes to take Ulysses with him to return a library book, the film reaches its magnificent caesura.  The two little boys walk off confidently to the library as if they were going to find the Holy Grail.  Once they enter the hallowed halls of the library, in some of the most stirring and reverential images committed to film that I can think of, the library becomes a consecrated meeting point for all the values that have been laid out in the film.  The library is the place where knowledge resides, and even though the boys cannot read, they know that this is where all life’s treasures are to be found.  The purpose of work and commitment to family and community rests in the literary repository which is to be found in the books that line the shelves of the library.

This American library is not like the mystical and surreal library of Jorge Luis Borges’ fantastical fictions which seek to parody the totalizing and closed civilization of Europe, but is an expansive world where the pedagogic imperative meets the hallowed and sanctified culture of the splendiferous American religion; a religion which does not shut out the alien as its European mono-cultural variant once did, but is one whose doors are perpetually open and welcoming.  The model of the Ithaca library emanates rays of light and enlightenment that come from the goodness and the wisdom of the Macauleys and their saintly humility.

“The Human Comedy” is a landmark in American film history.  On a par with the masterworks of Welles, Hitchcock, Capra, Hawks and Ford it holds a unique place in the Hollywood landscape.  Made in the fabled “dream factory” of MGM which specialized in musicals that presented a Technicolor tapestry of Americana played in a lush, romantic and sentimentalized setting such as those created by the genius visionary Vincente Minnelli in classics like “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “The Bandwagon,” “The Human Comedy” marks the high water mark of a certain kind of dramatic American movie which sadly does not exist anymore. 

In fact, “The Human Comedy” remains in relative obscurity because of the shift in values and mores since the destruction of the Hollywood studio system.  With a harsh prescience – here qualified in a negative sense – the New York Times movie critic Bowsley Crowther – prefiguring many of the equally myopic and misanthropic critics of today’s paper – panned “The Human Comedy” for what he saw as its talky didactic preachiness.  Crowther was even back then rejecting the values of American Religious Humanism as people reject it in our day: such values are marked as hopelessly naïve and idealistic and do not reflect “real” life as we know it.

But where people like Crowther get it wrong is in the fact that Religious Humanism is a value system that seeks truth, justice and goodness in a world that lacks such things.  It is a way to tease out the best of what we are and what we can become as human beings.  So many of the old Hollywood classics like “How Green was My Valley” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” were based on this visionary humanism that was so central a part of the genius of American civilization.  These were works of art that spoke of the exigencies of real life, but in ways that drew out the wonder and the astonishment of the best of who we could be as people.

The characters in “The Human Comedy” always treat one another with kindness.  In Hebrew the term for this is “Hesed” – a word that itself opens up a whole universe of limitless possibilities.  Hesed is defined in the Brown-Driver-Briggs dictionary of Biblical Hebrew as “goodness,” “kindness,” “piety” and “mercy.”  It is often used in connection with God Himself who bestows His Hesed on humanity as an essential gift.

In this way “The Human Comedy” shows us how America once saw itself: as a nation of kind, decent and honest people who were nurturing forces in the lives of others.  Just as Marcus takes Toby into his confidences and makes him feel as if he belongs; just as Mary and Bess befriend some lonely soldiers for an evening before they go to the war; just as Ulysses walks beside a lonely and picked-on young boy to the library; and just as Homer – the centerpiece of these interlocked tales, recalling his Athenian namesake – is forced to encounter the pains of what it means to be a man, so does the film embody an ascetic stoicism that brings to mind the lofty morality of the Biblical past.  But rather than embody that past in a static, fundamentalist manner, “The Human Comedy” understands that human beings must adapt and evolve.  We must accept the cultural differences of others and be tolerant of their sometimes unfamiliar ways.

The American experiment is thus based on its innate skill in incorporating the Other into its midst while providing the space for the licit existence of foreign ways in a universal secular culture.

This experiment has been one of the most profound successes in the annals of human civilization and has been proudly lionized in the classic Hollywood cinema.  Eschewing the parochialism and narcissism of the European cinema, Hollywood in its Golden Age was able to incorporate the many cultural variants of the American landscape which was held together with the Religious Humanism of its Founding Fathers; a humanism that provided individualism and freedom in the bonds of an egalitarian social fraternity and brotherhood.

In this sense, a film like “The Human Comedy” stands as perhaps the most stirring and resonant example of the American tradition.  It is a sedate and dignified film that stirs the emotions in a modest but profound way.  The tears that freely flow out of the eyes of its viewers are in no way maudlin or contrived: they are tears of a hard-won wisdom that comes from the many streams that feed into the American reservoir – those of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome and the other loci of Western civilization.

It is the genius of Clarence Brown that successfully mounted the brilliant story of Saroyan precisely articulated by the screenwriter Howard Estabrook within a fluid set of archetypal images that for all intents and purposes create a rich and vibrant inventory of classic American scenes.  The care and attention given to these images eternally preserves for us a society that we have much to learn from and from which we have now strayed too far.  It is a world of Hesed and a world of passionate truth and justice; a world where all men are indeed created equal in the image of their Maker.  Such is the most passionate definition of Religious Humanism that we have and for which we should continue to search as seekers of the Truth and of the power of what it means to be fully human.

Though it is sad to note, “The Human Comedy” is not currently available on DVD.  Few movie review books even list the film.  As I said, Clarence Brown was once one of the biggest directors in the Hollywood system, but is not much noted anymore.  And yet it is in a movie like “The Human Comedy” no less than in “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Sergeant York,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “How Green was My Valley” and so many other classics of the Golden Age that we find the rich traditions of the American religion presented in all its glory and splendor.

“The Human Comedy” is a magically transcendent film that stands among the great masterpieces of the cinema and which perhaps stands alone in that rarefied group as a work of art that best articulates the many nuances of the traditions of Religious Humanism in a package that speaks in the hushed and reverential tones of the sacred in the form of a liturgy.  It is a Gospel hymn that unfolds like a delicate flower speaking in the lexicon of the Holy.  It is ultimately a film that shows the ways in which human beings are deeply infused with the sacredness of the Holy and which brings us to love our fellow man as the chief value that has been bestowed upon us by our Maker in Heaven. 

In a world corroded by a divisive polarization brought on by cynicism, apathy, hate, prejudice, and violence, “The Human Comedy” is a visual reverie which restores for us a luminous moral universe suffused with the eternal Biblical vision of peace and justice.  It is up to us as human beings to rediscover and preserve these sacred values and teach those values to others through the wise example of American Religious Humanism in the way that the great Clarence Brown masterfully presented it to us more than half a century ago.