Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Among WWII homefront films, this may not be the best (SINCE YOU WENT AWAY is a better film) or the most well known (that would be MRS. MINIVER), but it is surely the most sentimental, with all the good and bad characteristics associated with that quality. The film chronicles a few weeks in the town of Ithaca, California, as experienced by the Macauley family. Fay Bainter is the mother watching over her brood since the death of her husband (Ray Collins, who narrates from the great beyond); her eldest son (Van Johnson) is off to war, leaving her with daughter Donna Reed, teenager Mickey Rooney, and pre-schooler Butch Jenkins. Rooney has a night job at the telegraph office and has to deliver the inevitable "we regret to inform you" telegrams to families whose soldier sons have been killed. We also get to know Rooney's teacher (Mary Nash), his handsome, soft-hearted boss at the telegraph office (James Craig), and the older telegraph operator (Frank Morgan) who teaches Rooney how to get him out of a stupor if need be. We also see Johnson as he ships out to battle and befriends John Craven, a soldier and orphan who loves to hear Johnson's stories about his family and hometown, and hopes someday to visit Ithaca himself. It's not really a spoiler to note that, at the end of the movie, Craven gets his wish due to unhappy circumstances.

The first time I saw this movie (based on a book by William Saroyan), I loved it: it was sweet and sad and funny and poetic, and felt a bit like a Ray Bradbury small-town story without the fantasy elements. But the more I watch the film, the more its sentimentality and "poetry" bother me. Most of the characters are awfully two-dimensional, and eventually they all wind up speaking in the same inspirational Saroyanesque voice. Johnson and Craven are too good to be true, Morgan (who I usually like) is awfully one-note as a sloppy drunkard, and Craig starts off well but is beaten down by conventional stereotype. Only Rooney fully escapes the weight of sentiment, delivering perhaps his best performance ever as the only character here who feels real. The most awkward scene, despite its good intentions, is a town festival which highlights the multicultural make-up of Ithaca: we see Greeks, Swedes, Armenians, Mexicans, and Russians engaging in old-country activities while "My Country 'Tis of Thee" plays in the background and Craig gives us a lecture on ethnic diversity--of course, as far as I could see, there were no Germans or Japanese represented. Despite all my complaints, I still enjoy watching this film once in a while: it's well made (being a glossy MGM production) and has a cozy small-town Americana flavor. Barry Nelson and Robert Mitchum have small roles as soldiers at liberty who go out to the movies with Reed and her friend. [TCM]

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