Finding this oddity on cable recently, I was quickly seduced by its opening sequence, a Welles-like plunge down main street into a small everytown's heart, Marsh's pharmacy. Here, as some clever camera work reveals, solid citizen Lew Marsh (Don Ameche) tends to the blisses of early 40's Hollywood America; everyone's prescription is filled, sundaes topped off with a cherry, local oddballs humored, etc.
What most recommends the film is its frame narrative. Quickly the idyll is broken when Marsh learns his son has been killed in the war. He sinks into a lengthy depression. Enter the ghost of Gramp to conduct psychotherapy: he spirits Marsh back into the past where we relive the childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood of the now-dead Rusty. While the mid-section unfolds linearly, Marsh and Gramp function offscreen as a Greek chorus (their melancholy dialogue often a grim counterpoint to the generally cheerful scenes). Then it's back to the present where an exorcized Marsh learns to stop questioning the wisdom of sacrificing young men in war. "Rusty died a good death," Gramp's ghost counsels, and we know it's only a matter of time before Marsh will agree.
Three years before "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946), "Happy Land" was already hijacking the "Christmas Carol" device of reliving the past on a therapeutic sightseeing tour. Unlike the Stewart film, though, the tone is more darkly somber, lingeringly mournful. The theme of sorrow outweighs the theme of recovery. Ameche looks and sounds wracked, bitter.
In fact, the film's heart is scarcely in its chief enterprise, which is to steel its audience for more wartime sacrifice. It seems at times almost to be working against its own message that war deaths are "good deaths." I imagine it may have helped salve some broken hearts, but the crime of this type of film is that, if it succeeds, it only helps to break more.
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