Happy Land (1943)
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The HAPPY LAND was one (1) of those fine WWII films that gave you a peek of what the home front was like and the effects the war had upon it. This was effectively and economically done. Not as long as SINCE YOU WENT AWAY or the HUMAN COMEDY more in line with the FIGHTING SULLIVANS another seldom seen home front film. Or at least seldom seen since AMC went to seed.
The importance of these films is to give a glimpse into the lives of our parents or grandparents and not just the war, but the effects of rationing, personal loss and the fear that we could lose. Many young people have no concept what a close run thing WWII was. Not that we would have been conquered. But that Asia and Europe would have been dominated by two (2) powers both with a race superiority agendas. The NAZI Germans who wanted to create a master race and Imperial Japan who thought they WERE the master race.
The film as far as we know is unavailable on any video format. Seems like a shame when so much bad material is rushed to DVD. 20th Century Fox should do something about this. After all they have released A YANK IN THE R.A.F which main claim to fame is Betty Grable and Tyrone Power.
The other reason is it's a sweet and warm story of a small town family and how it deals with post WWII. The film's cinematography is a vivid Hallmark card of 1940s Americana.
There's a really tender scene where Morgan, a recent vet from the war, helps Don Ameche, the father of a fellow soldier stock the shelves of Ameche's Pharmacy. The art direction of this film is amazing as well.
Also look for Morgan as the mysterious bad guy in "The Big Clock" circa 1948 with Ray Milland which has an analagous plot line to "No Way Out" with Kevin Costner.
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.
Despite a wonderful opening sequence, reminiscent of the homespun melancholy of the better parts of Our Town and Since You Went Away, this is a rather superficial and bland treatment of the grief of a good, if temporarily embittered man, whose son has died in the war. Ameche, a decent enough actor, does not have skill to bring off his role, and Harry Carey, with his mono-tonal voice, and facial expressions running the gamut of emotions from A to B, makes conversations about life and death as enchanting as a conversation about whether to pick up milk at the store. The result might be truly Midwestern in its emotions, but it's questionable whether that's a good thing.
Much of the movie is flashbacks to the life of Ameche's child (though, interestingly, we do not see the kid actually fighting in the war). There's nothing especially interesting in the flashbacks, nor, really, is there much there that would provide comfort to Ameche. A final scene, where Ameche learns from a young Harry Morgan how his son died heroically, works somewhat better, simply because Morgan's flat Midwestern delivery and Ameche's flat Midwestern delivery grounds what has been rather leaden supernatural stuff in a bit of reality. Whether Ameche, under these circumstances, would find the will to go on again after all this, is questionable.
A comparison between this film and It's A Wonderful Life is inevitable, as they deal with the same basic situation. This film, far more low key and far less extreme than the Stuart/Capra collaboration, might be more appealing to folks who prefer their fantastic/supernatural cinema to be realistic. But to this viewer, the far more dramatic events and emotional acting of Stuart makes his movie more fun to watch and, oddly enough, more believable.
Assessment -- Don't avoid this movie. You might like it. Alas, I did not.
It begins with a great premise -- a young man who has been fighting in World War II is KIA, and his father (Don Ameche) receives the dreaded telegram and becomes very depressed and doesn't seem to be able to even begin to put it behind him. The ghost of Ameche's grandfather arrives to take Ameche for a walk where they review the son's short life. For a while you have the hope that maybe the telegram was a mistake, and the young man will actually come back alive; but that ending would have been unfaithful to what so many families were experiencing in 1943. So, all good premises.
So what's the problem? The main problem for me was the length of the B film -- 75 minutes. And that shortness doesn't give us the opportunity to get to know the son very well. As an older teen and then young man we get to know him a bit, but as a boy we see only a couple of brief episodes. A nice kid. But why was he so special to his dad. That just never across. Perhaps another 15 or 20 minutes to expand on that would have made the difference.
That's not to say there aren't some good things here. Don Ameche is never a disappointment, and is great here as the father. It's nice to see Harry Carey (as Gramp) in a more substantial supporting role; he's one of the great character actors. It's also nice seeing MGM's Ann Rutherford as a potential girl friend.
Look, this isn't a bad film. It just coulda been more. I'll let it hold on to a "7", but that's stretching it.
Larry Olsen, James West and Richard Crane bring the son to life with his short span on earth, and Ann Rutherford gives more of a home spun feel as one of Crane's girlfriends. Some audiences might find this too goody goody as the Marsh's are quite untroubled and completely supporting of each other, but for me, this represents what grieving families needed to see in 1943. Carey is excellent, and a cameo by the young Harry Morgan as the late son Rusty's navy pal is spectacular. I saw this as a young man facing my own young demons, a relationship with a father that was practically nonexistent, and my own ideals of patriotism I learned by watching movies like this as a kid. It's certainly more a fantasy, but for me, it's a perfect representation of what American life would be like if Hunan beings could just learn to be kind to each other and if families could learn more to relate.
As it is Don Ameche, Frances Dee, Harry Carey and the rest are held firmly in check by director Irving Pichel, if they weren't this film would have more tears than the Mississippi.
Happy Land is set in small town Midwest USA in Iowa. Ameche and Dee receive that most dreaded of telegrams between 1941 and 1945 from the Navy Department informing them that their son and one and only child Richard Crane has been killed in action in the Pacific.
Ameche totally withdraws into himself, not even going to his pharmacy to tend to his business there. It's then that he receives a visit from his long deceased grandfather Harry Carey. It's then he has an It's A Wonderful Life experience only it's a lot more reassuring and it's not his life.
Short and sweet Richard Crane had a wonderful life and he died so that others might enjoy freedom. You could never make this message film about any subsequent war.
Happy Land's message is why we fight and die in 1943. It's a great fantasy film unlikely to be remade.
Ameche is too immersed in his sorrow to go back to work at the family drugstore; then to his disbelief, his long-dead grandfather reappears from the past to help him work through his memories of Rusty's life, and see how rich and full it was despite being cut so short. At the end of the movie, Harry Morgan arrives; he's a good friend of Rusty's and comes to meet his late friend's parents, and tell them how nobly their son died.
It's all nice enough, I guess, a very prim and proper movie showing life in a simpler, more patriotic time. Now... maybe I over-analyze things, but I'm wondering this: if Ameche's grandfather (who is also Rusty's great-grandfather) could appear from the dead, why couldn't Rusty himself have done so? The old man seems as real and 'visible' as anything to Ameche (once he accepts that he's not imagining it all) as the old guy pays him a visit to help him through his grief; he talks about Rusty being 'gone' now, but hey, he's no more gone than you are, old timer! Why didn't you bring him with?
I think Henry Morgan's short role in this movie is one of the best I've ever seen him in; he's still very young here, younger than you've probably ever seen him, and his part has some emotion to it which he handles very well. I think in his short part he out-acted everyone else in the whole film. And, I think if we'd have had just one glimpse at the very end of Rusty appearing before his dad to say 'Don't be sad, pop, I'm okay where I am....' it would have made the earlier part with the old guy a lot more credible and it would have given a good feeling to the ending of the story, reminding people that maybe this isn't all there is to our existence.
It's a nice movie, flawed in that major regard for me - just that one change of having Rusty make one appearance from 'beyond' would have turned the whole thing around for me. So, I'll give it a four as an artifact of the days of WW2 and an earlier version of America now gone. And I might add, it's an America in which I wish I could have lived.