The Time of Your Life (United Artists) is William Saroyan's rosy look-in on a San Francisco saloon and, in the late Charles Butterworth's enduring phrase, its habitues and sons-of-habitues.
Most of them are just on hand for the fun of ita fine dancer (Paul Draper) who wants to be a comic; a lyric poet (Reginald Beane) of the hot piano; a cop (Broderick Crawford) so kind-hearted he wants to hand in his badge; an old Arab (Pedro de Cordoba) with exquisite hands and a diagnosis of the world's ills: "No foundation all down the line." The bartender is Bill Bendix at his gentlest.
The story, such as it is, evolves among five characters: a sort of bush-league saint (James Cagney) who tries to make people happy; a dim Man Friday (Wayne Morris); a B-girl* (Jeanne Cagney) who claims to have been prominent in burlesque; a fine old pathological liar (James Barton) in fringed buckskins; an itinerant sadist (Tom Powers) who has to supply, singlehanded, Saroyan's conception of the power and proportion of evil in this world.
As a play, The Time of Your Life made its author a modest fortune. Whether it will do as much for the Cagney brothers, who turned it into a movie, remains to be seen. It is a skillfully calculated improvisation for live actors on a rigid stage, and has an almost cabaret dependence on flesh-&-blood intimacy with the audience. Wisely, in this case, the screen imitates the stage rather closely. The whole rhythm of entrance & exit, bit and buildup is strictly theatrical, and the camera scarcely ever leaves the redolent barroom set.
The performancesnotably those of James Barton, Reginald Beane and James Cagney, are as deft a compromise between stage & screen as you are likely to see. Nevertheless, a good deal which would be as taut and resonant as a drumhead on the stage is relatively dull and slack on the screen. On the other hand, those who made the picture have given it something very rare. It's obvious that they love the play and their work in it, and their affection and enjoyment are highly contagious. They have done so handsomely by Saroyan that in the long run everything depends on how much of Saroyan you can take.
Saroyan is an entertainer of a kind overrated by some people and underrated by othersa very gifted schmalz-artist. In the schmalz-artist strength and weakness are inextricably combinedthe deeply, primordially valid, and the falseness of the middle-aged little boy who dives back into the womb for pennies.
The schmalz-artist requires more belief, more wishful thinking on the part of his audience, than better artists would dare require. Reality is as much his deadly enemy as it is the superior artist's most difficult love affair. At his best, Saroyan is a wonderfully sweet-natured, witty and beguiling kind of Christian anarchist, and so apt a lyrical magician that the magic designed for one medium still works in another. At his worst, he is one of the world's ranking contenders for brassy, self-pitying, arty mawkishness, for idealism with an eye to the main chance, for arrogant determination to tell damnably silly lies in the teeth of the truth.