America in the early 1950’s was on a high. The war was over, the boys were home, a baby boom was in full swing and the economy was growing. Many folks were beginning to leave the city and head out to the white picket fence world of the suburbs. In the suburbs, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, people were living what many thought was the American Dream.
Released in 1953, Half a Hero is a small low budget programmer that really had nothing on its mind other than providing a few laughs. Written by Max Shulman (Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys!, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis) and directed Don Weis (I Love Melvin, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis), this was the kind of small film that television would help kill. But time has been good to this little film. Make no mistake, this is no lost masterpiece. What it is though is a reflection or a mirror held up to a time and place in America that reveals the country’s mood and emerging middle class during this period.
That may seem like a lot of weight to lay on a small light weight programmer that stars comic Red Skelton, but it’s true. Skelton plays Ben Dobson, an unemployed writer who gets a job at a magazine where his new and frugal boss, Mr. Bascomb (Charles Dingle), approves of Ben and his wife, Martha (Jean Hagen), living in a small tenement building on the West Side of Manhattan. Bascomb hates the newfangled fad of people moving out to the suburbs or as he calls them, the slums of tomorrow, where they are living above their financial means, borrowing money on credit which he rails against claiming it will ruin the country.
Ben starts off as a rewrite man, checking and correcting other writers work. His boss likes his work but the frugal employer does not offer a raise. Meanwhile, Ben’s wife (Jean Hagen) informs hubby she is pregnant. She’s pushes for Ben to ask for an increase or quit! It works. Ben to his surprised is valued.
With a family now, Jean hints their small apartment is too cramped. They need more space. She suggest they look for a house; where else but in the suburbs. Ben is adamantly against it, however, he finally agrees to ‘look.’ He sets the amount they could possibly afford to spend on a house and swears they cannot wavier from it. Naturally, the houses in the price range Ben was limiting their financial sights on are small and not what his wife wants. And just as naturally, she gets her way with a house costing more than Ben wanted.
Expenses soon begin to mount as bill after bill arrive. It seems never ending. Ben, by the way, has not told his boss about his move to the suburbs, so when the boss man informs Ben he wants him to write an exposé on how suburbanites are living above their means, Ben who is unhappy with his living in the burbs, hopes that if he writes the article, to be called The Slums of Tomorrow, about the folks in his own hometown they will hate him and his family so much they will be forced to move back to the city.
Surprisingly, there are quite a few serious moments in a film that is basically a comedy. It does manage to jump smoothly back and forth. Skelton, a comic handles it all well. Along with Jean Hagen ( Singin’ in the Rain, The Asphalt Jungle) as his wife and Charles Dingle (Talk of the Town, My Favorite Brunette) as his cheap boss, the cast includes Mary Wickes (The Man Who Came to Dinner) and Frank Cady (Ace in the Hole) as potential buyers of their suburban home, King Donavan (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and Dorothy Patrick (Come to the Stable) as fellow suburbanites along with Kathleen Freeman, Burt Mustin and Polly Bergen who appears as herself singing the song Love.
By 1953 when this film was released, Skelton’s had already began to move toward television. Sure there were more films, (Public Pigeon No, 1, The Great Diamond Robbery and some cameos in films like Susan Slept Here and Ocean’s 11) but more and more his work was on the tube. His hit television show began in 1951 and ran for an amazing twenty years.
 A darker view of the 1950’s American suburban dream can be seen in Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film, Bigger than Life.