Jun 17, 2011
In times like these,
The director, Leo McCarey (no liberal, he- more a true conservative Catholic Christian, in the best senses of all three of those words [and notice how I did not capitalize conservative]) was best known for comedy. He directed many of Laurel and Hardy's best films and, in fact, was nominated for Best Director twice in 1937. One nomination was for The Awful Truth, starring Cary Grant, Irene Dunn, and that dog. The other nomination was for Make Way for Tomorrow. McCarey won for The Awful Truth. He was very gracious upon accepting his Oscar but did tell the Academy, That they gave him the award for the wrong picture.
You see, there were forces and incidents at work here that made Make Way for Tomorrow, a massive box office disaster, an absolutely essential project for McCarey. First and foremost, his father had just died and second was the creation of Social Security in 1935. And, lastly, the country was still mired in the Depression. 1937 was a crucial year for FDR in the Depression, much of the progress from The New Deal was negated by the GOP boondoggling FDR in to repealing key work programs and the country fell in to another swoon, starting that year.
The story is bleak and unremitting. Mom and Pop have been married for fifty years but Pop has not had a job for quite a while. They gather their children together for dinner to tell them that the Bank owns the house now. (Another brutal twist of the knife is that the owner of the bank was one of Mom's old suitors who Pop had bested for her hand.) None of the children have enough room or are even willing, really, to take on both parents at their own homes. Mom and Pop will have to be separated until arrangements can be made later.
The separation does not go well. The oldest, favorite son, eventually sees fit to put Mom in a nursing home whilst Pop has health problems, prompting a doctor to tell him that he must move across the country to California if he intends to keep on living. Mom and Pop get one last five hour magical "date" in Manhattan before Pop catches the train and they are most likely separated for good.
It is remarkable the knife's edge McCarey and his actors walk on, keeping this film from becoming sentimental or melodramatic. McCarey was very fond of improvising scenes in his films (which drove Cary Grant crazy, apparently) and whenever he was stuck or frustrated with how a scene was playing he would go play piano on the set until he could find his way out. Perhaps it was McCarey's method that revealed all those awful truths from the story and the actors to play without telegraphing or pushing the audience's buttons in a cheap, condescending way?
And McCarey is like Renoir in this film. He takes on Renoir's hyper-objectivity and never stoops to take sides. The children, even with their failures and flaws, are not villains. It is like the quote from Renoir's 1939 masterpiece, The Rules of the Game, "Everyone has their reasons."
I imagine there was some grumbling from the studio about the bleak, unhappy ending. But McCarey had been so successful that probably what happened was the Moguls just decided it would be better for McCarey to get his way this time and get it out of his system. It would be many years before McCarey made another film as heartbreaking as Make Way for Tomorrow and by then he was near forgotten, a pariah for testifying for HUAC (though he did not name names) and near the end of his career.
There are numerous scenes to bring to your attention but I am just going to mention three here, quickly. The first, is the Bridge scene, with Mom talking way too loud on the telephone to the love of her life, desperate to hear his voice. The second and third come back to back: The oldest son about to tell Mom that the Old Folks Home is best for her, except Mom spares him the guilt and shame, being wise to what is planned for her, by suggesting it herself and then embracing him says, "You were always my favorite, George."; and then George with his wife at her dressing table, staring at himself in the mirror, acidly saying, "We'll always remember this day."
Naturally, despite great notices, the film was a massive flop. And who could blame folks? This was not the sort of film Depression-era folks would be likely to spend their last nickel on. But with the current war on good, solid commonweal government programs fully engaged, Make Way for Tomorrow is especially relevant today. And the fact that it is a film about how shabbily we treat older citizens in our country makes it relevant in any era.
An absolute essential must-see but do not forget your handkerchief.