Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) (Criterion)

SPOILERS

My neighborhood used to be crisscrossed with open ditches that handled runoff during storms. When the rain was heavy, the ditches became dangerous, running fast and often overflowing into the streets. During the dry season, an occasional car would back into a ditch or run off the road into one. Then one day, fliers were posted and distributed throughout the neighborhood, announcing that the County would fill the ditches and install storm drains. Shortly thereafter, a couple of earnest souls appeared at my door, representing a neighborhood association that I didn’t know existed. The two explained to me in great detail why the drain project was a terrible idea. I don’t remember the specifics of their argument, but the couple was very convincing. Probably something to do with taxes and government and how the ditches added character to the area, how crocodiles infest drainpipes, so forth. I was presented with an anti-drain petition, which I declined to sign. The ditches were filled in, the storm drains were installed, the overflow flooding and dogs and babies swept away and cars backing over the edge ceased, and I never heard from the minions of the neighborhood association again.

Up until 1940 in the U.S., if you got old without a pension or children to support you, you were screwed. Because of the Democratic landslide in 1932, FDR was able to get a social security bill passed in 1935, over Republican cries of pain, hysterical screams, dire threats, and predictions of crocodiles in the drain pipes of Washington. Socialism! End of the U.S. as we now know it! Once again, poor prospects for the Washington Senators (finished 6th in the American League in 1935, 67-86). Etc. The new program began phasing in in 1937, but no payments were made to seniors until 1940. Before then, you were on your own. Sort of like Logan’s Run (1976), only you weren’t forced to retire at 30.

Leo McCarey successfully directed Laurel and Hardy, Mae West, the Marx Brothers, and Harold Lloyd in hit comedies. He was a big man at RKO. In 1937, McCarey’s father died and McCarey set out to make a movie to honor him. He chose as his subject the economic plight of the elderly in depressed times in this great nation of ours – specifically, how five grown children are to deal with their destitute mom and dad. His movie, Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), is not a comedy. Studio execs, up to and including Adolf Zukor, visited Mcarey’s set and pleaded for a star or two in the cast, and especially for a happy, or happier, ending. McCarey would not provide either and MWFT tanked at the box office. Folks had enough to worry about without watching this downer. Even Umberto D. (1952) had an upbeat ending, in the sense that ***spoiler*** Umberto’s dog Napoleone didn’t get squished by the train at the end. Paramount did not renew McCarey’s contract; in effect, he was fired.

The critics loved this movie. Directors like Capra, Welles, Lubitsch, and Renoir praised it. McCarey received a warm letter from George Bernard Shaw. At the time, Harry Cohn was feuding with Frank Capra and asked McCarey to do a movie for Colombia. McCarey asked for a fortune and Cohn laughed at him, but the two spent some time together and McCarey ended up making the classic screwball comedy The Awful Truth (1937), and winning an Oscar for it; he thanked the academy for the Oscar but famously noted that they gave it to him for the wrong movie. He went on in the 40s to make Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945).  After first run, The Bells of Saint Mary’s was  RKO’s top grosser up to that date and Going My Way was the same for Paramount. McCarey had the top reported income in the nation in 1944. His name appeared above his movies, an honor accorded to few directors. MWFT remained his favorite film. So let that be a lesson to you. Do the right thing!

The movie concerns a couple, married for 50 years, who lose their house to the bank. They have five grown children who immediately offer to help, within their ability to do so, but it’s clear to us from the start that trouble is coming. In the case of my own family, my three sisters and I were faced with, and are still faced with, a similar challenge: how to help mother, who is no longer able to live independently even with assistance? The obvious solution: have her take a turn in each of our homes. This worked for a while and then stopped working. We’re talking about years and years here; my mom is 97. (The movie is based on a book, “The Years Are So Long.” Time flies when you’re having fun, but not when you’re arguing with your mother.) The problems that we encountered were not events of a moment. They stretched out over time. In the movie, the action is condensed into specific incidents in dramatic scenes.  These can play a little hokey, but anybody with a headstrong but incapacitated parent in the house will recognize what McCarey is getting at – the duty, the problems, and especially the guilt, no matter what you do. In the movie, the presenting issues are financial, in our case health-related – but the moral dilemma is the same and the final cost to the kids is in the time spent by all concerned. McCarey used improvisation to avoid contrivance, to keep the characterizations balanced. His mastery in this movie was to demonstrate the pain-in-the-neckedness of the parental behavior and then to turn on a dime and nail you with mom and pop’s humanity, jerking sudden tears out of nowhere.

In the film’s third act, the senior couple spends an afternoon and evening on foot in NYC, prior to their forced separation. Echoes of Sunrise (1927). The wife’s apparent equanimity at the prospect of separation from her husband put me in mind of those cultures that consign their elders to an ice floe when their teeth are too worn down to tear and chew blubber anymore, or of the tribes that leave the oldsters behind to await the wolves when the travois are packed up and dragged away. A generation of boomers can descry senility on the far horizon now, with few pensions in prospect for them. Be interesting to see how they make out, even if they’re spared the privatization of their social-security benefits. Thoughts like these were juxtaposed in my mind with the fact that in the movie, everyone whom the couple encounters during their city walkabout behaves in a pleasant, kind, thoughtful, respectful way toward them. I suppose I expected the two to be ignored, brushed past, invisible. Have them treated in so loving a way was a dramatic stroke of great power by McCarey.

If you happen to be watching Harry Brown (2009) at the same time as MWFT, you might ask yourself why the senior couple, in such extremis, doesn’t just acquire a brace of Sig 9s and start shooting. The answer: in 1937 the Sig 9 hadn’t been invented yet.

MWFT is said to be one of the greatest of unknown movies. Its full title would properly be “Make Way for Tomorrow by Dying When You Get Old, Instead of Lingering, to the Inconvenience (not to say Annoyance) of All.” This whole situation can be avoided in future if you all just remember not to get old. Don’t let it sneak up on you, because it ain’t pretty! McCarey handles the problem by hiring Beulah Bondi to play the old lady. Beulah was 49 at the time (nice makeup job).

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3 Responses

  1. I saw this film about a year and a half ago. I loved it too. Ozu’s Tokyo Story is basically a remake of this film.

    Can’t believe she was only 49!!!

  2. Wow! Legit replies! Great writing!! I am so proud! Wish I could ‘use’ YOUR meditation sand tray to show the degree of my respect

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