Choose Me (1984)

Watched Choose Me again the other night. Still love it.

Alan Rudolph wrote and directed it. How I think it happened:

Alan is sitting in a bar in Hollywood, waiting for someone like me to show up and drink with him and talk shop. He draws a diagram on a bar napkin. Three men, say, and three women. Each man hooks up with a woman, then they switch around a couple of times, the couples. It happens mostly in a bar like the one Alan is sitting in. The rest of it happens in a house like his house. A Hollywood house with a classic 40s vibe. Alan is going upbeat, technicolor noir. Everybody smokes. If the cigarette still has length, stick it in the corner of the mouth; smoke it down to the fingernails.

There will be a deep ambiguity at the core of the movie, Alan decides, right up front. That’s key. Gravitas and the comic. The hero, the main guy, the lead – perfect for Keith Carradine, he was great in Nashville, Keith with his hair slicked back, what a mug – is either a crazy liar or a f**king hero – I’ll never say which for sure, Alan thinks. First the audience will assume crazy, then hero, then crazy, then hero, then… at the end, we’ll take thirty seconds to rub their collective nose in the ambiguity, so they’ll all go Who wrote that?

The other actors, Patrick Bauchau makes a good bad guy with his accent, John Larroquette makes a good schmoe. The women? Can’t get Sarandon, so cast Leslie Ann Warren as the first lead, and Genevieve Bujold as the second, and Rae Dawn Chong as the young one.

Now I just need Keith to “interact” with each of the women, and the bad guy deals with them too, but he only yells at them or cuffs them onscreen, doesn’t get to smooch them or worse. The schmoe interacts with the lead woman, but only so he can go all hangdog on her for the rest of the movie. Poor man’s Greek chorus, him and Rae Dawn.

Done plotting. No, wait. Keith and the bad guy have to fight at least once.

Now, the direction:

All six actors are reading my lines. I want those lines to stay mine, not become theirs, so they all have to do their readings word-by-word. First audience reaction to this? That none of the actors can act. But nah, that can’t be right, they’ll think. Rae Dawn gets dumped on by the critics sometimes, but the rest are blue-ribbon. It can’t be them. It must be the director pulling the strings. It must be that the movie is like a play, or a musical, or something. Those upbeat-noir colors. That street set. The coincidences. That guy noodling with his saxaphone all the way through. Teddy Pendergrass treating the movie like his own private music video.

And boom, Alan is done, just as I walk up and tell him that I’ll have what he’s having.

Only, I’m not complaining because Alan is a very smart dude and he throws a lot of style up there onto the screen, provides a smooth, hip trip. Plus, I’ve always had a thing for Bujold.

Major Barbara (1941)

Major Barbara (1941) – I sat down to watch this one mainly to see Wendy Hiller again. Wasn’t disappointed. Looks great in her Major uniform. Looks great in her modest rich-girl’s frock after abjuring the uniform. Shows chemistry with her squeeze here, Rex Harrison, just as with Leslie Howard in Pygmalion (1938) and Roger Livesey in “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945). In the opening scenes, I mistook the film for a romantic comedy. I forgot for a moment that I was watching a Shaw play, possibly because the opening scenes weren’t in the original play.

After being away from Shaw for a long time, I was looking for something to read on vacation the other day, and took along Man and Superman (which Shaw wrote two years before Major Barbara, in 1903). I had forgotten what an interesting blend of romantic comedy, conversation, politics, and religion some of Shaw’s plays present (he wrote more than sixty). Man and Superman scoots along as a comedy of manners, which we could use more of these days, as a change from rom com. Scoots along,  except for Act 3. This monster is often cut from the play and/or performed by itself and as I read it, I could not believe that any human being without an eidetic memory could regurgitate its dialog without a prompter of one kind or another supplying half the lines. Things to listen to before you die: the ’50s concert version of Act 3 with Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Charles Laughton as the Devil, Cedric Hardwicke as the Commander, and Agnes Moorehead as Doña Ana. The play comes with a 58-page appendix. Shaw’s characters tell you what he thinks, during the play, and in case you weren’t paying attention, Shaw himself tells you what he thinks again, afterward, in print.

Or in the case of Major Barbara, he tells you in advance, in a preface, just so you don’t go into the play with any wrong ideas in your head about the points he’s about to make. Unfortunately, his performance of the preface, in the original movie, is not to be found on the DVD. Bummer.

Major Barbara, the play, was produced in 1905. Young penniless academic fellow (Harrison) falls hard for young Major in the Salvation Army (Hiller), who turns out to be a daughter of the world’s most successful (richest), but eccentric (so you’ll like him) maker of weapons (Robert Morley)  – as opposed to, in Pygmalion, not-so-young well-off academic fellow (Leslie Howard) falls hard for poor young flower-seller (Hiller). Major Barbara is a comedy of ideas, with romance included to provide a little oomph. The words flow and in the original play, which consists of three hours of nonstop talking, the actor playing Barbara’s dad had a lot of trouble remembering the lines in his speeches, to the author’s annoyance. I shouldn’t wonder, at the forgetting or the annoyance. The movie is cut to an hour and a half, with several lively scenes added (with Shaw’s approval) and a lot of speechifying removed. The result moves along nicely.

After the movie introduced me to the Salvation Army Major and her academic woo-er, and her rich siblings and her rich parents, I gradually came to see that the central issue in the movie/play was: How can Barbara best serve society? By helping the poor directly, or by moving among the rich and co-opting her father? While the ins and outs of this question played out, I kept asking myself how I was expected to react to Barbara’s father, and how the London audiences of 1941 reacted to him. He is clearly sympathetic, as he searches in vain for an heir amongst his children, an heir to whom he can leave his mega-company. In due course, his attention falls upon Barbara’s fiancee. This causes her to ask herself whether she is prepared, in essence, to take money from the devil to do good in the world. What interested me, however, was the fact that Shaw takes it as written that the world’s greatest weapons maker was fundamentally in the wrong, whereas the movie was shot during the Battle of Britain and the death and destruction from that period was fresh in the audence’s mind, even as the country braced for invasion by the Germans.  Cast and crew would run to the bomb shelters during filming in London, and then return to the set when the all-clear sounded. (Or the film was shot at Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire. Or both.) Did the audience agree with Shaw about weapons barons, with Krupp in mind? Or did their thoughts turn  toward the U.S., which was not yet in the war, as a source for weapons with which to answer the Germans. Note to self: research this question on some rainy day; a twenty-year-old audience member of the time would be ninety now, so begin by calling around to retirement homes in the London area.

As for Shaw’s take on how to deal with the poor, I refer you to the movie. Shaw was a Fabian socialist. He articulates many of his ideas for the improvement of society via the speeches of dad the magnate in the movie’s final act.

I read a review of Major Barbara in which the critic opined that there was much to relish in the movie but that in the end, it just sort of sat there. Hmm. If you watch a Shaw play, you will be lectured; perhaps it was the critic himself who just sort of sat there while he took his medicine.

Movie notes:

– Deborah Kerr’s first movie.

– Major Barbara has a great deal of dialog in it that, it seems to me, would be of great interest to Kurosawa (who, like Shaw, had an abiding interest in the poor and what to do with/about them). Discussions of right behavior. I’ve got to Google Shaw and Kurosawa and see if there is any connection between them… Well, there is someone named Shaw Kurosawa.

– The producer/director, Gabriel Pascal, and Shaw met while swimming nude on the Riviera.

– Shaw especially liked Wendy Hiller, but, alas, there is no indication that he met her while swimming nude.

“I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945)

Why are there kilts? They’re basically miniskirts to be worn in a country of raw weather. And that includes what they always say about kilts. Roger Livesey is called upon to don his on a day of fog and blustery winds. I didn’t notice whether he changed kilts from day to day. One presumes that even if he did, they’d all be made using the same clan plaid, so I wouldn’t be able to tell one from another.

Never mind. Although the movie is set on an island in the Hebrides, Livesey never left London, where he was also starring in a stage play during the shoot. A double did his exterior shots. You coulda fooled me.

It’s ironic that Livesey was never on the island set. The movie is a romantic comedy and a young James Mason was asked to be the male lead. When he heard about the island work and the cold and, one presumes, the kilts, he demanded a guarantee of first-class hotel accommodations, and Powell and Pressburger told him to forget it. Livesey wanted the part, but it was written for a dashing young twenty-something officer, and Livsey was 40 and in Colonel-Blimp shape. However, he lost weight and got the part and then, in the event, did all of his work indoors. So there, Mason.

Wendy Hiller reminds me of Glenda Jackson, both Wendy and Glenda worthy of a major crush. Although Dame Hiller was born one year before my mother, starred in this movie when I was still in diapers, and passed away several years ago, through the magic of cinema she lives on, just as accessible to the likes of me now as she probably would have been if she lived down the block right now. I last watched her in Pygmalion (1938) and notice that I have her Major Barbara (1941) sitting on my TV too. Bernard Shaw liked her.

This movie is beloved, in spite of having quotes and an exclamation point in its title. I was thinking about making a list of the ten most beloved films, but I realized that I’d put myself in the position of explaining why films eleven through fifteen were beloved but not beloved enough to make the cut.

Can a movie be beloved if most of those who loved it are deceased?

As they say in the movie, “Rùn do chridhe air do chuisle” (“May your pulse beat as your heart would wish.”)

One way to measure how good a romantic comedy is, is to see how quickly and how much you want the two protagonists to fall in love. In the case of ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, with Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller as the lovebirds, for me, the answers are: quickly and a lot.

It’s not a long movie, so the two can meet and some things can happen, and since he’s got to return to the war in eight days, there can be a whiff of suspense a la Brief Encounter (1945), and then, that’s it. Powell and Pressburger tossed it off while waiting for the Technicolor cameras being used by the Army, so that they could get A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) (1946) under way. Well, maybe they didn’t toss it off; it’s full of effects and the crew did have to go out and rough it, with Powell lashed to the mast at one point, filming rough waters.

In addition to love, the movie’s got Gaelic, a wedding dress lost at sea, real Irish mist and fog, Maureen O’Hara’s sister, wolfhounds, scenery (the Isle of Mull), a laird, a trained eagle, and a great big whirlpool. Petula Clark is in the movie as a young girl, but I didn’t notice her, and anyway, I’m guessing that “Petula Clark” is no longer the household name that it was in the ’60s.

And lastly, can you name the following movie, which I remember watching when I was in high school? It came on TV late at night and seemed unlike anything that I’d seen before. It hinted to me that there was a lot more to movies than I yet knew. It was about a young fellow who sets out in Scotland to do something or other and must avoid the Cambells at all costs, and then ends up falling for a young female Cambell. Or something like that. A movie I loved but have forgotten lo these many years.

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Having watched Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death, I’m having a go at A Canterbury Tale (1944). So far: when you introduce an American character, a G.I., have him start every sentence with “say.” Say, that’s not a bad idea.

The American, John Sweet, wasn’t a professional actor; Powell saw him work in a production of Our Town in England (he was a G.I. over for WW II) and hired him for the movie; he never made another and now he’s a retired teacher in North Carolina. But anyway, I keep hearing John Wayne in Sweet’s voice, so I checked and the two were born within 280 miles of each other, 9 years apart, so I guess that explains the accent.

From the dialog, sounds like the movie was made before Pearl Harbor, during Lend-Lease. An interesting time in American/UK history, which we don’t often see onscreen. (Later: nope, it was made after Pearl Harbor, but to hear the actors talk about it, there were still a lot of isolationists in the U.S. after the Japanese attack. I should look it up. I’d say Pressburger got that wrong; maybe even after Pearl Harbor, the folks in England persisted for a while in thinking of the U.S. as a recalcitrant belligerent.)

The movie is a fable, a confection, a propaganda film, in part aimed at explaining to the U.S. what it was like to be at war in England (the English themselves didn’t have much use for the film at the time), a movie with four miraculous happy endings for the price of one. Everyone in it is so damned decent and honorable, with the young men preparing to ship out (the Normandy landings commenced on June 6, 1944), that I couldn’t help feeling moved, especially after being prepped by the explanation of England provided in Colonel Blimp. The heroic/sentimental English score didn’t hurt, either. There is a sequence of bombed-out buildings, followed by a quick shot of a blimp and contrails overhead, that alone is worth the price of admission for me. (Oh, and a jump cut from the 1300’s to now, in which a falcon transforms into a Spitfire.) The actors are all gone now, save for Sweet and Sheila Sim, and God bless them both. Criterion includes interviews with them, time (sixty years worth) robbing them of their youth but replacing it with the knowledge and wisdom provided by a lifetime’s experience… And speaking of sixty years, the Canterbury of the movie, one-third bombed out, is no longer to be seen, or even imagined, in the Kent of today. The bombs have been replaced by souvenir shops. Powell is a native of Kent. I’ve wondered a time or two in the film whether something autobiographical is creeping in.

It’s rare to find an actor or actress named Sim (my mother’s maiden name), at least of the English or Scottish variety, Sim also being an Asian name. Alastair Sim playing Scrooge might be the most famous… Did I mention that the movie is about a guy who sneaks out at night and, in some undescribed and undepicted way, projects a glob of glue into the hair of random young women? Sort of a weird call forward to Peeping Tom (1952).

Being a guy who just sits and watches, without thinking much about what exactly the director and cinematographer (Erwin Hillier, who did a lot of work, some of which I’ve heard of) are doing, I’m remaining mostly oblivious to Powell’s particular artistry here, wherein he experiments, taking a simple tale for his foundation and then continuing his filmaking evolution wrt the editing and camera techniques that he used to create what he later called “the composed film.” Lots of scenery and landscape shots that probably played with greater impact on the large screen; a cool blackout scene; the occasional dramatic  closeup of an actor, closeups like those no longer seen in movies, now that we’ve stretched the screen so far from portrait to landscape. Note to self: poll co-workers using iPhones and droids for their portrait-or-landscape preference. (Later: portrait predominates, but then, nobody around here is watching movies at work. Are they?)

The movie turns its back on any hope of commercial success: no stars, no romance, no serious mystery or conflict (the war remains out of sight). “Understated” is the word I’m looking for. Building to a finale in which soldiers, shipping out, sit in a church singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” P and P have a message to share, but it’s hidden, to be winkled out by thought, I suppose. Lazy viewer that I am, I have not winkled it. The movie makes clear, repeatedly, that the message is there, just not what the message is. Turns out, though, that because the movie is the same age as me and because the disk contains interviews with two of the actors as they are now, I have learned something in spite of myself. Namely, that Life for me is not what I’m writing about, but about writing about it.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Watched Gunga Din (1939) the other night. It’s a Hollywood movie, made for fun, with Hollywood Englishmen and Hollywood Indians. Nothing wrong with that. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), though, reminds us that there are real Englishmen and that some of them, the upper upper class,  aren’t like you and me, unless you happen to be one of them – perhaps one like that fellow in Seven Up! (1964) who later in the series refused to return, but made an exception when he married a Bulgarian woman who was fostering a cause – in which case can you lend me 50 lbs till the weekend?

A lot of my movie-watching choices are inspired by film discussions that I listen to on podcasts such as /Filmcast, B-Movie Cast, Movies 101, Double Feature, etc. Such is the case with Colonel Blimp, featured on Filmspotting recently. First thing to impress me in the movie was its color. I wrote a review of  The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and I remember reading about the care and trouble taken with the color in that movie. Some woman – I forget her name – was the great Technicolor expert. She’d come on set and… choose the colors? Tweak the lighting? Do something with the film or developing lab instructions? Whatever it was, the color jumps out at you in Hood and Blimp. Cinematographer Georges Perinal handled the color chores in  Blimp. He was lucky to find the color stock in 1943, at the height of the war. When Speed Racer (2008) came out, I remember a lot of chatter about the color in it (I liked the color, but not enough to finish the movie). We’re living in an age of greater subtlety in color palates now, and different taste, but it’s still a pleasure to feast one’s eyes on the richness of a Colonel Blimp. And what happened to the “r” in “colonel,” anyway?

The first startup company that I worked for encountered a rough patch and was acquired by the Arthur J. Rank company, which also made Colonel Blimp. Perhaps you’ve seen the big dude at the beginning of any Rank film, hitting the… the gong? Whatever that big cymbal thing is called… I never got to meet Mr. Rank, if he was in fact still living at the time of my company’s acquisition. Before I could, Rank Co.  turned around and sold us to some awful Texas conglomerate with a three-letter name, the first being D, the other two I don’t remember. DTS? DBT? But I was long-gone by then anyway. While Rank held us, though, young English engineers would trek over to the U.S. They always wore ties and sport coats, which in Silicon Valley made them seem even geekier than they were in the first place.

Colonel Blimp was written by Emeric Pressburger and directed by Michael Powell, a team that made a number of great movies, including (1946), A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven) Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). Powell is the one who wrecked his career with Peeping Tom (1960) and then later came to Hollywood to do some work with Coppola and Scorsese and to marry, in his senior years, Scorsese’s brilliant young editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

Blimp takes us briskly through the life of one soldier, comparing his ideas of decent behavior with those of England’s Boer, WW I German, and Nazi opponents. The movie surprised me with its temperance where the German people were concerned, considering that the movie was made in 1942/1943. Surprised me and enraged a great many in the English audience of the time, who were not in the mood to share Blimp’s readiness to forgive. Churchill tried to have the movie banned, and it was censored somewhat before its release. Blimp the cartoon character was created in 1934 and was meant to personify stupidity in its many forms; the movie’s Blimp character, however, is provided with a core of romantic sentiments and decency that cause us to understand that in evil times, “good” can seem like “stupid.”

One spot where the movie jarred me came with the arrival of World War I. Colonel Candy (the Blimp character) has spent years shooting big game in lieu of possessing his beloved, while continuing to serve in the army, and now, having left him onscreen moments ago as the young man bereft, we find him older, in 1918 toward the end of the Great War, behaving more as if it were 1914 at the war’s beginning, all polish and privilege, not after the years of horror that the army had endured by the end. Otherwise, I’ve never seen a better movie for aging a character from glowing youth to corpulent red-faced age. Roger Livesay in the role of a lifetime.

Dial 1119 (1952); The Phenix City Story (1955)

Michael Troutman at I Shoot the Pictures is watching all the movies on the 1000 Greatest Movies list. He rates those that he’s seen and I searched amongst the ones he has listed in his Highly Recommended category for something to watch. I chose Dial 9111 (1952) and ordered it from Netflix. It comes on a double-feature disk with The Phenix City Story (1955).

Troutman’s take on Dial 1119.

First and foremost: any connection between 1119 and the current emergency number 911? Not that I know of.

Second and nextmost: I’m always surprised when I find a good Hollywood movie that I haven’t heard of before, even though I should be used to that by now. There are plenty of good movies that I haven’t seen, of course, but not so many that I’ve never even heard of. I didn’t recognize any of the actors in Dial 1119, either, except for William Conrad, and he doesn’t stick around in the movie for long.

Thirdlymost: Checking out some of the other work by the actors in this movie, I’m reminded of all the great drama on TV in the 50s. Lux Video Theater, Front Row Center, Screen Directors Playhouse, Studio One in Hollywood, Playhouse 90, G. E. True Theater, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Armstrong Circle Theater, and many more. Dial 9111 plays like a presentation on one of these shows; it runs 75 minutes, uses a couple of sets and a stable of contract players, gives us some drama, a couple of closeups, gunplay, an ice-cream truck pulling up to the crowd at a hostage situation, lots of 50s hats, one of those movie air ducts that a man can crawl through, and a satisfying climax (this being the 50s, there is not much doubt about what the denouement will be). Troutman mentions the lack of a score in the movie; another reason that it might have seemed like a 50s TV drama to me. This was back when a phone number in the big city required only 4 digits; where I lived, you picked up the phone and told the operator the number you wanted. I had several dvds competing for my attention, but this one kept me to itself all the way through.

Kudos to Troutman and the others who are watching the movies on these humongous lists of notable films, instead of or in addition to Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus (2009). I watched the IMDB Top 250 and it almost killed me. In fact, I quit with 9 left, all partially viewed; I couldn’t take it anymore. The good news is that by preying on Troutman’s list, I can now check off at least one of the great-film listees. And maybe by now, the 9 that I didn’t finish have dropped off the list, replaced by movies that I’ve seen. I see that Inception (2010) is presently ranked 4th-best movie of all time.

Anyway, so much for Dial 1119, the fun movie. The Phenix City Story, also on the disk, I was familiar with but had never watched. I grew up in the South and when I was ten or eleven I began hearing about Phenix City. Nothing good. It’s across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, and Fort Benning, and back before it was cleaned up, it enjoyed at least 50 years of profitable vice in all its usual forms. But another 50 years, and in 2007 it was voted “most affordable suburb.” It’s also not far from Auburn University, which is a lot bigger now than it was then and which beat Clemson on the gridiron today as I write this; the cheerleaders for the game were dressed so as to make the old Phenix City proud.

When I moved to Phoenix for high school, “Phenix” just seemed plain weird.

The difference between Dial 9111 and The Phenix City Story is that in Dial 9111, Marshall Thompson plays an in-dramas-only mental case holding as hostage a collection of in-dramas-only bar customers, occasionally plugging one of them for our entertainment, whereas in The Phenix City Story, actors demonstrate the courage required of community members when they’re up against a corrupt city government and a criminal culture that treats murder like a public utility, for indiscriminate use against men, women, and children.

For example, the chief of police, speaking casually to a patrolman: “Somebody just threw a dead nigger kid on Sam Patterson’s front lawn. Go out there and have a look.”

The Production Code wanted the movie’s child murders and some of its other violence removed, but everything stayed in, probably because on one level, the film is a documentary. Don’t be put off by the twelve-minute intro, in which a real-life reporter interviews some of the real-life participants in the events depicted in the film; it’s the real thing, not B-movie posing.

The story centers on the murder of the Democratic nominee for State Attorney General, Albert Patterson, a long-time Phenix City lawyer. The movie was shot on location in Phenix City while the trial of his murderers was going on. John McIntire, who plays Patterson in the movie, wore the suit that Patterson was killed in, and the film was shot on 14th Street, the center of the sin part of “Sin City,” despite threats from the mobsters in charge there.

Movie notes:

Edward Andrews is the baddest of the bad guys and the most familiar face to me in the movie. He went on to play innumerable  parental and business guys in innumerable family movies, Disney and otherwise. He was Molly Ringwald’s grandpa in Sixteen Candles (1984). Lucky for him this film didn’t typecast him permanently as an evildoer.

The movie was written by Daniel Mainwaring, who also wrote Out of the Past (1947) and  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), both also about small towns with problems. 

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).