dir. Leo McCarey
Although I love every era of film-making, I do have to admit that I respect thirties pictures more as historical objects. These impeccably produced factory-line movies don't tend to move me as much as films from say the late sixties and early seventies. Leo McCarey's Depression era Make Way for Tomorrow, however, threw me for a fucking loop. This is a movie, I'm ashamed to admit, I'd never heard of until a few weeks ago. Somehow, despite my familiarity with McCarey's work, I'd managed for too long to remain oblivious of Make Way for Tomorrow.
Although not given the respect of such peers as Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks, Sturges, and Capra; McCarey was just as important a golden Hollywood era film-maker. He teamed Laurel and Hardy, made a star out of Cary Grant with The Awful Truth, and directed the best, most anarchic Marx Brothers movie (Duck Soup). If his lack of present day name recognition can be attributed to anything (aside from the fact that he would later show support for the HUAC hearings), it is that his style was so unassuming. Although his visuals lacked the authorial stamp of his peers, McCarey did excel in his direction of actors.
Modern viewers are frequently put off by the theatricality of pre-method, classic Hollywood acting. This stiff, old-school style is sometimes derided (or lauded) for its camp value. Leo McCarey, however, attempted to advance the art. For him, drawing believable performances from performers, trumped all other concerns. Anticipating such directors as Robert Altman and Mike Leigh (and to a lesser extent Judd Apatow and Adam McKay), McCarey relied heavily on improvisation. Cary Grant was so uncomfortable with McCarey's unorthodox directing methods, incidentally, that he begged to be removed from his screwball comedy The Awful Truth (released the same year as Make Way for Tomorrow). Fortunately for Grant, he was forced to finish his star-making picture.
The success of McCarey's films is directly due to the fact that his style was perfectly suited to comedies. He had sense enough to give the funny folks he was directing, room enough to improve on the stories. With the drama Make Way for Tomorrow, however, McCarey ventured into uncharted territories. Where his improvisational techniques proved hilarious in his comedies, here, it resulted in an absolutely gut-wrenching picture. To quote Orson Welles in regards to McCarey's picture, "it would make a stone cry."
Make Way for Tomorrow is an anomaly not just in the oeuvre of McCarey, but also in the films of its time in that it is one of the few to deal head-on with the Depression. Unfortunately for McCarey, there was a reason so many directors opted not to address this issue. Make way for Tomorrow bombed at the box office. If we know one thing from the recent failure of Iraq movies to perform at the box office, it's that people don't want to be reminded of real life tragedies. As Joel McCrea learned in Sullivan's Travels, people would rather be cheered up. Make Way for Tomorrow is such a downer, though, I doubt it would have been a success in any era.
Elderly, unemployed couple Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi) have learned that they will soon be losing their home to the bank. Problem is (as if losing their home wasn't problem enough), none of their children have room enough to take in both parents. They decide that Bark will stay with daughter Rhoda (Barbara Read) and her husband. Lucy will live with son George (Thomas Mitchell) and his wife. Although attempts are made on all fronts to make the best of the situation and remain civil, the cramped living soon takes its toll, leaving all involved at their wit's end.
The frazzled children attempt to pawn off their parents on the other siblings but none are willing to take them in. Lucy and Bark, meanwhile, suffer from loneliness after being separated from each other for the longest stretch of time in their fifty year relationship. Mercifully, McCarey gives the couple one last hurrah in the film's magical last third. Reuniting after a long break, they travel throughout New York City, recreating their honeymoon. The evening is bittersweet, however, as Lucy and Bark realize this could be their last moment together. [Side note: The over-the-top niceness of the New Yorkers in this section of the film is the only unbelievable aspect of the entire movie.]
For a movie so steeped in respect for the old school, Make Way for Tomorrow has a surprisingly modern feel. Because of its subject matter and acting styles, this is a movie that feels as if it could have been made today. Few modern directors, however, are imbued with McCarey's humanism. The temptation would be too great to turn at least some, if not all, of the characters into villains. The only other directors I can think of who could have handled this material with the same subtlety and care are the long deceased Renoir and Ozu. Indeed, Ozu was such a fan that he paid homage with his film Tokyo Story.
McCarey knew that for a movie like this to work, viewers would have to empathize (if not sympathize) with every character. Although our hearts may break for Bark and Lucy, we understand the position the children are in. We recognize that, even with the best intentions, when placed in the same situation, we might behave the same.
[Side Note: Although I absolutely loved Make Way for Tomorrow, I didn't think my fun, girl-on-girl Wild Things rating would be appropriate as it doesn't reflect the sadness of McCarey's movie. Instead, I am using a picture from Mulholland Dr. of Naomi Watts masturbating. She's also crying, so it's totally appropriate for Make Way for Tomorrow.]