Peter Bogdanovich, during one of his many conversations with Orson Welles, asked Welles if he had ever seen a little-known film that was a flop in its original release, Make Way For Tomorrow, directed by Leo McCarey. And Welles exploded, “My God, that is the saddest movie I have ever seen.”
Having just seen Make Way For Tomorrow, which was just released on DVD with much fanfare by Criterion, (it was a film that was never even released on video so it has earned that moniker “forgotten film”), I can say that Orson Welles’s assessment is my own. This brutal film about the elderly pulls no punches, and watching it, I started to feel a dawning sense of awe and respect, that it was really going to go there, it had the courage of its convictions. And up until the very final shot, it does not waver. A lesser film would have at least have the wonderful Beulah Bondi smile a bit, in nostalgia and remembrance, to let us off the hook. But Make Way For Tomorrow stays true to its theme, and does not betray itself. It is a devastating picture. One that puts many other “tragedies” to shame.
Leo McCarey, that master of relationships (he was the one who put Laurel and Hardy together),got the idea to do a film about the elderly. Bogdanovich interviewed him as well and asked him how it came about. McCarey replied:
I had just lost my father and we were real good friends; I admired him so much … My wife suggested we get out of town till I get over this, so we went to Palm Springs. I remembered a fellow who ran a gambling joint on the outskirts of Palm Springs, and I decided I’d go out there to visit him. And there I saw a most attractive girl; I tried to start a conversation with her, and she snubbed me. Now, my wife had given me this very good Cosmopolitan story to read: it was about old folks, and because I’d just lost my father, my wife had said to read it. It was by a gal called Viña Delmar, and I called the studio and told them I’d like an appointment with her for an interview; they called back and said she’s in Palm Springs. And I said, “Well, run her down in Palm Springs – that’s where I am.” So another exchange of phone calls and they said she’d be over to my hotel at such and such a time. The desk announced that “Miss Delmar is here” to see me, and you can imagine both our surprise when it turned out to be the girl I’d tried to get to know at the gambling place.
McCarey told Bogdanovich:
I prefer Make Way For Tomorrow to The Awful Truth – and I got a lot of telegrams saying I’d won [Best Director] for the lesser of the two films. It was the saddest story I ever shot; at the same time very funny. It’s difficult for me to talk about, but I think it was very beautiful.
John Ford said it was one of his favorite pictures of all time. Jean Renoir was a huge fan. And yet for over 70 years, unless you got to catch it a local art-house that was doing a McCarey festival, you could not see this film. Now you can. All I can say is: Run. Don’t walk. Rent it. Immediately.
But be prepared.
Films about old age are not popular. Never have been. They weren’t popular in 1937, and they aren’t popular now. I have never before seen a film that tackles the problem of “what to do” with the elderly in such a forthright unblinkered manner as Make Way For Tomorrow. It does so with no sentimentality. The characters are all drawn with specificity and humanity. In the Criterion DVD, there is an interview with Peter Bogdanovich about the film, and he makes the point that while not everyone behaves well here, nobody is judged. You may not sympathize with them, but you understand. Every character, down to the maid, is a human being, with wants, needs, fears. The script is superb. Choices are made in life that seem temporary at the time, a stop-gap, which then becomes The Point of No Return. But rarely do the people involved realize it at the time. Denial is powerful. So is optimism. “It’ll all work out … Things will work out as we planned … Our future is going to be what we imagined …” Well, that is not always the case. We all know this in our bones, because we have lived it in one way or another, but it takes a courageous film to actually point that fact out, without softening the blow.
Make Way For Tomorrow starts with a family gathering at a beautiful snow-covered house. Parents Barkley and Lucy Cooper (played, respectively, by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) have summoned four of their five adult children (the fifth lives far away in California) to break the bad news. The bank is taking back their house because they are unable to make the payments. They had hoped that something would come through, a miracle, but now they only have a couple of days before they have to move out. It is (without a line of dialogue) clear that Barkley and Lucy have not involved their children in their problems not just because they don’t want to worry them and bother them, but that they also sense that perhaps their children will not be reliable in such a crisis. How McCarey and his actors suggest this, with cuts from face to face as they take in the news, is nothing short of amazing. The children are not painted as villainous or awful. McCarey does not take the easy route. Each one is living their own life, and has problems, problems that make it seem unthinkable that they could take in their aged parents for a bit. One is married to a grumpy unemployed man who does not get on well with his in-laws. One (played by Thomas Mitchell) has a high school age daughter, and is finding it hard to make ends meet, so his wife (the wonderful Fay Bainter) has to teach bridge classes for extra cash. No one is rich. No one has a spare room. After a tense family discussion, it is decided that just for a while, “Pa” will go live with his married daughter Cora, and “Ma” will go live with her son George and his family in Manhattan.
Ma and Pa accept this situation reluctantly. One of the most powerful elements of this amazing picture is how the love between this elderly couple is made potently clear, without the word “love” ever being said. I think it’s said once, near the end, but the moment is rushed through, as though they cannot bear to even give voice to it, because by giving voice to it they must then face what they are losing. Ma and Pa are not portrayed as dear sweet elderly people, cliched and sentimentalized, but as human beings, with experience and wisdom, with flaws and foibles, who find themselves in a terrible situation. They haven’t spent a night apart in their 50 years of marriage.
But tough times require tough choices, so Pa goes to live with his cranky bossy daughter, and Ma goes to live with George and his wife. The scenes of adjustment are both funny and awful. McCarey, obviously no slouch in the comedy department, finds just the right specific moments to show how tough it is. It’s a tragic situation, but life goes on, and people manage, sometimes awkwardly, but they manage. Ma is a social woman, and likes to talk to people, but here, in the claustrophobic apartment, having to share a room with her running-wild 17-year-old granddaughter, she finds herself shunned. Her help is not welcome. She tries to help by sending her son’s shirts to a cleaners around the corner, only to find that that means he won’t have a shirt for an event that night, and also to find that George’s wife resents the “help”. George’s wife says, “I take care of my husband just fine.” She is not portrayed as an evil callous woman; it is the same issues that wives had had with mothers-in-law since the institution of marriage was invented. Is there room for two Ladies of the house? George is caught in the middle. Thomas Mitchell is (no surprise) wonderful in showing this problematic and painful situation. There are other issues. Their teenage daughter Rhoda no longer feels comfortable bringing her friends to the house, since her grandmother insists on hanging out with them and dominating the conversation, so she starts sneaking out at night. This leads her to trouble. She starts seeing a 35-year-old man (and we learn later, from a buried line of dialogue that you might miss if you weren’t listening carefully, that he is married), and this would never have happened if she had still felt comfortable hanging out at her own house, bringing her friends there, so that her parents could chaperone.
These scenes are all played with a minimum of cliche. Ma is not perfect. She can be passive-aggressive (“No, that’s all right, you go out and have a good time, I don’t mind being alone”), but the woman is disoriented. She doesn’t even know what end is up. She has a hard time getting her husband on the phone, and when she does get to talk to him, people are always around. There is one particularly terrible (and beautiful) scene when her husband calls during a night when George’s wife is hosting her bridge class at the apartment. The living room is filled with card tables, and well-dressed couples, and Ma has already made a bit of a spectacle of herself, by rocking in her rocking chair in the corner, unaware that the loud squeaks made by the chair are distracting the players. This scene could have been played so wrongly. Either by demonizing those who give her odd looks, or simplifying her character, as the aged so often are simplified – to someone childlike and sweet. No. She just doesn’t want to sit alone in her room, by herself, when there is a roomful of people just outside. She doesn’t join in the game, but she wants to be amongst the people. What is wrong with that? One of the things not discussed often about the elderly is the loneliness: the loneliness of not having peers around, of having no one else “remember”, of wanting to be a part of the larger world still, but feeling increasingly that nobody really wants you around.
Last year at Christmas, we went, en masse, to go visit my grandmother who has Alzheimer’s and now lives with the Sisters of Charity at one of their Retirement Centers, with many others who have Alzheimer’s, retired nuns and others, those too old to take care of themselves anymore. My mother goes to visit often, and so do her siblings who live in the area, but I hadn’t been before. It took a while to find the right place for my grandmother, once it became clear that she could no longer live on her own. Nursing homes can be depressing. They are depressing when they are not well run, obviously, but they are depressing when they ARE well run, as in: you can feel that it is a money-making enterprise. It’s off-putting. But when they are bleak with a hospital-setting, and people just sit in wheelchairs all day, zoning out – it’s just heartwrenching, and yet it’s not a popular issue, definitely not something that sets the world on fire to “do something” about how we treat our elderly citizens. I believe that part of it is because they represent what we fear. We are all going there, God willing, we are all going to be that old, and while that should engender compassion and sympathy, often the opposite is the case. We shun what we fear. “No, no, I can’t deal with that, I can’t deal with people who are 90 years old, it makes me uncomfortable, no no no no.” This is a very human response, in our society as we know it today. The Sisters of Charity have created a wonderful peaceful and joyous community (no surprise there, if you know their history), and the staff were just fantastic. It was an incredibly moving experience. I love my grandmother. She has had Alzheimer’s for 10 years now. I haven’t had a conversation with her, not like we used to, in 10 years. But she is still alive. She is human, she is loved dearly, she is still the same person, and she deserves to be peaceful and happy. We owe it to her. We owe it to ourselves. Our entire family went, cousins and aunts.
My aunt Katy played the piano.
My tattoo-covered cousin Owen, in a Santa hat and a Red Sox sweatshirt, commandeered a wheelchair, and then did an impromptu dance as his wife Kelly laughed so hard tears streamed down her face.
We all sang old songs that we grew up on, “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and “In the Good Old Summertime”, and one by one, staff members would roll in women in wheelchairs to join in the fun. This wasn’t just for my grandmother. It was PEOPLE. VISITING THEM. Laughter and songs and little kids running around. This was not a depressed atmosphere, with harassed irritable staff feeling “put out” that they had to do some work. No, this was an impromptu party. One of the most beautiful things was that Jean and Pat brought Lucy with them, in her pretty little Christmas dress. Lucy was 7 months old at the time (is it possible she is going to be a year old in just a couple of weeks??). The women there were in love with her, reaching out for her to touch her. Lucy, innocent and guileless, reached out to touch them back. Lucy had no judgment, no fear. She took them in as fellow people, the way babies do, because she doesn’t know better yet, and good for her. She wasn’t afraid of their wrinkled hands reaching out for her, their gleeful and happy faces staring at her. She was curious about them. Open to them. In that moment, Lucy helped ME to see how to BE. Because I’m human. And I am afraid of growing old. And I wonder how I will bear it. And I wonder what will happen to me. And because I have those fears, I cringe from being too close to that which I fear. In earlier times in our society, the elderly were not shunted off to homes. They lived in the houses of their children, they were taken care of, but also, that meant that they were incorporated in the human family still. It was an inter-generational world, and it was understood that “that is what you do”. You take care of your parents. Leo McCarey starts the film with a quote from the Bible: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” It’s really that simple. But we’re all human. We don’t always behave as we should. I got an amazing photograph that day of four generations of women in my family: my grandmother, my mother, my sister Jean and my niece Lucy.
Make Way For Tomorrow, made in 1937, shows what has become par-for-the-course even more today: the dispersal of the original family. One sister is never even seen. She lives in California. People are spread out. They go off. They make their own lives. And as long as Ma and Pa were all set in the snow-covered house where they raised their family, life maintained its equilibrium. But once things start going badly, there is no original family unit left to handle the problem. Dispersal becomes the only option.
There is an amazing scene which shows (for me) Leo McCarey’s specific gift. During the aforementioned bridge-class scene, Pa calls for Ma, and she goes to the telephone, with a crowd of people sitting in the living room behind her. Ma, unused to the phone, shouts to be heard, a humorous moment, Beulah Bondi bellowing in the phone. But it’s mixed with an uncomfortable energy, due to the public nature of the phone conversation, and how she is obviously disturbing the bridge class by shouting into the phone one foot away. McCarey, not really a stylish director, his shots don’t call attention to themselves, not really, chooses which shots to use with surgical efficiency. For the most part, the camera stays on Beulah Bondi during her phone call. The bridge class tries to continue playing in the background but slowly, as the conversation goes on, you can feel all activity cease, and you can feel all of them start to listen. One woman in particular, in the foreground, behind Bondi, stares over at Ma during the phone call, with an expression on her face that I am still trying to explain and understand. Sympathy, yes. Her heart is breaking for this frumpy woman who, so far, has been kind of a pain in the ass, in terms of interrupting the bridge night. But here, listening to her shout to her husband to make sure he wears a warm scarf, to tell him “Oh, I miss you too, Pa”, the woman gets a stillness to her, a stillness of listening and identification, and slowly, the entire room changes. There are one or two cutaways during the phone call, where you can see Thomas Mitchell staring over at his mother, and you can see people in the background either look away (due to being uncomfortable, or to being moved to their very core) or stare at Ma, as if fixated. It is a phenomenal scene, beautifully acted and rendered, and it puts the audience through the wringer, without demanding “GO THROUGH THE WRINGER.” It does not manipulate. It shows.
That is why it is a brutal film. If I felt manipulated at even one moment of the proceedings, I would have gotten angry. It is such a powerful experience that it requires purity and clarity to work. Purity of motive, I mean. The story is the thing here, not the manipulation of emotions. McCarey focuses on story and character (as does Ms. Delmar, in her writing), and the film works on a level that I promise you have rarely seen. There are successful films about the elderly, but you can count them on one hand. Make Way for Tomorrow is at the top of the heap.
I loved how it embraced disobedience as a good thing, a thing we all should be able to enjoy and choose, as adults with free will. Being “obedient” is fine when you are a child, and your parents are training you how to behave. Then it makes sense. But a 70 year old man and woman, having to be “obedient”, because it is expected that old people have no real needs, and should just be happy with the scraps that they get, and also: there is a huge forgetting in place here, forgetting that old people may have decaying bodies, but with all of that mileage, is experience, stories, things to share, pass on. We don’t ever move beyond needing human companionship, even the most prickly of us. I speak from experience. You don’t reach a point in your journey through life and suddenly say to yourself, “Well, that’s it. I’m 75 years old now. I honestly shouldn’t expect to have any more happiness.”
Bogdanovich, in the interview on the DVD, tells a funny story about interviewing movie-pioneer Allan Dwan. When Bogdanovich interviewed Dwan, he was 92 years old, and Boganovich asked him what it was like to be 92. Dwan replied (and I have heard this from so many other people, friends and family members who are elderly), “I feel the same way I felt when I was 32, it’s just that sometimes I walk by a mirror and I think, ‘Who is that OLD GUY?'”
Leo McCarey understood that inside, inside, we remain the same. Our needs are the same. Love, companionship, humor, a little bit of fun, and also, that we get to live our lives as we see fit. Tough times require tough choices, as I said, and Make Way For Tomorrow is all about tough choices, and therefore it is a wrenching experience, unlike any other film I have ever seen. I felt helpless, I wanted to intervene. I wanted some rich donor to come along and wave a magic wand and say, “Here’s money for a deposit on an apartment – let the old couple live together – I hereby declare it to be so.” But life doesn’t work like that. Not always. It does in movies sometimes, but rarely in real life.
I haven’t even talked about the acting. It’s beside the point, almost. I forgot I was watching actors. I was eavesdropping on a family crisis. I forgot that Victor Moore and Beaulah Bondi were both a good 20 years younger than the characters they were playing. It didn’t even cross my mind. Every actor here, from the little kid buying gum in the store, to the Jewish immigrant merchant who befriends Pa, to the black maid who works for George and his wife, is completely believable, and three-dimensional. To single out one person would be to unravel the whole. This is a family. This is how this family operates. There are no “good” people, no “bad” people. Just people trying to survive, trying to do what is best for them, which of course then conflicts with the needs of someone else. Just like life. Here, the acting is just like life.
I will not discuss what happens in the final half-hour of the film. Not because there are any spoilers or anything like that, but because part of the miracle of Make Way For Tomorrow is watching it unfold for the first time. I will say this: Never, ever, has disobedience seemed like such a clarion call for the dignity of human beings, to choose their own destinies, to choose how they want to spend their time, and never before have I seen a simple act of disobedience seem like such a (the cliche totally applies) shining moment of triumph of the human spirit. It knocked the breath out of my chest.
I am so grateful to Criterion for finally, FINALLY, bringing this important film out on DVD, so that everyone can see it. Make Way For Tomorrow is (or at least, until recently, has been) a forgotten masterpiece. I do not use that term lightly. It is a masterpiece. Thankfully, it is “forgotten” no more.