I'd never heard of Make Way For Tomorrow, but Leo McCarey had also directed one of my favorite films, The Awful Truth (made the same year, 1937), and I had been meaning to go for some time to one of The National Gallery's Saturday afternoon screenings of classic films. Their flyer billed Make Way For Tomorrow as "one of the great unsung Hollywood masterpieces, an enormously moving Depression-era depiction of the frustrations of family, ageing, and the generation gap." It sounded promising enough, though not a subject I would usually leap at. I had no idea what I was in for.
The story centers on an elderly couple who haven't planned for retirement. He is fired from his job and can't get another. The bank forecloses on the house and the couple finally tell their five adult children what has happened. There is no obvious solution as none of the children is particularly well off so the couple is split up, the mother going to live in New York City with a son, the father to a small country town where he sleeps on his daughter's sofa. The movie plays out the dreadful humiliation of what the aged must endure when entirely dependent on their children, and the heartlessness, frustration, pity, and guilt the children experience when faced with the "burden" of their parents. It is a shockingly real portrait of middle class family life across three generations and more than relevant to today's audiences. It is also an acute and beautiful portrait of a long term marriage.
With magnificent subtlety and artistry, this movie, perhaps more than any other I have ever seen, gets right at the awful truth of the human condition. It is certainly one the most honest and loving portrayals of basic human cruelty ever created. And some of the best acting--with Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi giving extraordinary performances as the old couple--ever captured on screen. The writing was pitch perfect, the screenplay by Viña Delmar, who also wrote the screenplay for The Awful Truth. (She was the author of a series of best-selling novels with titles such as Bad Girl, Kept Woman, and Loose Ladies about the real issues facing the modern woman.)
The film was, of course, a failure at the box office as the subject is simply not one most people want to face, myself included. But it is a subject that we actually do confront every hour of every day and the brutal truth of the film is our own: Ageing and death is the deepest, darkest of sins not only in our society at large but within our very families. Not only do we resent and despise those close to us for committing the sin of getting old, we know our turn is at hand and loathe ourselves for it. The last thing we are prepared to do for ourselves or for others in any meaningful way is to Make Way For Tomorrow. Though the very end of the film is relentlessly bleak, in the stunning denouement when the couple tour New York City during their last hours together before being split up again, this time surely permanently, McCarey gives us a deeply moving vision of old age in the fullness of its elegance and integrity.
Orson Welles said that the movie "would make a stone cry" but this film is not sentimental. Nor is it a cold-eyed view of man's inhumanity to man. Its devestating power to make us weep is found in how generous and understanding McCarey is to each of his characters, all of whom, even those most apparantly selfish, display the whole gamut of emotions from sheer loving kindness to begruding niceity, to petty meanness, to heartlessness, to sadistic pleasure. No one is innocent, and we're all guilty.
Make Way For Tomorrow was an inspiration for Ozu's Tokyo Story, a fact I find at once surprising and obvious. I always thought that slow, subtle, penetrating depth of vision into family dynamics so uniquely Ozu's, but McCarey's influence on Ozu is indeed perfect.
McCarey claimed Make Way For Tomorrow was the best film he ever made and in 1938 when he won the Oscar for The Awful Truth he held up the golden statue and told the audience, "This is for the other one."
Four More Films I've Seen Recently in Brief:
Silken Skin--directed by François Truffaut, his fourth film, made in 1964, this is a gorgeous movie about a married French intellectual's passionate love affair with a stewardess, exquisitely played by Françoise Dorléac, Catherine Deneuve's older sister who would die tragically in a car accident soon after the making of this film. Wonderfully detailed, delicate and engaging, that is right up until the last scene of the film which is just silly and reminds me of how hard finding the right ending can be.
The Hereafter--directed by Clint Eastwood, entertaining enough but mostly plodding and never soars, except in a very early scene in which Cécile De France is nearly killed by a tsunami. Very beautiful and very eery on many levels. Matt Damon was adequate but Bryce Dallas Howard's brief cameo stole whatever of the movie there was to steal.
Blue Valentine--another portrait of a marriage, though this one was so one-dimensional as to be confusing, causing this viewer to repeatedly wonder: am I missing something here? The script was flat and cliched but Michelle Williams outstanding performace saved the movie from being a complete waste of time. Ryan Gosling also acquitted himself well. Still, I don't understand how this film got made.
Morning Glory--entirely forgettable romcom with Diane Keaton, Harrison Ford, and Rachel McAdams. If only Viña Delmar were still around...
Random list of films I've seen but haven't devoted a proper blog to with rating @ to @@@@@
The Vagabond (Directed by Raj Kapoor in 1951 when he was just 27, this steamy melodrama represents the birth of Bollywood. The incredible chemistry between Kapoor and his leading lady Nargis is irresistable. And I saw it at MoMA for free. I love New York.) @@@@@
Margin Call (Nothing new here, didn't get my blood boiling at all and the subject--Wall Street greed and arrogance usually does. Some good acting from a great cast but pretty forgetttable. I imagine the play was better.) @@
Young Adult (I think Charlise Theron might be my favorite actress at the moment. She's got talent plus diva quality. This film is one note but she's so fabulous.) @@@@
Shame (a shame, waste of Michael Fassbinder's considerable talents. Carey Mulligan singing New York, New York excruciating and not in the way intended. Plus is that New York? It occured to me while watching that Steve McQueen should watch Pasolini's opus and take notes.) @@
One Day (Help, the accent! Ugh. Anne Hathaway botched this one.) @
Crazy, Stupid, Love (Ryan Gosling, need I say more? Besides, it was really very funny at times. And the casting is just perfect.) @@@@
Ides of March (George Clooney's future may be as a director. This effort was admirable and entertaining. Plausibility a bit stretched but I didn't care much. Besides, Ryan Gosling, need I say more?) @@@@
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Second best film of 2011 for me. Gary Oldman channels Alec Guinness and I love the change of glasses to mark time. BBC series, however, still the best . If you want to read more about the book/film/series two excellent pieces, both in The New Yorker, are Anthony Lane's "I Spy" http://nyr.kr/uXIWBb and David Denby's "We are all Smiley's People" http://nyr.kr/zzS9vr) @@@@@
The Skin I Live In (Best film of 2011 for me--Almodovar pushes the form like no other director. Here he explores the pygmalion myth as only he can.) @@@@@
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (As a good a rendition of the book you'll get but ah, the book. Doesn't really translate to film. Maggie Smith great.) @@@
The Godfather (Hadn't seen it in years but what a flawless film. The horse head was a stroke of genius as was casting Diane Keaton as Al Pacino's wife. Marlon Brando, as always, was sublime.) @@@@@
Nowhere Boy (directed by artist Sam Taylor-Wood and also surprisingly mediocre. Straightforward biopic without any attempt at innovation. HBO would have done it better. Anne Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas saved it from total irrelevance.) @@
The Ghost Writer (directed by Roman Polanski and surprisingly mediocre. Ewan McGregor saved it from total boredom. Hitchcock touches nice but not enough-Ok plane fare.) @@
Frida (directed by Julie Taymor is gorgeous to look at but the script was not up to the visuals. Salma Hayek superb but not oscar material since though crippled her face remains beautiful.)
La Vie en Rose (Incredibly depressing--didn't want to learn so much about the Diva. Cotillard excellent, obvious oscar for portrayal of yet another fallen, defaced woman.
Notes on A Scandal (Thin but Judi Dench is superb. She totally outshines Cate Blanchett. Equation of repressed lesbian stalker with female statuatory rapist interesting. At least Dench didn't turn out to be a serial killer.)
It's Complicated (Perfect plane fare, especially while trying to avoid volcanic ash cloud. I laughed out loud at least twice. Fun to watch Alec Baldwin completely upstage Steve Martin.)
Bulletproof Monk (Not nearly as good as the phenomenal Kung Fu Hustle, but entertaining nonetheless. My 9 yr. old loved it.)
A Serious Man (Seriously boring but then again maybe I just didn't get it 'cause I'm a goy.) @
2012 (Blah disaster movie in which a novelist who sells only 500 copies is the hero and one of the chosen. LOL.) @
Defiance (Casting excellent-Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell-and story excellent--about class and morality among Eastern European Jews during holocaust--but script very mediocre.) @@
Two Loves (I always wonder how films like this one ever get made. No there there. Though Pheonix plays the icky vulnerable male with panache.) @
Inglourious Basterds (Like the kitchen sink after an inedible feast. Worse than a bad Cohen brothers film. Flaccid and unfunny.) @
Valkyrie (Don't bother. Boring, slow, flat. Such a shame as I really loved Singer's Usual Suspects. Cruise's fault no doubt.) -@
The Departed (Solid later Scorsese fare, lots of blood and plot twists but just barely holds together. DiCaprio surprisingly good and I always love Baldwin.) @@@
Word Play (excellent documentary about the NYTimes crossword puzzle geeks. It gave me serious nerd envy.) @@@@
Rachel Getting Married (cast evenly black/white yet black actors get no lines of any significance. Even Anna Deveare Smith only mumbles. Shameful.) @
District 9 (Sci Fi at its best. Philip K. Dick would approve.) @@@@@
American Graffitti (quite experimental and what a young Harrison Ford) @@@@
My Man Godfrey (Depression era romcom with the sublime William Powell and Carole Lombard. All too relevant.) @@@@@
Julia (unlikely thriller made great by uber actress Tilda Swinton) @@@@
The Eyes of Laura Mars (70s fashion thriller with Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones) @@@@@