Wednesday 5 October 2011

1,001 Films: "Make Way for Tomorrow" (1937)

Comedy director Leo McCarey switched tack with the heartbreaker Make Way for Tomorrow, an adaptation of a play (by Helen and Nolan Leary, itself drawing on Josephine Lawrence's novel The Years Are So Long) that was to influence two of what are regarded as the greatest movies of all time: Ozu's Tokyo Story, which was to borrow its mood and elements of its storyline, and (possibly) Sturges's Sullivan's Travels, which satirised the idea of a McCarey-like gag merchant turning his hand to more dramatic, socially committed fare. At the film's heart is the rigorous ensemble playing of the director's humorous output, but this time everyone's working off a script informed by - rather than attempting to mitigate against - the despairing effects of the Depression.

An ageing couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) are thrown out of their home when the bank forecloses on them; their children, absolutely of the squeezed middle-class, take them in with some reluctance, and on condition that mom and pop be split up to alleviate costs. (The opening scene is the only time we see the whole family together, and we come to miss its circumscribed conviviality.) As McCarey switches back and forth between the two homes, what develops is a study in separation, old age and loneliness - you can see why audiences of the time stayed away in their droves, but also why the film is ripe for reappraisal as an item altogether far from what was then the Hollywood norm. Much of its effect depends upon problems of communication that would be funny in a Marx Brothers picture, but prompt only sniffles here: he makes long-distance phone calls to her that cost a fortune, she writes him intensely personal letters he can't read himself because his glasses have broken and he can't afford to get them fixed.

In both cases, these elders are looked down upon as a source of embarrassment - what we can see (but their offspring cannot) is that they're wise, too, both to the world and to the feelings of others; the big lump-in-throat moment comes when Bondi selflessly expresses a desire to live in a manky care home, rather than see her son (Thomas Mitchell) struggle to bring the subject up in conversation. (The next image we see is of her trusty rocking chair being removed from Mitchell's living room.) Benefitting greatly from McCarey's sure touch,
it's beautifully observed and performed, a real (and apparently recurring) American tragedy, as relevant upon its DVD reissue in 2010 - at a time when budgets for provision of the elderly were being pared away, and the responsibility of care faced by families consequently grew ever greater - as it would have been first time round.

Make Way for Tomorrow is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Eureka Entertainment.

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