Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937)

Made in the same year its director also launched Cary Grant to superstardom, Make Way for Tomorrow was always Leo McCarey's favorite project. He even said as much when he accepted his Oscar the following year The Awful Truth, graciously thanking the Academy but noting they honored "the wrong film." For audiences that increased movie attendance significantly during the Depression for the promise of free air-conditioning and some escapist relief from the bewildering sense of aimlessness outside, however, a film that directly confronted the horrifying realities of the day could not have been more unappealing. Seen today, however, the film is a marvel, a movie that plays within Hollywood convention even as it ignores them at every turn. McCarey certainly has a message in mind, broadcast in an opening bit of text, yet he and his actors never give into histrionics, never try to make this anything other than a human story of pain and separation. The result, as Orson Welles once said, is the saddest movie ever made. I should warn that spoilers follow, though anyone who makes it past the first few scenes will feel the doom falling over the film. Besides, what happens, sad as it is, is not nearly so devastating as how it unfolds.

Preceded with a solemn reminder to "Honor thy father and thy mother," the film soon moves beyond the chastising tone of that text scroll to an idyllic shot of a rural house, glistening in wintertime as grown children arrive at their parents' house. The old couple's home looks comfortable and warm, and Pa is sitting in his leather recliner as the children remember from their youth. But when one son makes a toast to the family home, the father, Barkley (Victor Moore), interrupts the lad and tells the family that the bank repossessed his and Lucy's (Beulah Bondi) house. They had six months to vacate, but before the children can get out their sigh of relief for bought time, Bark informs them that the six months are up in a few days. Flummoxed, the children, insisting they cannot afford housing both parents come up with an impromptu plan: two of them at a time will take a parent until some vaguely hoped-for break allows husband and wife to live together again.

The crew sets the mood quickly. William C. Mellor's cinematography puts gulfs of space between characters, always keeping the parents at arm's length from the children, who betray flashes of selfishness and petulance immediately and only get worse when the parents actually move in with them. The children bemoan their parents' financial straits, yet their faces (and wardrobe) betray conflicting feelings. Nellie, the daughter who married for money, not only does not take in both the parents she could easily house but looks for excuses to shirk any responsibility whatsoever: dressed immaculately and on her way to the theatre, she tells her brother on the phone she simply can't take Ma tonight. George, the only child of the family who at least recognizes how blind they all are to their selfishness, cares for his mother but fakes oblivion to the open mutiny of his wife, Anita, and teenage daughter, Rhoda, who view Lucy as some sort of shameful disruption of social affairs. Anita in particular cools so thoroughly whenever in Lucy's presence one gets the urge to reach for a sweater.

But as insufferable as these people can be, McCarey does not make them mere villains. Rhoda's embarrassment at having her friends accosted by her grandmother's stories is a natural feeling of youth, while Lucy's well-meaning attempts to fix up the house seem to Anita to be a challenge to her own abilities as a homemaker. How would you feel if your mother-in-law showed up and started running the house, or tried to do so in your perception? I know if my mom's mother-in-law came to our house and did anything that could even be lightly interpreted as criticism of her cooking/cleaning/parental abilities, the last thing we'd hear out of that old woman would be the echo of a skillet bouncing off her head. McCarey clearly depicts the selfishness of those who view the old couple's hardship as nothing but an inconvenience, but he subverts his own judgmental framing with dialogue and performance tics that make the meanings of each moment less clear.

Avoiding melodrama, McCarey sets up double meanings in each frame, with Bondi adding to the ambiguity with a performance that perfectly balances sweetness with awkwardness. With no one free (or at least willing) to take Lucy the night that Anita and George teach bridge, she hangs behind and hesitantly walks into the den where the guests pack in to learn the intricacies of some stupid card game. McCarey frames the guests in the foreground curving around Bondi as she timidly introduces herself and finds herself talking with self-conscious loudness to ease the situation. Naturally, this only makes it worse, but Bondi nearly shifts the mood of McCarey's imposing blocking with her disarming presence, and the humoring responses she gets for her weak jokes from the younger guests carries a degree of genuine pleasantness to it. There are no set emotions or tones at work, and even when McCarey aesthetically stacks the deck against his elderly characters, he leaves the final tone up to the actors and their naturalistic responses.

Watch how McCarey handles a scene after Lucy, pawned off onto Rhoda for a night at the movies that was really just an excuse to see a boy, returns to George's home and is told Bark is on the phone for her. The moment starts amusingly, Lucy, being an old woman speaking to an old man, practically screaming into the phone in the den as the bridge-playing guests look on with irritation, followed by a brief, collective intake of breath when she obliviously yells about Anita having guests over and finally an affectionate group exhale of relief when she says that they are "wonderful people."

But then, the scene continues: Lucy, having not heard from her husband in so long, completely forgets where she is and starts talking with heartbreakingly fragile care. She fusses over reminders for Bark, in that overbearing but bottomlessly loving way that always seems so stifling and condescending until one suddenly has to face a world without it. The longer she speaks, the fainter her voice becomes even as its volume only drops a decibel or two. The pain Bondi puts into her doting double-checks of her husband's health and her concern over the amount of money he had to spend on giving her the phone call in the first place send waves of sudden empathy through the group. They can hardly look at each other when Bondi follows up her goodbye with an almost whispered "my dear," said as if Bark has already hung up, and replaces the telephone with ginger delicacy, placing it in the receiver like she was tucking it in for bed. In mere minutes, McCarey, with his rigid static shots and perfectly modulated performances from the leads and extras alike, completely alters the tone of his comically imposing frame and introduces true sorrow that overcomes the slightly "Hollywood" staging of some of the reaction shots.

Indeed, the saving grace of many of these early scenes, the spark of life that betters McCarey's style, which adheres to typical Hollywood fashion more than anyone cares to admit, is Beulah Bondi. Not even 50 at the time of shooting, Bondi nevertheless looks like an archetypal Depression-era mother, prematurely withered, sun-dried into crackly voiced timidity. It seems a great insult to say she looked at least 20 years older than she actually was, but the lines that etch her face make her all the more compelling. Regardless of what prompts them, be it happiness or social awkwardness, her smiles have a bashful spin to them, never seen full-on for she always turns her head in shyness, but her loud intrusion into social situations gets read by others as invasive and tactless. Her tone of voice is so unwaveringly soft that it's never altogether clear when she's being passive-aggressive with her selfish progeny, if she even is at all. But when Anita, already so infuriating in her flagrant passive-aggression, finally steps well over the line by using Rhoda's social life (and therefore Lucy's granddaughter as a whole) as a weapon to shame Lucy, Bondi has the closest she gets to a fully defiant moment, and it comes in the form of a sincere but rightfully defensive apology that throws Anita for not stooping to her level. It's an unorthodox display of strength, but also one that shows Lucy's filial loyalty (the usual dynamics of such relationships reversed by egotistical, demanding children) and how it hampers her, a crucial point later in the film.

On the flip side is Victor Moore's Barkley, who not only finds himself in a different scenario than his wife but plays like an inversion of Bondi's performance. Moore almost looks like he fell out of the silent age: clothes don't hang well on his squat, paunchy body, and his awkwardly bulky garb resembles that of an old silent comedian. Moore plays Bark with loud wit punctuated by soft kindness. Where Lucy has no one to spend her days with save the housemaid who initially views her as yet another chore foisted upon her by her white employers, Bark at least has the pleasure of hanging out with the old immigrant owner of a local general store, Mr. Rubens. Their joking, ornery chats bring out flecks of deep sadness in Bark's rants, and McCarey makes him physically vulnerable by denying the man his glasses, forcing Mr. Rubens to read a letter from Lucy, one so personal he cannot finish speaking it aloud and worriedly calls for his wife when Bark leaves, just to make sure she's still there. (Even 300 miles away, Bondi can still break your heart.)

Like Bondi, Moore plays Bark with enough set-in-his-ways stubbornness to show why his children might be irritated with him. When he comes down with a cold, he is stand-offish about his health and fights back against the visiting doctor, insulting the young man's expertise and refusing even to cooperate with the check-up. Before the doctor can leave, Bark even bites the poor man. His behavior is clear: he doesn't want to be nursed by anyone but his wife, but his daughter is already looking for an excuse to pawn him off on the sister in California, thus separating her parents by an entire continent.

Watching Bark try to find something to bring him and his wife back together is palpably hopeless. He waddles down the street with a gait that betrays his age and those ill-fitting clothes making him look more like a bum than a retiree. His job search is cruelly laughable, and he knows it. So too does Lucy, who responds to her granddaughter's blithe assertion that she should "face facts" about Pa's job hunt. "When you're 70... about the only fun you have left is pretending that there ain't any fact to face," Lucy responds. "So would you mind if I just kind of went on pretending?" Even Rhoda's selfishness falters at such a statement. Later, Lucy has to pretend for much darker reasons, realizing Anita's plans to put her in a nursing home and preemptively saying she'd love to go to save George, her favorite child, the agony of telling his mother the news.

But even with such heartbreak, an almost wistful sense of humor hangs over this film: Lucy points out the wasteful expense Anita having sandwiches catered when she can just make some herself ("How fancy can a sandwich be?" asks Bondi with mild, amusing cantankerousness). Mr. Rubens reflecting the cynicism of Depression-era fiscal security by responding to a customer's question on whether she'll pay a subscription weekly or monthly: "If you are honest by the week, I suppose you are honest by the month, too. So we'll make it by the week."

That sense of light, yet relevant, comedy informs the final act, a brief reunion between husband and wife before the children ship one to California and another to an old folks home. When they pass a commercially hollow placard that cheerfully reminds cash-strapped, pre-Social Security Americans to "Save While You Are Young." "What a fine time to tell us," quips Bark, too happy being back with his wife to put any bitterness into the remark. As a nervous tic, Moore keeps reaching into his coat to look at his watch, inadvertently wasting his final seconds with his wife watching them tick away. Lucy chastises Barkley, and when he instinctively reaches for the later he catches himself halfway and self-consciously shifts to rearrange his scarf as Lucy looks at him with amused approval. They spend much of their remaining time together arguing over the details of their honeymoon in New York, the last time they were together in the city. The argument rises and recedes for hours, but it is never spiteful or cranky, only teasing and jovial. After separating them at the beginning into two distinct, uniquely tragic characters, McCarey makes everything even more painful for showing just what an amazing, loving couple the two are.

Bondi and Moore have that special chemistry that comes along even less often than the true sexual compatibility of young stars. They are like Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen in Mike Leigh's recent Another Year, capable of fabricating decades of shared history and making it all believable. These two behave like a couple still in love after all these years, Bark still pleasing Lucy with his humor, Lucy still making him feel like the luckiest lad in town. They have such charm together that McCarey suddenly inverts his more domineering framing to show perfect strangers reacting to them with warmth and camaraderie. Separated, they feel small and anxious; together, New York City itself stops to marvel at them. The two have so much fun with the refreshing kindness exhibited toward them that they call and cancel on dinner with their children, who recoil with the knowledge that their parents really do know how awful they are. ("Hello, Nellie, this is your father. Remember me?" Barkley says when he calls, making sure the firm irony hits home.)

The final moments almost feel like an intrusion, something alluded to earlier when the couple eats overlooking the dance floor of the hotel they stayed at for their honeymoon. Content for these pitifully few last hours, Lucy leans in to kiss her husband but looks up and pulls back sheepishly, giving one the impression that she noticed the camera watching them. The final exchange, in which the cliché of a lover departing at the train station is ironically reborn through old age, as the sight of this couple issuing their last, brief, tender farewells adds poignancy that such a scene has lost for those inured to young love breaking up. The speeches aren't epic or florid, nor do the two openly acknowledge they'll almost certainly never see each other again. Barkley and Lucy just take one final moment to remind each other how much their time together has meant. And as the train pulls out with Lucy getting one last peek of her husband through the window, we're left to face a world that makes quite a bit less sense, and certainly one that doesn't look nearly as inviting.

1 comment:

  1. It's really SAD.Makes you wish there could have been a happy(though probably unrealistic) ending.And I hope to be strong & wise & loving enough to not be as insensitive to anyone, especially the helpless,in my own conduct in life.I want to keep in mind:"And the King will answer and say to them,'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My bretheren, you did it to Me.' ..So I must catch myself, in my insecure human condition, from being fooled into thinking that I am so great that I could look down on the King(of Kings). This is LOVE.And I want to live in love. It's surely difficult- but worth trying our best, each time.Maybe this is why the world as we know it is so full of suffering,...,where's the LOVE? to the least of these? Thank you for making this film available.