*. I wonder if there’s a bigger name in film history that has pulled as dramatic a vanishing act as that of Leo McCarey. In his heyday he was one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors in Hollywood, respected by his peers and awarded Oscars for both writing and directing.
*. Today I think he’s almost entirely forgotten outside of certain film circles. He thought Make Way for Tomorrow his best work, but today it too is “forgotten” (Peter Bogdanovich) or “nearly forgotten” (Roger Ebert). I think the only people who do know about it, and again we’re within those same certain film circles, are those who know it was the inspiration for Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Some, maybe a lot, of McCarey’s fall from the heights of fame and critical acclaim has to do with the anti-communist tear he went on in his later years, but I think in the case of this movie it’s more to do with the subject matter, its lack of big stars, and its downbeat ending.
*. Make Way for Tomorrow didn’t do well when it came out and hasn’t gathered much of an audience since. Because let’s face it: who wants to watch a movie about an elderly couple on the verge of being sent into a retirement home? That’s part of the point the movie is making though: that we just want these people to disappear, or at least stay in their bedrooms and not make much of a fuss while we’re entertaining guests.
*. At the same time, you can tell why so many people champion this movie today. A lot of it still packs quite a punch. There are a number of memorable moments that will resonate with anyone who has experienced similar situations. There’s Bark’s sad reflection on hearing the letter from someone in a retirement home that “those places must be terrible.” There’s his rejoinder to the man at the employment office that he didn’t used to be a bookkeeper, he still is one. An impossible sell, at his age. There’s Ma telling her granddaughter that facing facts is easy when you’re young, but as you get older it’s better to pretend. And most of all there’s Ma telling George, aware that he’s sending her away, that he was always her favourite child. It’s a moment like that that makes you feel along with Orson Welles that you’d have to be a stone not to cry at this movie.
*. The thing is, these moments work, at least to my eye, despite the performances and McCarey’s direction. I honestly don’t think Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi are very good here. They both seem to be playing the parts in an affected manner, and along with the obvious make-up (Moore was 60 and Bondi only 48) they come off as almost caricaturish old folks, no less so for his occasional grumpiness and her passive aggression. Nor does the supporting cast stand out in any way. Meanwhile, the direction is capable and gives everyone room but doesn’t add very much beyond what I would have expected from any old studio hand. As Peter Bogdanovich admits, it’s not a movie that’s directed with any real sense of style.
*. I didn’t even think the plot made any sense. Why is it that Ma and Pa have to be split up and live 300 miles apart? Why would it be too great a burden on the kids to take both of them in when they’re willing to accept one? Wouldn’t they be easier to manage if they were together as a couple and (at least to some extent) looking after each other?
*. What the performances get right is how difficult Ma and Pa can be. They aren’t all sweetness and light but can both be real pains in the ass. Like Ma ruining the bridge lesson or Pa refusing to say the number 99 and biting his doctor. Even at the end, where I think we’re supposed to be firmly on their side as they enjoy a last night on the town while their kids worry about them had me thinking they were being selfish. It’s a big deal if you’re cooking a roast and someone doesn’t show up on time!
*. As with any morality tale though the point is to force us into making judgments, however much McCarey wants to put his finger on the scale. Especially by having that Biblical injunction to honour your father and mother looming over things. Still, the roast has been ruined and while nobody would be against them having a good time, somebody has to take care of them moving forward. Like a lot of old people in the same boat they want to keep going the way they always have and not face up to facts. As Ma points out, it’s nicer to pretend. But that’s not being responsible to themselves or to others. So you get things like the situation that kicks things off, where they haven’t told the kids that the house has been foreclosed on until it’s too late for them to do anything about it except in emergency mode.
*. Worth seeing, but not a great movie, mostly for being such an uneven ride, jarring between a tough-minded realism and sentimental fluff. Most of the supporting characters, like the car salesman and the band leader, are perhaps unbelievably sympathetic to Ma and Pa, but then they don’t have to live with them and I think that’s the larger point. Family, or love itself, is both a source of strength and support and a trap. In the end, you really can’t win.