Sunday, July 1, 2012

Make Way For Tomorrow

1937. 91 minutes. The rating is "Approved". There is a scene of single ladies drinking and intimations of a young woman out late with a man. So put the kids to bed early.
IMDB says... An elderly couple are (sic) forced to separate when they lose their house and none of their five children will take both parents in.

The 73rd Virgin says... Two weeks late for Father's Day we will celebrate with a sneakily jovial tragedy concerning an elderly couple in 1937's Depression, about to lose their house. The title card refers to a “gap” between the generations 20 years before the term came into common use. Despite its title, this doesn't bemoan all aspects of modern life. It is more a cautionary tale regarding "honor thy father and mother". I had never heard of this before seeing this classy “Criterion Collection” DVD at the local library.

Lucy and Bark pull all the kids together at Christmas to let them know they'll have to give up the house.  The prickly dynamic between the children is believable and sets up the conflict of, “who has room for both of them”. There is a sister in California who never appears, a responsible eldest momma's boy Tom who can only take one, a coolly self-concerned daughter Nellie saddled with Harvey, the unseen problem husband, a poor-ish daughter Cora who will get stuck with Dad, and a charming, joking youngest Robert who no one even thinks of asking.  All of these characters perfectly mirror families I've been around.

Based on a novel and play, there are several scenes and especially long chunks of dialog that sound exactly right and beautifully observed. By 1930s standards the acting is remarkably organic. My mother has said she can't watch movies from this era because the acting tends to be so mannered, but this is mostly an exception. Beulah Bondi was only 49 but plays the character's age perfectly. She was on The Waltons as late as 1976. Victor Moore is equally good as Bark. So much of the movie relies on the veracity of their speech patterns.

Lucy has it better with her boy Tom, but - representing the best aspects of the plot - she sabotages herself by being such an “old woman”. She can't relax, she intrudes on every conversation, she guilt-trips Tom and family. I watched an elderly relative do this when I was young and this representation is pretty much perfect. And yet, she's still a sympathetic character who shouldn't have to be in this predicament. In just a few scenes involving her daughter-in-law's bridge lessons, she goes from irritating to tragic.

Here she gently advises her precocious granddaughter of one of the privileges of age.

Bark isn't holding up so well and there are overtones of elder abuse in how he is cared for by Cora.
Similarly, Bark can be a cranky old prick. There are no bad guys here, just permanently clashing priorities and wishes. Nowadays we would call it “balanced”.

In another perfect scene his Jewish shopkeeper friend reads a letter for him, since he broke his glasses, about how her daughter keeps talking up a home for the aged.

Eventually Cora finagles to get Pa shipped to the elder sister in California for his health, and the movie winds down as he and Ma meet up in New York to say goodbye, and, rather than going to a final dinner with their children, decide to tour the sites of their honeymoon 50 years earlier. In a series of maybe not so realistic scenes they are better treated by New York strangers, including a car salesman, than they have been treated by their children for some time.

In a strikingly different scene Bondi and director Leo McCarey shatter the fourth wall and inject intense intimacy by having her prepare to kiss Pa and then stop as she realizes the audience is watching. And in a similarly touching scene a band leader starts a rumba or something, realizes this old couple is lost, and switches to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”.

But that's about as light-hearted as the second half ever gets. They say good-bye and she politely maintains the fantasy that Pa will find a job in California so she can join him there. There are no tears, just a passive fatalism that only age can teach. The fade to black is ambiguously inconclusive but unambiguously sad. Family dramas just did not end this way in 1937.

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