BluRay/DVD Reviews

MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW

By • May 2nd, 2010 •

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“This movie could make a stone cry” –Orson Welles

Ah the sunset years! You’ve raised your kid s- they’re grown and on their own now. You’re slowing down at work, what with the economy in shambles and that old injury that’s been hampering you the past few years. But you’re married to the same great gal you fell for all those years ago. And you’ve got the house where you raised your family. You’ve got a least a little security.

Or maybe not…

Maybe you lose the house…

And maybe when you call the kids over to talk about it, you’ve procrastinated, hoping that something would turn up to stave off eviction, so that you really can’t put together much of a plan. Bobby, the baby of the family, won’t be too much help; he’s barely getting by himself. Cora’s husband is out of work. Nellie and Harvey…well we don’t want to ask Harvey for help, particularly as Nellie is always going on about how bad his business is doing. George and Anita have a little room; their daughter Rhoda will be going to college soon. Maybe if Ma shares her room – there is an extra bed after all – and Pa stays with Cora on the couch in the living room, the family can buy time to make a plan. Addie out in California may be able to help and Nellie will arrange things with Harvey in a few months. It’s a short visit with the kids. What could possibly go wrong?

Leo McCarey’s 1937 MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW explores just how deep the fractures can become within a family within just a few months. Not surprisingly, Rhoda resents sharing a room with a seventy-year-old woman. She no longer brings her friends home and spends a lot of evenings out. Not only that, Ma Cooper (wonderfully played by Beula Bondi) is also interfering with the running of the household and is woefully out of place.

At the bridge lessons, Anita organizes to help pay the bills. This will eventually foment a full scale domestic crisis with the most sympathetic of her children. Eventually, a nursing home looks like a real possibility. In fact, Ma will enable it in a touching scene with her son George.

Pa will fare no better in Cora’s care 300 miles away. Cora will eventually shunt her father to the California-based daughter as none of the children prove willing to take responsibility for the couple as a couple. Of course, all this will mean the dissolution of their union after a marriage of fifty years, the real heartbreak that lies at the heart of this movie. Yet despite this and the disappointment in their children echoed in Ma’s observation that “you don’t sow wheat and reap ashes”, the couple will have moments of both grace and laughter.

So…we have an exceedingly odd picture here. The director, Leo McCarey, won an Oscar the same year for the Cary Grant vehicle THE AWFUL TRUTH; and said that the Academy should have given it to him for this instead. He came out of a background in comedy; he directed the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP, RUGGLES OF RED GAP, and paired Laurel with Hardy. Later, he also directed GOING MY WAY, AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, and THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S. MAKE WAY was his favorite film, made in part as a reaction to the death of his father.

McCarey was known as an actor’s director and there are some really fine performances here. Ma Copper is the pivotal role and Beula Bondi plays her vulnerability and her strength admirably. She was forty-eight at the time, playing seventy. A veteran of Broadway, she became one of the stalwart character actors of the 30’s and 40’s. Alternating between passivity, regret and graciousness, Pa Cooper was played by Victor Moore. The moments they share evoke a couple that both love and need each other. Fay Bainter was nominated for both best actress and best supporting actress the following year – winning the latter for JEZEBEL. Here she plays the initially sympathetic daughter-in-law opposite Thomas Mitchell, one of the finest character actors of his generation and another eventual best supporting actor.

There’s a lot of nuance in this film, and McCarey is brilliant in avoiding cardboard characters or assigning easy blame to any of the characters. Pay close attention to the bridge party, to the later conversations between Ma Cooper and Anita and George, and above all, the final scene, one of the great endings you’ve never seen. Just keep the tissues handy.

Old age has ever been a problematic subject for Hollywood – and a nearly forgotten one. There’s the epic LION IN WINTERr, the overly sentimental ON GOLDEN POND, the wishful COCOON, and more recently and in a more realistic vein, 2002’s IRIS and 2007’s excellent THE SAVAGES .Yasujiro Ozu’s TOKYO STORY (1953) was derived directly from MAKE WAY and offers an interesting counterpoint to it. Ozu also looks at an ungrateful generation through the eyes of their elders, but the stakes are not as high and it is in many respects not as poignant a story. I challenge you to recall more. Let’s face it, no one wants reminders of their own mortality and wrinkles are not particularly appealing to those who don’t sport a few of their own. Moreover, the problems of the elderly simply don’t condense well into a two-hour narrative. They are more likely to touch upon themes of loneliness, despair, and when we are lucky, acceptance.

This is one of the real lost gems of Hollywood’s golden years. Although box office poison in its day, it absolutely merits its resurrection by Criterion, which includes three essays and brief talks by Peter Bogdanovich and Gary Giddens. It’s a movie that is as relevant today as it was then. Watch with your spouse. Then call your mother.

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