Sunday, January 26, 2014

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Director: Leo McCarey                                  Writer: Viña Delmar
Film Score: Victor Young                              Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Starring: Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Thomas Mitchell and Fay Bainter

Make Way for Tomorrow is an interesting Depression-era film that was the inspiration for the great Japanese film Tokyo Story, by Yasujirô Ozu. In this case, the premise of the generation gap seems sublimated to the realities of the Depression. Where Ozu’s story takes place in the early nineteen fifties and has as it’s undercurrent the end of the war and the changing culture in Japan, Leo McCarey’s film feels like a message of sympathy to all of those suffering and making sacrifices during the economic downturn prior to the war. The film was not popular upon its release, but it was very much a critical success. It was later championed by none other than Orson Welles, but has been largely forgotten among the more popular films that have come down through the years. The Criterion Collection has revived it and it has received significant recognition again with cinefiles for its terrific acting and stark story.

The film begins with Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore bringing their children home for something of a reunion. It turns out, however, that since Moore had lost his job years earlier they have lost the family home because they can no longer pay the mortgage. The children, understandably, are caught off guard. Thomas Mitchell, the oldest, finally comes up with a plan. Until they can find a suitable place for his parents to live, they’ll have to separate and live individually with one of their children for a few months. Mitchell and his wife, Fay Bainter, take Bondi, while one of the sisters, Elisabeth Risdon, takes the father. The problem is the old folks quickly become a major cramp in the younger people’s style. In fact, the oldest sister refuses to have them in her house at all, while the younger sister promptly decides to ship her father off to her other sister in California the minute he gets sick. Meanwhile Bondi, knowing she’s not wanted in Mitchell’s house, acquiesces to going into an old folks home.

One of the most successful things about this film is the brilliance of the cast. Just three years later most of the principals would be reunited for the filmed version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Mitchell and Bainter would play a couple again, while Bondi played the wife of Guy Kibbe. As a matter of fact, Mitchell was only three years younger than Bondi, and they did an incredible job of aging her in this film. But it is her acting style in the picture, playing it as a woman rather than a crone that makes such an impact on the viewer. Victor Moore is probably the weakest of the bunch and seems a little too frail to be believed, playing old rather than simply being old. Maurice Moscovitch has a nice turn as a friend of Moore’s and Louis Jean Heydt, whose most memorable part was probably in The Big Sleep, has a small role as a young doctor. The great Louise Beavers also plays the housekeeper at the Mitchell household, and her relationship with Bondi is terrific.

Leo McCarey is not a well know name today, though he did some great pictures, The Awful Truth and An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant, Ruggles of Red Gap with Charles Laughton and Going My Way with Bing Crosby. He won three Oscars and was nominated for four more, and yet most modern audiences have never heard the name. His visual style is fairly ordinary, but it’s his work with actors and the kinds of stories he filmed that are so memorable today. The film is certainly atypical for the period, especially the ending. But the final sequence is also the most memorable and uplifting, when the two parents finally decide that they don’t want to spend time with their children and simply want to be with each other. It’s a story that is certainly relevant for today, perhaps even more so that when it was first released. Make Way for Tomorrow is a unique picture that remains one of the best examples of the genius of a forgotten director.

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