Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.   With 268 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  This week, he takes on Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow.

“Life flies past us so swiftly that few of us pause….for there is no magic that will draw together in perfect understanding the aged and the young”.  The film opens with this quote, and I suspect that after watching it, you’ll be forced to think not only about your own parents, but also about your relationship with elderly people in general.  The idea of honoring the aged for their experience has become more rare and quite often people seem preoccupied by what is fashionable, what is new, what is hot, and what is “in”.  Very few films have been made about old age, and there are those who believe that this is why Make Way for Tomorrow has been nearly forgotten.  Of all the movies that Hollywood remakes these days, here is one that I truly wish we could see in a modern setting

The Players:

  • Director: Leo McCarey
  • Writer: Vina Delmar, Josephine Lawrence
  • Cast:  Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Fay Bainter, Thomas Mitchell

Notes:

The bank is set to foreclose on the home of Barkley and Lucy Cooper (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi).  Of their five children, no one really seems particularly interested in taking them in.  As a temporary fix, Barkley ends up going 300 miles away from his wife to live with their fifth child.  Lucy ends up with staying with her son George (Thomas Mitchell) and his wife, Anita (Fay Bainter). On top of being separated for the first time in fifty years of marriage, Barkley and Lucy are then forced to face the humiliation of being sheltered unwillingly by their own children, and there is little hope that Barkley will find a job.

Lucy quickly feels like a disturbance in her son’s home, discovering that sending her to a rest home has become a topic of conversation.  Upon establishing this you’re treated to gut-wrenching moments.  There is a disturbing awkwardness when Lucy gets a phone cal, during Anita’s bridge class, and carries a conversation so loudly that she distracts a sizable group of guests.  In moments like this, you feel a bit guilty by the feeling that Lucy’s actions are quite annoying.  Embarrassed by Lucy interrupting Anita’s household routines, you empathize with Anita and the awkwardness of the situation, but you also feel surprisingly understanding towards Lucy – who is nevertheless a displaced gentle soul with good intentions.  Similarly, when George’s daughter Rhoda stops bringing friends over because grandma will “talk their heads off”, you sort of understand.  But instead of merely sentimentalizing the subject matter, these moments are presented with a hard edge that makes you realize that situations like this are often the awful truth.

After George reveals this news to his mother, Lucy responds by telling George, “you were always my favorite child.” When I saw this scene I was frozen with a sense of guilt, sadness and mild rage towards George.  And also, I was moved to tears.  Orson Welles said of Make Way for Tomorrow, “It would make a stone cry”,  and that it’s the “saddest movie ever made”. He’s not wrong. Director Leo McCarey deserves much credit here, so it’s surprising he’s mostly known for his comedies.  He was the first director to pair Laurel and Hardy, and directed the Marx Brother’s best movie Duck Soup.

It is difficult to watch this movie and not think of one’s own parents and what the recent/current economic crisis has meant to thousands, if not millions, of struggling adults that have been faced with similar decisions.  In a later scene, Barkley and Lucy walk through downtown and see a sign that reads, “save when you’re young,’ which is foretelling as social security was signed into law not long before this film was made.  It is said that without mentioning FDR, Make Way for Tomorrow is the only film that illustrates the need for it.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

Beyond all else, what struck me most about this film was its unflinching ability to display the dynamics of a family where elderly parents can be viewed as a nuisance while the children can simultaneously be viewed as ungrateful brats.  Mr. Ebert, I agree with you when you say, “What’s so powerful about the film is its level gaze. It calmly, almost dispassionately, regards the situation and how it plays out. No spin.” As you also point out there are no villains here, and people do mostly speak kindly to each other.  One thing I’ve always enjoyed about your reviews is how they seamlessly reveal your personality and your thoughts.  In addition to speaking about the film, I found your review insightful as you spoke briefly about your mom and provided a glimpse into what it was for a young Roger to discuss certain topics with his mom.

And, providing additionally insight in general, I found your following paragraph quite thought-provoking, “The fact is, old people don’t fit in the modern lifestyle. The fault is with the lifestyle, but there you have it. In traditional societies, families often lived in the same house, children taking over as their parents passed on. In my life and in my family I’ve seen this, but you don’t see it much anymore.  ‘Seniors’ in TV ads are tanned, fit and sexy, playing golf, happy they planned for their futures.  If they’re not struck by lightning on the golf course, they’ll grow old and sick, health costs will melt away their savings, and they’ll end up living in a ‘home,’ whether it’s on the county or not”.   This is a very good movie.  Don’t expect anything epic, sweeping, or transcending.  But do expect to be moved and be left pondering the meaning of age.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like Make Way for Tomorrow?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  Come and See