[14 April 2010]
In many ways, too much time has passed for films from the ‘30s to be of much interest to most people living today. The black and white images, the grainy sound, the entirely different method of acting and the relatively straightforward plots all require time and an open mind to get used to—two scarce commodities in our era.
However, the rewards of watching films from Hollywood’s Golden Age are many, perhaps the most important being that they connect us to a heritage of American cinematic art that was at one time the envy of the world. Only tiny echoes of this distant past can be seen and heard in a relatively small number of films today. For better or worse, modern cinema has become something else entirely.
Make Way for Tomorrow is a film that may very well bore the hell out of 99 percent of the American viewing audience. However, as The Criterion Collection has shown over the past 25 years, there is a hard core audience for art house and forgotten but critically acclaimed mainstream films. As the book The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson points out, the populations of the US and other first world countries are now large enough to support very small niche markets.
Whereas The Criterion Collection originally began by putting out definitive versions of popular films for cinephiles (Blade Runner, Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, et al.) in the last decade it has been able to shift focus to releasing obscure or forgotten titles, most of them originally non-US productions. The branding helps as well; it’s a safe bet that virtually all film history classes are taught off of Criterion Collection DVDs and if you’re in the mood for something non-mainstream their logo is typically all the queue you need to pick up one of their distinctive DVD cases.
What can be expected of a film that, when asked about it by Peter Bogdanovich Orson Welles said, “My god! I watched it four times and cried my eyes out every time!” It was also supposedly one of his favorite films, “It could make a stone cry.” If Orson Welles said he likes a film, perhaps you might want to watch it, too. However, in case you need any more motivation there is a distinct possibility that the dying words of Charles Foster Kane (from Citizen Kane) were directly influenced by Make Way for Tomorrow.
Kane’s final utterance of “Rosebud” has been referred to as “the greatest mystery in cinema”, and to this day there is plenty of conjecture but no definitive answer as to where that name that was on Kane’s childhood sled came from. Now, however, we may have an answer.
In Make Way for Tomorrow, Lucy, the mother character played by Beulah Bondi, recites a poem from memory that she used to read to her husband, Barkley. He mentions very distinctively that, “[she] used to mark that page with a rosebud.” Owing to the fact that this film was a particular favorite of Welles, and that the screenplay for Citizen Kanewasn’t written until after 1940, and then given the heavy nostalgic symbolism of the rosebud marking a couple’s favorite poem, it is very probable that the term “Rosebud” came from Make Way for Tomorrow.
The film itself forms an excellent bridge between today and the 70 years past. Despite both eras having the trappings of technological advance, both have in common a theme of severe economic upheaval. In 1937 the Great Depression was still going strong and despite today’s Great Recession not resulting (thankfully) in the full-out devastation of the Depression, during both eras millions of people were losing their homes that they could no longer afford. Appropriately, this is the inciting incident which catalyzes the film’s main plot.
In the initial scenes, Ma and Pa Cooper, both presumably in their 70s, have gathered their adult children around them to break the bad news that the bank will be foreclosing on the family home. Part of the greatness of this film is that there are no attempts to idealize its characters, or cut them any slack; until the dream-like final sequences, it treats each character and their motivations honestly.
The children immediately attempt to solve the situation by suggesting they all pitch in to pay the mortgage, but it’s no use. Hoping for a miracle, Pa has let the problem sit over the last year and is only now bringing it up, with no time left for a solution. The children are understandably upset, but they agree to have Pa live with one of the siblings and Ma live with another, the others will take turns housing their parents as needed. The rest of the film’s plot unfolds from there with an undeniable pathos and sympathy that defined the film’s director, Leo McCarey.
One of the innovators of cinema, and a bridge between the silent and sound era, McCarey directed some of the greatest films of all time. He could easily be considered the George Lucas or Steven Spielbergh of his day, in the sense that he worked with the biggest stars on the biggest films, particularly in comedy.
McCarey was responsible for casting Laurel and Hardy as a duo, he directed the Marx Brothers in what’s generally considered their best film, Duck Soup, and he also won two academy awards for best Director. And yet he’s been largely forgotten, at least when compared with his contemporaries: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder and Victor Fleming. For whatever reason, some critics think because of his conservative politics, McCarey’s career has largely become a footnote in Hollywood history, despite films like Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s being the highest grossing films at that time.
It could also be that after so many years, McCarey’s best films can easily be regarded as quaint in comparison to the work of modern directors. Going My Way and Raging Bull don’t seem to come from the same planet, but there is a different criteria to judge McCarey’s films by. While Raging Bull or Apocalypse Now are great films, with very few exceptions, neither Scorsese or Coppola are able to elicit an authentic emotion beyond tension or awe. With many of McCarey’s movies, if you give them the chance, you cannot help but weep at their most tender moments, an interesting dichotomy in a modern world so obsessed with “naturalism”. What is naturalism that cannot elicit emotion?
Along those lines a common question is, “Why aren’t films made like they were in the good old days?” The answer is not that “times were different then” or that “people have forgotten how to tell stories”. It’s best explained by Peter Bogdanovich in the excellent extras and booklet that accompany the DVD.
The generation of filmmakers that Leo McCarey belonged to was not one of spoiled film students attending USC, NYU or UCLA to learn the “art” of film making. McCarey, John Ford, Victor Fleming— these guys led normal lives before being swept up by the then silent film industry. There were no film schools when they were growing up, there was no such thing as “Hollywood” as it exists today. They helped build it.
Leo McCarey was originally a lawyer, John Ford a sailor, Howard Hawks built airplanes, Victor Fleming was an auto mechanic. “They had other interests than the movies, other interests than show business”, says Peter Bogdanovich, “it’s a key reason why there is more depth, maturity and knowledge about people [in their films]”.
Make Way for Tomorrow is a superb movie made by a forgotten master of film. If you have any interest in cinema, watch it.