Monday, December 19, 2011
Bookkeeper Barkley Cooper (Victor Moore), hasn’t worked in four years. He’s not retired, just out of a job: the Depression is on. But something will come along. Bark’s wife Lucy (Beulah Bondi) is sure of it, or at least she says she is. Bark and Lucy, both in their seventies, have been married for fifty years. With no income and no pension, they have lost their house to the bank. Now what? How will their children help them? Hard times, for these times: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) is eerily contemporary in its examination of the effects of economic extremity on family relationships.
This film could have been made as a sappy picture of cute clashes between generations: Grandma and Grandpa move in. Hilarity ensues. Instead, Leo McCarey, probably best known for Going My Way (1944), gives us an intimate depiction of displacement and isolation in old age. Bark and Lucy move in, but not together: circumstances require that they live apart for the first time in their married life, each with a different child. The old people are out of place and in the way in their new quarters, and the film makes us feel their awkwardness. The creak of a rocking chair makes Lucy a distraction during her daughter-in-law’s evening of cards: the furniture itself calls attention to an interloper’s presence. A storekeeper reads to Bark (whose glasses are broken) a heartbreaking letter from Lucy, and we understand that Bark must have been unwilling to share the letter — whatever it might have to say — with the daughter who’s taken him in. Yet the Coopers’ children are hardly monstrous: obtuse and selfish, certainly, but not wicked. Indeed, the film makes it clear that having either Bark or Lucy in the house would be trying.
In an interview accompanying the film’s Criterion release, Peter Bogdanovich recalls Orson Welles saying that Make Way for Tomorrow “would make a stone cry.” And for various reasons. The film’s final twenty-six minutes chart five hours of a Bark and Lucy reunion — a late afternoon and evening in Manhattan as they revisit the world of their younger days, walking in Central Park, dining in the hotel where they honeymooned. How delightful these old people seem to those who aren’t their children. And now what? You’ll have to see for yourself.
Make Way for Tomorrow is available, beautifully restored, from the Criterion Collection. It is, I’d venture, Leo McCarey’s finest hour and a half.
[Hard Times: For These Times, the full title of Charles Dickens’s 1854 novel.]
By Michael Leddy at 8:39 AM