This reality was ingeniously illustrated by the creators of TV’s Fraiser – whose titular character reluctantly takes in his frail, aging father – using the visual shorthand of the father’s shabby reclining arm chair forever stuck like a stubborn bunion in the middle of Fraiser’s expensively furnished penthouse.
An old person’s favorite (and incongruous) chair also plays a supporting role in one of the most searing scenes in Leo McCarey’s neglected masterpiece, Make Way for Tomorrow:
If one believes that true cinema artistry is measured primarily by recognition and reward, then Leo McCarey more than earned his place in the directorial pantheon with the popular Cary Grant/Irene Dunne divorce comedy The Awful Truth.
Yet when accepting his Best Director Oscar for the film, McCarey offered a mild rebuke to the majority opinion: “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.”
McCarey was speaking of Make Way for Tomorrow…
If you’re like me, “watching a movie about two old people” is not at the top of your to-do list. Oh sure, you’ll make an exception for Grumpy Old Men if it’s Thanksgiving weekend and there’s nothing else on.
Well, Make Way for Tomorrow ain’t that, even though the movie’s deceptively cheery title makes it sound like a “madcap” 1930s musical comedy with lots of tap dancing and jazz hands. After you see it, however, that title doubles back to bite you – the last wound of a wounding film.
Make Way for Tomorrow opens with the words “Honor they father and mother” written across the sky as if by the hand of God. However, that bizarre touch seems to belong to an altogether different film, or more like the studio’s doing than the director’s. (They tried without success to get McCarey to re-shoot a happier ending.)
Because as it happens, the Moving Finger, having writ’, moves on, leaving the movie’s characters dropped into what seems like a world created by an uncaring deity.
Make Way for Tomorrow tells the story of an elderly couple who lose their home and look to their adult children to care for them. These children are, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic about the prospect.
However, that “TV Guide” synopsis doesn’t begin to capture the essence of this ruthlessly candid film, which I expect some viewers will find harder to watch than Hostel.
“McCarey doesn’t separate his characters into heroes and villains by making the ‘old folks’ kindly innocents victimized by unthinking relatives. Dealing with the parents isn’t always easy. Old Bark knows he’s not welcome in Cora’s house and becomes uncooperative. Lucy disrupts Alice’s bridge lessons, puts a strain on the duties of the maid (Louise Beavers) and contributes unintentionally to problems with daughter Rhoda. The problem is everyone’s fault and no one’s; there just seems no place for Bark and Lucy to be together. Even the understanding George and Alice are eventually compelled to take steps to remove mother from the house.”
Make Way for Tomorrow refuses us the “cheap grace” we’d get watching stock characters get their Dickensian (or Capraesque) due. No, nobody in this movie is eager to “do their duty,” which in this instance comes without the usual melodramatic consolation prizes of jewels, gowns, or pastel views of Capri.
That said, the old couple are a burden: they’re often annoyingly timid and passive aggressive and boring, given to rehearsing their endless list of aches and pains; even in the movies, to say nothing of real life, homes quite simply have limited space; one’s adult sons and daughters have, quite naturally, already carefully arranged their lives in a particular way, and are blessed with limited stores of patience, money, flexibility, energy, and time.
There is no final redemption. In the last reel, viewers are permitted only a few tantalizing minutes of relief, and even those are bittersweet. The ending of the film casts the helpless protagonists off into a deep, lonely, loveless void, into which, we’re obliged to conclude, we will one day follow them.
Documentarian Errol Morris, who placed Make Way for Tomorrow at the top of his list of most important films, noted:
“[It's] the most depressing movie ever made, providing reassurance that everything will definitely end badly.”
He was echoing Orson Welles’ famous comment about it:
“My God! I watched it four times and cried my eyes out every time! That movie would make a stone cry!”
But who are we really crying for? The old couple? Or ourselves, terrified of enduring a similar fate — be it that of being a burden, or having to shoulder one?