Make Way for Movies for Grown-Ups

My friends are gone and my hair is grey.
I ache in the places where I used to play.

— Leonard Cohen, “Tower of Song” (1988)


I started to notice it right after I turned 30. (I don’t mean the stray grey hair or widening waist, although they too made their appearance.)

Channel surfing one weekend afternoon, I stumbled on The Breakfast Club (1985), and stayed there, as usual.

As a teenager, I saw that movie in its original theatrical run and sat through the closing credits in stunned silence, simultaneous feeling reassuringly understood and (therefore) eerily exposed and vulnerable.

That (almost) middle aged afternoon years later, though, unfamiliar thoughts started buzzing around my brain like hornets:

“’A thousand words’ is only about four pages, guys.”

“Hey, that statue cost money!”

And worst of all:

“This Mr. Vernon guy is making sense.”

It had never occurred to me that one day I’d stop automatically identifying with movie teenagers, and sympathize more with the exasperated adults in their orbit.

I felt sadder than any sane person should about something so trivial, but that epochal shift did come with one compensation:

I came to discover and appreciate new-to-me films I never, ever could have sat through, let alone appreciated, in my twenties or even thirties.

Are the Three Stooges your only foray into black & white?

Is Star Wars the oldest movie you’ve ever seen? I promise: it’s taught you all it’s ever will.

Put aside the pizza pockets for once, and try the escargot. It’s time to acquire more sophisticated cinematic tastes.

Presenting the first in a series of “movies for grown-ups”…

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

The primary theme of those movie melodramas commonly referred to as “weepies” or “women’s pictures” is duty – specifically, the doing of one’s unpleasant, unavoidable, duty, in a dignified manner.

From the oft-filmed Madame X and Back Street, through any number of Bette Davis vehicles, the “weepie” portrays a stoic woman destined to suffer in silence for her sins (or somebody else’s), and cutting all ties to the one person she loves – a child, a married man – to spare them from sharing her shameful fate. During this exile, she is cruelly misunderstood by everyone around her, yet discovers previously unexpected depths of resilience, and finally, a kind of redemption.

For women in our “Girls Gone Wild” era, one’s “good name” and reputation seem more like liabilities than assets. Yet such old fashioned notions still appeal to sizable audiences, if only for the running time of Sense and Sensibility.

(Come to think of it: maybe those notions aren’t so “old fashioned” as much as they’ve been turned upside down. A bit like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, the melodramatic heroine often “profits” from her misbehavior, too. The difference is: the latter’s payment comes in the form of discreet semi-annual “allowances” via “the family’s” Swiss bank account, to keep her comfortably quiet, and invisible. Had such technology existed at the time, she’d have been paid not to tweet…)

Watching a retina-burning, carnival colored Douglas Sirk melodrama as the heroine (wearing “gowns by Adrian” and “jewels by Harry Winston”) gazes wistfully at the French Riviera vista from her marble balcony, we might think, “Hey, how can I get in on this ‘woman with a past’ action?”

Melodrama makes duty seem glamorous, or, at the very least, bracingly, beautifully austere, like a piece of Shaker furniture.

And not just if you’re female: Giving up the only woman you’ll ever love and joining the Resistance (thereby risking excruciating torture by the Nazis) seems pretty awesome if you get to hang out at Rick’s.

Alas, as we involuntarily encounter real life opportunities to “do our duty,” that promised glamor is missing.

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:

As one critic put it:

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?

You won’t be surprised to learn that the movie was a flop. Great Depression era audiences understandably preferred escapist “screwball comedies.” Ironically, McCarey had just delivered them one of the all-time best of that genre, The Awful Truth, when he came out with Make Way for Tomorrow later that year. Its failure cost him his studio contract. Talk about “ending badly.”

However, the movie was always beloved by cinephiles, despite being rarely screened or broadcast. Make Way for Tomorrow went on to inspire Tokyo Story (1953), which some consider the greatest Japanese film, and which regularly ranks among one of the top ten or twenty movies of all time.

Thanks to Criterion and Turner Classic Movies, Make Way for Tomorrow is finally finding an audience.

In the very spirit of the movie itself, however, that fact isn’t necessarily heartwarming news.

Today, as it has for over two years, my 86-year-old mother in law’s squeaky recliner sits in the living room of our not-very-big condo, next to our sleek black leather sofa, surrounded by our small but eclectic collection of original fine art.

One evening, I noticed that she was up much later than usual. I didn’t recognize the black and white movie she was raptly watching on TV, so I used the remote to get the title from the onscreen TCM listing.

As a lifelong film buff, I can name plenty of rare movies I know about but have never seen. But the title Make Way for Tomorrow, I’m embarrassed to say, didn’t ring a bell.

As I researched the movie on the web that night, on the computer in the next room, my blood ran cold.

In fact, I experienced a sort of “The killer’s calls are coming from inside the house!!” moment.

Because Make Way for Tomorrow was all about my – our – living arrangement.

One that, shall we say, wasn’t my idea. And which shows no sign of changing in the near future.

I wish I could tell you that my discovery of Make Way for Tomorrow made me a more patient and understanding daughter in law.

But all it changed in our house is:

We bought me my own TV.