Depression-Era Classic Has Audience On Campus
Published: December 8, 2011
Young Americans, so many of them prepared throughout childhood and adolescence for a life of relative affluence and privilege, suddenly find themselves facing an economic crisis most of them never imagined. The college degree doesn’t guarantee a job; the job, if found, doesn’t necessarily provide fulfillment; and the security that many of their parents have had throughout their careers suddenly seems frighteningly transparent. The generation the media termed the Millenials—those children who had commencement exercises from pre-school, who won trophies just for showing up, who went to college on entitlement scholarships because they had all learned that everyone deserves an A—are now confronted with the reality that nothing is certain. They are lucky to learn the lesson early.
Like most of us, these young people are searching for answers. They’re looking for meaning and purpose; they do, in fact, want to occupy something. Contrary to the cultural stereotypes created about them, they are interested in life beyond Facebook and their iPods. Indeed, my students are beginning to look away from their small screens, and focusing more than ever on the big screen. And increasingly, they’re looking at the big screen visions, the “old movies,” of the past.
Leo McCarey made “Make Way for Tomorrow,” perhaps his greatest film, deep in the middle of the Great Depression and released the movie in 1937. He meant it for struggling young people then, and I think he’d be pleased to know that it resonates with the young today. When the film appeared in 2009 as a Criterion Collection DVD release, it became certifiably hip, and students who are today seeing the film for the first time find themselves wanting to see it again. It’s become a popular choice for college cinema society screenings; my own campus film group screened the film this week.
To call “Make Way for Tomorrow” sad is a profound understatement. The film is heartbreaking. But too many people have focused solely on the anguish, which is perhaps why it went unseen for so many decades after its initial release. Yet students anxious about their future don’t want to wallow in sadness; they want to find a way out. “Make Way for Tomorrow” has a message, I think, that must transcend pathos.
Consider its maker, Leo McCarey. Catholics of another certain age can quote the dialogue and sing the songs from two of his best known films, “Going My Way” (1944) and its sequel “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945), perhaps without knowing that McCarey was a devout Catholic, and a happy one at that. McCarey is after all the same director who coupled Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy and directed the Marx Brothers in their masterpiece “Duck Soup” (1933). Further, he was instrumental in the early career of Cary Grant, and had quite a lot to do with the creation of Grant’s iconic onscreen presence. See, for example, another great McCarey film, 1957’s “An Affair to Remember.”
But McCarey was also a filmmaker of deep conviction and faith. Later in his career, his work became more didactic, more severe, but at the height of the classical Hollywood studio system when “Make Way for Tomorrow” was made, he brilliantly cloaked his religious sensibility in a film whose message is truly Catholic in the universal sense: Honor thy father and mother.
That’s how the film begins, literally, with the onscreen acknowledgement that there exists a gap between the young and the old and that one way to bridge that gap is through attention to the Fifth Commandment.
Then the action begins, and abruptly, we are introduced to the conflict in the film. Bark and Lucy Cooper have raised several entitled children of their own, and they have summoned them home for what is quickly revealed to be a tragic reason all too familiar to a contemporary audience. The bank has foreclosed on the old Cooper home; Bark has been unable to find employment; they have no place to go. None of the children really want to help, but eventually Lucy goes to live with a son and Bark goes to live with a daughter. The daughter is a shrew. The son’s wife is a domineering, self-absorbed woman who sees Lucy only as a terrible inconvenience to her ambitions. Eventually, it is decided that Lucy will go to a home for aged women and Bark will go elsewhere to find work. The children literally abandon their parents and force them to live, near the end of a long and committed marriage, separately.
To reveal much more about the plot would mean ruining an unforgettable experience for those who do not know the film. Indeed, the last 20 minutes of the movie are simply beautiful; they achieve everything McCarey must have intended—warning and admonishment for selfish children, vicarious redemption for parents of any age who feel betrayed by their children, even renunciation of parroted self-righteous longing for the good old days.
All of this is conveyed through a masterful usurping of traditional film technique and brilliant performances, particularly those of Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi, who play Bark and Lucy, and Thomas Mitchell, who captures the shame and failure embodied by oldest son George. These main roles are supported by a cast of characters, particularly a friendly storekeeper and an empathetic hotel manager, who essentially act as the film’s moral conscience.
McCarey broke rules to make this film. He broke cinematic convention by frequently defying the 180-degree rule, yet by disorienting cinematic space, he implicates the viewer in the action. He broke studio convention, too, for in an age when a studio could essentially finish a feature length film in a week, McCarey took a year to complete “Make Way for Tomorrow.” And in an era when everyone wanted, and needed, happy endings, McCarey remained honest to the end, resisting the sort of sentimental pat conclusion that would have made the film just another old movie.
The young audience who is returning to the film today appreciates that honesty. Though I’ m sure they are moved, as McCarey wanted them to be, and though I’m certain they text or instant message their parents with declarations of love as soon as the film is over, I think they also recognize their obligation to be better than the Cooper children.
And I think, too, they sense something beyond sadness or guilt. I like to think they see a bit of hope.
Conventional wisdom says that the film’s ending can be interpreted in only one way. I see it as I think the Catholic McCarey might have seen it. In quoting the Fifth Commandment at the beginning of the film, McCarey says that it contains the words of “a wise man.” At the film’s conclusion, though he doesn’t tell us, I think McCarey may also be thinking of another wise man, the one who said, “Let not your heart be troubled. In my father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, so that where I am, there you may also be.” In a difficult time for many of us, see the film. See what you think.
This commentary is part of a continuing series of pieces by Dr.
David A. King about the work and lives of 20th-century Catholic writers, filmmakers and artists. King is associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, where he teaches courses in Christianity and film and Flannery O’Connor. He is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, and is active in adult education at St. Joseph and at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.